8/18/16

Memoir Day 1: I Remember When


Thinking about the lovely illustrations by ellensurrey & lorislora today

I remember my cassette player with a cassette of Fiddler on the Roof. I would strap on my roller skates, put on my headphones and skate around the courtyard in our Alhambra apartment. I remember getting lost in the music, in my own little world.  

I remember when I would sit on my bed by the window in our house in Covina and listen to the radio. I especially remember listening to  Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and You Gotta Be by Des’ree. I had my own little alarm clock radio that I loved. I would listen to love songs imagine what my life would be like in the future. I loved my bed too. The headboard had little cubbies where I could keep my books and keepsakes. I shared the bedroom with my three younger sisters, two in the bunk bed and one in a crib. We were crowded, but the bed was my space. Space has always been something I needed, a little bit of somewhere that was my very own where I could read, think and listen to music.

Day 1 Prompt: “I remember when”. Set your timer for eight minutes. Go somewhere quiet and get out your writing utensils. Write “I remember when” at the top of your page and start writing. The rules are don’t edit/censor yourself. Don’t worry whether what you’re  writing is good or bad. Don’t worry who might read it. Just write whatever comes into your head. Try not to think too much. If you get stuck, write “I remember when” again and try something new. Go the full eight minutes without stopping. If you want to keep going, great. If not, great. If you feel like it, comment about how it went. Happy writing!

To join the memoir writing group and view the daily prompts, go to anndeeellis.com.


7/20/16

Beginning Again

In recent months I have kept my distance from the Book of Mormon, torn between the memories of power, love, and knowledge I found it the book’s pages and the distaste left by my recent faith journey. How does this book, the origins of which have become more, not less, shrouded in mystery, fit into the new narrative of my life. Do I still believe the Book of Mormon to be an actual historical account? If I do, how do I reconcile the many historical inconsistencies and inaccuracies? If I don’t, then does the book still hold any meaning for my current and future spiritual life? Can I trust the product and promises of a prophet whose infallibility in my life has shattered into pieces?

Try as I might, I cannot put these questions to rest. Like my children, they keep me up in the night, asking to be acknowledged, to be fed, to be comforted and held. In my soul I know that these questions, and more, are central to my journey to claim my own Mormonism, my own relationship with God.

Li Zijian - Fairy Tales:
Credit: Fairy Tales by Li Zijian

As a child I was immersed in love my mother has for the scriptures, mostly the Book of Mormon. The stories and doctrines of the book were part of our everyday lives. I learned and modeled that love for scripture and consider it one of the most precious gifts my mother has given me. I was the child who, in Sunday School, always knew the answers and could always tell the scripture stories. As I read, learned, and grew, I developed personal relationships with the characters in the scriptures. I loved “likening” the scriptures to my life.  

I arrived at the MTC with scriptures marked, corresponding to the missionary lessons contained in Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual that would become like another book of scripture to me. Through the course of my mission I read and re-read the chapter in Preach My Gospel, “What is the Role of the Book of Mormon?” This chapter explains how the Book of Mormon is not only a powerful witness of Christ and an essential part of an individual's conversion, but that it is literally ‘true’ in every sense of the word. Missionaries challenge investigator to pray to know if the book is ‘true’ and make powerful promises regarding the outcomes of those prayers.

In fact, the text sets up what I now see as a spiritually precarious dichotomy with an excerpt from President Ezra Taft Benson’s book A Witness and a Warning: “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church. But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon be true—and millions have now testified that they have the witness of the Spirit that it is indeed true—then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it”   

Faced with such all or nothing declarations from church leaders, what happens when an individual loses faith in some basic truth claims, as I have? Must I necessarily reject everything else about the gospel that I love? Does the whole value of the Book of Mormon rest on its literality? I fear this is a dilemma many face today. We were taught, as Armand Mauss explained in his book The Angel and the Beehive, “to take a literal, proof-texting approach to scripture study, and to believe that loyalty means blind acceptance of whatever leaders have ever preached.” This leaves us, Brother Mauss believed, “highly susceptible to disillusionment, either from anti-Mormon critic in other religions or from secular sources. For people taught to think this way, each new anomaly discovered … becomes a crisis of faith.”

