For the next several weeks, I attended church when I could. Participation often included lowering my eyes when the bishop or his first counselor walked by and gave me stern “We’re watching you” stares. In some ways the whole business interested me so I wasn’t suffering as much as some might suppose. But given the treatment of these two ward leaders, I did feel somewhat cordoned off. Perhaps that’s why when a prettily decorated invitation to a special R.S. council arrived in my mailbox, in a fit of high irritation, I nearly tossed it. Arthur’s admonition to go to the women of the ward stopped my hand in the act of dropping the note in the trash. I arranged for my husband to let Parish get by without him for one evening while I took Arthur’s words to heart and attended this council.
The meeting proved to be a kind of summit. Including the R.S. presidency, twelve women sat in a circle in the living room in one of the women’s houses. The R.S. president explained that the ward’s homemaking program had died on the vine and that she had called together what she and other members of her presidency identified as “special needs women” to ask what might entice them to attend homemaking meeting.
Musing on how hopelessly complicated my life was, I decided I had nothing useful to say. Other women talked while I turned over in my head thoughts like “I could be home dealing with my own troubles instead of here being asked to deal with someone else’s.” The R.S. president stopped the discussion. “You’ve been quiet,” she said to me. “I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
Out it came. “I have a lot of problems, and if Relief Society can’t help me solve them, I won’t be coming to the meetings,” I said. And other things—can’t remember more than that. Probably, I made disparaging comments about crafts.
At the end of the meeting, the R.S. president thanked me for attending and said, “Don’t be surprised if we call on you.”
Call on me they did. Shortly after, the R.S. president phoned to ask how I’d feel about being called to be the homemaking teacher. Astonished that anyone would ask a woman as desperately overloaded as I was to take on yet another level of work, and not understanding that the homemaking lesson was only a 20-minute affair, I said no way. But later, when I understood that the lesson was short and not often required, I decided that if accepting the call didn’t qualify as “going to the women of the ward,” nothing did. I called the R.S. president back, apologized for my brusque refusal, and said I’d be happy to teach.
The next task was to get through the official extension of the calling, which the bishop’s first counselor made. As we sat in the ward clerk’s office with the door to the bishop’s office open and the bishop in it, the first counselor asked if I would accept the calling to teach the homemaking meeting lesson in Relief Society. When I said I would and thanked him for asking, the counselor went quiet. He stood up and strode into the bishop’s office. “She accepted!” I heard him exclaim to the bishop.
So I didn’t get the translation department job, but I did get the homemaking one. It proved a very good fit, providing the teaching/social outlet I desperately needed while not adding too much to the load I already carried at home. At first, I taught to a classroom empty of everyone except the Relief Society presidency. No problem; I love an audience regardless of how small. I threw myself into the work heart and soul. Occasionally, the bishop or his first counselor sat in on my lessons. Over the following months the room began to fill, sisters bringing other sisters until the flames of the homemaking program roared back to life. I don’t know how much I had to do with this success. The R.S. presidency gave me much of the credit, but who knows why people do the things they do.
Which brings us to the next turn in this story. As the R. S. sisters folded me into their bosoms, stories began surfacing of another woman who had moved out of the ward just before I moved in. If older readers will think back to the late 80s and a turbulent chapter in BYU’s history, they might remember how a group of feminists amassed some influence in the English department. Their sometimes very strong activism placed the university in a dilemma. Some of these women openly challenged church leadership on issues such as the brethren’s conservative views on abortion, on the reservation of the priesthood to the church’s male population, and so on.
One of these women had lived in my ward-to-be. We just missed each other—except that in some very important ways, we didn’t. The second counselor in the Relief Society—I’ll call her Sister L—told me about her experience with this woman. Shortly after having her fourth baby, a boy with a shock of flaming red hair and of whom she was justifiably proud, Sister L went to visit teach the woman in question—I’ll call her Sister S. Sister L announced she was busy with her new baby, and Sister S asked, “So how many does that make?” Not knowing she was walking into a trap, Sister L replied, “This is my fourth.” Sister S asked, “How could you do that to your body?” As Sister L stammered at Sister S’s question, Sister S explained that she planned to leave provincial America to study music in Europe. According to Sister L, Sister S avowed how having children would be an unacceptable obstacle to her pursuing that goal. My friend felt thoroughly devaluated, an essential quality of her character having been demeaned even as she offered it, she thought in friendship. The fact that several months later she still carried in her heart the barb of Sister S’s words told me how deeply this episode affected her.
More stories emerged about how Sister S had disrupted Sunday school classes, challenging teachers and class material, transforming the classroom into a combat zone. Most members of this ward were of modest circumstances, just folks who were working hard at their jobs and in their church callings. They weren’t really equipped to deal with the rhetorical storm that was Sister S.
Hearing these stories helped me piece together what had happened in the bishop’s office that day I went for a temple recommend interview. Because I had a degree from the BYU English department, because I was (perhaps annoyingly) well spoken and had (maybe) an obnoxious amount of confidence, to the blackened, sore eyes of the ward members, I looked like another Sister S. The resemblance was only superficial, but these people were shell-shocked and their judgment impaired. I came to understand that during that anti-interview, the bishop said to me what he wished he’d said to Sister S those months she had walked church hallways enlightening everyone on the meaningless of their beliefs.
One day, as I walked past the bishop’s office, someone inside called my name. I looked in; the bishop had a question about my family’s membership records. As I entered the room, the first counselor emerged from the ward clerk’s office. Seeing me, he said, “My wife says of you, ‘Now that’s an intelligent woman.’” I took this compliment to mean that the fever had finally broken.
As it turned out, my former professors’ guidance proved brilliantly sound, both Arthur’s “Go to the women of the ward” and the mystery professor’s counsel to “submit” to the trouble. Though I don’t think that the women of the ward knew what had happened in the bishop’s office, they came through in ways that went well beyond what I imagined possible. And turning the other cheek instead of fighting my way through and trying to exert control over what I thought of as my situation made it possible for others involved—not just the bishop and his first counselor but unseen others as well—to be free. Free of what is their business, but at the very least, I can guess they freed themselves of behavior they probably would rather not have engaged in.
For me, this episode has proven a gift that continues to open itself, a flower of long efflorescence. Nate’s post reminded me of the story, and revisiting it, my thinking about what it means to turn the other cheek turned again. It’s not simply a matter of being long-suffering or submitting passively to abuse as you wait for justice to set matters right. It’s not an act of defiance, a display of “you can’t hurt me” willpower.
Now I’m coming to see turning the other cheek not as a single movement of thought or act of endurance. It’s not “not doing” something–it’s not simply not striking back. Rather, turning the other cheek is full-bodied, long-term engagement in the life of the environing circumstances—a boundless region where lives touching lives extend beyond the visible horizon. Moment-by-moment staying your hand when others lift theirs against you frees some–not all, but some–from the urge to hit again. As it turned out, the bishop’s behavior toward me was not related to anything I had done. At a time in my life when it seemed most unjust, I had the privilege of taking blows for somebody else. But mm, mm, mm, mm! It was an exquisite adventure in faith, in teaching my hands–physical, intellectual, and spiritual–not to hit back or grab, but to let it go. To open my hand and let go, then not limit through expectation that world beyond my grasp that opens wide in response.