Tag: Mormon

Incendiary Saturday: Religion and Immigration

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
– Constitution of the United States of America

Two posts in one day, you lucky darlings. But the news of the Executive Order issued by President Trump banning access to the country from several (Islamic) countries has broken and rather consumed our day here at SDS headquarters. He’s not calling it a #MuslimBan (though General Flynn’s son is, for what that’s worth)…but it’s a ban on Muslims. You know how we can tell? Because President Trump also directed that priority for immigration should be given to people from the Middle East…who are Christian. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

I’m not going to go into the minutia of whether or not the President excluded other “problematic” countries from this ban because he has active or prospective business holdings in them.

I’m not going to speculate on how much ammunition this will give to terrorist groups, some of whom have already apparently used the EO in recruiting efforts. Or how this might affect my brother and countless others currently serving in the armed forces.

I’m not going to touch the fact that this EO, steeped in racial tensions and fearmongering, was issued on Holocaust Memorial day.

Instead, I want to talk about some personal background, some legal realities, and the question of motive.

To recap.

On my father’s side, his mother was the daughter of immigrants from Slovakia. They were Roman Catholic at a time when Catholics and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were viewed as suspect and fundamentally Un-American. My grandmother married a WASP from New York and bore three children, one of whom is my father who served most of my life in the US Air Force. One of my brothers has followed him into service.

On my mother’s side, I am descended from religious converts who came from Scotland and elsewhere to the deserts of the American West to join in a small and somewhat persecuted religious movement–Mormonism. This movement had an extermination order issued against them as a group at one point and were eventually driven out of what then constituted the boundaries of the country. My mother descends from this religious minority, now considered one of the most conservative and patriotic subsections of the country. My dad later converted to this faith and this heritage. I’ve left the former, but carry the latter with me always.

That’s my immigrant and religious minority legacy. Why do I repeat this? Because I’m not special. Most Americans have some kind of story like this in their background, this intertwining of minority and immigrant stories goes right back to our founding myths and has been our day-to-day lived reality for the better part of three centuries. Cracking down on immigrants, especially when you are using religion as part of your reasoning is fundamentally counter intuitive to our national history and story.

Years later, I’m now an immigrant in a Western nation at this very moment. I followed all the laws to legally enter this country and work here, and I have the paperwork to prove it. That is how international immigration and laws work. I’m lucky. I’m white, educated, English speaking, but I’m still an immigrant. My life is here and it is dependent on the goodwill of two governments. If I boarded a plane in the US and arrived in London only to be detained at the border because the Prime Minister had decided that in defiance of laws and regulations in two countries, my right to entry (again, documented in two countries) was suddenly invalidated, I have no idea where I’d be. Catatonic in a corner perhaps. Propublica estimates that up to half a million people are potentially in this situation now. The Washington Post is reporting that the language of the recent executive order that has brought this mess about also applies to people with dual nationalities…aka…citizens of the US. Huffinton Post reports ditto for Green Card holders. Representatives of the government under which I currently live are also reporting that they could not access the US under this EO, which doesn’t make me overly optimistic for continued operational goodwill across borders.

Why do I bring all this up? Because, like me, we are talking about people who have already passed multitudes of tests and requirements to gain access to the country.

There a lot of genuinely necessary conversation and work to do to create a safe, viable immigration network in the 21st century world. But do you know what really is pissing me off? It’s that the basis for this EO is due to fears and anxieties concerning illegal immigration and religious backgrounds. People who have the paperwork to get into this country have, in many cases, already passed a vetting process far more grueling than anyone currently being considered for a position in Mr. Trump’s cabinet! And freedom of worship was one of the first things the Founding Fathers enshrined.

And so, people who voted for this–including some of you who told me that these kinds of actions or bans would never come to fruition: do not tell me that the problem is illegal immigration, and then turn around and start detaining or denying entry first to those who already legally live and work in the US, including citizens. Do not tell me you consider the constitution sacrosanct but then impose a religious litmus test on entry in violation of the Bill of Rights. Do not cite the 9/11 attacks or recent lone wolf actors as a basis for this ban and then apply it to countries who citizens didn’t participate in those atrocities.