As I ponder these questions of truth and value, I am reminded of an article by President Boyd K. Packer in the journal BYU Studies, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” often used by critics to illustrate their perception of the church’s suppression of honest inquiry. In the article President Packer shares his belief that, “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” I have never felt comfortable with this position as it seems to contradict other church teachings about the supreme importance of truth in our eternal journey toward exaltation. I have turned this idea over and over in my mind and finally settled on a subtle but radical reordering of President Packer’s sentiment. I have to believe, for the sake of my faith and soul, that not everything that is useful is true.

Francine Van Hove:


I aim to embark on a study of the Book of Mormon, to go deeper both in the text and in myself than I have done in the past, looking for what is of value, what I can hold on to. I have of course, the book itself but I’ve also placed a bunch of books on hold at the library and filled up my podcast queue with episodes on different facets of the Book of Mormon. I hope that by prayerfully studying not only the source, but other’s words, I can come to some peace and clarity about who and what to believe. I am putting my trust in the words of the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants, that for those of us who feel like we are lacking in faith, we may “seek diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study and also by faith.” I only hope that when I find myself I will also find that there is still a place in Mormonism that will welcome me.         

3/7/16

Expectation vs Reality

A quick google search of Expectation vs Reality yields countless videos about the hilarity that exists in the space between what we believe will happen or what we will achieve and what actually occurs. According to these videos, action movies, boyfriends, high school, Halloween costumes, and summer break are just a few of the experiences that fail to live up to the high hopes of the teenage girls who seem to love making these videos.   
Disappointment is the feeling of unhappiness we experience when something doesn’t fulfill or hope or expectation and teenage girls aren’t the only ones who experience this feeling. Parents often experience this "space between."


I recently read a book called, “Parenting With Presence” by Susan Stiffelman. One of the exercises in the book asks the reader to consider their frustrations with parenting and the hidden expectations (and corresponding disappointments) those frustrations derive from. Stiffelman explains,    
“Many times we have trouble being attuned with and present to our child because our vision of raising children doesn’t quite match up to reality. It may even be radically different from what we expected, leaving us disappointed, discourages, or even regretful. None of this means we don’t love our children or that we wish we didn’t have them. It just means that we have feelings we need to face rather than sweeping them under the rug. It is our expectations that get us into trouble.”


This exercise forced me to face some uncomfortable realities of what I expected of myself, my husband and my children. I have been working on discovering and adjusting my expectations. This has been a humbling but rewarding work and has allowed me to practice more grace, mercy and presence with my family and myself.


Even though I’ve been working on improving this area, sometimes my unrealistic expectations still get the better of me. This Sunday I sat in the church foyer with my children as the sacrament was being passed. I was worn out and frustrated by the previous hour which had been spent wrestling church clothes on my two boys. The older one, six years old, had asked me, “Mom, do you know why I’m so slow?” He then answered his own question, “Because I want us to be late for church. I like making you late.”


I sat on the couch thinking about how I expected Sunday morning to proceed: a house filled with soft piano music, delicious pancake and bacon breakfast, children happily getting dressed, and arriving early to sit reverently in our pew. A far cry from the yelling and arguing about the necessity of fresh underpants and how long and boring testimony meeting would be.


Then I started thinking about other, bigger expectations that have gone unfulfilled. Unfair expectations I have about who my children should be and what they should love. Expectations I have for myself, for the church and her members, for my family. I realized with heaviness that the problem with expectations, and why some people say they are the root of all heartache, is that no person or institution is perfect. The experience of mortality is one where, as Paul taught, we all “fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Even our righteousness, he said, is imperfect and leaves us all guilty before God.
Sometime between the bead and the water, while I was feeling this heaviness on my soul, I looked up. On the wall across from me was a picture that will be familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time in LDS meeting houses. The painting is one of the Savior’s second coming. He is pictured descending in clouds, over a desert, surrounded by trumpet playing angels.  




Here was one who could be trusted to fulfill expectations. We were willing to come to this earth, this place of sin, mistakes, sickness, and heartache, because we expected Jesus Christ would keep his promise to save us. We expected him to suffer, die, and rise again for us. I thought of him, in the garden, with the weight of all our stupidity, all our meanness, our sickness and suffering, when he cried out to God to ask if there was any other way. I imagined, too, the weight of our expectations. Were we there, in heaven, holding our breath, waiting, hoping, and praying for him upon whom our salvation depended?  


