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The Bright Side

Sometimes the church seems truer in small, struggling wards and branches. Well, maybe not truer, but less encumbered by The Unwritten Order of Things. There is an organic feel of people just trying to get by and do their best, where somehow traditions like white shirts and ties just don’t seem to matter that much. There are difficulties, too, when most people don’t know the conventions of church operation. Efficiency goes down, and sometimes it feels like we keep reinventing the wheel. I’ve been reflecting on some of the moments in church in my inner-city units that I’ve loved and I thought I would share:I love the older man who has been courting the church for nearly a year. In a Sunday School lesson about the Word of Wisdom he is completely perplexed (as am I) about its finer points, particularly why some tea is okay and other tea is not. I love that the written and unwritten rules are not already obvious to everyone and therefore I’ve been opened up to seeing things from a new perspective.

I love the woman who went up to the stand wearing jeans and a tank top to bear her testimony. Basically, she joined the church because everyone in her family told her not to, and she has somewhat of a contrarian personality. She then goes on to recount her experiences of telling people she’s Mormon and subsequently being called a polygamist. “Well I guess I am a polygamist now,” she says. I wonder if she knows what that means.

I love the women who show up to church in their traditional colorful African dresses.

I love the man who shows up in bright orange from head to toe; orange hat, orange suit, orange dress shirt and tie, orange socks and shoes. He is dressed to the nines and proud. And it’s beautiful.

I love the man who wears a lot of bling, including a large gold bust of Jesus around his neck each week to church.

I even love the elderly man, despite the pain his statement also gave me, who testified that getting the priesthood now is his reward for all of the good he has done in his life.

I love the newly converted gay man who doesn’t know what the church has to say about his sexual orientation, because in our little branch we have much more pressing issues to worry about.

I love the potluck Thanksgiving dinner that features beans and rice, jerk chicken, homemade mac and cheese, and fried plantains, with nary a jello or funeral potato dish in sight.

I love the bright little girl in primary who asked me why girls don’t get the priesthood. I love that she hasn’t learned, like I had by that age, that one shouldn’t ask that question.

I love looking out over the congregation and seeing faces of people from several different countries.

I love that so many people here don’t have the same ideas about modesty, have never heard of the cultural prohibition on R-rated movies, and haven’t learned the same catch phrases for prayers and testimonies.

I love hearing a hearty “Amen!” shouted out during Relief Society.

I love the thoughtful questions that a man who converted from Islam to Mormonism asks during Sunday School and the interesting perspective he brings.

What do you love about your ward/branch?

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19 Responses

  1. amelia says:

    i now want to be in your ward. 🙂 it sounds perfectly lovely.

  2. Mark IV says:

    Thanks, AmyB. Nicely done.

    I also like the smaller branches where so much effort is required to just do the basics that we can forget about all our other hangups. I was in a branch once where a new convert hadn’t quite gotten the message that Mormons don’t say hell and damn when participating in SS and priesthood lessons. He was very much an extrovert, and was always raising his hand. Nobody ever fell asleep in class.

  3. Noah says:

    I’ve always been a little annoyed by the whole white shirt thing, myself (the beard thing, too). I think we tend to lose sight of the beauty that comes through diversity. Do I wear a white shirt to church? Yes…most of the time. With all the sincerity I can muster, I do it because wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. The unofficial white shirt policy is no big thing by itself; the white shirt is just an article of clothing, and I know that, even if compelled to wear one, I’m still me. However, I sometimes wonder if it symbolizes more than just that.

    I remember the days in my Young Single Adults ward when I was the Gospel Principles teacher. I practically begged my class to say something…anything unique, thoughtful, …real. Sometimes we’d all sit in a circle, and I’d try to get us to talk–really talk. Some weeks were more successful than others.

    What does the white shirt symbolize? Homogeneity? Yes, in one sense. But it also represents a set of rules and regulations that misses the mark. It’s human nature for us to think of people in terms of “us” and “them.” This is seldom a good thing, and while not a Utahn, my ward (and every ward I’ve been in) is guilty of this. Like I said, I wear a white shirt simply because I’m not a rebel by nature. Yet I know what it means: It’s a way to distinguish the “us” from the “them.”

