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.

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Why the LDS Church Needs Feminists

I’d like to reflect on my upbringing in the Church. To me, the Church’s relationship towards women alternates between benign patriarchy and austere rigidity. This was demonstrated to me from a young age, as I heard from my leaders about the woman I was supposed to be.

This lesson came from the top-down, most notably during General Conference. In the dearth of female speakers, we listened to the aged men before us tell us about their saintly mothers, persevering wives, and angelic daughters. They taught us to be ministering angels, selfless spouses, and gentle advocates for Christ. We were their better halves, with a divine nature that was to be both celebrated and protected, at all costs.

These spiritual giants told us that we were the true examples of Christ like behavior to the men and children under our care, but in the same breath upheld the divine mandate that men were to preside over us in family and Church life. If a woman should ever wish to leave her divinely appointed role as a stay at home mother, she was in some way going against the mandate of God. The ideal woman supported and upheld the men in her life, from infancy to adulthood, never asking for a thank you or recognition in return. For her entire life, she would be a silent witness as her man achieved prestige and recognition, both professionally and in the Church.

The majority of lessons and activities for LDS girls seemed focused on molding each of us into this “ideal” woman. Our virtue was one of our most important assets, and so in conduct, thought, and language, we had to be pure. Upholding this rigid standard was even more imperative because, owing to our more spiritual natures, we had to protect the men in our lives from transgressing the law of chastity, either in thought or in deed. Cultivating the Spirit was essential to this end; and so we had to regulate our music, television, movies, conversation, and, most importantly, our dress.  We were repeatedly counseled that Christ had said if a man looked on a woman to lust after her, he was committing adultery already in his heart.  We would literally be leading the young men down the path to hellfire if we did not scrupulously moderate our dress, the most easily identifiable way of controlling the men’s nearly uncontrollable sexual libido.  For the modest young woman, wearing sleeveless dresses or short skirts was anathema. A glimpse of shoulder or thigh could easily cause a young man to have sinful thoughts. In that case, the sin was equally ours.

If, Heaven forbid, we were to transgress sexually, we would be forever tainted by that act. In pointed analogies, we were told we would be broken vessels, or chewed up gum, should we commit this sin. Losing our virginity before marriage would be a scar that would mar our souls, and we would forever know that we hadn’t remained true and faithful to our commitments.

Every Wednesday, we would hold activities (often involving crafting or cooking) and socialize with the young men, who we knew were being molded to become strong, confident providers for us. In Sunday lessons, when we were divided into our all-girls meeting, we would hear stories about the spiritual promptings that shaped our leaders’ lives: when they knew their husband was “the one”; the many times they’d had to rely on the sensitive whisperings of the Spirit to perform their roles as housewives and mothers. Never were we encouraged to work outside the home; this was only a last resort, if our husbands turned out to be unable to provide. I remember feeling a secret shame for that archetypal, incapable husband. Correspondingly, we were encouraged to pursue higher education, but it was only to complement our future roles as spouses and mothers. Education was, at its heart, a contingency plan. I can only remember a single lesson, in the five years that I was in this youth program, when the girls had a career night—one of the highlighted careers being a stay at home mom.

During the summers, while the young men went on grueling 3-day bike rides, white water rafting trips, and camped out in primitive conditions (all to bond them to one another and to develop the inner strength needed to confront the hard world) we had  “Girls Camp”. Our Camp emphasized spiritual, as opposed to physical, development, and so for five days we would recline in comfortable cabins, eat prepared meals and have activities designed for our enjoyment. We would do crafts, cook foil-wrapped dinners, play volleyball, and have testimony meetings on the well-manicured grass at nights. At all times, women and priesthood leaders supervised us; and at night, the men would take shifts to patrol the camp, scaring girls who ventured out after bedtime by rustling the bushes, making us shriek with fear and run back to the safety of our locked cabins.

Every significant role in Church was, and still is, held by men. The Bishop served as a spiritual guide to the ward. He and his male counselors always sat at the front pulpit on Sundays, directing the meetings, calling upon speakers, and supervising the administration of the sacrament. He collected our tithing, gave regular addresses to the congregation, and we confessed our sins (even those of a sensitive nature) to him. His counselors supervised the running of the ward as well—overseeing activities, conducting interviews, and handling all monetary transactions in the ward. Ultimately, all planned activities, all callings, and all Church meetings needed the approval of this man, the Bishop, before they could proceed.

Our male counterparts, the young men, carried out the sacrament. For a few moments every Sunday, these goofy boys would transform into solemn priesthood holders as they meticulously repeated the words of the sacrament prayers and blessed the bread and water. Then, in a uniform, white-shirted column, they passed the sacrament to the congregation. In this way, the entire sacrament became, not only a moment to remember Christ, but an opportunity to see the overriding patriarchy of God’s Church in action.

As a youth, I struggled against this institutional inequality; from my insistence on wearing pants (so I could somehow feel equal to the men) to my failed attempts to organize the first-ever white water rafting trip for young women.  When I went to college at BYU, there was less of a division between men and women in our youth wards—we were similar ages and had shared activities—but the structure of the Church was the same. In addition, I was also surrounded with adult byproducts of this youth training program. The consequences for not conforming to Church norms would be social rejection.