And now we wait for the fulfillment of another expectation, that he will come again. As I looked into his face, with his arms outstretched, my heart ached for that day. I remembered a scripture from the the 62nd Psalm: “My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him … Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.” Here is the one time, the one person, in whom I can safely trust to be true to the expectation of perfect love, mercy, grace, and justice. He will always be there to listen when I call, will always forgive when I stumble, and will always help when I turn to him.
     

2/29/16

The Power of Remembering

In a church with a lay ministry, every Sunday is an adventure. Like that famed box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Usually the sermons are repetitions of General Conference addresses or recaps of scripture stories. Occasionally you get a politically or socially charged topic or a speaker who goes completely off the “safe” script and delves into life details that most would keep private. To those who, like me, may have tender feelings close to the surface, church attendance can be more of a spiritual minefield that a chocolate tasting.


Yesterday, I sat in the pew with my children as we usually do. We sang the hymns, listened to the prayers, took the bread and water. I tried to help them sit quietly while trying to listen to the speakers myself. Our ward had a full program with three youth speakers and two adults. Things went smoothly and predictably through talks of scripture heroes and a sermon on agency. When the last speaker got up, he had only 10 minutes left and hurriedly worked to condense his planned talk, a rendition of a General Conference talk, “Choose the Light.”      


One of the challenges we face, said the speaker, was that of living in the information age where so much is available on the internet. Deciding what is true and uplifting can be difficult. There are those who seek to destroy faith by publishing and sharing criticisms of church policy and past and present leaders. Most of their information is false, especially the claims about how the church uses tithing funds and the claims about things Joseph Smith did. The people publishing this information hide behind the anonymity of the internet and their words are given more import than they should. But, if our faith is strong, if we pray and read our scriptures enough, we will not be overcome by the darkness.  


My first reaction was to feel resentful and insulted. The implications of this brother’s words was that I don’t know what I’m talking about when I have legitimate concerns with policy, doctrine,and history or that I am willfully seeking to destroy faith. He suggested that maybe I just wasn’t praying enough or didn’t have enough faith and that I was being deceived.


He doesn’t know, I thought angrily. He doesn’t know how much I have prayed, coming close to praying without ceasing at times. I have continued to pray when the answers are slow to come. He doesn’t know the time I have spent studying, seeking to find comforting answers, only to come up empty handed. He doesn’t know how hard it is for me to come to church some Sundays when the only thing that gets me in the pew is a desperate desire to believe and a spiritual conviction of where my Heavenly Parents want be to be.


Then I looked up, through watery eyes and saw my bishop. He looked right at me and smiled with immense gentleness. Because he knows me and our family, I think he could guess how the speaker’s words were affecting me. I’m not sure what he would have said to me if we hadn’t been across the room, but he didn’t need to say anything. In his eyes and his smile, for a moment, I felt peace knowing that at least one person knew who I was and loved me just as I am.


I quickly looked away to hide a tear. I thanked God for the moment and asked him to help me to love others this way. I remembered the words of the sacrament hymn we had sung just a few minutes earlier. I thought of the sacrament prayer, and my covenant to always remember the sacrifice of my Savior. I remembered His words, in the midst of pain, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  


I am so far from perfect and make countless mistakes. I am deeply humbled by and indebted to the sacrifice that cleanses me from my sins and makes me new again. I have never known the weight of injustice that our Savior experienced. I have so little to forgive. I needed strength though, help to let go of the pride that told me I was justified in offence. I needed power to turn my heart soft, allowing it to be bruised and healed and bruised again. 

I looked up at the speaker and thought, you know what, he doesn’t know. His lived experience is all he knows. He doesn’t know me or the others like me. The resentment and frustration from feeling misunderstood and misrepresented in such a public forum melted away. As I remembered Jesus Christ and my covenant to try to emulate Him, I was filled with a love and gentle peace beyond my own. 

A mild voice whispered to me, "This is grace. This is Christ's power to change who you are and make you like Him. It happens like this, one small step, one small change a time."

2/20/16

Question Everything

Terry Tempest Williams, quoted in Mormon Women Essential Writings.

2/11/16

My Year In Books, Part Three: A Little Bit of This And A Little Bit of That

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, Travel, Nature



Retreating to nature in order to find oneself is a common theme in literature. Cheryl Strayed’s book follows many of the familiar themes: a wound, a period of losing oneself, a journey of physical difficulty and solitude, and an eventual spiritual and emotional healing. Even though the tale is familiar, there is much to love in this book and I found it comforted and nourished me.   

