I was hurt and sad tonight, but this post is not at all to hate on anyone specific or the church at large, even though this is about a very specific conversation I had tonight with someone representing the church. I hope with this post someone in that seat I was in feels understood and heard and I hope someone in the opposite seat as me thinks about things differently.
Temple recommends. Temples are beautiful and I love them. I love the ceremonial aspect of it all and how ‘not in the world’ it is inside those blessed walls and I love to sit in the celestial room. I’ve had so many good experiences and I feel like I’ve grow closer to my Savior when I go to the temple and am able to find peace and comfort when I am super down and sad. I’m grateful I get to go and it’s part of my life to live worthy to be there. The LDS church only allows members abiding by the church rules and commandments and those that can answer the questions of the temple recommend to obtain a pass to enter. These questions are about faith, your commitment to the church, your habits with alcohol and premarital sex, if you’re honest, and other things of that nature. First you meet with the Bishop, the leader over the congregation that you go to, and then you meet with your Stake President, the leader over multiple congregations. Then you have a recommend for a few years before it expires and you go meet with leadership and answer the questions again.
This last 15 months, I have probably only been in the country 4 of those. It’s been crazy and I feel tired and like I just want to eat salads all the time when I’m home (those are hard to safely come by in the third world). When I was in the Philippines this last January, I had already been a lot of places and I was behind back at home. I had a really rough couple days where I was feeling inadequate and unsure about life and work and just all the things – one of those “the world hates me days”. One of my favorite things about being Mormon is the world wide church that makes me feel at home everywhere I go. The lessons are the same in every congregation all over the world. The leader is the same. The buildings are the same. You have an immediate family and help, and it has been such a blessing for me as I travel. I knew there was a temple close by where I was staying in the Philippines, so I went to it that evening, and it was exactly what I needed. More so than anything else, I needed the renewal and peace of the temple and the calm and clarity I immediately felt as I entered and went through the ceremony. While I was there, one of the temple workers pointed out that my recommend was going to expire soon and I made plans in my head to renew it as soon as I was home.
In between the Philippines and my next trip I was in the US of A for only a couple days. One of which was Sunday where I met with my Bishop and got the first part of my recommend. I wasn’t able to get the second part unfortunately, and was really sad about not being able to visit the Fijian temple while I was there. Fiji was crazy with the recent cyclone that hit and it was a busy few weeks. When I got home a couple days ago, I realized that I had somehow lost the first part of my recommend from my Bishop, which brings us to today. Today was fairly hellacious. My main coworker is gone again (we tag team in and out of the country a lot), I have 800 emails (I wish I was exaggerating that), And I have piles of clothes and stuff from the last three trips I’ve taken that I haven’t had time to unpack. (Update* I’m traveling because I work for a non-profit that focuses on aid relief in natural disasters and international development – www.help-international.org – I didn’t think anyone but my mom would read this who knows why I travel… not trying to sound pompous… )
It was a day full of stress, feelings of inadequacy, homesickness for my wonderful mom and dad that always make things better, and the sadness of always being behind. Also no one ever thinks I’m home, so sometimes when I first get home the lack of friendship I feel is also sad, even though I know that’s not really true and I have people in my life that care about me. Don’t Satan and bad feelings just suck? Bottom line, I want to go to the temple. At 6pm I was really sad I didn’t have a recommend and in between doing a million things I stopped by to see if our Bishop was in his office at the church. I was wearing jeans, strappy sandles, and a long sleeve crew cut shirt and I wondered if it was okay if I was there. I had been told that there was institute (a casual dress Sunday school class during the week) going on and I could just stop by Tuesday nights, so I hoped that since I was just going to have him copy things over from the record from my old interview it would be okay. I remember my parents having us dress up for tithing settlement and other meetings with the Bishop, but I just didn’t have time to go change and I was so stressed out and behind and I didn’t feel like it would be a big deal. Luckily he was there! He copied my info over and gave me the first half. We chatted about basic things and he asked me how Fiji was. I don’t get to come to my home/Utah church congregation very often and just feel lucky he knows my name. I was so excited that it worked that when I saw the Stake president’s office open too I asked if there was someone who could give me the second half of the recommend. They ask you the same questions and then sign it and you’re good to go! One of the members of the Stake Presidency whom I had never met said yes and took me to a room so he could ask me the personal temple recommend questions.
