A few years ago, my friend called me up and told me about the beautiful testimony meeting she had just experienced, that left her feeling the spirit more strongly than ever before. The one detail I remember now is that a lesbian sister spoke from her pain and her faith. I was surprised to discover later that the same meeting that meant so much to my friend, caused other members to walk out of the chapel, audibly voicing their distaste. I thought of these things again after a somewhat unfortunate series of events re-demonstrated that words that may be a balm for some may be a source of discomfort, fear, or anger for others. It has made me wonder if this will always be the case, and how a real unity–allowing for real differences–may be developed. It also made me remember something that I wrote here before, about belonging.
In that previous post, I wrote about a friend who was confident of God’s love, but didn’t quite feel like she belonged in her ward, because she was over a certain age, with a PhD, but without a husband or child. I wrote too, about another dear person to me, who had a husband and many children, but similarly felt the not-belonging feelings because she was older than many in her ward. And then I wrote about me, and how I have felt the feeling before, too, including during the period when I biked to church alone, and didn’t know who I would sit by, because my husband was in another state, with a relative who was not well. In my own instance, a dear women literally made room for me by scooting over, and inviting me to sit with her family. I felt the welcome.
So when I was recently asked to speak to the women in my ward about fellowshipping, I wanted to speak to all of these things. There are a myriad of reasons why someone might not feel like they belong. One of them is that they may feel like their truest thoughts and feelings don’t belong. It is why I was so grateful for President Uchtdorf’s remarks in his talk, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth” at this last General Conference.
The printed version includes the subject heading “There Is No Litmus Test.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies. There are some members of the Church whose testimony is sure and burns brightly within them. Others are still striving to know for themselves. The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, “Your testimony must be this tall to enter.”
The Church is not just for perfect people, but is for all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” The Church is for people like you and me. The Church is a place of welcoming and nurturing, not of separating or criticizing. It is a place where we reach out to encourage, uplift, and sustain one another as we pursue our individual search for divine truth.
In the end, we are all pilgrims seeking God’s light as we journey on the path of discipleship. We do not condemn others for the amount of light they may or may not have; rather, we nourish and encourage all light until it grows clear, bright and true.
There are so many things that strikes me in this, about pilgrims, and light, and individual searches, but also the parts that speak directly to welcoming. This Church is to be a home for all. It is to be a place of welcoming and nurturing. We can do our part to make it such. Our friend Chieko has been leading the way. She once made a call for women to “look around the room you are in.”
Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.
When I looked around the room I was in, I saw the things she said I would see, and more. I saw a woman in the back translating the lesson into Spanish, and several smiling women with headsets on, listening to my words, and the words of their English speaking sisters translated into their own tongue. I saw women from other parts of the world and other parts of the country. I saw students and student’s wives. I saw big bellies with life inside, and a few babies who made their way out.
One of the sisters with a round belly talked about the beauty of becoming friends with women of different ages. She once sat in a group of mostly young mothers, when the conversation turned to how difficult it can sometimes be to relate to mother-in-laws. The one older woman present said simply, “You know, it is really hard to be a mother-in-law.” Everyone’s perspective and empathy grew. It reminded me of something my formerly elementary principal father had me consider about public schools, how they are among the only places where persons of the exact same age are grouped together. It is much more common in life to to have people of all ages learning and teaching one another.
We also read and talked about this quote from Elaine Jack.
We are part of a grand whole. We need each other to make our sisterhood complete. When we reach out to clasp the hands of our sisters, we reach to every continent, for we are of every nation. We are bonded as we try to understand what the Lord has to say to us, what He will make of us. We speak in different tongues, yet we are a family who can still be of one heart. We work, play, give birth, nurture, dream dreams; we cry, pray, laugh, sometimes clap for joy, and find that mortality teaches us our need for our Savior, Jesus Christ.