As I finished my undergraduate studies, then an LDS mission, I found myself an unmarried and working adult. The only option for me then was graduate school—this would serve the dual purpose of buying me more time to get married, and better equipping me for a rewarding job if I could not find a spouse.

In the rigorous intellectual environment of BYU Law School, I began to consciously address the pain from my LDS upbringing for the first time.  I realized my childhood in the Church had some positive, as well as negative, results. My upbringing had cultivated in me a feeling of worth as a child of God, a strong sense of right and wrong, and an enquiring mind. However, one of the reasons I even attended law school was because I had graduated college with no career plans. No one in my Church experience had prepared me for the “what ifs” of life as a single adult. I was terrified of being a working adult with only an undergraduate education, because my degree did not guarantee me a rewarding and satisfying job. Only through the gentle prodding of my parents did I begin to study law.

Then, as a lawyer, I found myself confronting this same anxiety. Why, I wondered, as a well-educated adult, would I still feel ill equipped and frightened of going out into the work force? Goodness knows my parents had always encouraged me to have a prestigious career. I can only point to the messages I received from the Church, both stated and un-stated, as the root of this anxiety. By differentiating us at a young age, often with separate activities and separate doctrinal lessons, I was taught that I was different from the young men. The General Authorities and local leaders then answered the question of how I was different. At heart, I was a foil to them—more sensitive, tenderer, more spiritually inclined. I was not to compete with the men in my life—I was to complement them. My highest calling in life would be to raise and nurture children, and so any vocational aspirations would take away from fulfilling this goal. Ultimately, I was at no loss to explain my inadequate and fearful feelings of being a career woman—it’s a wonder I contemplated pursuing a legal career at all!

I support the doctrine of the family and the priesthood; but I am troubled by the control that men have in nearly all aspects of Church administration, both temporal and spiritual.  Does it take having the priesthood to manage the finances of a ward; to conduct a sacrament meeting; to organize ourselves as women and young women; even to pass the sacrament? Why is there this overriding need of the men in the Church to elevate women on a pedestal while denying them full expression as human beings? I am not a foil to you men. I am not a complement to you, your other half, or your ideal spiritual being. I am a child of God, and the standard I should be held to is how my character emulates Christ’s—not your sainted mother, your silent wife, or your revered pioneer ancestress.

I hope, as men and women of my generation assume leadership roles in their wards, stakes and areas of the Church, this cultural inflexibility towards women’s roles will change. The young women of today need us to be their examples, need so-called “feminist” women to speak up, assume more leadership roles, and prepare for futures outside of the roles of mother and homemaker. Let us grow and develop as individuals, not to be viewed as lesser or greater than you men. In the end, we are all equal before God.

 

What I Want in my Easter Basket

Like any good American, I celebrate the commercialized Easter with gusto.  With a toddler in the house, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to organize egg hunts, fill Easter baskets, decorate eggs, and dress my offspring in theperfect—Easter—outfit. Growing up, I remember Easter mornings we’d rush eagerly downstairs, finding our baskets packed to the brim with treats and presents.  As I look for gifts and egg fillers for my little man, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for my childhood Easters.

Then I saw all the religious posts on Facebook, reminding me of the seriousness of Easter and killing my holiday buzz—thanks folks.  They reminded me that I’d become distracted from Easter’s true purpose—remembering Christ.  The baskets and egg hunts have nothing to do with the real Easter, they chastised me. And as I clicked on the videos of His Atonement, crucifixion and Resurrection, I couldn’t help but feel like all my Easter gifts paled in comparison to His.

Easter Sign

So, with my irreligious holiday exuberance tapered, I started to think about my Easter basket (my figurative one, of course—no one makes an Easter basket for moms).  What gift would I really like to find in my basket on Easter morning?  Once I gave it serious thought, I quickly found my answer—it was Christ.  I want Christ’s compassion and love in my Easter basket this Sunday.

I thought about His immense capacity to love and to forgive.  The ability to forgive and to love is hard for me, in part because I had a difficult childhood.  In fact, it’s very hard for me to forgive the people who hurt me as a child.  Their thoughtless, cruel actions have left scars; these scars pain me and affect me to this day.  Is it even possible for me to put forgiveness for these people in my basket?

But see, the wonderful thing about a holiday that focuses on Christ, is you get to think about Christ, and what He would do.  And I clearly remember that He forgave.  He forgave over and over again.  Even when he was being tortured and crucified, He asked his Father to forgive the same people who were committing these horrible acts.  I haven’t undergone even a fraction of the pain the Savior suffered.  What excuse do I have to withhold my forgiveness?

This thought inspired me; and, as I reflected on my past, I was surprised to realize that I’ve already forgiven so much of what happened to me.  This doesn’t mean my past doesn’t still affect my life today. One uplifting experience can’t heal a lifetime of resentment.  But even though it will take time to achieve full forgiveness, this Easter holiday, I’m hopeful.  If I try to fill my basket with forgiveness, perhaps, just perhaps, Christ can help me actually feel it in my heart.

Christ Forgiveness