not in Primary anymore

hear us the first time

I’m taking a course called LDS Marriage and Family (marriage prep class) in this, my last full semester at BYU. It’s mostly that I have to take two more religion credits to graduate, but also I am really curious how these classes are being taught at the Lord’s University to Zion’s Youth in Latter Days.

Part of my homework for class this week has been to read Henry B. Eyring’s Finding Safety in Counsel. The talk emphasizes the importance of listening to the counsel of the General Authorities. As I read this talk, a particular quote stuck out to me:

One of the ways we may know that the warning is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.

My immediate thought on reading this paragraph was a simple question that seemed to automatically pop into my brain; years of having gone through a harrowing faith transition, not believing in God or the church, but later coming back has fundamentally changed the way I engage with Mormonism. I would say that faith transitions are never really over, and that I am every day learning more about myself, religion, and spirituality; but that only comes from asking questions, and mine upon reading that quote was:

“If we are supposed to take repeated statements by General Authorities as coming from the Lord, what does that mean for the many church leaders who repeated racist doctrines about black members of the church?”

The minute those words passed through my mind, I recoiled a little. I imagined saying those words in my class at BYU. I imagined how immediately anti-Mormon I would appear- how automatically antagonistic I would seem, as if I had been saving that question in my pocket as a weapon to lob at an opportune moment; how much most of my fellow Mormons listening would assume I was trying to be disrespectful or confrontational. I was struck by how wronged I felt just from imagining that scene- I really sincerely would like to know an answer to my question.

I say “an answer” because there are many questions like this for which there are no satisfying answers- I’m not requesting to be delivered a perfect rationalization on a silver platter. I AM asking for the opportunity to engage in dialogue, to come to a fuller understanding by verbalizing my queries and talking through these issues. I’m not expecting anyone to have all the answers.

I’m not anti-Mormon. I believe the leaders of the LDS Church are spiritual men attempting to lead and guide a huge global church that in many ways helps millions of people seek a relationship with Deity. The LDS Church coordinates incredible acts of charity on the institutional and local levels. The gospel of Jesus Christ, held central in the church, can have amazing impacts on people’s lives.

I’m also largely at peace with the weaknesses of men who have led my church, and a lot of that has come from my study of and activism in feminist movements. I can’t read about the crushing oppressions, inequalities, and violence happening daily on this planet and expect them to all be easily solved by any one religion or spiritual practice. Put glibly, I’m not surprised that an elderly white heterosexual male (albeit in the sky and with special powers) has not solved the world’s problems. But more seriously, I simply don’t expect purity in any institution in which I’m a part, and I don’t expect to be given all the answers about Deity or the spiritual forces that shape our lives all at once. Similarly, my Mormon studies and upbringing have instilled in me a deep belief in and admiration for the capacity of humans to change, progress, and improve.

So when I ask that question, I’m asking because I’m earnestly seeking for truth, and until members of the church and especially church leaders at every level can hear me, can hear my question, and can accept my sincerity- you will continue to lose members of my generation in particular.

I will be 21 years old tomorrow – the last passage into the rites of adulthood in the United States. But I’m still treated like a child when I ask difficult questions about my church. If I, and many others of my generation, feel this way when we are just putting down our own roots in the church, what hope can we have for our genuine concerns and desires for truth moving forward? When there is not even a space to speak up, to ask what is on our minds, what hope can we have for a church that will nourish our curiosities and actually support our efforts to gain as much knowledge as we can in this life? Does that commandment only apply when it does not threaten our comfortable, correlation-sterilized Church-manual version of LDS history?

I’m not just asking for the prophet to say it’s okay to ask questions. It’s not enough that President Uchtdorf said from the pulpit that church leaders have made mistakes. I need my local leaders to hear my questions in class and not dismiss them.  This requires every ward, every local congregation to cultivate environments and cultures that are open to people like me.

And that last sentence again triggers in my brain as one that I imagine many who disagree with me would want to throw back in my face- “Why does it all have to be about you? Why do you, a minority, insist that God’s church bend to your whim?”