    But what is the gospel all about? The emphasis seems to be on obedience. No, not like a legion of automatons blindly, silently, and deafly following some invisible master that can only be felt by the weight of oppression it burdens us with. I mean like a community of individuals willfully and joyfully submitting ourselves to the cause we’ve chosen to uphold. And, being loyal to God, what principles underlie our obedience? Kindness is the first thing that comes to mind, and this, of course, includes accepting, tolerating, and understanding…the guy in the blue shirt.

    Many, if not most, religions have their white shirts, so to speak. Perhaps we could be the first ones to stop getting it wrong. I’ve read a lot about love in the Standard Works, but nothing about shirt colors. Maybe…just maybe…we’ve got our priorities a little mixed up. After all, white shirts are easy. Love, on the other hand, is elusive yet impossible to fake, requires a tremendous leap of faith, but…in the end…is totally worth it.

  4. amelia says:

    that was wonderful, noah. the fact that love should be our originary impulse was what struck me so powerfully in the most recent RS/PH lesson from president kimball on selfless service. if only we could learn to love–and even to recognize the love that already exists in our communities–i think we’d find incredible joy.

  5. Caroline says:

    Amy, I love your branch, too!

    My ward is pretty much the polar opposite. Well entrenched, worthy, white-shirt-wearing priesthood holders coming out of our ears, packed, somewhat wealthy, very white.

    Because our boundaries do contain a university, we also have a small minority of grad students and professors whom I love.

    I have never experienced a ward like yours, Amy. I am jealous. I think I could be newly energized and appreciative if I could attend there.

    I’m particularly touched by your sentence about the gay man who has joined who doesn’t yet have any idea that his sexual orientation is problematic. I love that your ward is so focused on the basic work of Christ that that hasn’t come up yet. Awesome.

  6. Ana says:

    I love that my ward has completely exceeded my expectations.

    When we first visited here, just before my husband started this Ph.D. program, we chose the most convenient sacrament meeting to attend. We pulled into a parking lot full of very nice cars. And we thought, well, this obviously won’t be our ward.

    But it was, and we have been so well cared for as the resident student family. There’s no pool in our backyard, but we have our choice of four or five ward members’ pools to swim in anytime we want. When I wrecked my car, a ward member lent me a very nice car for a week. When we were near rock bottom financially the first year we were here, I was offered opportunities to sing for money at funerals and company parties.

    And it’s not just us they take care of. Last year the entire ward banded together to replace the roof of a family in our “sister” Spanish branch. Some contributed money, some contributed time and some contributed both. It was a joy to behold.

    For the last few years, someone in the ward has made a large, anonymous contribution that ends up paying for a large portion of the camp costs for ALL the Young Women.

    Several dentists in the ward regularly travel to third-world countries to provide care for people in need, especially children and also sometimes missionaries.

    This is a ward with money. But it is also a ward that knows what to do with it.

    The money is certainly not the only thing that distinguishes my ward. But honestly, I’ve never lived around this much money and I never expected to see people so generous with it. It has been a lovely surprise.

    There is also a librarian who has invited my wild little boys to be her special helpers. Every week she has a job for them to do — straightening books or sharpening pencils — and a little treat for them. She has made them eager to go to church every week, and that’s no small feat!

    I could probably go on … it’s time for bed for me, though!

  7. AmyB says:

    Mark IV, I love colorful people like the one in your branch. These are the people who help keep it real.

    Noah, wonderful thoughts. To me white shirts are very representative of all of the rules and regulations that in the end have nothing to do with what’s really important . . .love. Without those conventions, it is sometimes easier, to use Amelia’s words, “to recognize the love that already exists in our communities.”

  8. AmyB says:

    Caroline, come visit anytime. 😉 This post is about the bright side of my experience. Some things are really hard, too. But I have learned amazing things about love and about seeing who people are on the inside regardless of outward appearances or orthoprax behavior. When people are clearly doing their best but still don’t fit the white shirt and tie, or conservative dress with pantyhose mold, it helps me rethink things.

