Five Years Ago I Led Ordain Women Into a Priesthood Session

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune
Abby Hansen (that’s me!), left, leads a group of women to the door of BYU’s Marriott Center, where they are briefly stopped by volunteers Karen and Michael Roberts before being let in to watch a broadcast of the LDS General Priesthood Session, in Provo Saturday October 4, 2014.

 

Hello, I’m Abby – and I was part of Ordain Women. I have a lot of photos and memories of the October 2014 general conference to share, but first I’d like to talk about something that happened to me now, in 2019.

Yesterday I stood in a long checkout line at Costco behind an older Latter Day Saint woman. I was holding several items in my arms, and we started talking about how you come to the store intending to buy one item (and don’t get a cart), but then end up with an armload of unexpected purchases. We talked for several minutes in that long line, and she opened up about her grand-kids, her church calling, and mentioned details about a recent visit to the temple. I didn’t ever say I was a member of the church – she just assumed. See, I live in the heart of Utah county with 4 church buildings within a 5 minute walk from my house, and everything about my appearance, clothing and Utah accent just yells “Heck yes, I’m totally LDS!”. It wasn’t strange for her to assume I’d know what she was talking about when she said her grandson enjoyed doing “baptisms for the dead” before school (which would probably sound super spooky to anyone outside of the LDS bubble). I enjoyed talking to her until she left and we waved goodbye, wishing each other a good day (and a good rest of our lives). As she walked away I wondered if she would have been as enthusiastic chatting with me if she knew who I was really was. I’ve supported the Ordain Women movement from almost the moment I first heard of it. I go to local Pride festivals each year and march with Mormons Building Bridges. I don’t think the leaders of the church are infallible (not by a long shot), or even very nice sometimes. And after a lifetime of full-fledged activity and investment in the church, I admit I’m feeling exceptionally halfhearted these days.

But for those moments, we were friends. She didn’t know or care about any of the unorthodox stuff I do, and I was just a fellow Saint in her eyes.

Like I said in the title of this post, five years ago this month I went with Ordain Women to the Marriott Center in Provo, right at BYU (where I also graduated from in 2003). The group had been turned away twice from the priesthood session at General Conference in Salt Lake City, and now we were going to local sessions to ask to attend. Looking back, I still laugh at how upset so many people were at us – including a lot of older women who were very angry – for wanting to attend an extra church meeting. That’s literally all I wanted to do. I wanted to be more involved in church than I was currently able to be as a woman.

Because I was a local supporter of Ordain Women, they asked me to be the front person for the group asking for attendance at the Marriott Center, and I agreed. We were let in that day, much to my surprise and with an unexpected and overwhelming feeling of joy and gratitude. We approached the door and an older married couple was standing there to greet us. I expected the husband (a local bishop) to speak at first, but instead his wife talked with me while he stood to the side, with what looked to me like a hint of irritation in his stony face (and to be fair, he was being distracted from what he wanted to be doing, which was to just go into Priesthood meeting and sit down). There were TV crews and reporters all around us, clicking photographs and rolling tape. You can find our exchange archived online still, I’m sure.

I’d never met this woman (I’ve since learned her name was Karen), but when she told me, “We’re not going to stop you from going in…”, I was so overcome with gratitude after such a long journey and so many tears and prayers and sleepless nights, that I instinctively reached out and gave her a big hug. I said, “Thank you!”. She looked flustered for a second and said, “Oh, it wasn’t my decision.” I smiled in response, because I knew she was caught off guard by my hug and wanted to clarify that she wasn’t agreeing with me or my group, she was just following orders and letting us in. But her tolerating the hug with a smile was so kind, despite probably wishing she could be literally anywhere in the world right then than standing there, being forced to hug me. I don’t pretend she had anything great to say about me at the dinner table that night – and that’s okay. She had to do something really hard that she probably didn’t want to do. An hour before we met, I’d been in my bathroom, nervously wondering if changing my outfit five more times would make me feel better. Maybe she was been doing the same thing at her house.

 

Hugging Karen.

 

After these photos hit the news, a stranger contacted me and told me excitedly that she was related to the woman who I’d been hugging in those photos. The woman reaching out to me was a Mormon feminist herself, and seeing me embrace her family member was very meaningful to her, perhaps symbolically representing her very faithful and orthodox family reaching across the bridge to the feminists who were hoping for change, like she was. She told me about what a wonderful and kindhearted person Karen was (and also a very traditional and orthodox LDS woman). I talked to that same woman (the stranger who contacted me) earlier this year, and I lightheartedly asked how that poor lady I’d accidentally tricked into a hug for the cameras was doing. Sadly, she told me that her husband passed away this spring – so the stony faced man who’d stood behind her during our brief meeting is no longer with her. I imagined myself as a grandma a little later in life, also losing my husband. That woman was very kind to me at a very important and scary moment in my life. She probably didn’t want to be there in my arms, but she did it anyway. She’s a nice person, and if I stood behind her in line at Costco, I think we’d probably smile and share a conversation. I wish I could hug her again and just say, “I’m so sorry about your husband! You don’t have to love me back – but thank you for being kind to me anyway.”

