excerpt – Why I Stay
“Lord, to whom shall we go?
Thou hast the words of eternal life.
—Peter to Jesus (John 6:68)
Deciding whether to stay in or leave one’s faith tradition is among the most difficult and soul-wrenching decisions a person can face. There are those who feel firmly rooted in their religion for a lifetime; others bolt from a church, temple, or mosque suddenly, impulsively, and ultimately; still others lapse, as Emily Dickinson said of the passing of summer, “as imperceptibly as grief.” There are believers who experience the tension between the impulse to leave and the magnetic pull to stay. Those who experience little or no tension see staying as axiomatic and sail forever on a calm sea of devotion. Others who experience periodic or even constant tension navigate their way on a turbulent sea of faith and reason, of belief and doubt, of individual conscience and institutional devotion. Over the course of a lifetime, a few Saints ebb and flow between the poles of going and staying.
All religions have a problem with retention. Even Jesus had difficulty retaining his disciples, judging from the fast falling away of some followers while he was still alive: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66, New International Version). This is foreshadowed in Jesus’s Parable of the Sower where it seems that more of his seeds (followers) fell by the wayside, fell on stony ground, and fell among thorns than the few that fell on good earth. Even among the latter, fewer still remained fully faithful by yielding “a hundredfold” (Matt. 13:1-23).
There are many reasons why people stay in a religion and many reasons why they leave. Not all reasons for staying are motivated by faith and loyalty nor all those for leaving motivated by faithlessness and disloyalty. That is, some are kept in the fold by fear and some leave out of self-preservation. Some stay because they find holiness in the Restored Gospel; others leave because they find a more holy and hospitable place elsewhere. Many who leave their Church gravitate to other Churches. In an article titled “Faith in Flux,” Patricia Zapor, citing a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, states, “When the number of people who now practice a different faith than that of their childhood is added to those who have moved around among religions or denominations and come back to where they started, nearly half of Americans have changed religions at some point.”
It is interesting to note that many of those who leave the LDS Church (either officially or unofficially) stay emotionally connected to Mormon culture, if not to the Church itself. This is attested by the number of ex-Mormon groups that attempt both to justify their leaving and to persuade others to follow them, including the following:
• Exmormon Foundation
• Ex-Mormons for Jesus
• Mormon No More
• PostMormon Community
• Recovery from Mormonism
There are also those who leave the Church spiritually but not physically, those who leave it physically but not spiritually, and those who try for some accommodation between the two. New Order Mormons (NOM), for instance, encourages members to stay in spite of disagreement over certain teachings and practices.
For those who remain in the Church, there is an inevitable sadness over those who leave. This sadness is compounded when the reasons for leaving are un-Christianlike treatment by Church leaders or members or when the rupture in the relationship was preventable by greater compassion and charity. Part of the sadness is because separation from the body of saints often means a sacrifice of shared intimacy and joy and the conviction that some eternal bond has been frayed or broken, with both mortal and eternal consequences. I suspect that each contributor to this volume has family and friends who no longer consider themselves members of the fold and therefore the authors’ staying is motivated in part by the hope that their faithfulness might ultimately be persuasive to others.
What seems evident from the personal expressions of faith, challenge, and devotion in this collection is that many contemporary Latter-day Saints remain committed to the Church in spite of personal difference or spiritual dissonance over beliefs, doctrines, and practices. For some, like Lael Littke, leaving has been a temptation they have felt on occasion but have successfully resisted; for others, leaving has never been a considered option. As Armand Mauss writes, “I have never contemplated leaving.” Mary Bradford echoes this sentiment when she says, “My first thought is where I might go if I weren’t [Mormon]. The Church is my village and my home.” Although his essay includes reasons why he stays “in spite of” difficulties, Bill Bradshaw says that he remains because he wants to, that he has not had a serious inclination to leave. This epitomizes the view of most thoughtful, faithful Mormons, including those who contributed essays to this collection. Cherry Silver expresses similar sentiments: “I stay in the Church because this is the only way of life that seems real to me.” Her sister-in-law, Claudia Bushman, agrees, saying, “My question is not why I stay in the Church, but why should I leave?” She adds, “I love the Church. I don’t want to leave it. My Church experience and identity are deeply ingrained. It may even come before my identity as a woman. It certainly comes before my identity as an American.”