You’re either delusional about your motives, or you’re lying.

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Baby’s first second piercing

“Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”
― James Oppenheim

When I was in New York over the summer, X and I got second piercings together–an extra hole in one lobe each. We decided to do it almost from the moment we started planning the trip and even picked out the piercer we wanted to use.

So much, so high school, you may be thinking. Why is this, the tiniest of body modifications worth a write up? Well, a third hole punch in my frame may be a rather dinky example of self actualization, but it’s important to me.

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Body modification was not an option growing up. LDS teachings place a high amount of reverence on the human body and care of it, which is also why there are the famous dietary restrictions Mormons are often noted for: no coffee, tea, or alcohol, and (supposedly) meat in moderation. Raised LDS, I grew up with a lot of presentation expectations around hemlines, sleeve lengths, hairstyles, tattoos (hard no), and piercings. The formal advice, though it can be enforced in some circumstances, being none for boys and one hole in each ear permissible for girls. There were a lot of rules for girls.

You can find this referenced and cited multiple times in official church literature. I went looking for a link reference for this blog post and ended up with the following, which is instructive in its own right.

I started typing in the words “women should” in the website search bar, and the auto fill in immediately supplied “stay home” on my behalf. Thoughtful of it. But there, right beneath the advice of “women should be women and not babies” (a baffling admonition), and “women should follow their husbands and he follows the counsel from god” (to which, no), is the statement, “women should only wear one pair of earrings.” It’s a bit hard to read, but it’s there, right above “women should avoid paid employment.”

 

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This direction about earrings is something I heard specifically and multiple times growing up, and I experienced dress codes enforcing the one earring rule (among other requirements) which are in place at most church activities, and at its institutions like universities. I adhered to these expectations and didn’t think too much about it. I wasn’t particularly bothered about strictures on earrings and didn’t even get around to having my ears pierced until I was 13; I believe my sister still hasn’t at 19 simply because she doesn’t care to.

But as time went on and my opinions developed, I came to see this rule as a very minor cog in a much larger and troubling context of women’s and gender issues in the church and its culture. These eventually led (through a long and complex route I won’t bore you with again) to me deciding to leave the church and renegotiate my relationship to its organisation and teachings. I’ve since felt the need to review a lot of my notions about my body and what I choose to do with it. It’s not in my nature to be impulsive about my corporeal form, a lot of the reverence I was raised with still lingers, but getting a second piercing was something I’d wanted to do for a long time–since my early 20s and then largely due to a misguided belief that it would look “rebellious.” Oh, youth.

And so, I made a decision to get another hole punched, and plotted and planned with my best friend–who has written publicly and far more eloquently than I have ever managed to about her own faith transition–to do it together. We made a girls day of it, shopped, got bespoke lipsticks, sat next to each other in the piercing studio, had a long and winding talk about faith journeys afterwards at brunch.

It’s tiny but it was a gesture that made me feel as if my body was really mine in a way it didn’t before. Not a loan from on high, not a meat house for the soul, but genuinely something that belonged to me in my own right.

Having the unexpected experience of seeing how many other gender admonitions are connected to such a trivial thing during a website search on jewelry was just reconfirmation that the issues I found so upsetting are still there. Possibly getting worse as strict concepts of bodies and purity and gender roles continue to be emphasized in the way that the organization does, and in some cases such as LGBT issues, is doubling down on.

Out of interest and fairness, I decided to check the auto fill on the site again more recently in drafting this post. The mention of earrings was not longer suggested. However there are now two references to women “hearkening” unto their husbands, one to dressing modestly with two about specific dressing standards, three references to either “staying” home or not working outside of it, and the most troubling suggestion which seems to be a variation on a statement on rape from a book by a prominent former church leader published in 1969–that it’s better to die fending off rape than live through it. I myself heard variations on this theme throughout youth and young adulthood and though I don’t believe it’s claimed as a public position anywhere in the church today, the fact that mangled versions of this idea are common enough to still being generated by algorithmic search suggestions is pretty disheartening.

