I buckled my new shoes and checked the mirror. A respectable grey pencil skirt grazed my knees, set off nicely by the happy poppy-red of my cardigan. Titling my head, I fasted the small gold hoops in my ears, then fumbled the clasp of the thin gold chain as I attempted to hook it under the wave of thick, loose curls blanketing my neck. Tiny beads of sweat dotted my nose, and I tried hard to keep my hands from trembling. I was determined.
Coming up behind me, Jon gently lifted my hair and fastened the necklace with steady hands, and kissed the top of my head. Today was the first Sunday in our new ward, and my trembling hands betrayed the put-together exterior. In the eight months since we were married, we had continued to attend church each Sunday in the ward where he had lived for a decade. We had imagined, somewhat naively it turns out, that people would rise above petty gossip and manufactured prejudice and allow their better natures to shine- or at the very least, withhold judgement until their own experience gave them something on which to judge. We were wrong.
To be fair, it wasn’t everyone— it wasn’t even the majority of folks— who took it upon themselves to treat me like Hester Prynne. The last eight months had been a real-life object lesson in the old idiom “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.” I don’t go to church for friends, or for a social life. I didn’t grow up in the Mormon church, and I didn’t even join as a young adult- I was mature, near 30, and already a wife and mother when I was baptized. I have a rich social network and deep, abiding friendships that transcend distance and ward boundaries. I go to church because I have aligned my life and made promises that I will. I go to church to renew my covenants, to think about Jesus, to teach my kids, to serve others, and to find ways to be a better person. I go to church because going is an act of faith. I go to church because some Sundays, that act of faith is all I have to offer.
I knew attending my husband’s old ward was going to be rough. His divorce had been incredibly hostile and protracted, taking literally years— and the threat of a trial— for it to finally be finished. He did everything he could to avoid making a bad situation worse. One of his conscious decisions was refusing to speak ill of or slander anyone. He never shared the stressful and awful details of what was actually happening. Wards being as they sometimes are and human nature being as it all too-often is, people gossiped anyway.
I walked into a ward where, as I was told by leaders, “the well has been poisoned.” The problem was, it wasn’t just me walking into a terrible situation- it was us walking in with my three children, and on alternating Sundays, with our combined five children. One of the problems with salting the earth behind you is that it might end up being your own children who cannot be fed.
Our clergy was kind and supportive. We were asked to please give them a chance, and we did. There were some very kind people who reached out to us, people who invited us over, who included the kids in activities, and who were friendly and thoughtful. But one can only sustain so many tiny cuts before the cumulative damage becomes too much to bear. That moment came down to my children.
When a person allows misinformation obtained through gossip and their disdain gleaned therein to color how they treat innocent children, the gloves come off. The last straw happened when an adult disliked Bean’s behavior and literally picked him up and squeezed him. I was a few feet away around the corner, but aware of Bean’s activity; I was utterly disregarded in this person’s decision to physically discipline my child. Bean ran crying from the person and hid under the sofa in the foyer. I heard what happened from an adult who had witnessed the incident.
Once was bad enough. It happened twice.
We requested our records be transferred that day.
Jon holds my hand tightly as we walk into the new ward. I hope my nerves don’t show. We are both hoping here we won’t feel as though we must wear our Recommends around our necks just to prove we are worth human kindness. All five children are with us this first day, and we are immediately greeted by the bishop and his counselors, who take the time to speak to each of us and each of our children before the service begins.
After the service, the youth leaders immediately introduce themselves and offer to show all the children to their classes. They are so kind and friendly- all five children, including Bean, happily head off with their peers. Jon is still holding tightly to my hand. As we stand near the back of the chapel, people warmly welcome us to the ward, they shake our hands, and smile. I had forgotten what being fellowshipped felt like- and I am suddenly aware of how parched and battered my faith had become, as I feel the simple water of basic kindness filling my spirit.
Jeffrey texts me from his Sunday school class “Mom, there are three other gingers! I like it here. I already have a friend.” That’s a win. Bean stayed in his class the entire time, and didn’t even use his ear-protection. The scout and young women’s advisors both speak to us, and welcome our kids to their programs. Jon and I look at each other and exhale.
There is a knock at the door after church. We are in various stages of changing out of our Sunday clothes, and children are scattered all over the house. It’s the bishop, stopping by to check on us. He spends time talking with each of the kids again, saving Bean for last. Taking his phone from his pocket, he proceeds to talk video games and minecraft with Bean, talking and keeping him engaged. Bean finally bounds off to get some toast, and I feel the water that was filling my limbs earlier suddenly well into my eyes.
I didn’t know how tired I was, how heavy the burden had been, until it was suddenly set down. I don’t go to church for friends, but it also was suddenly apparent, neither can I go it alone. No matter how solid or well my husband holds my hand, fellowshipping is a necessary part of Christian life, and those waters Christ promised us truly are life. And we do, in fact, find it that life in each other.
I’m so grateful to be back.
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel justified in treating someone poorly, or feel God needs help in dispensing judgement or sorrow, I invite you to step back and consider yourself. It’s unlikely you have all— or even a big enough part— of the story to make that call. If you’ve only heard one side, you only possess a fraction of the truth. Consider the words not spoken— they may, in fact, be truer than all the gossip. There is enough pain in life without adding to anyone’s burden.