Go ahead and say it- but you’ll be saying it to the backs of my generation as we walk away from you.  Until you can take the time to hear us- hear us the first time we ask a question that we don’t even know is off limits, not just try to hear us when we are standing in the doorway with a million desperate questions and frustrations and pain; until you can hear us and then understand where we are coming from, until this is a culture of the LDS church to bear one another’s burdens even when we don’t understand and might think the other is wrong- you will never stem the tide of this exodus of youth leaving the church over questions like mine.

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17 Responses to “hear us the first time”

  1. der spiegel

    Happy Birthday!
    It’s so important to have people like you that ask the tough questions, occasionally challenging beliefs and biases in order to help everyone grow and progress. Church meetings and classes are incredibly dull and unproductive when everybody just agrees about everything (which seems to be the norm in most wards I have lived in). Some members, though, find a lot of comfort in such banal affirmation, so please be patient with those who aren’t quite ready for challenges to their faith.

    I’ll wager that every time you bring up something challenging or difficult or controversial, there is probably at least one other person in the class who had the same question(s), but lacked the courage to speak up. LDS culture teaches members to suppress doubts (our testimonial language emphasizes the phrase “I know…”), when we should be acknowledging, exploring, even embracing what we don’t know. By exposing the gaps in our own knowledge (rather than pretending they don’t exist) we can then seek to fill them.

    Hannah, keep up the great work! The Church has enough missionaries; what it really needs is more people like you.

    Reply
  2. Kate Kelly

    You had me at “Lord’s University to Zion’s Youth in Latter Days.” 🙂

    Thanks for this Hannah!

    Reply
  3. Sarah

    I enjoyed reading Henry B. Eyring’s talk. Two things stuck out to me: counsel about some sort of action we should take, and that the counsel comes from the top head of the church (or stake or ward if the counsel is just for that stake or ward). This reminds me of the Teachings of the Living Prophets religion class I took at BYU. We had to write a couple papers about counsel given by the prophet on a certain subject, and we could choose the topics from a list that included things like birth control and abortion. We were only allowed to use talks and quotations from prophets when they were the prophet. Not a month or a year or decade before receiving the mantle. Nor could we use quotes from counselors in the presidency, apostles, or general authorities. We also couldn’t use counsel more than 10 years old. It was tough.

    Don’t the apostles and general authorities have wise words and inspired counsel to give us? Of course they do. But like Eyring said, even they need to humble themselves and take counsel from the head of the church. Do not counsel from prophets from 15, 20, 50 years ago provide physical and spiritual safety if followed? Did not Eyring briefly state that we can also compare what more than one prophet said? Sure, but like the several examples Eyring gave, we have a prophet here and now and while the counsel given by him or another prophet 20 years ago can be helpful for us now, it was most meant for the members then. Comparing prophets over the decades can help us see how the counsel has changed from how the members were to act then and how they should act now.

    Reply
  4. Sarah

    That said, I wish there was more time in classes and room in people’s hearts for doubts and questions from others without feeling threatened.

    Reply
  5. Rita

    Hannah,

    Your strength and resolve is amazing. I have often wondered the same things, but let my upbringing squash the impulse to ask the hard questions. Now, as a mom to three daughters, I WANT them to know that real belief is fueled by questions, the desire to find answers to the things that matter to you in this life. Those are the things that matter. I love the church, some 20-30 years later, I still have questions, and part of me is still afraid to ask.

    Thank you for speaking on my behalf.

    Reply
  6. Velda

    Here’s a vote for going ahead and asking the tough questions. If you can cultivate a good relationship with your bishop or RS leadership, or even with the professor (I’d imagine that’s a full class), it’s a lot easier to ask one person who knows you than it is to ask in front of a crowd who knows nothing else about you. Above all, I think God is more than willing to help us with the toughest questions we’ve got & will help you find the answers you seek. Hugs.

    Reply
  7. Deb

    So, why didn’t you ask? It seems like a lot of judgment and assumptions based on your own discomfort in even asking the question. You don’t know what kind of discussion would have ensued. But you’re projecting what you assume would have happened and using that as a stepping stone of how people in the church need to change. That is ironic.

    Reply
    • hannahwheelwright

      I’m going to go ahead and copy and paste my reply to you from facebook onto here!