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I also checked again today, out of morbid curiosity at this point. An auto fill suggestion about earrings is back–the problematic suggestion about rape survival remains.

My piercing has healed now and I don’t regret it in the slightest. In a twist of fate, the same piercing studio has now set up shop on the ground floor at Liberty and has begun singing a siren song to me to get another. I’m probably going to give in eventually.

 

The Church of Brunch

“Bloodies are the centerpiece of the Sunday Brunch–they are also, perhaps, the #1 Prep mixed drink…..
1. Place ice cubes in a large glass
2. Pour in two fingers of vodka
3. Fill glass almost to top with V-8
4. Season with: 2 drops Tabasco, 4 drops Worcestershire, 1/2 tsp. horseradish, 1 tsp. lime juice
5. Add wedge of lime, stir and drink
6. Repeat as needed”
― Lisa Birnbach, The Official Preppy Handbook

Starting from when I went to university and getting increasingly worse as time went on, Church attendance had pained me for years. There was a particularly memorable length of time where I came home from every single service either in tears or enraged by something that had been said over the pulpit, taught by a teacher or leader, or even just discussed in the classes that follow the main communion service in Mormonism which is the central part of Sunday worship. I started taking breaks from attendance when we still lived in the States, a week here or even a month there, believing that if I gave it some time and space, the next time I went to services would be better. Almost inevitably it was not and often it was worse. A sermon would be preached proclaiming things to be true that I believed deeply to be false. A teacher would cite centuries of Church leadership stating a position I thought fundamentally wrong. Stances I held because I felt them to be right and good were decried as dangerous or even evil. Meanwhile, my own research into history was complicating the many, more simple stories I had been taught about my faith all my life.

This wasn’t a one-time thing, it had lasted the better part of a decade. It was spiritually and emotionally draining, and the cognitive dissonance was strongest on the weekends. I came to dread the Sundays when we did attend services as the results were usually bad, and Sundays when we didn’t I spent at home whipping myself into a mass of Puritan-descended guilt. I felt for years that something was wrong with me for thinking and feeling the way I did and having the questions I had. I felt ashamed that I had not been able to find the same answers within the faith that almost everyone important in my life had, and embarrassed to be struggling with a problem that, as far as anyone else could tell (whichever side of faith divide you fall on) was entirely in my own head. To a lot of outside observers who shared their thoughts on the matter with me, it should have been easy to decide either to stay or to go. It wasn’t.

I'm also making brunch dates with my husband a priority. For obvious reasons.

The last time I attended services was here in London.

In news which is not in the least groundbreaking, Mormonism has a major problem with racism in its history and in ways that affect it right up to the present day. Black men could not be ordained to the lay priesthood until just eight years before I was born, and both men and women of African descent were excluded from the most important parts of worship in Mormon temples–which is, by the way, fundamentally necessary in the LDS view of salvation. Meaning it was a valid theological question whether or not black people even got into heaven, and if they did, in what capacity. There are decades of recorded statements on the matter that black men and women did not qualify to enter heave except as “servants.” Cringe.

The LDS church has been attempting to formally address some of the troubled or troubling aspects of its past through a series of essays over the past few years, and I give it a lot of credit for confronting many of these issues head on using good scholarship and historical citations. It has not always done so. One of these essays concerns the history of what has been come to be called the “Priesthood Ban,” though I find this problematic since women are not ordained to the LDS priesthood at all and as mentioned women were just as excluded from what are considered saving ordinances. In some academic circles the more accurate term of “Racial Ban” has gained traction, and it’s the one I use. This essay goes on to explain that a number of folkloric justifications for the Racial Ban developed in the LDS community over the years (quite true) and that church leaders today disavowed those previous statements and reasoning (this essay was the first disavowal I have ever seen, and is fairly weak, but I’m willing to take the intention in good faith). It’s a long overdue piece of writing, and doesn’t go far enough in clearing up the decades and centuries of racially tinged folklore and official teachings of the church, in my opinion, but it’s a step forward.