Cheryl hiked a large portion of the Pacific Coast Trail after her life and marriage fell to pieces after the death of her mother. She was unprepared both physically and emotionally for the stresses and dangers of the trail. Cheryl had to decide very quickly whether to give into her fear and retreat or to face the fear and walk through it. And she walked. And walked. And walked.

I too, have faced times in my life when I realized that I was carrying things I would have thought impossible and found liberation in the realization.
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.”

While I loved the book, there were times when the story wandered and I ended up skipping some pages to move things along.  
Vagabonding: An Uncommon Journey
By Rolf Potts
Non-Fiction, Travel



This book is difficult to explain until you read it. Half travel advice, half philosophy guide, Vagabonding is not easy to pin down. In this quick read, while quoting the likes of Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir, Potts endeavors to explain his approach to long term travel, teaching readers to view the experience “not as an escape, but as an adventure and a passion - a way of overcoming your fears and living life to the fullest.” Vagabonding is a way of engaging in low cost, long term travel with a minimum of planning. The goal is to take life as it comes, to travel slowly or quickly as the occasion permits and not be so caught up in checking experiences off a  list or meeting schedules and expectations.  

Dan and I both loved this book and found ourselves longing to sell our belongings, pack up our little family and travel the world. It didn’t help that while we read this book, some of our best friends were doing just that. I hope that one day we can find the space in our lives to embrace the vagabonding lifestyle.

The Sense of Wonder
By Rachel Carson
Non-Fiction, Nature, Relationships



Rachel Carson, the celebrated marine biologist and conservationist and author of Silent Spring, shares a new and stunning side of herself in these tender and personal essays. In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel relates stories of her adventures with her nephew Roger as he explores the natural world of her home on the coast of Maine.

Rachel uses these stories to instruct adults about the importance of encouraging wonder in the lives of the children under our care.  

“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.”

This is a beautiful book, a quick and soul-nourishing read.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By Marie Kondo
Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Cleaning


“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”   

Many people wonder if reading another book about organizing is worth the time. After all, how much can you say about “tidying” and can you really claim that it is life-changing? Truly, the method Marie Kondo describes is incredibly simple: 1) Imagine, in detail, the life you desire. 2) Choose a category such as clothes or books and gather every article you own in that category. 3) Pick each item up and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” while paying attention to how you feel. If the item does, keep it. If not, get rid of it. The result, if you truly follow the method, is life changing. When you only keep or buy those things that truly bring joy into your life, your life cannot help but change. You shed excess, clutter, and the need to have more things and the results transfer over mentally and spiritually as well.

Not everyone will find it necessary to read the whole book, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the narration while I was cleaning. Although, the notion may seem silly to some people, I appreciated her respect for possessions and how she wrote about our clothes and books having feelings.

Her advice for saying thank you to things that no longer brought joy was especially helpful:

“When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure. To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.”   

By learning to acknowledge the purpose that the item had served, I was able to let go of several things that I had kept out of obligation and not because I loved or used them. I am still working through our things and haven’t come to the point where we only have joy-sparking items. But, we are a lot closer than we were and I feel better already!

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg
Non-Fiction, Women & Business


Guilt. That feeling when we know we have compromised our standards and bear significant responsibility. Guilt can be helpful, motivating us to do make amends for mistakes and do better in the future. However, excessively dwelling on perceived weaknesses and moral failings can lead to depression and resentment. I come from a place where an interesting mix of cultural forces leads many to carry excessive guilt. I fall victim to this mindset more than I’d like to admit. I don’t live up to my parent’s expectations, my religion’s ideals, or my own standards. I have made mistakes that will continue to affect my life for years to come.

I have also made choices that I felt were right for me, but don’t fit a cultural mold that is reiterated regularly. Most glaring, I choose to work full time and enjoy the benefits of full time employment. I felt inspired to take the employment opportunities that were places before me and yet I struggle with guilt and worry about falling short as a mother and as a member of the LDS Church.

Reading Lean In helped me examine my guilt, evaluating what was healthy and signaled needed changes and what I could let go of. The experience was transformative and I felt a great spiritual peace, an inner voice affirming my worth and the path that I have chosen.

Many of my fears were eased by listening to Sheryl Sandberg relate study after study showing that my choice to work wouldn’t lead directly to the destruction of my family. For example, she shared evidence that, “When women work outside the home and share breadwinning duties, couples are more likely to stay together. In fact, the risk of divorce reduces by about half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework.”

