Homelessness and the Ugly Cry

I hate crying.  But, a few weeks ago, I couldn’t hold back the tears after telling my husband I’d given money to a homeless family—a whole week’s worth of groceries worth, in fact—and still felt like I should have done so much more.

I first saw them outside of Smith’s.  It was late afternoon, and I had gone to grab a few last-minute items to make dinner for our friends.  I was just pulling into the store parking lot when my eye caught a beat-up car parked across from the lot.  A toddler was perched on the hood of the car, holding onto a young woman.  Next to her, an older man held up a sign, “Please Help.  Food, Gas, Lodging.  Anything Helps.”  Aside from the family, the sign caught my attention.  They weren’t asking for money.  They were only asking for the necessities of life, and ones that we often take for granted—food, fuel, and shelter.

I made a mental note to buy them some water and maybe a gift card when I went shopping.  Unfortunately, in my hurry to gather all my food, I checked out without buying them a single thing.  As I pulled out of the parking lot, their small group caught my eye again and I felt a twinge of regret—but I thought, “Oh well.  Maybe next time. I sure hope someone helps them though.”  And I drove on.

As I pulled farther away, though, I couldn’t stop glancing at them in my rear view mirror. I thought about the other times I’d driven by homeless men or women because, like now, the circumstances hadn’t been quite right to help them. The person had been on the wrong side of the road, or traffic was moving too quickly to hand them anything.  It had been too late, or I’d been in a hurry.  All those experiences built up in my mind, and suddenly, the thought burst out, “Not this time!  NO.” Before I could second-guess myself, I pulled into a side driveway and turned around, reaching the family in less than a minute. The man’s eyes widened as I pulled my SUV onto the shoulder and rolled down the window.

“Can I get you something from the store?”  I asked him.  He and the young woman looked at each other, then at me. “That would be great,” he said after a moment.

“Does someone want to hop in? I can drive you.”  I was mentally calculating how much time we could take in the store before I’d be unforgivably late.  Driving would be quicker, and less exerting, than walking.

“Why don’t you get in?” He asked the woman next to him, “It’s more proper for you to go.  You’re womenfolk.” He gave an awkward half-laugh, and at that the woman cautiously came around the car and hopped in the seat next to me.  “Thank you for coming back,” he called out. The boy clung onto him, and I saw him bend down to console the child, “It’s okay.  She’ll be back…” his voice trailed off as we pulled away.

In the short drive to the store, I chatted with the woman a bit. I was curious about what had brought her and her son here. Softly, she told me how her dad, the breadwinner of the family, had lost his trucking license because of his diabetes. After that, they’d come to Utah to live with family, but their family had not been able to help them as they’d planned, and they’d been sleeping at the homeless shelter [“It isn’t a good place for a family,” she’d said shortly].

Recently, they’d had a spot of good news—they’d gotten a slot in some state-funded housing. Now they were waiting for approval to move into their home—and were left stranded in the meantime. “I’m just grateful it isn’t winter, I hear houses are a lot harder to get into then,” she commented.  How much did she need for a room? I asked her.  They’d found a weekly rental for a good price in Salt Lake, she responded.  She told me the price.

I nodded, suddenly knowing what I needed to do. I walked to the customer service desk, calling out to her, “Pick up what you need.  This will only take me a couple of minutes, but pick something up.”  She looked at me for a second and then hurried away.  I went to the rack to the side of the desk and picked out a gift card for Smith’s.  As I meandered to the counter, the woman came back.  She held two water bottles and a bottle of Gatorade [only what she needed] and I paid for them.  Then I took out an extra $100.  It wasn’t the full amount for the hotel room, but I hoped it would be enough. I handed her the gift card, the money, and the bag of water.

She seemed taken aback when I handed the money and gift card to her.  “Thank you,” was all she said. I told her I hoped things would work out, then wrote my number on the back of her receipt. “What’s your name?” I asked.  I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten to ask till that moment.  She told me.  “I’m Jackie,” I said, “Please, call me if you find yourself in a bad spot.”  I handed her the paper, the image of her boy flashing in my mind.  He looked the same age as my son.  She thanked me again, declined a ride back to her family, and walked away.