    Ana, how lovely to hear about your ward. I’ve had a similar experience on the opposite end of the spectrum. many people in my areas have had very little. They have families crammed into tiny apartments and are barely getting by, but love to invite us over to share a meal and spend time. They are so generous with what they do have. I think that love and generosity is more at the root of the gospel and should be what church is all about.

  9. amelia says:

    i think sometimes it is harder to look beyond someone’s conformity to expectation and see the real person, than to look beyond someone’s failure to conform. behind the white shirts and ties and the perfectly coiffed hair and panty hose, there are beautiful, complex, passionate people. it can be far too easy to dismiss them as just a white shirt and tie or just a perfect hair-do and nylons.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    This was a good post for me because I was forced to think of the positives of my ward (lately, I’ve been dwelling on the negatives).

    I love that I’ve made friends with people I would never have made friends with if we didn’t have the Church in common–people of different ages, economic status, political leanings, etc. And, I’m a better person for having those friendships.

  11. Jen says:

    You must live in NYC. Wow…your post was so thoughtful and makes me miss my old ward in Queens… Inner city wards/branches are so much work, but so rewarding!

  12. VirtualM says:

    I love my ward. I’m in an inner-city ward, and it’s bustling with people from every walk of like you could possibly imagine.
    I love that we have a twenty-seven year old bishop and that his wife often wears pantsuits to church. I love that our Stake President talks like a Baptist preacher. The congregation says ‘Good Morning’ back whenever it is said over the pulpit, and if a speaker or testimony bearer forgets their ‘Good Morning’, a sister in the congregation usually reminds them by calling out ‘Good Morning!’ to the speaker. I love that the Gospel Principles class fills the Relief Society room every week and that our Ward Mission leader is a new member himself. I love that during Sunday School one can walk the halls and find people having riveting conversations and that they don’t feel guilty for skipping Sunday School to chat. We also have people, like the Sister who gave the closing prayer yesterday in Sacrament Meeting, wearing full traditional African dress. I love the poltical and even religious belief spectrum that one finds in each class or meeting.
    And some of the testimonies in our ward….let’s just say we don’t call it ‘open mic’ for nothing.
    Our ward isn’t small – over 600 people on the rolls at any given time, and it makes Home Teaching overwhelming (DH has 20 families on his list.) It’s transient and many of the stronger members are either student families or move out of the area when they enter a higher income bracket. We purposely bought a small house in the ward boundaries so we could help establish some consistency, even though we’ll probably be driven to the suburbs and the more traditional wards when it comes time for DS to enter school. But for now, we love it. These types of wards, while challenging, are the best.

  13. Britt says:

    I just wanted to say a big thankyou to all of you that have posted here for your comments and your enthusiasm. I love my tiny struggling branch, too! 9 months ago I moved to Majuro, Marshall Islands (a 3.75 square mile ribbon of land in the middle of the Pacific) and have enjoyed my little Uliga Branch so much. Today I was feeling down about not doing more as I struggle in my attempts to simultaneously learn Marshallese and also serve the families through my Relief Society calling. The need for “Relief” here often feels overwhelming! But there are so many reasons to celebrate, too! You have reminded me about all the things I love about being a member of the church in this place. Thankyou so much!

  14. Patata Brava says:

    I hate to be the contrarian, because I do agree with much of what has been said. I do agree that the Mormon experience changes the further one gets from Utah. That is one of the specific reasons why my wife and I moved a year or so ago. We both missed the “by the seat of our pants” feeling that you get in these smaller wards away from the mountain west.

    But I do take issue with some of the comments about white shirts. Obviously I am not close minded to say that if you don’t wear a white shirt, then you can’t step foot in the chapel. We can’t afford to chase members away at all. Still, I think that wearing a white shirt is important, and there is some indication from the standard works that white is an important color for administering the gospel.

    Joseph Smith described in JS history 1:31 that Moroni “had on a loose robe of most exquisite awhiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant.” Or in other words a messenger of God was dressed in white.