We sat down and he turned to me: “Sister Whitehead, I’m glad you are here getting your recommend. Do you know who these questions are from?”
Me: “Umm… God?”
Him: “That’s right. God. God and Christ run the church. They want us to ask you these questions to make sure you are fit to enter Their house. So this isn’t an interview with me or anyone else – it’s with you and God. Do you understand that?”
Me, kind of confused at why he was telling me all this: “Um, yes.”
Him, rather smugly like he had just caught me in a trap: “Do you think you would so casually approach the Savior?”
This caught me off guard. Super off guard. Honestly, I had completely forgotten I wasn’t wearing a dress. I just wanted a temple recommend. I immediately felt incredibly embarrassed as he stared me down. I don’t think I’ve ever been reprimanded for anything ever. I’ve always been a church rule follower and suddenly I realized that all the fluff about this interview not being with him was only to put me in my place where I would feel guilty and bad for what I was wearing as if I didn’t respect Christ enough rather than him wanting me to know this was a symbolic Q&A with God. I thought immediately of my Savior. All of the church movies and posters collided into a vision of Him and I thought about walking into this room to see Him instead of this man. I thought about times in my life when I have symbolically really needed to come to Christ and what a wreck I was at those times and how I never waited to be “dressed up and put back in order” for Christ but came to Him as is. I thought of my Dad. I’ve learned a lot about my relationship with my Heavenly Father from my wonderful relationship with my earthly father and suddenly I felt homesick and sad and remembered how all growing up he always let me know I could come to him. He told me if I messed up, if I got drunk, if I was in a bad place, I could always come to him or call and he would treat me with love and come get me. Although I was a good kid growing up, I had so much confidence that if anything happened and no matter what choices I made, he was there for me. My dad taught me that He was also there for me. This man in this suit didn’t know me. He didn’t know I was barely in the country a couple days and was super behind, going through a lot today, and hadn’t planned on being here, and hadn’t even had time to eat lunch or dinner yet and just wanted to go to the temple in the morning. He didn’t know my relationship with my Savior.
Me: “Yes, I would.”
Him, eyebrows raised and not hiding his shock: “OH! Well…. no one has answered like that before. Most people understand how they should humbly approach the Savior in their best dress.”
I stared at him staring at me and felt so sad for everyone who has sat in an interview and felt judged. Felt like they were being put on the spot and made to feel small, talked down to rather than the accepting, loving community that I know is what Christ would want us to feel. I thought of my friends who have left the church. The ones who feel like the church is against them, that church leaders are offensive and not understanding or caring enough. I felt the pain of people that have sat in the seat before I sat there and tears started to build in my eyes. I remembered stories people have shared with me about not being able to answer questions for their interviews and the anguish it brought them or trying to repent and having a hard time talking to their priesthood leaders. As I started to cry, the man started to look uncomfortable. I stared at him with a few tears starting to creep down my face and then I felt strength. I felt an outpouring of God’s love for me and for the people that would come after me that maybe weren’t as strong or as sure as I was.
Me: “I can come back if you think I’m being disrespectful like this.”
Him: “Oh! Well….No. let’s just go through these.” My tears and solid stare were making him uncomfortable. “You don’t have to leave. I mean, sometimes we make people leave and go change… but since you’re here let’s just do it.”
Me: “No, no I think if you feel so passionately about it I can go and just do this on Sunday when I’m in Sunday dress.”
Him: “No, I’ll just ask you the twenty questions. I’m just doing what I’m told. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty or bad or offend you. In a few questions I’m going to tell you how much God loves you and how special you are.”