As I walked back to my car, tears were already brimming in my eyes.  I pulled out of the spot and drove past them, not too quickly, so I could see her return.  She’d already put the drinks on the roof of the car, and was handing the Gatorade to the little boy.  He was jumping up and down excitedly, and threw his arms around her—out of relief she’d returned, or happiness at having a Gatorade, I don’t know which.  But that’s about when I started crying. I felt a deep pang for that child.  I wished I could make sure that boy would be happy every day.

Obviously, my emotions were still high when I got home, and when my husband asked what was wrong, the whole sobby story just spilled out.  He was incredibly supportive, of course; one of the things I love about him is his kind heart, so of course he was happy that I’d given money to that family. After all, at the end of the day, it was a sacrifice we could afford.  He kissed me and we hurried the kids out the door to drive to our friends’ house.  Hours of friendly company helped me to feel calm again.  But the image of that family just stayed with me.

I know some of you might think I shouldn’t have given them any money. After all, the whole story about needing a hotel room could have been a lie.  She could have used the $100 on drugs, booze or smokes.  That thought is why I hedged my bets with a gift card (“at least her boy will eat this way”, I’d told myself).  But do you know what?  I’m ashamed of that ungenerous thought now.  I wish I’d given them more.  More money.  More time.  More courage to tell the woman that helping her would be a joy to me—that making her family’s life easier would be a joy.

What if, instead of viewing the homeless with disdain, or fear, or even pity, we viewed our interactions with them as opportunities? We can learn from every person we meet; but when a homeless person asks for our help, we have the added privilege of being allowed to serve and help them.  Giving up that money wasn’t easy for us, but it was doable, and I’m grateful I had the chance to help someone in need that day.

As a Christian (and, I hope, a decent human being), it’s my imperative  to help out someone in need.  After all, Christ didn’t say, “Clothe the naked and feed the hungry, but only when it’s most convenient for you.  Only when you have an abundance of money.”  On the contrary; He told us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and afflicted. (Matthew 25: 34-40).  Moreover, He condemns those who speak of good works but, ultimately, do nothing to help relieve the burdens of the needy:

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. James 2: 15-17

I hope, the next time I see someone in such need, I can remember that charge, and give more of myself.

Year of Polygamy

I’m spending a surprisingly pleasant Sunday listening to the Year of Polygamy podcast.  This is a series dedicated to exploring polygamy in the Mormon Church; and let me tell you, as a practicing Mormon, polygamy has always been a sore point for me.  On the one hand, I was brought up with a deep respect for the prophet Joseph Smith.  On the other hand, I find the practice of polygamy (which Joseph Smith and subsequent prophets adopted) to be a hurtful practice.

Now, the LDS Church officially disavowed the practice of polygamy in 1890, but it has never withdrawn its assertion that this practice was instituted by God– and, arguably, the Church still practices plural marriage today.  No, there aren’t men walking around with forty wives (sorry Brigham Young), but there are men who are married to multiple women in the temple. See, a man who has been widowed or divorced may, with special permission, be sealed (married) to another wife in the temple, without the previous marriage being annulled by the Church.  However–and this should come as no surprise–a woman cannot.

Anyway, I’m having a fun time getting to know the history of this, erhm, interesting practice, and if you’ve ever wanted a primer on our “plural wifery”, this is the place to go.

Mommies, not Models

Girls, you are so much more than your looks.

Have you caught Melissa McCartney’s interview with Ellen?  If you haven’t, you should.  Apparently, Melissa was criticized by a reporter for “really look[ing] bad” in her latest movie, Tammy. According to him, she was only a good actress when she looked attractive (never mind she was playing a broken-down woman, whose outer appearance was supposed to reflect her terrible internal struggle).  When she encountered the reporter at a film festival, though, rather than attack him, she used the moment to educate him.

