The stomachache has subsided a bit since yesterday. I can focus on other things again. I no longer spontaneously cry from confusion and helplessness. I am no longer huddling with friends in tear-punctuated conversations in which we search and wonder. The initial emotional response from the new additions to the Handbook regarding same-sex married couples and families has given way to a sincere desire to understand this new reality I am living with and that my children are growing up with.
I start by identifying two separate factors that created this perfect storm that has rocked even the most stalwart members. The first – and this cannot be understated – is the method through which many members first found out about this change. If anyone has doubted the power before of strategic messaging – of introducing a message at the right time in the right way – this is Exhibit A in persuading them otherwise. From what I can uncover, the Church’s official communications department, Public Affairs, didn’t know this was coming down the pipe and had not prepared for it. Those within the Church Office Building may see the Public Affairs team as optional, as their lack of involvement suggests; I argue they are essential. Some complain about Public Affairs’ inserted presence in our prophetic communications, but how this information was presented – the context, the messenger, the broader explanations from the start – would have gone a long way in mitigating the furor that erupted when it was instead “leaked” with a “gotcha” spin. I, with many others, responded to the shock value of the presentation method.
And what might have been different if Public Affairs had been involved, or if there had at least been some strategic thinking put to the presentation of the new policies? Perhaps we would have then understood from the start why our leaders feel this change is necessary at this time, what the intentions are behind it, what these policies are intended to facilitate or prevent. Our leaders could show compassion for their people – us – by recognizing that this shift is big and using Public Affairs to present it in a way that doesn’t demand just sheer obedience, but instead brings us along in the reasoning and inspiration. Even though there are now some answers from Elder Christofferson’s video interview, questions remain unanswered that seem vital to our willingness to continue sustaining leaders and changing church policies. When we have covenanted to follow an inspired prophet and dedicate our lives to the Church, we deserve to know who is making these policy decisions and why they are being made. It is a form of love for the people to communicate in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner. I do not want my leaders to take advantage of my obedience. It still is mine to give.
It is an enormous sacrifice to give our hearts to the Lord; do we not deserve the right to be fully and transparently informed if we are to offer broken hearts upon His altar? With a change of this size, do we not deserve to know that our Prophet himself is asking us to stretch into new, unknown and scary territory, rather than have to speculate about who's involved with Handbook changes and wonder if it is in fact prophetic? And what if this change wasn’t considered new or challenging enough to warrant such handholding? That lack of sensitivity is disheartening in itself.
But maybe there was a strategic announcement planned. Maybe our hands were going to be held as we entered into this uncomfortable new era. Maybe the unfortunate presentation was good intentions gone awry. That still leaves the content of the policy changes to wrestle with. I admittedly have not spent nearly as much time on considering how the Church would integrate gay members as others who work in this space. The women’s space is enough for me. But I did assume it would be just that: an integration.
What is this line our leaders are asking us to walk in regards to gays and gay rights? I think some of the reaction to this week’s announcement came from the whiplash of thinking we knew what direction we were going, and then being tugged in a seemingly opposite direction: between Utah’s “compromise” making legal news and Elder Oaks’ comments about Kim Davis a few weeks ago, many including myself rejoiced in the compassionate overtures. We thought this is what integration looked like, what open arms outstretched would feel like. But in the modern world of equality and love for all, we sometimes forget or choose to gloss over the fact that the Savior came “not to send peace, but a sword.” He is demanding, as well as compassionate. He is exacting, as well as embracing. What does this balance look like in the modern world? I don’t know, but I do think that the discomfort we’re experiencing now is a result of trying to find that line as a people.
We believe in right and wrong. Elder Christofferson reminds us of that in his interview. Is it right to love unconditionally and extend a hand to all? Yes. Is it right not to look at sin with the least degree of allowance? Yes. How do we reconcile those two? It is our daily challenge to wrestle with this conundrum in our personal lives; the institutional wrestle is now thrust upon us too. The institutional stance towards gays is at odds with the way I would personally like to negotiate this balance. I’m struggling with having that agency consumed by policy, or knowing that at least that agency was in the hands of local bishops and stake presidents who might know the personal stories of those involved.
In seeking solace, I turned to the scriptures and started where I had last left off in my personal reading: Alma 1. The chapter opens with Nehor, an anti-Christ figure. What makes him an anti-Christ? He was “bearing down against the church: declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular…. And he also testified that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble.” I was curious about the word “popular.” Did it mean Nehor wanted the leaders themselves to become more well-loved among the people, or that their tenants should be more in line with what the people wanted? The footnotes seem to suggest the latter: they led me to 1 Nephi 22: 23. “For the time speedily shall come that all churches which are built up… to become popular in the eyes of the world… are they who need fear, and tremble, and quake; they are those who must be brought low in the dust; they are those who must be consumed as stubble; and this is according to the words of the prophet.”
That’s hard for me to read. I don’t want to align myself with something that is unpopular because it makes it harder for me to connect with friends and family who are now shut off to my influence and friendship. More significantly, it’s hard to embrace something unpopular when the popular viewpoint seems to embody so many good qualities itself as the gay rights movement does. But I have covenanted to offer a broken heart, and right now I feel that is literally all I have to offer. I’ve always thought my broken heart would come as a result of my own sins, my own mistakes and imperfections. Or perhaps the mistakes of others wrought upon me, resulting in my personal loss. I don’t think I’ve ever fathomed that my broken heart would be the result of causing others’ pain, or my institutionally proscribed inability to say to brothers and sisters, “You are wanted here. There’s a place for you. We need you.” Because now my ability to say that is qualified. Period. It may be constrained in the name of some greater principle -- specifically an upholding of a divinely mandated moral code -- but it is constrained nonetheless.
I’ve been touched recently by several accounts of polygamous wives, reflecting on the request that was made of them to embrace something entirely unpopular in their day. The definition of a family was of course at the heart of the discomfort they were asked to wrestle with, with others hurt or left behind in their wake. One statement found in the Newel K. Whitney Collection at BYU and brought to light by historian Robin Jensen moved me to tears this week:
"When the heart is sick and the soul faint and we feel we have no friend on Earth to whom we can go with feelings of perfect confidence and trust the very mind seems ready to burst, Could I go to the Lord and tell him all but I do not know what to say. since Friday night I have been thinking of some things which makes my heartache. What shall I do or what shall I say can I ever be the same happy girl again at this time feeling as I do I answer never no never. When my friends are grieved on my account what can be worse? Nothing…. If I only knew what the Lord required of me I feel almost humble enough to do anything and I pray that I may be made so."
The author? A young polygamous wife named Emmeline Harris, known years later as Emmeline B. Wells, the fifth general president of the Relief Society and one of my personal heroes. My prayer now is that whatever confusion I am feeling now, whatever grief my friends are feeling on my account will refine me as these same feelings did for Emmeline, and that I will go on to do greater good—as she did—than I feel capable of today.