 

There are opinions all over the place about what we did that day, but tell me this – if it was really so wrong, then why’d God give me such a good hair day?

 

I remember a story from high school seminary (probably an urban legend, now that I think about it), about a Latter-day Saint man who shot and killed a German soldier during World War II, only to find a Book of Mormon in the dead man’s pocket afterwards. He’d unknowingly shot and killed a member of his own church, and he sat on the ground and cried.

It reminds me of this situation from five years ago. We shouldn’t be on opposite sides of any battle, because we have so much more in common than we have different. We’re all in the same church! We are women of all types of faith with a unique place in the world that no one else can ever understand the way that we do (who else wouldn’t bat an eye at the casual mention of “baptisms for the dead before school starts” other than another Latter-day Saint?). I know we see issues regarding women in the church differently, but does it really matter as much as we act like it does? Can we just put down our weapons and hug each other? I’d like to think we’d all be friends if we stood next to each other in line at Costco. 

And to Karen at The Marriott Center – thank you for being nice to me in October of 2014. I know it was weird, but you’ll always be super cool in my book. Love, Me.

 

Standing next to my friend Cheryl, listening to a mini-devotional and singing a hymn before going to ask for admission.

 

Walking towards the door with a male ally and friend, Zachary.

 

Right after I hugged Karen, when she put her hand to her chest and said, “Oh, it wasn’t my decision…”

 

An over the shoulder shot of my attack hug, with my friend Cally in the background clasping her hands and making the whole photo more magical and adorable.

 

And here we are walking in to Priesthood session, where it was…literally no big deal. We sat and listened, said “Amen” and left, just like the rabble rousers everybody knew we’d be.

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11 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Great story! I love the idea that we less orthodox members and the more mainstream members have more in common than we don’t. It’s just sad to me that GAs seem to largely want to draw a careful boundary to exclude even the mildest heresies, though.

  2. Risa says:

    I was really struck by Karen saying “oh, it wasn’t my decision.” Because of course in a patriarchal church women are never the decision makers. We’re just expected to guard the gate of patriarchy and enforce the rules on other women.

    Regardless, I can tell this was a very moving experience for you and I’m glad that in these two incidences you found more in common than difference.

    Beautiful post.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      You’re right! If it has been a guy in a suit, I might’ve wondered if he was the area authority or something, and he’d decided to just let us go in this time. But since it was a woman, there was no mistaking that it wasn’t her decision – she didn’t really need to clarify that. I’m glad that sent her, though. Would I have hugged a dude in a suit? Probably not. But maybe I would’ve. I don’t know! It wasn’t pre-planned. Hugging is just in my nature.

      • Jennifer says:

        So, did Karen come in to watch the Priesthood session or was she just there as a token woman to deal with the Ordain women group? Were there any other women there greeting and welcoming men or was she staged for the women so it looked better on camera?

      • Abby Hansen says:

        No, she didn’t come in. She wasn’t part of our group and wasn’t interested in attending the meeting. There weren’t any other women there to greet us – I can’t remember for sure, but it might have just been Karen and her husband and she was the one to talked to me. I’m not positive. It’s been awhile.

  3. GEOFF -AUS says:

    My wife went to a special womens meeting last night (2 visiting women from SLC). She came home and said about 10% of atendees were men, and wondered if the the reverse would apply next priesthood meeting.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      There’s always been a number of men at any women’s meeting, from ward to general level. The presiding priesthood officer sits on the stand and not only attends, but is usually the keynote speaker as well. That’s one reason it was so funny to me that everyone was horrified by the thought of women entering a priesthood meeting, as if the female equivalent of the meeting was gender segregated as well. It totally wasn’t! There are always men sitting in our meetings, even on the stand in the stake center where it’s being broadcast long distance, we have men in the women’s meeting. They’re watching over us as three men (the first presidency) speak to us on the screen.

      Why then, was it such a big deal that women sit on the back row of the overflow and listen to the men’s session in person? It never made much sense to me.

  4. MDearest says:

    I was unable to muster the bandwidth or the social capital or whatever I needed to participate in the early OW actions, but I observed you all at each one with my heart in my throat. Thank you so much for your kindly remembrance here, it helps me in the exhausting effort of teasing apart good and kind people from their misguided and sometimes evil actions. I wonder if the effort is a good thing, or if *I’m* being misguided and sometimes evil, so I think it’s probably wise to rest from that and, as much as possible, relate to complicated humans only through their goodness. Thanks for another model of this.

  5. EFH says:

    This is such a beautiful post written at a time where no one can say any reasonable thing without upsetting another one. Thanks for writing it.

  6. Sam Tindleson says:

    Desperately trying to get interest in this dead movement?

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