Ellen Melissa McCartney
Click above to watch the video

“If [your daughter] comes home and someone says you can’t have a job because you’re unattractive, are you gonna say, ‘That’s right?’ And he took that in his heart and he was like, ‘No, I would never want that to happen. I would never in a million years want that to happen.'”

“I said, ‘Just know that every time you write stuff, every young girl in this country reads that and they just get a little bit chipped away.’ I just think that we tear down women in this country for all these superficial reasons and women are so great and strong.”

Isn’t that the truth?

I’ve been privileged to have many strong women in my life, starting with my mom.  She worked as an accountant, having three kids and putting my father through graduate school before finally graduating herself. Though she eventually had five children, she continued to use her formidable analytic and organizational skills as an accountant, church leader, and volunteer social worker.  She’s a wonderful example to me.

I met other impressive women in college and, later, in law school–women who somehow managed to juggle all the demands on their time:  spouses, children, jobs, and intense studies.  These were smart, educated and driven women. Yet, if you passed these women on the street, you’d probably have no clue just how incredible they are. None fit the Hollywood mold of the perfect woman; that rare Angelina Jolie-type female who wakes up, meets her personal trainer, shoots a scene for her latest film, meets with the UN and, at the end of a long and satisfying day, calmly tucks her kids into bed–all while looking flawless.  No, these women were all average-looking; not overly fashionable, or beautiful, or exceptionally thin.  These women are some of the most intelligent people I’ve met; and yet, if you believe the overwhelming message from Hollywood–that a woman’s appearance is the most important thing about her– these women would be considered lessless attractive, less desirable, less worthy–simply because they did not put all of their efforts into their looks.

And that is such a damaging message.

How many girls do you know who have issues with their bodies?  I’ve watched friends shrink away, depriving themselves of food simply because they believe their worth is tied to how much they weigh. Other women push their bodies to the limit with exercise and “healthy eating”–myself included.  After having my first child, I was anxious to lose the baby weight, so I adopted a punishing exercise routine.  I would get up in the early morning, even after little sleep, to run and exorcise some imagined calorie overload I’d had the day before.  One ulcer and a torturous year later, I realized I couldn’t push my body so hard- and I learned to accept myself as a complete human being, not just a physical body.

Now my children take up so much of my day, I don’t have the time or the energy to pursue a physical ideal that, quite frankly, I will probably never reach.  This is a point most of us come to, as mothers.  We make a conscious choice to put our children’s needs above our own needs, even the need to feel beautiful.  While we may not have Hollywood-worthy bodies, what is important is that we like the people we are now.  And we are not lesser for channeling our energies into our families; we are better and greater people for it.

It’s a shame that our entertainment industry can’t seem to grasp that truth.

Adventures in Parenting

So, you know when something is so ridiculous, it’s actually funny?  I feel like I have moments like that, oh, every day as a stay-at-home mom.  Take today, for example.

What, me?  Think I'm going to cause trouble?  Yes, yes I am.
What, me? Think I’m going to cause trouble? Yes, yes I am.

Although I no longer go into the office, I still manage to do a bit of work.  This afternoon, when the kids’ naps magically overlapped for about 45 minutes, I managed to leave messages with a few people. Then, feeling pretty productive, once naptime ended I stopped by the—ahem—ladies room, with both kids in tow.  (News flash:  when you have small children, you never, never get to use the bathroom alone).

Just at that moment, what do you know, one of the people I’d phone called me back.  This was a very important call, so even though I have a strict no-phone calls-in-the-bathroom policy, I thought, “Screw it. I’ll answer.”  I picked up and, quickly excused the background noise by telling the caller I was at home with small children.  I left out the part about being on the toilet.  B-a-a-a-d idea.