Greg Prince takes a pragmatic view: “On a variety of levels, the Church learns from its mistakes and continues forward while I do the same. It has its share of problems, as do other Churches, and as we work to resolve, rather than ignore, those problems, we and the Church become better.” Fred Christensen accepts the Church’s problems as a necessary part of enjoying its blessings: “I believe the Church has been a contributing factor to my good life. I am disturbed by much of the Church’s orthodoxy, but I have managed to discount it in the balance. I think there is room in the Church for differing views. At least, I hope others who have views like mine are consoled that I remain, while those whose views are different will continue to tolerate me.” Charlotte England acknowledges that the road was not always smooth in the Church for her and her husband, Gene, but that leaving would have meant “abandoning our core beliefs, which were too deeply embedded for us to forsake.”
A number of contributors feel a strong connection to their pioneer heritage and a religious commitment to their own families. Some are fifth- and sixth-generation Latter-day Saints and feel, as Toby Pingree, that they are “Mormon to [their] bones.” “I stay because of my heritage,” writes Bill Bradshaw, “because of those who came before me to whom I am indebted, because of sacrifices of which I am only dimly aware but which have made life and faith possible.” Some feel a similar hold not only because of an obligation to past generations but also because of a stewardship to current and future generations. Tom Rogers says, “I am locked in by extensive ancestral and familial ties. As a father of seven and grandfather of thirty-seven, I sufficiently appreciate the Church’s blessing to my progeny that I do not want to discourage their attachment to it. I realize that, by itself, this is a strictly pragmatic, subjective, and ultimately inadequate criterion, but I offer it here for the sake of candor.”
Some believers maintain their faith, to use the title of Morris Thurston’s essay, by “Taking the Long View.” Like Thurston, they feel they can make a difference. As he states, “I stay, hoping that my voice and others can help prompt changes for the good, but all the while understanding my own limitations. I know that, like all fallible and imperfect humans, I could be mistaken. However, I also know that it is my Christian responsibility to speak as honestly as I can and as humbly as I am able. I stay because I believe that doing so can make a difference.” Molly Bennion, taking advice from an early conversation with Lowell Bennion, states simply, “I stay to serve and bless and to be served and be blessed,” a sentiment that is in one way or another echoed by all of the contributors.
The essays included here were all presented between August 2003 and August 2010 at the Why I Stay session of the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. Originated and organized by Toby Pingree, whose own essay is included here, this annual session remains one of the most inspirational and popular for Sunstone attendees. The reason will be immediately apparent to readers.
The authors represent people from a wide range of professions—physicians, attorneys, university professors and administrators, entrepreneurs, and independent scholars, as well as poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, and biographers. In terms of Church service, they include ward and stake Relief Society, Primary, and Young Women’s presidents and General Board Members as well as bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, temple presidents, and patriarchs. Mostly, they have a mature faith, one, to use Chase Peterson’s words, that is expressed “with neither smothering insistence nor smug aloofness, with neither blind faith nor blind rejection, with intense individuality, anchored in free agency and a growing appreciation for [a] historic and current debt to many good Church leaders and … fellow Saints.”
In my opinion, one of the most exemplary examples of devotion among contemporary Latter-day Saints is that of one of the contributors, Lavina Fielding Anderson, who is technically no longer a member of the Church. As an excommunicated Mormon, she is, to use her words, “of but not in the Church.” I do not know of another Mormon in the entire sweep of Church history who has remained as faithful in her commitment to Mormonism in the face of a two-decade-long excommunication, especially for what many feel were insufficient grounds for so draconian a punishment. “Week after week, month after month, year after year,” Lavina has continued to attend her local ward and perform the most menial of tasks, which are the only ones permitted by her status. She lists six reasons why she stays, the most important of which is that she sees “the world Mormonly. … [Mormonism constitutes] my people, my music, my mode of prayer, my history, my family.”