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It was after this particular essay had been released that Jeff and I made the decision to give LDS services in London a real shot. We’d only attended church sporadically for the first few months of living here because I was frankly burned out from leaving services crying or ranting, and Jeff was not far behind me in exasperation, though he was much less vocal about it. Nevertheless, it was worth a shot recommitting ourselves to regular attendance, we decided, and so off we went one December Sunday with a renewed sense of dedication and a quiet uptick in hope. Perhaps all the frustrations were mostly our fault and if we shut our mouths more often and tried listening instead, we’d notice the things that bothered us less and the things that uplifted us more.

Plus, we were a bit lonely. Growing up in the military meant that the Mormon congregations we attended were a massive part of my family’s social structure. No matter what country we moved to, we were assured of finding an instant community of people ready to welcome us with open arms. As adults and expats in our own rights now, Jeff and I were missing that community, having found nothing to replace it with. The congregation we were assigned to at the time was in South London and almost entirely made up of first or second generation African or Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the UK. There seemed to be a couple of expats and a lot of people from “somewhere else” as we were so I was hopeful we’d find a group of people with similar experiences to us who would have a lot of wisdom to share.

The day in question, just before Christmas, it so happened that the Sunday school teacher was a visiting white American man who, rather than teaching the lesson topic he had been assigned, decided to expound to the congregation (of, again, almost entirely black members) his feelings about the recently released race essay. They were not entirely positive and the main gist of this speech was that he was puzzled that leaders had “disavowed” the teachings he had always “known” to be truth. I could have felt more sympathy for him if he had not gone on to lecture the members as to why “you people” were not able to be ordained to the priesthood, citing the very folkloric teachings the essay tried to distance itself from as truth, and growing more animated in the defense of those racist theories as he went on.

I sat there for as long as I could but at some point I got up, found the bishop in another part of the church, apologized profusely for what was about to happen, and burst into tears. After first assuring himself that the teacher got back on track to his appointed teaching topic, that kind bishop sat and listened to me as I sobbed for an hour about how for years, every single time I had entered a church building, I had heard a lesson like this. Racist, sexist, politically tinged in a way to make me wince, anti-LGBT in ways that violated my conscience, and so on. I was (and remain) deeply conflicted that as a white, admittedly privileged woman, I had felt offended where clearly people who had far more cause than me to be were not, but as I explained to that patient man, my reaction was not the result of that one hour, but the years proceeding it. Church did not feel safe for me, and I genuinely felt that there was no place for me in the organization I had been raised in. I fundamentally disagreed with too much of it, and as time went on the disagreements and dissent were getting bigger and bigger.

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He listened. He acknowledged the social/political/historical divides I felt (even validated a few of them as being genuinely hard to reconcile with the faith). He didn’t try to cite quotes from leaders or scripture at me as previous bishops I had spoken to on the subject had done. There was genuine love and sincere care in the way he spoke to me; it was the kindest encounter I had had with church leaders in years.

And as I said, it was the last time I attended services, unless staying with family or escorting visiting friends. Jeff and I decided to take another break after this particular Sunday, this one intentional and for as long as we needed; guilt was not allowed. We found other things to do on weekends: museums, walks, markets, exploring the city, and just generally being with one another. It was spiritually restful. A few months later, a spate of high-profile excommunications took place that cemented for both of us that the LDS church was not where we wanted to be nor aligned with what we support and believe. We did not believe several of the key truth claims, we could not in good conscience support the leadership on the many public stances they had taken, and neither of us were comfortable with the idea of raising a family in the structure–particularly daughters. Even to keep the peace with friends and family, there was no point in even going through the motions of attendance or participation. We were done.