I tried to rush the call, but nothing is faster than an inquisitive toddler.  Within moments, Kisan accidentally pulled something into the sink and started hollering.  He wanted it back and he wanted it back now!  I frantically motioned to him to be quiet (it didn’t work).  Unable to get off the toilet or to quiet toddler-zilla, I looked around in desperation for something to snap Kisan out of tantrum mode.  I found a plush bumblebee sitting in the baby’s lap and, panicking, I did the first thing that came to mind—I chucked it at Kisan.  No, it wasn’t my finest mommy moment.  I think I was trying to snap him out of his agitated state, sort of like slapping a hysterical person across the face.

Well, no need to judge me, because I knew it was a bad idea as soon as it left my hand.  You know when something terrible is about to happen, everything seems to slow down? Well, time now took on a movie-like quality as the plush toy slowly arced up in the air and, yep, landed with a soft “thunk” on Kisan’s head.

It was like I’d prodded a rabid dog with a stick.  Kisan’s voice rose at least five octaves.   If he could’ve foamed at the mouth, I’m sure he would have. Instead of being merely frustrated, Kisan was now incensed because, well, I’d thrown something at him.  And really, it was a dumb move on my part.  Oh, and the man on the phone?  At this point, he’d stopped talking (probably shocked into silence). So, as the last resort of the desperate, I picked Kisan up and locked him outside the door.  As I quickly stammered out an apology to the man,  Kisan (now in full Hulk mode) started to use his tow truck as a battering ram.  At this point, I just told the man I would be sending him the paperwork in an e-mail, and hung up the phone.

Hulk
I’m no longer your son. Hulk SMASH!!

I probably stayed in behind the door for another minute or two, gathering the willpower to deal with the weeping and wailing small human that was now trying, heart-breakingly, to reach me from under the door, pressing his face and hands as far as they would go under the one-inch crack.  I eventually opened the door and calmed him down, and we went about our day.  I wish I could say this is a unique episode—but it isn’t.  Each day is broken up with moments like this, so many moments where I am dealing with a child who is, by turns, irritating, then amusing; angry, then gentle and kind. It’s a constant emotional rollercoaster, and at night I’m so drained I don’t even have the energy to watch a favorite show, or write a blog post, or do anything but stumble into bed.

But today was better than yesterday; and, reluctant optimist that I am, I know tomorrow will probably be a little better than today.  If I’m going to have these crazy moments, I’m glad I can at least laugh at them now—not five or ten or twenty years down the road, when I’ve forgotten how bad the bad can feel.  I want to enjoy these moments now, the moments that are so over-the-top chaotic and (quite frankly, ridiculous) that you can’t help but laugh, because, hey, they make life endurable.

A Perfect Baby Blessing

Months ago, my husband and I decided we’d each give Ava a baby blessing. It was a very controversial decision for an LDS family to make.  That is because, in our church, only fathers with the higher priesthood may participate in the public blessing and naming ritual for new infants.  Mothers must sit among the congregants while the baby is being blessed.

But my husband and I are products of a country where, outside of religion, women and men are very nearly equal.  As a parent, I want to send a clear message to our daughter, beginning with her first blessing, that this equality would not end at the doors of the church.   I don’t have the priesthood—but I don’t need the priesthood to give my child a blessing.  I have the right, as a daughter of God, to pray over my children, and expect He will provide guidance, blessings and inspiration in return.

Ava

And so, with only our parents and bishop to witness, Jang held Ava first and gave her a beautiful blessing, which I recorded.  I won’t share it all, but the most touching moment came when he asked God to give her “the strength to know that it’s okay to be different and to be yourself.”  He continued, “I bless you with the desire to accomplish great things in your life…with ambition and leadership that you can be a shining light to other people.  That other people can look to you as someone who is faithful and trustworthy.”  Since a baby blessing more often conveys the parent’s hopes for the child, rather than any prophecy, hearing my husband say these things about our daughter warmed my heart.  I hope Ava will be a trailblazer and example for many people, both inside the LDS faith and outside of it.  We smiled at each other when he finished.