I was touched recently in reading Jan Shipps’s account of her own response to Lavina’s excommunication the Sunday following the event. It happened to be “worldwide communion Sunday, the day on which Christians all over the world—no matter how divided in other ways—become one, ritually re-constituting the body of Christ in space and time.” As a lay participant in the Eucharistic ritual in her own Church, Jan, recognizing that her friend and sister Lavina was unable to take the sacrament in her own Church and following the Mormon concept of proxy ordinances, took the sacrament “for and in behalf” of Lavina. As Jan writes, “When death—or excommunication, which is a kind of death—makes it impossible for people to participate in needed ritual acts, the Saints know that a brother or sister in Christ can perform that act for them. Knowing that, I remembered my taking of the bread and wine and understood the concept of participation in rituals by proxy. It comforted me. And I am certain that Lavina was comforted, too.”
The only other non-Latter-day Saint, but nevertheless Mormon, included in this collection is Bill Russell, a member of the Community of Christ Church and long-time friend of Latter-day Saints. Russell, like some of his Latter-day Saint counterparts in this anthology, has wrestled with such issues as racism, sexism, homophobia, and political conservatism within his own faith tradition and yet has chosen to remain actively engaged in the Community of Christ, working for change. He says, “If the Church had not changed its direction, I would not be actively involved in it today. I stayed to become more active today than ever before.”
Russell’s experience parallels that of many other contributors who have found themselves at odds with the Church over such issues as polygamy, the ordination of blacks to the priesthood, women’s rights, the treatment of homosexuals (including, more recently, same-sex marriage), and independent thinking and expression. As Toby Pingree says, such issues “have been and continue to be troublesome to my faith.” While others have found such issues sufficient reason to separate themselves from the Church, many Latter-day Saints, including the writers of these essays, have found a way to hold on to their faith in spite of their differences with the Church and because they also find meaning, nurturance, and joy as members. As Claudia Bushman puts it, “Why would I even think of leaving the Church? I’m happy here.” This sounds ironic after her acknowledgment of difficulties, but she is nevertheless serious. She is quick to add this addendum: “I certainly hope and pray that the Church does not decide to leave me.”
Contemporary Latter-day Saints such as those represented in this anthology have made what theologian Paul Tillich called an “ultimate commitment.” In his essay, Tom Rogers explains that “in all religions, the principle of obedience to God is fundamental. If we are potentially glorious, as the Restored Gospel tells us we are, it is also true that we are infinitesimal in the scheme of our Creator’s grand universe. This paradox requires that, should we sufficiently believe it, we no longer have a choice about our future” and need to submit fully to whatever God intends for us.
Many contributors have played roles in building up the Church away from the central stakes of the Mormon Corridor, finding dynamic opportunities to expand their faith in other regions of the United States and on other continents. As one Latter-day Saint serving a mission in Eastern Europe expressed it, “When you’re working in a primary way with the basic principles of the gospel and with people who are learning them for the first time, there is little room or luxury for criticism or negativity.” There is also room to find one’s way without the expectations imposed on people in the Mormon Corridor. Grethe Peterson writes:
Many of my spiritual guides and teachers have been outside our Church. … The wisdom and goodness of these women deeply touched my soul, changing me forever. Much of my growth has been the result of turning inward, of getting to know my soul and heart connections, separating ego from true belief. To know that God the Eternal Father, our Mother in Heaven, and our brother Jesus Christ are my mentors, and my strength, keeps me hopeful and moving forward. My life experiences have taught me the beauty and value of diversity. We may not look or think alike, but we are all God’s children. We are all equal before our Lord, so our ability to reach out to one another brings us closer to heaven.
Being involved in the conversion of other people can also further solidify one’s own commitment. As a Church patriarch to “the vast territory of Eastern Europe,” Tom Rogers adds, “Each time I travel abroad on this assignment, I witness the transformation in the lives of those I interview which, as they frequently testify, took place when they acquired a testimony through the Spirit’s transcendent power.” He says that “their determination to exercise the discipline necessary to change, often dramatically,” strengthens his own belief.
Many contributors feel that they show their love and devotion to the Church when they seek to improve it, to see it more perfectly reflect the gospel of Christ. The pursuit of that ideal has sometimes elicited criticism from fellow members and drawn official and unofficial censure from Church leaders. This can leave one feeling isolated and lonely. Nevertheless, most find fellowship in their local congregations. As Armand Mauss states, “I know that outside of my immediate family, my ward community cares more about me and my wife than does any other community in the world.”