Me: “I don’t need you to tell me I’m special. I know God loves me. And I know God loves me whether or not I am in jeans or Sunday best. And I get that there are policies and best practices, and I’m sorry I’m not dressed appropriately but you can’t talk to people like that – it hurts.” And immediately all the feelings I’ve wanted to say to the church leaders I hear in stories that push and hurt people away from the church came out and as I cried I just wanted to help him not hurt people who sat in this seat next. “What are some better ways you could have gotten that point across to me?” We talked about maybe just doing the interview if he wasn’t going to make me go change and then having a loving conversation about it afterwards after we’ve already talked and established a relationship between us. I told him for all he knows I don’t have a skirt or something and he should seek to understand why I’m not in a skirt before he just assumes I’m out disrespecting God on purpose. We talked about maybe just contacting my bishop so he could have the Relief Society touch on it in a lesson and explain the principle. He could have just told me when I had walked into the office that folks needed to be in Sunday best to get an interview for a temple recommend. I told him about my friends and people I know who are leaving the church and how it’s the feelings of nonacceptance that really drive people away. How starting our interview off like that without even knowing me or my situation wasn’t creating acceptance or love or community and how you can get people to change or adjust without telling them they aren’t humble enough or respectful enough etc etc.
I answered the questions and then he handed me my recommend and then I left. I know some of you reading this probably think I’m stupid for going to a temple recommend interview in jeans and then stupid for being upset when they tell me that’s not appropriate. But this was more than that. It was the delivery, the way that things were said, the way I was caught off guard, the way I wanted to walk up and not come back, the memories of other people’s stories, and the sadness I felt when I feel like God let me feel how others may have felt in similar situations. I know that man is probably super nice and someone’s favorite grandpa, and I’m not mad at him. But I guess the take aways are this:
1) It’s a choice to be offended. I felt sad and hurt and I know that we can’t control our feelings, and I feel like I was justified in feeling the things that I did, but we can always choose how we react to our feelings (If I could have said feelings in that sentence again I would have. Feelings.) In the end, I know that what he said and the bad feelings I felt weren’t true. I know God loves me and I don’t really think He cares about small things like jeans vs a skirt. I think He cares a lot more about my testimony. Do I think it is asked of us by our leaders to dress up? Sure. Do I personally believe it matters, no. There are some things I do because I believe that it is eternal doctrine and other things I do because I believe it’s being asked of us right now. Trying to run a church with this many millions of humans all with different weaknesses and needs has got to be hard. Be forgiving of people that they don’t understand the love of Christ rather than angry at them for being harsh and wrong. When you are offended or if someone is saying something wrong, speak up and protect people that may not be as strong as you. I get a few texts a month from Sunday school classes that start, “I wish you were here. You’ll never believe what this human is saying and I know you would stand up and say something.” Be the people to stand up when something is wrong. Tonight I felt embarrassed and upset and I wanted to just leave. But I stayed, felt supported by God, and then hopefully had a conversation with someone who will be talking to a lot more people that may need him to be more kind and understanding than he was with me tonight. Choose to feel and acknowledge your feelings, but also choose to forgive immediately and be strong to stand up for what is right.
2) Church leaders, be more kind. Accept first and then lead. Don’t correct before you know what’s going on. My mother always taught me that you can’t help anyone until you love them first and that has been the truest thing for me to live by. Be patient and kind with people as they work out their repentance and their answers to questions. Don’t say sweeping statements or tell people they just need to pray and read scriptures more and write them off. Seek to really love and understand people and then good changes will happen naturally. Please let people know they can stay in the church and we want them to stay, even if they can’t have recommends or if they aren’t doing things perfect or they have big doubts. We have to be better at building a community rather than a place for people to come once a week to mark it off their righteous checklist.
“36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
For more beautiful temple pics check out: http://www.jarviedigital.com/