Then it was my turn.  I’d stayed outside the priesthood circle, at my hubby’s request, but now I stepped forward to hold my child.  The bishop, my father and father-in-law stood somewhat awkwardly around me.  I’m sure none of them had any idea what this moment would look like.  Truth be told, neither did I. It was a blessing my own mother had never voiced.  I felt a little uncomfortable coming forward then— but the instant Ava was in my arms, her face brightened, and I felt a calmness come over me.  She recognized me, her mother—and as her mother, this was exactly what I should be doing for her.  Thankfully, I’d thought and prayed beforehand about what I wanted to say; and when all the men had moved to the side or taken their seats, I began to speak:

“Ava this is a special day for you.  This is a day where all your family is gathered together to celebrate your birth.  We’re so very happy you’re a part of our family.  You’ve been blessed with an even temperament and a sweet nature, and we truly hope that these character traits continue in your life.  As your mother, I pray that Heavenly Father will bless you with the ability to clearly know right from wrong, and to be a guide for your siblings and an inspiration for those around you.  It’s important now to stand for things that are right and true.  We hope that you’ll always stick close to the Church and close to your Heavenly Father, and say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

As I spoke, I somehow felt a rightness to my words.  I wondered if that is how fathers feel when they bless their children.  In that moment, I was happy, surrounded by family as I held my baby daughter.  I had stuck to my commitment to bless her out of sheer principle—there had been times when Jang and I wondered if it would be worth it to go ahead with the mother’s blessing, fearing how our friends or church leaders would react.  But I can tell you, when we each blessed our daughter in turn, it felt so right; so complete.  As parents, we are a team, and we stood together that day.  And I believe God stood with us as well.

Another One Bites the Dust: John Dehlin is Ex’d

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To anyone keeping abreast of Mormon issues, John Dehlin’s excommunication wasn’t a surprise.  John is someone who actively questions LDS faith and culture (including hot-button issues like the priesthood ordination of women and same-sex marriage).  However, in doing so he has helped provide a voice for many individuals who feel disenfranchised and disenchanted within the Mormon church. I don’t know if his excommunication was the “right” decision; in the end, I think that question is irrelevant. John’s leaders had the option to excommunicate him and they did so.  In the end, if an ecclesiastical leader wants a vocal member to be excommunicated, they can almost always find grounds to do so.

There is no doubt the popularity of his controversial Mormon Stories podcast made Church leaders uncomfortable.  In the end, it is because John found a large and sympathetic audience for these controversial views that Church leaders decided to charge him with “[leading] others away from the Church,” and thereby excommunicate him. Interestingly, the February 9 letter detailing John’s excommunication did not list (as grounds for the action) John’s support for same-sex marriage and women’s ordination; but John has alleged these were the impetus for his disciplinary proceedings.

[Here is a link to John Dehlin’s publication of his excommunication letter and transcript of his penultimate disciplinary council.  The Church’s response is here also.]

I don’t like this recent round of excommunications.  Even if Kate Kelly and John Dehlin were misguided, their goal wasn’t to lead people astray from the Mormon church.  Just the opposite.  They were trying to make the Church a more welcoming place for its members—all of its members.  The gays.  The feminists.  The non-apologist historians.  The people struggling with addiction and depression and so many other issues.   In truth, the typical LDS member is no longer the Republican, white, heterosexual prototype (from a nuclear family) that I pictured growing up; and we don’t always fall in line when a Church leader answers a question with “because I said so”.  A substantial portion of the Church membership is now forcefully telling the Church it wants change; and they are motivated, well-read and tech-savvy individuals who can easily spread their ideas/beliefs/knowledge to the public.  Will the Church listen to these groups and allow open discussion of its beliefs and practices?  Or will its refuse to examine the correctness of its policies, procedures and doctrinal beliefs, or allow its members to do likewise?

The Church has never been the forerunner of change.  It generally follows cultural trends; it does not create them. However, Elder Cristofferson (an Apostle) recently stated that members may speak out about opposing beliefs and even support groups like Ordain Women.  They would only be disciplined if “someone is out attacking the church and its leaders.  If that’s a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow…trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines.”