In Mormonism, as in any religion, there are markers of devotion or, perhaps one might say, orthodoxy—signs and symbols, formulaic phrases, communal rituals that generally indicate a person’s unquestioned involvement with and acceptance by their religious society. For example, Mormons are famous for declaring with absolute certainty, “I know,” but there are some who, in spite of a lifetime of seeking, are unable to speak such words. Karen Rosenbaum says, “I have never been able to say ‘This is true’ about spiritual life in general or about Mormonism in particular. Despite decades of immersion in Mormonism, despite prayer and study, I feel I know almost nothing.” Not being able to “bear testimony” in the conventional and particular Mormon way can make one feel marginalized in the Church, especially if one also expresses uncertainty about God and the very nature of things, as does Karen. Her candid insights remind me of Emily Dickinson, who felt out of place in her very Puritan (and very Mormon-like) community. She spoke of her inability to give the expected confession of faith when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, seeing herself as “the only kangaroo among the beauty.”
Most of the present contributors speak of finding something of great value in their lifetime of devotion in spite of periodic estrangement and occasional (or even persistent) discomfort. Some are held by their own faith, others by the faith of family and friends. Some stay in the hope that their continuing activity may result in their being, to use C. S. Lewis’s phrase, “surprised by Joy.” As Karen Rosenbaum puts it in remembering Eugene England’s account of an experience he had while attending a stake conference as a twelve-year-old and feeling “the presence of the Holy Ghost,” “perhaps if I stay in the Church, some day, because I am there, I will be touched in that way. Perhaps I will be able to brush off my warty little soul and will myself to leap to hope and eternal meaning.”
In “My Reasons and Motivations,” Jeff Burton imagines a Church in which no one would ever have cause or wish to leave, a Church in which those things that either drive or tempt people to leave simply don’t exist. It is a Church like one might imagine in the city of Enoch. Burton says, in imagining himself a member of such an idealized church, “I have such a feeling of belonging and being cherished. Why wouldn’t I stay?” One can find elements of that ideal Church in the personal expressions of both devotion and hope in this collection.
In his sonnet, “The Silken Tent,” Robert Frost uses an extended metaphor to characterize the paradoxical tensions and ties that coexist in a loving, intimate relationship. While his poem is about a woman (“She is as in a field a silken tent”), I think it also works for any deep and complex relationship, including religious devotion. The tent is held up by a
… supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul …
The heat of the sun affects the tent so that
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
[The tent] gently sways at ease … [and]
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round …
I believe the contributors to this volume help hold up the tent of faith by a devotion characterized “by countless silken ties of love and thought” and the “supporting central pole” that signifies the sureness of their souls. Whether the Church recognizes and rewards such faithfulness, I believe it is vital to the Church’s future flowering and its ultimate destiny.
“My Leaps of Faith”
by Charlotte England
Growing up in Salt Lake City, my Church, community, and social life were very integrated. Our chapel was a turn-of-the-century building on Emerson Avenue below Fifteenth East. Most of the time, we walked to Church for Sunday school in the morning and then later for sacrament meeting in the evening. We didn’t mind the walk to Church since it was mostly down hill but weren’t always happy with having to climb back up to our house afterward, especially in the summer. Occasionally, when my father hadn’t taken the car to early morning priesthood meeting, we all piled into the Dodge and drove to Church. On Wednesdays we walked the six blocks from Uintah Elementary School for Primary.
By the time I was in high school, we had a new chapel just a block from our home. We all contributed to the ward budget and actively participated in building the chapel. Even we children played our part, helping with small jobs like clearing the field of weeds for planting grass, cleaning the building in preparation for its dedication, and giving our few cents toward the ward budget.
Ward dances were held almost weekly after MIA (Mutual Improvement Association) with Brother Condie furnishing ice cream from his shop. I remember reaching down into the big five-gallon containers to scoop one of our favorite flavors and getting a whiff of something that made me feel a little light-headed—peach brandy. To use Garrison Keillor’s description, ours “was a community of good ordinary people who would give the shirt off their back if needed.”
This was my community. It was there between home and Church that I learned my first gospel lessons and heard the warnings about choosing between right and wrong. I must have taken the lesson on faith quite literally because I tested it when I was about nine years old. I took an umbrella and climbed on top of our garage, opened the umbrella, grasped the handle, and made a big leap.
