I’ve lived rurally before. And I will probably live rurally again. But right now, this rural is different. The last ward I attended, it took an hour and 45 minutes to get to the building. But we still went for a time, as I wrote about in the May visiting teaching post here. Now we are a good two hour drive from the nearest fellow church members’ house, where there is no building, no relief society president, no primary.
I have not yet met the fellow members of the branch we are in; the District President (the presiding church officer over the 5 branches in this regional area) is the acting branch president for us because the branch is so small. I wondered if the powers that be might assign my husband to be branch president, and me as relief society president. I had heard about this practice from fellow church members who had for a time lived in regional areas without chapels, church members or even missionaries. This branch assignment was gratefully not the case for us; I say gratefully, because if we were assigned these positions, we would likely spend a significant amount of time in the car attending regional leadership meetings, and possibly be assigned to “visit” (i.e. “reactivate”) less active (if they are still around) church members who have not been in communication with the church in years or even decades.
About once a month or more, we attend a branch that is about a 3 hour drive away. We chose to latch onto this branch mostly because they instantly welcomed us, and asked us to participate. Even though we do not attend activities, we are still alerted to them. In the end, and for the most part, we do “home church.” Or at least that is what we call it.
If you would have told me about “home church” was when I was a YSA in Utah, I likely would have scrunched up my face and thought, “weird-o nonconformist freaks.” But there is a conformist structure to home church, which is nice, and gives home church an attachment to the larger church as a whole. First, we needed….er…..permission…. to have the sacrament at home. I am not sure why, but it is a church policy. Probably to keep us from being the “weird-o nonconformist freaks.” Anyway. We obtained this rite via the District President, who suggested we have skype church sometimes with the other family in the branch. The sacrament is not something to be done over skype (maybe the handbook needs to catch up on this?), so each family would perform the sacrament ordinance independently, then we might jointly read the Relief Society/Priesthood lesson or (not “and”) the gospel doctrine lesson. We have yet to do this, and because we have primary-aged children, I don’t see this as feasible. But the authorization to do this stands. Until we do this, it is just my family at home for church. And its magical.
For home church, we gather at the dining table mid-morning, after breakfast and often after my husband has gone for a run and I’ve had a workout. My husband blesses a single piece of bread. He breaks it into 2 large, and 4 small pieces. He places the large pieces aside. As presiding priesthood authority, he partakes of one of the small bread bites himself first, then passes the bread to me, and our two daughters. He does the same for the water, but with 4 cups and a single bottle of water. After this, our daughters always inevitably argue over the two large pieces of bread remaining; sacrament bread is somehow tastier than regular bread. So they eat it while either my husband or I teach a lesson from The Friend. We finish with a craft and dessert. Glue, sequins, glitter, googly eyes and brownies are all a part of home church. I always giggle to myself as we do it—even though we have been doing this for months. I giggle because I imagine how foreign the idea of glitter and googly eyes and brownies as staples in sacrament meeting would be to most church members.
We’ve tried to have home church later in the day, but find morning works best. One busy Sunday, we opted to have the sacrament as a kind of appetizer for dinner, then the plan was to chat about a scripture story as we shared spaghetti. The set up confused my daughters as they wanted to butter the sacrament bread before the blessings were offered. The slurping noises that came as little fingers and faces found irressistably delicious noodles during the sacrament prayer did not make me think this was such as great idea, though in retrospect, it was one of the more memorable sacrament meetings I have ever attended. My girls listened to the sacrament prayers more intently because they knew my husband and I would open our eyes at the end—and they did not want to be caught with noodles hanging from their lips. As this was also a craft-free home church, the votes were unanimous: home church = good, dinner church = bad. We want glitter and glue with our church services!
Because we are so rural, we take advantage of attending church as often as we can when we are in towns that host an LDS congregation. We’ve attended a few branches and wards, enough so that my daughters are happily familiar with primary and Sunday school. The most memorable was a branch we attended when driving to a holiday destination. The place we planned to go was far enough that we had to stop along the drive for at least a night. We chose a town that had a branch of the church listed on lds.org, and showed up just before 9am on Easter Sunday to share the sacrament with fellow church members.
