Guest Post: Open Letter About the New Relief Society Curriculum
I was sexually abused as a child by a neighbor and physically and emotionally abused by my LDS parents. Multiple siblings in my family sustained this same abuse until one sibling died, so I cling to my relationship with the Savior like a survivor on a life raft. The gospel brings me the healing I need to cope, recover, and function. Partaking of the emblems each Sabbath day is a very sacred and empowering time for me, but my mental health suffers as a result of my childhood scars. I struggle with trusting and interacting with people. As a result, I prefer to be left alone in my corner of the chapel each week and I don’t like to be touched, so I am very grateful for the recent Exponent article that gave voice to the struggle with men who insist on making women shake hands each week (temple worship is another article-length topic I’ll save for another day).
For the most part, by staying quiet and standoffish, I’ve managed to send the message that I’m not social and prefer to be left alone during my sacrament meeting and Sunday School worship (note to the rest of the church: not all of us Latter-day Saints need to be “ministered to” to feel close to God!). But in January of 2018, the church made changes to the curriculum that have made it extremely difficult for me to attend Relief Society, the one meeting that used to be my safest space in all of the three-hour block.
Relief Society used to be my favorite meeting because, by the time the third hour rolls around, the crowd has whittled down to its smallest size. As an added bonus, the men have been filtered out and it is just we women, so I used to feel especially safe in our little Relief Society space. I used to relish the chance to really focus on that third-hour lesson, whereas first and second hour my focus was more on finding a spot to sit in that wasn’t too crowded and where I felt most at ease, trying to carve out my own worship space where nobody would bother me. (Why is it that Mormons feel so entitled to bother others during our worship services? When did we begin to equate spirituality with socializing? Why am I not allowed to just sit and ponder/meditate during church, especially during prelude music or before and after class so I can prepare to feel the spirit or ponder on what I’ve just learned? Why do people feel the pressing need to intrude on somebody sitting in solitude and interrupt their meditations with jabber? Can we please just set aside the foyers for jabbering and carve out the chapel and our classrooms as sacred spaces for worship and learning?)
In January 2018, when the church curriculum changed to allow for monthly council meetings in Relief Society, my branch decided to have our sisters sit in a circle not just on council weeks, but Every. Single. Week. There is literally no longer a safe space for me even in Relief Society anymore.
I can’t tell you how painful the change from rows to circle-sitting has been for a woman like me, who desperately needs private space for worship, study, and pondering. I willingly acknowledge that everybody has different learning styles and that on the whole, most Latter-day Saints are extroverted, sociable people, so I don’t expect major changes just to accommodate me. But for those of us who are not as sociable—and especially for those of us whose introversion is the result of emotional baggage, disability, or mental illness—this 2018 Relief Society curriculum change is spiritually and emotionally crippling.
I carefully studied the materials relating to the curriculum change as posted at LDS.org, then I went to my Relief Society presidency and politely pointed out that I didn’t see any hard fast rules about sitting in a circle each week. I saw images of sisters sitting in a circle and some mention of it in regards to the council meeting on the first week of the month, but I couldn’t find an actual rule saying that we needed to sit in a circle the remaining weeks of the month. “This is the Lord’s will for the Relief Society,” came the curt answer from the presidency member who responded to me.
I tried keeping my chair outside the circle each week, but the sisters in the room wouldn’t have it. I realize that they were trying to be nice—that they couldn’t stand the thought of somebody being “left out,” so I kept explaining that, “oh no, I’m fine. I much prefer the ‘back row,’ thanks!” But each time I tried to make my own private space outside the circle, the sisters in the room opened up and expanded their circle of chairs to engulf my chair. I had intentionally placed that chair outside the circle for my very private reasons. I was getting louder each week in trying to hold my ground without revealing my very private painful past, but nobody listened and my chair was weekly swallowed up by the larger circle. Whenever this happened, it made me feel panicky and entrapped. If for any reason I needed to leave, I was now locked inside this circle. Leaving would require asking people to move furniture—I couldn’t just quietly slip out anymore. I was literally locked into the room! Sure, I could have just started skipping Relief Society, but that would have put my temple recommend in jeopardy (attending all three hours of church meetings is required to maintain it), which makes me feel equally panicky, unworthy, etc because I’ve worked so hard to obtain and keep that recommend.
Feeling locked inside a council isn’t the only reason that sitting in a circle robbed me of a safe space in Relief Society. I also dread circle-style Relief Society because, when I was young, my abusive (LDS) parents conducted numerous “family councils” which were nothing more than my mother’s manipulative mind-rapes or gaslighting sessions designed to prevent us kids from reporting the physical abuse of my father, who did things like throwing us against the wall or hit us hard enough to make us bleed. Circle-style sitting, to me, is a painful throwback to those days, which I’d rather not revisit it in what used to be a safe space for learning and worshipping with my sisters in Christ.
I shouldn’t have to reveal the painful memories of my past to church leaders in order to feel safe at church again. My branch struggles with gossip, so my troubled childhood stories would spread. (I once confided something in confidence to my branch president, and a few days later his clerk very casually referenced it to me in front of several members as if it were no big deal. I also worked with the wife of a branch presidency member who told me she knew about something I had told her husband in confidence during a private interview. I had to go back to both these brethren—sweet, loving men, but recent converts who don’t quite “get” the whole confidentiality thing—and explain to then that EVERYTHING I say about personal matters needs to stay strictly confidential. They are still learning, bless their hearts.)
And so I am penning this piece to my sisters at The Exponent blog because I know that my confidentiality is 100% safe here. I know I can start a churchwide conversation here, too. Sisters, I honor and respect those of you who are social and chatty, and I am willing to concede that on the first of the month you need to sit in a circle for council meetings. Would you, in exchange, be willing to make similar concessions by allowing sisters like me to either sit outside the circle, or create a faux second row? Or can we skip the circle altogether on the weeks that we aren’t holding council meetings?
Love, your sister in Christ,