    A prophet of the Lord said at General Conference said, “I am not going to say much about the dress. We are not a people who look to formality, certainly we do not believe in phylacteries, in uniforms, on sacred occasions, but I do think that the Lord will be pleased with a bishopric if they will instruct the young men who are invited to administer the sacrament to dress properly. He will not be displeased if they come with a white shirt instead of a colored one, and we are not so poor that we cannot afford clean, white shirts for the boys who administer the sacrament. If they do not have them, at least they will come with clean hands, and especially with a pure heart.”
    (President David O. Mckay, Conference Report, October 1956, General Priesthood Meeting 89.)

    Usually, whenever a priesthood holder performs an ordinance (baptism, temple, sacrament) they wear white clothing. This clothing symbolizes the cleanliness that a representative of the Lord should have. Yes, blessings of health can be given without wearing white because one doesn’t always plan these things. And yes, baptisms for the dead were first performed (in this dispensation) in the Mississippi River. The Lord makes allowances when we are trying our very best.

    I’m not going to tell a deacon who just got baptized 3 weeks ago not to pass the sacrament because he is wearing the best blue shirt that he has. I’m not going to tell a member of my Elder’s quorum that he is not worthy to come to class because he isn’t wearing a white shirt. But there is a reason why the priesthood is instructed to where white shirts. The Bishopric preside over the Sacrament, and any member of the priesthood could be asked to pass the sacrament on any given Sunday. The Lord teaches us through the symbolism of ordinances; the white helps to remind that the priesthood holder is acting in the name of the Son. Once you start taking away those symbols, lessons are lost.

  15. AmyB says:

    Jen, yes I do live in NYC. I don’t think I’ll ever leave. 🙂

    VirtualM, your ward sounds great. Thanks for sharing.

    Britt, I’m glad you found us! Best of luck with your adventure there in the Marshall Islands.

  16. AmyB says:

    Patata Brava,

    I hadn’t intended this to be about white shirts. I find it interesting that men primarily responded to that particular point. I suppose it is kind of a nonissue for women, since we don’t officiate in anything. Sigh. I don’t disagree with you that there is great symbolic value in certain things, such as wearing white. However, I think that the richness of the symbolism loses something when white shirts and ties become first and foremost a symbol of conformity.

    This is what I love about my inner city ward. People are there genuinely trying their best, with humility and love. When men show up to pass the sacrament in their Sunday best, and sometimes that’s a bright orange suit or something more traditionally African, it’s not because they are not conforming, it’s because they are wearing the best they have. When those intentions are clear, as they can be more easily in a small branch with mostly converts, symbols of conformity cease to be an issue.

  17. Anonymous says:

    What VirtualM said. (I miss that place.)

    Randy B.

  18. Kiri Close says:

    Honestly, Patata–the fixation on white is unsettling for me. that’s great that white means something to you.

    It doesn’t for me in the same way.

    Our church’s fixation on white is merely that–a fixation. And in days of old or recent past, this was done why? because we’re too human and can’t figure out how to be more in tune or ‘pure’ with the ever diverse Holy Spirit who is light years ahead of us small-minded biological, earth humans.

    But if we want to quibble about colors, then let’s consider how the ‘red robed’ Christ, some of the temple clothing, stories of people with visions of different colored apparel, etc.

    White is just a color we have fixated on in our material world. And just because prophets of our past have said something about it, remember we should be considering what the most recent prophets are saying since LDS believe in continuing revelation.

    For some cultures, red is the color of purity, and others, even black. I don’t recognize the relevancy of white other than it being a fixation.

  19. Angela says:

    Something I remember from the days of my mission is being instructed not to change the culture of the people and to recognize that the culture of the church in the US is not the only possible Gospel culture. Seeing the operation of the church in that different cultural context really helped me discern what the church is supposed to be about- a community of believers helping each other to live/love the Gospel.

    I think what is most appealing about these “struggling” wards and branches isn’t necessarily their lack of convention. It’s the fact that the other members refrain from judgement of those who dress and act differently and who struggle with different sins than others in the ward. Without the trappings of the expected culture, what is highlighted is the raw essence of the Gospel of Jesus, and that is a beautiful thing.

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