In the US, General Conference was on this Easter, which for us meant that branches and wards in our international-dateline different area were scheduled to “do” conference the following week. But still, when we pulled up, the building looked empty. Mind you, the building was not a chapel. It was two converted Federation era houses, adapted for use as a single LDS chapel. But for the “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” plaque out front and frosted windows, it looked like a normal home—a beautiful, normal, home, but with frosted windows and doors that looked permanently shut. We did not see other cars, and looked around for a way to enter. As we sat outside, we debated trying to go in or not. I gave up and told my husband that I thought we should just call it and go. But he looked up the listed number on the church website, and called it.
Within moments, a greying gentleman opened an ancient-looking door, and waved us in. “We usually use the back door,” he explained.
Our phone call had interrupted the sacrament hymn, but they had waited for us before blessing the sacrament. This confused me as it was barely 9:00 when we arrived, but then it made sense: the entire local congregation had arrived, and they did not expect anyone else. So they started church a few minutes early- there was no need to wait to start church on the hour, nor was there a need to compensate for “Mormon Standard Time.”
We were ushered into a beautiful Federation living room that was absent of any typical home furnishings. Instead, a dozen plastic stacking chairs were lined in rows, facing a podium and a small table with a white cloth. There was a single sacrament bread tray and a single sacrament water tray. I don’t know if they had enough seats set up for us before that moment, but by the time we were welcomed, and had come into the living room, there were 4 seats clearly ready for us. That is when it first occurred to me: they had stopped the meeting to wait for us. I was touched by this, and felt the spirit as the sacrament was shared. The ‘acting’ Branch President (the Branch President was out of town, so an acting Branch President, rather than counsellors- takes his place—like I said, *tiny* branch) blessed and passed the sacrament. He brought the sacrament trays to each of us individually, not as a worthiness test, but as a gesture of being welcoming to us individually. This Christlike desire to personally share the sacrament was more loving than any other sacrament experience I had ever encountered in a chapel previously. It felt like pure religion, the way the sacrament should feel. The gesture in and of itself brought me to tears.
If you remember the Easter of this year (2015) was the first Sunday of the month. Although it was General Conference weekend in the US, we were assigned to have the conference broadcast on the second Sunday and a special Easter Sunday meeting block on Easter. This Easter/First Sunday change was a missionary effort, perhaps in competition for individuals who only attend church on Easter and Christmas. I presumed this branch would be having this “Special Easter Sunday Meeting.” I was wrong. It was a testimony meeting. And I was in a room of very, very few people.
The first man bore his testimony. It was different and charming, clearly intended for us, the new visting folks. It was an introduction, explaining how he became a member of the church, and his part in the purchase of the house, come chapel. One by one, each member of the congregation (all seven, but for us)- went to the front and bore testimony. Then my husband went. This was the first time he had shared his testimony in a fast and testimony meeting. It was a priceless moment for me. Then it was my turn. Amid my faith transitions, and struggles with church, I still bore what was truth to me. No one batted an eye, I did not feel even a tinge of judgement. In fact, it felt like having a new voice—my voice—was refreshing to them. And that felt miraculous to me. My testimony was special; it was welcomed as something that was worth sharing.
Because it was Easter, they cancelled (!) the other meetings. Still—they welcomed us, and we stood chatting in the refurbished kitchen. One branch member showed our daughters the wide collection of toys, and even allowed them to each take one with them. We learned that we knew people in common, which made my heart love this congregation- every single one of them, even more. We learned that normally the rule is that when there are more women than men, they combine Priesthood and Relief Society….and Relief Society conducts. In other words, they share the administration of the church; it can’t be perfectly egalitarian because of the forbidding of women to have priesthood, but like home church, I felt like my voice was wanted and needed, and that women were appreciated for reasons absent of gendered assignment. It felt like true religion should; we all chose to be there, we were happy to be there and we were all grateful that every single other person was there, too.
As the closing prayer was offered, there was a special blessing on “those in attendance who would travel today.” Tears again welled in my eyes. A virtual stranger was praying for me, *just because.* It meant more than words can express.
This is my church. For now. And I love it. It is the Church of Jesus Christ. And for the first time in a long time, it feels like His church to me. While I do miss the visiting teaching and the possible selection of friends offered at larger wards, I do not miss feeling like a number. I do not miss being talked about for judgement, assignment or gossip. And I love that – at this moment in my life— sacrament meeting at home church includes glitter more often than not. And that is something worth sharing.