I asked the women to think about times when they have felt welcome and people they know who are welcoming. We were trying to identify what some of the attributes of welcoming might be. I immediately thought of two women I met in Brooklyn. The first threw a baby shower for me days before she gave birth to her own baby, and made me dinner approximately one month after that, even though she had her own tiny tot and tiny toddler to care for. The second was a women who always spoke with warmth and grace. She was in the RS presidency, so might have felt some responsibility towards me, but she didn’t just introduce me my first Sunday. She officially welcomed me every Sunday for weeks, always adding something substantial about me, so the sisters got to know me in a bit more of a real way, and I got to feel known. I also saw her do this for many other sisters at a RS camping activity. As the women were gathered around the fire, she welcomed each woman by name, and shared something true that she loved about them. These were not trite compliments about external qualities. They were things she saw in their characters. It felt holy, like I was witnessing something Godly, that thing we call charity, the pure love of Christ.
I thought of times on my mission in Sacramento, California when it was 115 degrees outside and strangers rejected my message, but didn’t reject me, by treating me as a full person and offering me cool water. I also thought of physical spaces that make me feel welcome, perhaps because I am trying very hard (only somewhat successfully) to make my house feel like a home, and for me the details of welcoming are in delicious, healthy food, a bed, the internet, books, relative cleanliness, and simplicity.
We tried to brainstorm even more ways to be welcomers ourselves. I told the sisters that I am not interested in fake friendship (because I’m not), and that what I am after is real welcoming. With it, I shared this meaningful write up about Mr. Rogers, of the beloved childhood show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
Unlike on most children’s shows, Mr. Rogers played himself not just in name, but also in personality and mannerisms, changing nothing about how he acted off camera to how he acted on camera. His reasons for this were that: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
I believe that adults can, also, making sincerity among the most powerful tools.
One thing this might mean is that our scope of welcoming becomes smaller, and that is ok. No one has the time and resources to be perfectly welcoming to every person, but every person can try to extend their welcome in depth or breadth. There are temperaments that overt welcoming may be tricky for. I know because I lean towards the introvert side of the spectrum. I recognize too that there are seasons. Life events like a lost job or sick child may at times take precedence. That is also ok! When you can do more, you will.
While Visiting Teaching and occasionally sitting by someone new are good ideas, they are not the only good ideas. One example that I shared is something else that I’ve written about before, here and here, also from Brooklyn, called Women Lecture of Faith Lecture Series. The idea behind it is that every sister has a story, with the creation of a space for those stories to be shared and listened to. Welcoming one another’s vulnerable, honest stories brought the greatest unity I have experienced in a Relief Society: we knew each other’s real joys and real sorrows.
Other sisters shared other examples of welcoming. Some were simple, but significant, like using someone’s name, smiling, good eye contact, or offering a hug. Some were less simple, like extending invitations to one’s home, sharing food, or engaging in meaningful conversation.
One sister talked about a time when she was singled out in a hurtful way at church, and how in the moment, she tried to act as if she was fine, even though she was not. Afterwards a loving sister found her, and talked to her kindly about what had just happened, understanding that it likely pained her. It helped soothe her, and was a powerful example of responsibility and care. We can look out for one another, both by mourning with those who might mourn, and rejoicing with those who might rejoice.
The last comment came from a sister who had felt poorly about herself around other women in her ward, until she realized that she had been comparing their strengths to her weaknesses, and that it was preventing her from simply loving them. Now she just tries to love the way that Christ might, and to keep a sense of humor. It reminded me of these words from Patricia Holland:
Obviously the Lord has created us with different personalities, as well as differing degrees of energy, interest, health, talent, and opportunity. So long as we are committed to righteousness and living a life of faithful devotion, we should celebrate these divine differences, knowing they are a gift from God. We must not feel so frightened, so threatened and insecure; we must not need to find exact replicas of ourselves in order to feel validated as women of worth. There are many things over which we can be divided, but one thing is needful for our unity–the empathy and compassion of the living son of God.
I closed my lesson with Lucy Mack Smith’s wisdom.
We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another, and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together.
When are times that you’ve felt welcome? How come?
Who do you know that is a good welcomer? What attributes do you see in them?
What are the physical spaces or elements that make you feel welcome?
How can we as sisters add to our level of welcome?