      I have indeed asked many questions like this at church (and in classes), and was met with the kinds of reactions I described. I didn’t ask this question in this context because I haven’t gone to class yet- I said I read that talk as part of my homework, which is due Monday 🙂 I was sitting in the BYU library when I wrote this post, not sitting in class and writing this instead of engaging.

      Reply
  8. Noelle Perner

    Thank you, Hannah. This needs to be heard. Thank you for saying it so well.

    Reply
  9. Ariel Price

    Wow! Very powerful message here. Thank you for sharing. I’m not LDS, but I have many friends who are. Even in many conservative Evangelical churches (like the one in which I was raised), this “don’t ask questions” atmosphere is common and very frustrating.

    Reply
  10. Hank

    I suggest you begin attending the Mormon Studies Conferences held at UVU, where you will meet the cream of Mormon scholars and where you will meet people like yourself, who enjoy learning. I suggest you also read Dialogue. I went through the civil rights era, a difficult experience for Mormons supporting the civil rights agenda. Dialogue helped me then. I now attend Conferences for Mormon scholars to find people like you and me and my wife.
    Hank

    Reply
  11. Michelle Glauser

    I remember opening the eternal marriage manual and being like, “WHOA, this is not what I expected.” I hope it’s changed since then. At that point, it was chapters about different subjects and ordered alphabetically, meaning the first thing was about Abortion. Oh boy.

    Reply
  12. Lorrie

    If a thing is true and immutable, then those in authority have nothing to fear from those who ask questions. Nothing can cause truth to come crashing down.
    Sincerely,
    The mariners who circumnavigated the (formerly) flat Earth

    Reply
  13. Bill

    Hannah,
    Thanks for your courage and point of view. I also have questions that will probably not be answered in this lifetime. I guess as soon as we get all the answers we stop progressing. That desire to find out more is what life is all about. As stake president I feel a huge responsibility for the quality of the lessons and talks given in church. Like any class, the lessons follow a certain order. And I believe by focusing on, and discussing the subject, greater understanding will happen. It is a fine line to walk between encouraging the discussion, and staying on the topic. If I were teaching an Algebra class, and someone brought up a calculus question, they may feel like I was dismissing them as I steered the discussion back to Algebra. Yes, they are both math, but the calculus question does not help the class understand the goal of the lesson.
    We have all been in a class where the discussion takes a life of its own, and people start speculating on all kinds of topics. At that point is ceases to be a spiritual experience.
    I guess all I’m saying is ask the hard questions when it is appropriate and has to do with the lesson at hand. Have consideration for the teacher’s goal for that class. As priesthood leaders we are very concerned about our young adults. I love it when a youth or young adult makes an appointment with me just for counsel, or to visit and answer questions. Thank you for reaching out to your peers and sharing your feelings.
    -President Gibson

    Reply
  14. Jenna

    I agree with this sentiment, and I think it’s crucial that people who have been silenced or put down or made to feel like less of people for having questions, especially in an LDS community, be allowed to have them, as President Gibson said.

    However, I also think it’s ironic that the number one place I’ve felt, recently, marginalized or silenced when I ask questions other people don’t agree with, is not my singles ward, but the YMF Facebook group. I’ve since left the group, and wish I could still be a part of it. But when I was part of the group and posted things, the backlash of people who disagreed with me or silenced me or belittled me, when I talked about my faith or my questions, was so crushing. I think that everyone should be able to say what they feel and feel okay, and safe, and validated. But we need to make sure that we let everyone, not just the people who validate us, get that same treatment. I wish I could be part of YMF, but my questions and my personal faith context have been silenced and shamed too many times.

    Reply
  15. Kristy

    I believe your sentiments are extremely disingenuous. What answers do you expect to come from such a conversation started by questions like that? What do you expect people to say? The church is wrong and the leaders are bad? If you were honestly and sincerely seeking after truth from the ONLY source of truth, which is the Holy Spirit, you would study the scriptures and conference talks etc. you would study it out in your mind and take it to the Lord to receive, through personal revelation from a loving Heavenly Father, the answers to your questions. By the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things.

    Reply

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