These days we attend what I only semi-satirically call, The Church of Brunch. On Sunday mornings we now usually go to one of a handful of venues that do a proper Yank brunch–or occasionally get adventurous and try to find a new joint famed on blogs or social media for its protein and carb heavy concoctions. We linger over food. We debate, argue, joke, talk news, gossip about work, and plan for our future. We’ve had some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations of our marriage over pots of tea and avocado toast (sausages and waffles on his side). We often include friends, growing the new community we are trying to build for ourselves as proverbial strangers in a strange land, but more often we use it as a time to reconnect after long weeks focused on careers.

It’s not a global network or system of belief, and I suspect most people would probably laugh about it if I tried to explain it to them, but the Church of Brunch has done me and us a lot of good. It’s filled a gap and created a safe space in a time slot that was previously dreaded and painful. It’s reliable, uncomplicated, and good in the way that simple, basic things often are. We plan on including future friends, children, and even strangers (we strike up the oddest and best conversations with our co-diners). And it’s delicious. We expect to be devotees for a long time.

*all images from my Instagram

Year in Review: The Heavy Stuff

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

2014 was the year that I officially stepped away from the religious community of my youth. The break really happened long before but a lot of things happened this year to confirm to me that it was the best decision I could have made for me. The reactions to this decision have run the gamut but the only ones that have confused me have been people who felt it necessary to offer their hearty congratulations for my choice.

As if the decision were not the most wrenching and difficult of my life. One that took a solid decade of increasing frustration, heartache, painful doubt, and baffling alienation to accomplish. I was fortunate to actually have a supportive partner along every step of the way for the second half of that decade and I still managed to feel desperately lonely in the crumbling I felt going on internally and externally. There was nothing heroic about my decision to leave my religion. It signified that I had run out of any other options–faithful, emotional, cultural, or otherwise–and to be in that position is the most angry and emotionally exhausted I have ever been in my life.

Think it’s easy to walk away from your religion? Trust me, it is not. In one big go I opted out of a community, a culture, a language, a heritage, and a legacy precious to almost every member of my family and a significant chunk of my friends. I disappointed and confused a lot of people who’s good opinion I value deeply. I put peculiar strains on my friendships and my marriage that took holding on tight and communicating hard to navigate thoughtfully and intelligently. I turned my back on an entire cosmology and worldview without really having much solid in place to replace it with, and now have the task of building a new one after nearly 20 years of certainty and 10 of crippling doubt.

I don’t want to be congratulated. Honestly there are days that, in thinking about it, all I want is a hug!

I’m lucky I came out on the other side of my decision feeling as little damage as I do. I’ve had friends and acquaintances make similar decisions in the same or similar religious communities and pay horrible prices for it. But in spite of that laundry list of angst above this, I am actually in a more calm and steady place than I’ve been in years, emotionally or spiritually speaking. Uncertainty is not nearly has bad as I had been made to feel for most of my life. For years now I’ve felt like I was clinging to a rope desperately in the dark, knowing that the drop would kill me if it happened. The more my grasp tightened in panic, the more numb my fingers got, the more the strength gave out in my arms, the harder and harder I would cling, but still I would slip. Several months ago, the last slip happened and the final strands slid out of my clutch. And it turns out the floor was just inches beneath my feet the whole time.

It’s disorienting, to find your worldview gone but your own feet steady beneath you. It feels oddly like peace.

Writing hard things.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
― Oscar Wilde

I’ve been close to radio silent on the blog for the past couple of weeks, it feels like, but there’s been a reason for it. I’ve linked to the story when it broke in the New York Times, but the truth is I’m much more intimately connected to it than that.

I am a Mormon feminist. Or I was one? I’m not sure, it’s been a baffling few weeks on top of an already baffling decade. In one way or another I have been publicly and outspokenly at odds with the religion I was born into for a decade now, beginning when I arrived at university to find local leaders trying to organize volunteers in support of the LDS church’s Prop 8 campaign, which I staunchly refused to do. My personal religious experience has largely gone downhill after that.

