On April 5th, I stood with devout Mormon women from across the globe who’d gathered to the Tabernacle for the chance to ask their prophet a simple question: “Will you ask God if there’s room for us, too?”
I was cold. We’d been pelted with hail during our silent procession from City Creek Park to the gates of Temple Square and when I had tried to yank an umbrella from one of the many women who’d had the foresight to bring one along, her kick to my groin put hail stones in their proper perspective. I suspect she’d been a feminist for many years.
I was cold. We were all cold. But I was a man, and as a man I’d be let into the Priesthood Session of General Conference where it was warm and my groin would be safe from feminists asserting their right to keep and bear umbrellas. I toyed with the idea of waltzing in, past these women who’d come from all over, and claiming my birthright. But I was there to support them, to stand with them. Plus, the sun had come out.
We formed an orderly line that wrapped 3/4 of the way around the Tabernacle. Our group had entered Temple Square reverently, yielding to passersby, and now each women waited patiently for her turn to ask the usher for admittance. I would later be appalled to read the Church’s Public Relations statement misrepresenting the tone and tenor of the event, but the particular woman dispatched by Headquarters to meet each woman at the door couldn’t have been more gracious as she denied their requests. She listened. She held their hands and looked deeply into their eyes as each woman shared her commitment to the Church and her faith that God may be willing to let them participate as equals in Church leadership. With her profusion of coiled copper hair, and a speck of imagination she could have been Merida from Brave. Perhaps at any moment she’d sweep back her cloak, revealing the stout bow she’d use to fend off any male resistance as she granted this band of fellow women safe passage into Priesthood Session.
But if she had a bow, she kept it stowed. Well, a hero anyway. When the security men grew impatient, she insisted on staying until she had heard the request of every single woman, individually. I have no idea if this woman agreed or disagreed with Ordain Women’s mission, but that evening “Merida” fulfilled her own baptismal covenant to “comfort those who stand in need of comfort.”
Still, there were hearts breaking. Most of the woman had hoped—against all probability—that by standing in line, by demonstrating their own sincerity, the Church leadership would make room for them that night. It was the previous prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, who’d first prompted this desire to faithfully declare their readiness for the priesthood. In 1997, a question had been posed by a reporter: Could the policy of denying the priesthood to woman someday be overturned, as it was for blacks two decades earlier? “Yes,” President Hinckley answered, without equivocation, “but there’s been no agitation for that.” So now, like Dr. Seuss’s minuscule Whos, these Mormon women were saying, in effect, We are here. We are here. We are here.” Would a Horton hear them? And if so, would their collective voice be summarily dismissed or earnestly considered?
The irony is, contrary to the general perception among Mormons that these women evidently lack faith as well as a fundamental testimony of how the Church “works,” it seems to me these women understand better than most of us how it works. They understand that the Church’s greatest strength is its claim to receiving continuing revelation. They understand that the Church is bound neither by scriptural precedent nor by tradition. What was once considered doctrinally binding is overruled in light of new revelation. An awareness of Church history reveals a pattern of radical and dynamic change as doctrines are abandoned, policies overturned, and new revelations replace old ones. Yes, they understand that only their prophet is invested with the authority for such pronouncements, but it’s with that conviction that they are asking that same prophet to earnestly approach God on their behalf.
Some have harshly criticized Ordain Women for this, but anyone who believes it is wrong to ask the Prophet to “inquire of the Lord,” might benefit by revisiting that body of revelations known as the Doctrine and Covenants, nearly each page of which came forth because the early Saints importuned Joseph Smith to discover God’s will on subjects great and small. Not everyone was pleased with the answers the founding prophet came back with, but there was no shame in asking. That was the point of having a prophet. “Inquiring of the Lord” used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism. That spirit has been eroded, replaced by the comforting fiction that we somehow have all the answers. While this “A Bible? A Bible? We already have a Bible” mentality may be reassuring, it is ultimately a retardant to spirit growth, both personally and institutionally.
The openness to receive new ideas can come only when we are willing to let go of old ones, when we recognize that our apprehension of Truth is incomplete. Faith operates on the principle that we don’t know for certain but are nonetheless willing to act, despite our imperfect understanding. My Buddhist practice enjoins a frank recognition of our limited understanding and the willingness to learn from others. A passage from The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, avowed by those about to be ordained into Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Inter-being, reflects this ethic:
We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions. . . . We are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to . . . being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom.
Compassionate listening? Deep looking? Being open to others’ experiences? When we form a community, these are the gifts we freely share. It fosters love and unity. As I stood with these women last Saturday, it wasn’t because we shared the same belief about Priesthood ordination. Truthfully, my opinion on the subject is too nuanced and tentative to explain here, and besides, my own opinion isn’t relevant. I was standing with them because they were my sisters. I’d made a covenant to stand with them. Because they’d been scorned, because they’d been ridiculed, because they were being despised, oppressed, beaten up in the house of their friends. I went to offer my presence, my heart.
But it turns out that I was the one who was inspired. In these women, I found heroes worthy of the next generation of Latter-day Saints. I saw the questing spirit burning bright, and courage marching like a pride of lionesses.
Speaking of heroes, I’ll wrap up with something fun. Before I’d left my house to drive up to Salt Lake, my wife extracted a promise from me that I wouldn’t end up on the evening news. (Yes, these are the conversations we have whenever I leave the house with that . . . look in my eye.) So when the camera crews showed up at City Creek Park, I stayed out of the way. When newspaper reporters pulled out notepads and asked attendees to comment on their involvement, I slipped into the shadows. But after the event was over, and people were dispersing, I happened to be waiting for the light to turn so I could cross the street from the Temple of the Lord to the Temple of Capitalistic Excess known as City Creek Mall. Kate Kelly, one of the leaders of the Ordain Women movement, was wrapping up a media interview. I lingered for a minute, out of view, until the reporters had finished.
Maybe it was because I’d felt so hopeful on Temple Square, with its fields of yellow tulips springing up, and the perfume of hyacinths, that now, leaving, I sensed a fatalistic gloom come over me. More to shake off my own disappointment than anything, I turned to Ms. Kelly as she was stepping away from the cameras and shouted the following:
“Thank you for giving my daughters heroes!”
I brought my hands together in the lotus position I’ve come to associate with deep reverence. Then I turned to go. But suddenly there was a flurry of motion. Someone with a camera turned towards me, and a man with digital recorder swooped in. “What did you mean just now?” he pressed. “Do you agree with the Ordain Women movement?” It was so quiet. I don’t know if these people were from a network, or if they were independent documentarians or what. My wife’s plea rang through my head: Please, Lon, whatever you do up there, just don’t get yourself on the news. My mouth had opened to respond, but it just stopped, mid-glottal. Lamely, I brought my hand up to cover the camera, like a politician fallen from grace, and slinked away.
That night, as my wife was idly scrolling through the Ordain Women Twitter feed on my phone, I was recounting how, in deference to her wish for me to lay low, I had refused to elaborate on my spontaneous expression. Not half a minute later, she said, “Oh my gosh, look at this.” She held up my phone. The tweet, from Rolf Straubhaar said:
Favorite quote from a passing man: “Thank you for giving my daughters heroes.”