It was a hard landing. I came away slightly dazed and bruised but not broken. It was literally my first leap of faith and my first realization that a little more knowledge could have spared some bruises and a slightly wounded ego. Little did I know that my life would lead to unimagined adventures, some far beyond the safety and security of the Salt Lake Valley and that I would continue to be required to take leaps of faith.
Over the years I have had to make leaps of several kinds, much different from that of a little girl stepping off the roof with her umbrella. After I married Gene England in 1954, my horizons broadened enormously. With Gene, leaps were more like jumps out of an airplane—with a parachute! For instance, within a few months of being married, Gene and I were called to serve a mission to the Samoan Islands. We sold our car to help cover the forty-dollar-a-month cost for most of our mission. We filled two old trunks with everything we thought we would need for living and some teaching aids for the Samoan children.
A short time later, still newlyweds, we boarded the train at the Union Pacific Station in Salt Lake and waved goodbye to family and friends from the caboose. With us were fourteen other missionaries who were on their way to Australia and New Zealand. Before reaching our destination, we stopped in Hawaii for refueling and supplies and then landed in Suva, Fiji, for a ten-day wait for a freighter to Samoa. As we stood on the dock amid our trunks and suitcases, watching the ship pull away from the dock and leaving us in this strange new land, we looked around and wondered, “What now?”
After surviving what turned out to be a pleasant wait in Fiji, we experienced two rough days on a boat a fraction of the size of the one that had brought us to Fiji. When the boat came to rest on an early morning in the harbor of Apia on Upolu Island, we had our first glimpse of Samoa. We were a little intoxicated by the lush green foliage set off by flashing blue water. The mission president and his wife met us on deck and told us of our assignment, which was to teach school in Vaiola, a village on top of a volcanic mountain on the large primitive island of Savaii.
A few days later a small boat took us to Savaii, where some poorly nourished horses with saddle bags carried us from the coast to the top of the mountain and Vaiola. As we slowly rode up the hill into the dense forest and jungle heat, I felt like I was on another planet. The reality of it all was just beginning to sink in. Was it really faith that compelled me to jump from that garage or was it blind stupidity? It occurred to me that I could use a larger umbrella for the leap we were now about to take. The horse plodded along with a rhythm matching the rhythm of my thoughts as I told myself, “I can do this. I can do this,” not knowing exactly just what “it” was other than learning Samoan and teaching and working with people in the village.
We arrived at the old run-down house built near the turn of the century that we lived in, along with three “cowboy elders” who ran the coconut plantation and tractors and a fourth elder who was the school principal. Gene and I would occupy the home with them for the next six months. We had no electricity, and our water came from a barrel that collected rainwater from our roof. During the following weeks and months, my silent mantra was, “I can do this. I really can do this.”
We settled into our teaching routine, worked with the branch members, and visited people in an even more quaint nearby village where swallows swooped down around the fales, or Samoan houses, at dusk. It created a most peaceful setting that I am always reminded of when I see swallows at sunset.
We studied the language each morning, combining it with our scripture study by translating the Pearl of Great Price from English to Samoan. We scrubbed our clothes on a wash board and draped them over the bushes to dry. Gene fashioned an ironing board out of a piece of wood and then, as I ironed on one end with a kerosene-powered iron, he anchored the other while reading to me. Thus, he got a freshly-ironed shirt while I got to hear poetry, wisdom from Lowell Bennion, or the Pogo comic strip.
We also managed a make-shift first aid station using the few resources we had to bandage and disinfect boils and minor wounds or larger ones from encounters with wild boar. Constantly, there were new challenges that kept us mindful of why we were there and pushed us to find creative ways that worked for the benefit of the Samoan people, whom we had come to cherish.
A couple of months into our teaching, Gene contracted a rash on his hand, possibly an allergic reaction to the chalk we used at school. I tried to clear it up with the remedies we had, but what seemed a simple irritation soon developed into a serious infection. When small blisters formed, I bathed his hand in a solution that I hoped would keep the infection from spreading. One morning when he didn’t feel up to teaching and I was changing the dressing before leaving to take care of our classes, I turned his hand over to find two red veins going up his arm to the lymph nodes, indicating that he had blood poisoning. Realizing the seriousness of his illness, I said to myself, “This can’t be. Not here. Not now. So far away from a doctor and a hospital.” The sunny world we were still adjusting to suddenly turned dark and overwhelming. Everything—the decaying house, the lush jungle, the village, the people—was suddenly foreign to me. I asked myself, “What are we doing here?” I was looking for direction, perhaps a voice to tell me what I could do to make it all better. I begged, “Please dear God, please don’t leave us here alone.”