Elder Cristofferson’s statement is a small concession towards freer speech and discussion among the members; but its a concession nonetheless.  And let’s not forget, that two Apostles even agreed to speak on Trib Talk and take questions from its audience is already a huge step for these men, who traditionally communicate with the public in a much more scripted, controlled manner (like General Conference).

Time will only tell if the Church will continue to silence dissenting voices, like John Dehlin, or move towards a more conciliatory approach.  I take comfort in knowing that, for every John Dehlin, there are probably a hundred others who are not excommunicated for their public discussions. And that number is growing every day.

My Husband “Gets Me” Because He’s Asian

I’m a little different than the average Mormon girl. I’ve often voiced my opinion that women should have equal rights and standing in the Church with the men.  This attitude may have put off a beau or two over the years. Fortunately, I married a man who not only appreciates my egalitarian views, he embraces them.

Jang was the only Asian I ever dated in college.  With a student population that is roughly 84% Caucasian, it was practically a given that I’d mostly date white men at BYU.  Then I met Jang. He asked me out, I said yes, and the rest is….well…history.

When you’re dating, you tend to hide the crazy a little bit.  I don’t think Jang quite grasped the depth of my “feminist” leanings until after we were married. It wasn’t long into our marriage, however, before we were having deep discussions about my dissatisfaction with women’s role in the Mormon Church. At that point, I discovered something amazing; he not only appreciated my feelings, he understood them.  Like, really understood them.

Being a racial minority, Jang knows all too well how it feels to be marginalized.  Over the years, he’s explained to me what it felt like to be an Asian kid in the Bronx; the insults, the threats, the constant feeling of being different. He talks animatedly about Jeremy Lin, Ichiro, Wu Tang Clan and Daniel Dae Kim, all for the same reason—they each brought Asians (or Asian culture) into the public eye. America’s acceptance of these groups or people as “cool” made my husband, by extension, feel validated by the mainstream.  Because Asians don’t have a strong presence in any mainstream media.  Their voices aren’t heard.

Jang often tells me how, growing up, he’d search for faces like his on favorite shows, in his favorite sports teams or in the movies.  He never found them.  He’s still looking for them. He understands what it’s like to feel unrepresented by institutions you hold dear.  To not only feel that you’re not being listened to, but also to wonder if the institution even knows you have a voice at all.

So, yeah, he gets it.  He understands my fruitless childhood search for a strong female presence in LDS magazines, in General Conference, in the leadership or even at the pulpit on Sundays.  He comprehends how hard it is to feel like the odd (wo-)man out, to feel that your opinions and feelings aren’t understood or being represented by the people in power. So when I tell him my frustrations with Church culture, and he says he understands how I feel, I believe him.

Growing up, Church culture made me feel like my dissatisfaction was sinful. But American culture has made Jang feel like his dissatisfaction isn’t important.  Both messages are wrong; they’re so…wrong.  We’ve each chosen to reject these untruths.  It’s a process we’ve gone through together, and the experience has made us closer.  It’s odd, but working through my complex feelings towards the Church has helped me understand my husband, and his complex racial identity, better. The main difference now between our experiences is recognition of the problem; while the Mormon church is now debating its treatment of women, the mainstream culture still doesn’t seem to believe racism towards Asians exists.

I often think, what if I’d married in the other 84%?  Would a white man understand my feelings as well and Jang?  Maybe. But it may have been difficult for that man to truly empathize with my situation.  That’s why I so admire the men, and especially white men, who do speak out against gender inequality in the Church and elsewhere.  Because it’s one thing to recognize a wrong exists; but it’s an entirely different thing to have felt that same wrong in your own life.  Experiencing discrimination, and then seeing it inflicted on someone else, gives you feelings that are hard to describe—but they’re strong, and compelling, and having that shared experience binds you to that other person.

Every time I speak with Jang, I’m impressed by the richness of his life experiences.  I hope he’ll share them with you sometime; I’m so glad he’s shared them with me.  He’s been a listening ear and a sympathetic voice during all my struggles.  He’s my rock.