Her advice to “lean in” came at the perfect time for me, when I was praying about a possible career change. I was unsure of what to do with this opportunity to transfer to a more technical role in my company’s IT department and overwhelmed at the prospect. I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenges of the new position and was inclined to stay in a position where I had become comfortable. When I read these words, I knew that I needed to take a leap in the darkness and trust that I could grow and adapt to new challenges:
“There is no perfect fit when you're looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is packed full of information, suggestions, and motivation. Sheryl Sandberg is a passionate, intelligent woman. While she doesn’t demand that all women enter the workforce or work toward high level leadership positions, she does want to empower women who are capable and motivated to work toward those goals. She doesn’t want our insecurities or societal barriers to get in the way of women who have the drive to succeed in the business world. She also has a deep conviction that more women in leadership will make businesses and ultimately the world a better place.    

2/3/16

"Doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me?"

Speaking for the LDS Church at an interfaith dialogue in 2008, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, stated “Immigration questions are questions dealing with God’s children. I believe a more thoughtful and factual, not to mention humane approach is warranted, and urge those responsible for enactment of immigration policy to measure twice before they cut. Meet an undocumented person. Come to know their family. If there is a church that owes debt to the immigrant and the principle of immigration it is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[1]

photo credit: Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News

Elder Jensen’s remarks were made in the context of several measures dealing with immigration were being considered in the Utah House and Senate and were specifically directed to state legislators and other government officials. His comments are in line with a 2011 official church statement on immigration. This statement, while discouraging illegal immigration, also stressed that “The bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God” and warned against mass expulsion, targeting specific groups, and enforcement only legislation[2].      

I felt Elder Jensen's’ statement summed up my feelings on the matter and I recently posted his quote on my Facebook wall. As a moderate liberal in a family of political and religious conservatives, I expected some pushback. I am a peacemaker at heart and generally go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially on political matters. The issue of how to deal with both legal and illegal immigration transcends politics, though, and cuts to the very heart of my religious faith and what I believe the purpose of this country to be.

One family member responded to my post with the following comment, “There's an assumption here that people who oppose immigration do so because they are not "humane." If you get to know them, you'll change your mind. First of all, I don't like being called not "humane" based on this person's assumption that I don't know any immigrants. Well he's wrong. I probably know more immigrants than he does. This isn't an argument. It's an insult.”

I’d first like to say that neither Elder Jensen nor I called out any specific person or group as inhumane. There is a difference between saying that our laws and practices dealing with immigration could be more humane, which is having compassion or benevolence, and calling a particular person not humane. It is entirely possible for good, well-meaning people, who are generally humane, to enact or enforce laws in ways that do not result in the expression of the virtues of compassion or benevolence.

Frankly, I am surprised that such a non-specific call for more thought, facts, and compassion in immigration legislation could be construed as insulting. Any important national decision should be made only after taking time to consider facts, history, and the potential impact the decision could have in people’s lives. Many Americans are jumping to conclusions and reactions based on fear, as we have seen recently in the public support for political figures like Donald Trump with his inflammatory remarks that Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” bringing drugs and crime[3] and calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.[4]” Another well publicized example is Tennessee state Rep. Glen Casada, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus in the state Legislature, who called for the National Guard to round up Syrian refugees[5].

“Othering,” is a term used describe the natural human tendency to view or treat a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. This inclination can lead people to dismiss the “other” as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity in both overt and subtle ways. Truth be told, while still worrying, I am less concerned about individual politicians than I am about those I respect and love espousing views that categorically put large groups of people in the “other camp.” For example, I had someone very dear to me confide their fear that “White people aren’t having enough babies. All the Muslims and the Mexicans are going to keep having babies and soon we’ll be in the minority.” A different family member recently commented on Facebook that if Utah admitted any Syrian refugees he would be happy to use his extensive gun collection to forcibly remove them.

This reaction to immigrants is older than the country itself. Benjamin Franklin, writing in 1751, complained of the German immigrants in Pennsylvania, arguing that their politics, language, and culture, and even darker complexion (as compared to English settlers), was distasteful and incompatible. Others of the time objected to the Germans, labeling them as a lazy and illiterate group whose Catholicism and “excessive fertility” threatened their Anglo-Saxon way of life[6]. Other examples of anti-immigration sentiment litter our history: The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Know Nothing political party and more. 