Fasting and prayer took on a much greater significance over the next three days as I somehow found the strength to take care of everything that needed attention, to be with Gene every spare moment, hoping and praying for a miracle, and to also fill in at the school and fulfill our obligations to other people. I drew on all the resources available. The gruff-speaking cowboy elders and principal gave Gene a blessing. A woman in the village who was considered a healer came to offer help. By the third day, I woke up after having fallen asleep by Gene’s side and saw that the treacherous red lines had faded. I realized Gene would live. It was like a brilliant light shining into a dark space and I felt my burden lifted. My tears were joyous and probably a little hysterical, but I made no apologies. We were reminded of this experience for many years afterward. As Gene reported, “About twice a year (at no regular times) for the forty-five years since then, my finger has developed tiny, irritating sores, and I remember the wound and the healing.”
Our lives followed a pretty routine path for a few years after our mission because we moved several times for military service, school, and jobs, finishing degrees and having six children along the way. We also renovated an old Victorian house in Palo Alto that we were content to stay in for the rest of our lives. We had close friends there who were like family to us. Their children and ours grew up together like cousins. It was a good place to be and there were lots of reasons to stay, mostly for the community of friends and the support we felt there.
We took another leap of faith when, along with a small group of dedicated friends, we helped launch Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. We soon found that many of our fellow Saints were hungry for intellectual discussion of gospel subjects. One early reader wrote, “Reading Dialogue was like finding water in the desert.” We even had the support and participation of some general authorities as well as our stake president and mayor of Palo Alto, the future apostle David B. Haight, who saw the need for the journal and encouraged our efforts.
Support increased as Gene responded to invitations to speak about the journal to groups in the bay area. The audiences were a mix of subscribers and readers and some who were just curious to see what kind of creature the man might be who was behind such a venture. Some came prepared to attack the journal and the person responsible for it. Generally, it didn’t take long for people to realize that Gene was a faithful Latter-day Saint, not a wild-eyed radical, as some people supposed, out to undermine the Church.
Our life in Palo Alto ended with a phone call from a former colleague of Gene’s inviting him to teach at St. Olaf ’s Lutheran College in Northfield, Minnesota. This was another big leap, but different from that first one we had taken sixteen years earlier as two young twenty-year-olds in Samoa. This time there was more conviction to the words still sounding in my head, “We can do it. We really can.” With help from friends, we packed, rented a U-Haul truck, and said goodbye to the old Victorian house we had put so much of our lives into. Gene turned Dialogue over to the capable hands of Bob Rees, and we headed for Minnesota.
We moved into a faculty house near the college and were still unpacking when I received a call from the mission president’s wife in Minneapolis. (You’ve got to say one thing for the Church, they know how to find you!) She asked me to do something that was far beyond my experience, which often happens in the Church. A recently deceased elderly sister, after living severely crippled and bed-ridden for years in the Odd Fellows Home in Northfield, had made a re- quest that she be buried in her temple clothing. The mission president’s wife asked me to attend to the matter and dress the body. I suppressed my urge to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Instead, I suggested that there must be someone who did this sort of thing better than I could and who would be more comfortable doing it. I couldn’t manage the words to express my own fear of death. She made it clear that I was that someone and suggested I bring one of the other three sisters from our little branch to help since that would give them an opportunity to serve as well. I called each sister and each refused. A little later, one of them, Jean Jacobsen, called back to say she would do it.
We were both a little frightened as we approached the room where the body lay on a table covered with plastic. After a prayer asking for support in this ritual that was far beyond the realm of our experience, we carefully started dressing the small body and, as we did, tried to imagine what her life might have been like before she was no longer able to care for herself and had to depend on others. We imagined her with little children, cooking meals, caring for her home and family. By the time we finished, my fear of death was gone and I felt a kinship with this woman whom I had never met in life. Dressing the body with my new friend Jean created a bond that has lasted these many years.
This was another jumping-off experience for me. I again learned the strength that is found by taking on a request that can be frightening. When we’re asked to serve, we don’t always get to choose our calling or the people with whom we work, but the sweet surprise comes when friendships develop with persons I may not have chosen from the crowd.
