Because we are on a vacation, I naturally decided that I didn’t want to go to all three hours of church and that it was OK to break certain rules that we normally keep. For example, I wanted to go to the store Sunday morning to buy a new shirt for my ever-growing son.
Wendy had different ideas.
I like to think that I’m usually more like Wendy, that I live my values because I believe them sincerely and not just because they are my routine. I hope that, on most trips, I’d be just as likely to say that we should still keep our Sabbath day sacred and attend all of church and find ways to serve even if we on are vacation.
But this time I was the weight and she was the buoy.
I’m in a funk. Work has been hard. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself. Turning 40 this year has been more difficult than I thought it would. I don’t know why I suddenly have ear hair. What’s that about that?
And, to be honest, I’m still struggling with a new church policy regarding gay families in the church. That struggle was inflamed this week when the subject drew additional attention through a couple different talks that were given by different church leaders.
What do you do when you disagree with your own church on a significant issue? Do you protest? Do you submit? Do you wait and see? Do you pray for change (in yourself or in the body of the church)?
For me, because I’m a coward, I just avoid it. I read or daydream during church. I avoid conversations about the topic. And, when I’m on vacation, I don’t go to church.
Fortunately, Wendy wouldn’t have it. She firmly—gently, but firmly—informed me of how important it was to her to go to all three hours of church today and shared that, even if Isaac was outgrowing his current shirt, it still fit well enough, and replacing it didn’t seem like nearly a good enough reason to shop on Sunday.
So we went to church.
And I’m so glad we did. It was the best church service I’ve attended in months. Maybe in years.
Right when we went in and took our seats, I was delighted to look up on the stand and see Brother Don Harwell, a friend of the family and the father of four kids Wendy used to babysit.
Brother Harwell has also had a huge spiritual influence on me and my testimony of the Gospel. He is the President of an official Mormon organization named Genesis Group, which was set up in the 1970s as a support for black members of the Mormon church who were at that time disenfranchised by their own faith. They were unable to fully participate in temple ordinances or to hold the priesthood, despite full worthiness and strong testimonies until the policy was changed in 1978.
At the time, there were all kinds of theories about the origin of this strange exclusion. They ranged across a spectrum from naive wrongheadedness to hateful prejudice. But at one time or another, I certainly heard each of these pet theories preached to me as unassailable doctrine in one official setting or another.
Today, there is no question about these old ideas. They've been formally disavowed: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past….Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
I’m comfortable with all this history, even as unpalatable as it is. It all worked out. And it doesn’t really shock or surprise me any more than having an older relative saying something crazy at Thanksgiving. But I’ve always wondered how I would have dealt with if I’d lived through it. Would I have stayed faithful in the Church? Would I have left? Would I have stayed and seen it through like my own family did despite their own misgivings?
Years ago, I asked Brother Harwell about this at a church picnic. How did he have enough faith to have joined a church that didn’t embrace him fully? How had he managed to stick it out through the transition? What about now? Wasn’t it still hard?
“Yes,” he said. “It’s hard. I’m beset on all sides. I have Mormons who hate me for being black and blacks who hate me for being Mormon.”
Then he looked kindly at me with a wisdom I still aspire to and asked, “Rick, do you believe that Jesus Christ is at the head of this Church?”
I answered that I did.
“Then don’t worry. Everything else will work out.”
I remembered that moment as we sat down today in church and I looked across the room at Brother Harwell’s smiling face. As a coincidence—the kind of coincidence that makes you stop believing in coincidence—we opened the meeting singing Bruce McConkie’s beautiful hymn, I Believe in Christ.
I thought about Brother McConkie. Nobody alive in the 1970’s was a more specific or authoritarian proponent of those old theories about race that have since been discarded. But it’s also true that, when the change came, no one was more vocal about having been wrong:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.
I can honestly say that I don’t understand very much at all about the Gospel or about the Universe. I certainly don’t understand some practices or opinions I encounter. And I continue to find myself at odds with a policy that my church enforces, and most especially with the way it’s sometimes described by some people in the church.
I’ll continue wrestling with it and sometimes being brave enough to say so. They’ll continue defending it. And someday down the road, I’m sure we’ll find that I was wrong all along or that they were or that we were both wrong but in different ways. When that time comes, I hope we’ll all have the humility and grace that Brother McConkie had.
And until that day, I do believe that Jesus Christ is real and is at the helm. So I’m confident that everything else will work out.