I disagree vocally with the faith’s stance on LGBT people and issues, I’m unabashedly supportive for ordaining women to the currently male-only priesthood, I reject the teaching about gender and gender dynamics I was taught as not just often wrong but in some cases dangerously so. But in recent years (topped off by Kate Kelly’s experience, a woman I know, in addition to many other women in Ordain Women), my experiences with the faith and the people in it have gotten increasingly disheartening and even ugly. Things I thought I believed have been tested and found wanting, things I never believed have been proved. It’s been a decade of vertigo and unbalanced experience. I have longed to write about them, but felt utterly unable to express myself except to my husband or a few friends.

I’ve certainly never found a way to write successfully about my religion in this space. Perhaps it is because it’s so personal and I am not brave enough. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want to reveal how deeply troubled I have been around it for so long – usually that only leads to people offering unsolicited advice one of two ways: to silence my doubts or to just leave. Neither of which are helpful, by the way. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been so conflicted myself and have not been able to settle my own thoughts to my satisfaction and so could not organize them for anyone else. But I think at it’s base, the problem is I don’t know how to write about my Mormonism honestly.

I don’t know how to express what it is to love something and be ashamed of it at the same time. I can’t explain the feeling of wanting to be loyal to something that you feel, deep in your gut, is doing the wrong thing. I cannot describe what it is to belong to a people and a tradition that I disagree with in fundamental ways. I cannot usefully or concisely shrink 200 years of history into a cohesive narrative for the outsider yet. I cannot turn nearly 30 years of lived experience, 10 of it increasingly hard and painful to reconcile, into a blog post. I’m afraid that anything I write will be fundamentally inadequate.

Also, I am a coward. Typing this now, I’m terrified to think what the reaction of a number of people whose good opinion I value might be. Every time I have been open about my struggle with faith and relationship to it, I have paid a price for it. Friends have deserted me, leaders have punished me, and I have even worried about a job because of it. I am frightened to lose more than I have lost by being honest. Not only that, as followers of the news story have seen, there are other prices to be paid. Kate Kelly, a woman more faithful than I probably ever could be, has been cut out of the religion by excommunication. There is a long and troubled history in Mormonism of excommunicating feminists and for a long time I was silent because I feared the same fate, though I fear it substantially less these days.

I am tough but my struggle with disbelief and estrangement from my community over some very big disagreements has left scars. If you were to metaphorically strip me of my coverings, yes you would see a few deep gashes of massive religious doubt. But you would also see a thousand pinpricks of hurtful comments, ugly gossip, insinuation, and spite from members of my own community, for being “other.” You would see the shrapnel wounds from when a friend standing next to me was targeted with death threats for her feminism and I was too close to not feel some of the blast. You’d see friction burns from when people who loved me tried to apply pressure (lovingly, of course) to “fix” or correct my unorthodox opinions. You’d see a brow furrowed by a million doubts and shoulder grown round with the heavy weight of fear pushing down for 10 years. You’d frankly see some marks left from self-harm as I have punished myself for not believing hard enough or hoping strongly enough. I don’t want any more markings on my invisible skin and so I have often tried to cover it up by simply not speaking of it. I’m losing my capacity for silence.

There is so much I want to say about the religion of my youth, most of it good, but I cannot speak about it unless I can say all things, and some of it is bad. Some of it is quite bad. I cannot talk about one half of my spiritual experience without including the other. I want to be able to write why I stayed LDS so long in spite of massive misgivings and conflicts of conscience, and I want to write about how compelling the thought is of completely walking away – without having anyone weigh in on the matter. I want to write about the feeling of being caught in the middle. I’m not sure how to do so, but for the first time I’d at least like to attempt it.

Perhaps finally, I am learning to write hard things. I hope so, because I need to, everyone who writes does. I do not want to do it all the time, I admittedly prefer humor and lightness and think I’m better at those. But I am learning the painful lesson of the value of the hard things and though it’s difficult, I’m glad for it.

Weigh in, writers. What made you able to write about the painful, the rough, the unappealing, the unbelievably personal, and the hard?