The United States is a country of immigrants and each wave of immigration has raised the same types of opposition in the native born population. This opposition can be generally divided into three categories: concern for personal and national safety, economic concerns, and fear of cultural change. Take, for example, a 2014 Reuters poll which “showed that 70 percent of Americans — including 86 percent of Republicans — say illegal immigrants threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs, as well as jeopardize the economy.[7]” While othering and the fears that fuel the propensity may be a natural and evolutionarily important reaction to the unknown, it can be intensified in unhealthy and unhelpful ways by media, political, and religious figures.

On the other hand, the negative effects of othering can be balanced by facts and empathy. Facts about the history of immigration, current levels, the contributions of immigrants to our society, and security threats can facilitate better immigration legislation that accurately meets the needs of citizens while respecting the human dignity of those seeking to enter this country. For example, understanding that, “Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born,[8]” or understanding the process for vetting refugees may help alleviate fear about immigration.    
 
Neither I nor Elder Jensen assumed that particular people on my Facebook friend list held political views because they did or did not know immigrants. What I was asserting and will stand by is that it is important for lawmakers to recognize their own biases and work to correct them. One of the most effective tools to do this is to develop meaningful relationships and contacts with a diverse group of people.   

At the conclusion of her well-researched book on the state of free speech in America and the consequences of silencing opposing viewpoints, Kirsten Powers told the story of a law school admissions board that chose to reject the application of an otherwise acceptable candidate, a young man from a religious college. They wrote that they don’t want a “Bible-thumping student.” One of the members of that committee reminded his colleagues that his background was similar to the young man’s. Ultimately, the admission committee decided to admit the student.

Powers uses this story to illustrate how personal connection can work to overcome deeply ingrained biases. She notes: “We should all make efforts to invite people who hold different views into our worlds. Contrary to popular thought, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds understanding and tolerance.[9]

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a necessary component of a harmonious society because it motivates individuals to act in ways that are good not only for themselves, but for the group as a whole. Most people, no matter their religious affiliation, can remember times when they almost seemed to feel another's’ physical or emotional pain.

Humans seem wired, whether by evolution or by a divine hand, to empathize most with those they are close to. Mirror neurons react to the emotions we view in others and then reproduce them, in essence allowing us to feel what others feel. It is natural to experience empathy for those closest to us, our family and friends, those who are like us. As Christians, we have an added obligation to seek after empathy, also called in the scriptures compassion, mercy, or charity. We are called to emulate the example of Jesus, who seemed particularly attuned to the emotions of those around him. Recall these touching verses from 3 Nephi, when Jesus told the people he would be leaving them:

“And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.
 And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.
 Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.”


As baptized members of the Christ’s church, we are under covenant to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort[10], in essence to have empathy, not just with those we love, but also our enemies, those who hate us[11], and those we consider the least worthy[12] of our empathy. This is a covenant we renew weekly when we take the sacrament and great promises of spiritual strength are attached to keeping this covenant.

As a friend of mine recently said, "Compassion, not contempt is the source of life that so many of us need. it is the font of living water from which we all can drink and sustain life. That is what I am advocating for. I'm not arguing for or against a particular policy. I'm not advocating lawlessness. I do believe that in order to create a just and virtuous society our most important Christian virtue, without which we are like sounding brass, must be evident in our lives and flow into our laws.

-----

[1] Buckley, Deborah. “Have compassion for immigrants, lawmakers urged.” Deseret News. Feb 14 2008. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/695253048/Have-compassion-for-immigrants-lawmakers-urged.html?pg=all.
[2] “Immigration: Church Issues New Statement.” Mormon Newsroom. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jun 10 2011. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/immigration-church-issues-new-statement 
[3] Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. “Donald Trump's false comments connecting Mexican immigrants and crime. The Washington Post: Fact Checker. July 8 2015.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/
[4] Trump, Donald J. “Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration.” Trump: Make America Great Again. Dec 07 2015. https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-statement-on-preventing-muslim-immigration.   
[5] Sisk, Chas. “Tennessee Lawmaker Calls for national Guard to Round UP Syrian Refugees.” NPR Politics. Nashville Public Radio. Nov 19 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/11/19/456502693/tennessee-lawmaker-calls-for-national-guard-to-round-up-syrian-refugees.
[6] Baron, Dennis. “Official American: English Only.” PBS.org. 2005. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/  
[7] Bell, Alistair. “Americans worry that illegal migrants threaten way of life, economy.” Reuters. Aug 7 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-worries-idUSKBN0G70BE20140807.
[8] Immigration Policy Center. “Immigrants and Crime: Are They Connected?” American Immigration Council. Oct 25 2008. http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/immigrants-and-crime-are-they-connected-century-research-finds-crime-rates-immigrants-are
[9] Powers, Kirsten, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. Regnery Publishing. 2015

1/19/16

Am I a Racist?