At times the very community in which I find support and strength challenges my faith to the degree that I’m tempted to shut down and not ask hard questions. I see life as one long conversation in which we are responsible for the degree of engagement we choose. I figure this life is a continuation of our experiences in our pre-mortal life. We come to this life with gifts and talents we are charged by God to employ as we continue to discuss with ourselves and others what we will do and why. I think it is important to include other people in our conversations, to listen to what they say in a caring and non-judgmental way, and to appreciate the contributions they make to our communities, utilizing the gifts that God gave them.
During a conversation about a topic that required more than a pat answer, a friend once remarked to me, “A troubled belief is not the same as disbelief.” Her words comforted me at the time and have many times since when my personal beliefs have taken a beating and I have been unable to find the peace I had experienced in Samoa and Northfield. I have always operated on the assumption that intelligent people can discuss anything of consequence by seeking clarity and understanding and finding mutual acceptance even if they don’t agree.
Gene and I found our faith challenged later in our lives by the behavior of people in positions of power in the Church. I saw a contradiction between their behavior and the principles they espoused, and their actions directly affected us and our family. During some of these trying times, friends and associates wondered why we didn’t jump ship. While I understood why they would think that, for us, such an action would mean abandoning our core beliefs, which were too deeply embedded for us to forsake.
The most profound crisis of faith I have faced in my life, the one that caused me to examine where I stood on the question of staying or leaving, came during Gene’s illness and death. The night I took him to the emergency room, I sat by his hospital bed waiting for my children to gather, pleading with God as I had forty-eight years earlier in the jungles of Samoa, asking once again for a miracle. The difference was that now we were in a hospital with skilled physicians and all the advantages of modern medicine. As I looked around, I wondered, “How does faith work with all this knowledge and technology?”
I regret that I didn’t think to save a lock of Gene’s hair when I kissed him before they wheeled him into surgery. Radiation erased the little bit of hair that was left after surgery. Throughout our married life, whenever we traveled, I loved reaching over to brush my hand through his thick brown hair. Such a small pleasure among so many of the little things between us that I miss these days.
Priesthood holders gave Gene blessings that were full of promises. The bishop told me after his blessing that he felt sure that Gene would recover and do his greatest writing. I desperately wanted to believe him and pinned my faith on his and others’ words. I marveled at the devotion of our children, each with his or her particular gift of tender care for their father. To the very end, we hoped for a miracle. When Gene died, the world felt alien to me and I could not find a place in it. I was fortunate not to be given the usual clichéd reasons for Gene’s death. For me, there was only one explanation: he had acquired a hideously aggressive tumor that grew faster than it could be cured.
Because of that experience, I see God as a being who is nearby and knows and understands our grief. I imagine that He is pleased when we exercise faith and choose to face our trials and learn from them, just as when we watch our own children find their way, making choices that are sometimes painful to us but yet grateful they keep trying after they stumble.
How can I say that I’m grateful for these experiences when I miss Gene so much, when I no longer have his hand to hold, and when I have to take yet another leap of faith in order not to waver? I am consoled by a feeling that he still tries to reach out to me, to take a leap of faith right along with me. One such incident occurred about three months after he died when I got a call from a woman named Phyllis asking me to teach a class on art appreciation at Elderquest, an extension of UVSC. I turned her down. She called again and I explained that I wasn’t fit to teach anybody because I couldn’t concentrate or even care to make the effort to think about anything of consequence.
She didn’t give up. Neither did my children, once they learned of her invitation. Between pressure from Phyllis, who I later learned was a grief counselor, and my children, I finally gave in and took the job. I dug out my old art history notes, pictures, and anything that would help the class understand and appreciate works of art. Through this and other experiences, gradually I was able to work my way out of the deep, dark hole I was in after losing Gene and start creating the new life that I would live without my dear Gene.
I will never forget the morning of my first class as I carried my heavy folder with lecture notes and illustrations through the senior center to the room assigned to me. As I took a deep breath and told myself, “This is it! You’re on, kiddo!” I felt, just before entering the room full of people, that a rather firm but gentle shove from behind pushed me across the threshold. I think Gene was there, helping me take my next big leap of faith.