I wipe the fog from the bathroom mirror and look at my white body. My skin is so white I can see the blue veins, like a strange spider web on my stomach and chest and neck. This is the only body I’ve ever known, handed down through generations of Northern European mothers.


I remember the stories my mother used to tell, how as children, she and her little friend would sneak down to the stream behind their Utah homes. They would cover their bodies in thick, dark mud and pretend to be negroes, something they had never seen. Then the little girls would lay down in the stream and let the mud wash off, revealing again their white little bodies.


Later, as a nurse, my mom saw a black man for the first time. He was her patient and she diligently cared for him. She washed his skin and almost rubbed him raw because she couldn’t tell if he was clean. “Things were different then,” she told me, “when people were racist.”


My childhood was different, growing up outside of Los Angeles. Everywhere I looked there were people of every color, speaking every language you could imagine. We lived in a white neighborhood and went to a white church, but there were other colors, always there, in the periphery of my memory. I do remember the riots, on the news, when I was eight. I didn’t understand, but I was afraid of those men.  


I grew up as a millennial, the generation that values diversity, tolerance, and social justice. As a group, we’re not racist anymore, right? We studied Dr. King in our college classes. We elected a black president and are appalled when our grandmothers loudly suggest that President Obama is “nigger-rich.” We claim we don’t see color and nod when our partners say they’ve never seen racism.   


A newly born feminist, I read the words women of color have written because I know so few in real life. Terrified of being labeled a white feminist, I try to listen, try to understand a world that I have lived in all my life and yet have never known. I learn words like “intersectionality” and “systems of oppression.”


As the supervisor of a racially diverse team, my whiteness is always on my mind. When an employee accuses me of policing her tone, I try to calmly explain that three other women have come to me crying because of her rude words. She tells me they just can’t handle a strong black woman in the office. I don’t tell her the hours I have spent trying to decide how to handle this because I’m afraid of her myself.    


I drive home and I listen to white voices on the radio tell me about more riots, more protests, angry black men and women like the ones I remember from my youth. Another black man. Another white officer. My mind churns with names and places that I try to keep straight: Ferguson, Tamir, Sandra, Mother Emanuel. I come home to my white neighborhood, my white church, and my white family and all of that seems so far away.


But, I know that for so many of those who I claim are brothers and sisters, these events are not far away. And I don’t know what to do. So for one Sunday we take a break from our church, to sit in unfamiliar pews and listen to a black woman teach us what she learned from Dr. King.


Yesterday my six year old son, with the same blue-white skin and my own bright blue eyes staring back at me, told me how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made everything fair. “He was a great man, Mom. His father taught him that things should be fair and when he grew up he was brave and he made it all fair. He got all the black people to stop riding the buses. Then the white people got angry and shot him.”  

As we listen to the words of "I have a dream," my son draws pictures of Dr. King with a dove on his shoulder, of black and white people eating at restaurants together and drinking from the same fountains. He searches his crayons for the right colors and carefully completes the caption, "Martin Loother Cing Made Peece."  


Then I take a deep breath and we talk about privilege. I just learned this word and it sounds strange on my tongue. I’m not really sure what it means, but I feel like it is important to say out loud. “We have privilege. We have a responsibility to listen to others who don’t have our privilege because they are the only ones who can tell us what that is like.”


In these few moments before I start my day, in the time before commutes, homework, laundry, and the never ending stream of things to do take over my thoughts, I pause. And the thought comes back, the one I always push away, tuck back in, and try to forget. A question, really, “Am I a racist?” For once I take it out and look at the question, turn it over in my mind. I don’t know the answer and I’m not sure how to find out.

But for now, I’m listening. I'm listening not only to the easy, soothing words of Dr. King that are passed around on meme after meme between my white friends, but also those that are hard for white ears to hear. I'm listening to the words of those today who feel like they are unheard.