A Safe Place for All
[Given by Chris Juchau in the Highland South Stake, March/April 2017]
I have felt impressed with an increasingly strong desire for some time to come speak to you on a certain subject. I could have addressed this at Stake Conference but I know I will find more people in Ward Sacrament Meetings than I will find in a Stake Meeting. My message is not unique to the this ward, though it is needed in here as in other wards in our stake.
That message is that our church must become a safe place for all kinds of people, regardless of their level of faith, their politics, their mental or emotional health, their desires to conform to common LDS cultural norms, their marital status, their race, their ability—their sins, addictions, personal weaknesses, or even criminal history—or many other things we could list. In short, we must not let our Mormonism become exclusivism and thereby get in the way of the fundamentals of our Christianity.
I bring this message because I know too many people, including in every ward in our stake, who do not feel like they fit in or are welcome. Some of whom patiently go on in spite of feeling like outsiders. And some of whom decide it’s not worth the effort to try to fit in at all anymore and, so, leave. We must help others feel comfortable and that they fit.
I am not talking about a lot of people in terms of a large percentage. The vast majority of people in the Highland South Stake are doing well and feel like they fit in. One person feeling left out, unwelcome, or like a poor fit, however, is too many, and I have spoken with many more than one.
When I say that our church must become a safe place, let me make clear what I mean by “our church.” I do mean the collective worldwide LDS Church—and in that sense my message today is consistent with what I hear from our highest leaders.
But I am not just referring to the broad, general church. “Church” is experienced in stakes. It is experienced even more in wards. It is experienced in Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums and Relief Societies, Mia Maid classes and Deacons Quorums. It is experienced in Gospel Doctrine, Primary classes, Activity Days, and Bear Den meetings. At each of these—and many other—places, people of all kinds, backgrounds, and circumstances can be helped to feel comfortable and accepted. Or they can be left out, looked sideways at, or treated judgmentally because they do not fit the mainstream norm of the LDS profile.
When I refer to “our church,” I am also referring to what happens inside our homes. Children who grow up in LDS homes learn most of what they learn about how to treat others by what they see, hear, and experience at home. If my child were to tell another child that he won’t play with him because of the color of his skin or because he attends a different church, then I would need to look in the mirror until I had found sufficient godly sorrow to affect real, genuine, and vitally needed repentance.
Let me comment also on what I mean by a “safe place.” A safe place is a place where people can come without feeling judged or looked down upon; where they are free to progress at their own speed; to contribute in ways that fit their circumstances; to question and learn—and even to express doubts; to think differently; to appear differently; and to be accepted for who they are inside and for where they are on their own path of progress and ability; and to feel welcome when they are somehow different from the majority.
During the Savior’s ministry, he lovingly associated with people who were looked down upon by the pious and self-righteous who led the local majority religion. Those of us who are most in the mainstream of LDS living, beliefs, and culture need to guard against becoming modern day Pharisees. We must not be pious, self-righteous, or judgmental of people we’re not familiar with. We must be extra careful not to teach our children to think in such ways.
With whom did the Savior associate?
- Lepers who were shunned by others. He not only healed them. He went in their homes and ate with them.
- Samaritans who were despised. He not only served among them, he elevated them as examples of goodness.
- Sinners who were openly reviled. He served and socialized with “sinners” of, it seems, the most visible kind.
- He openly loved those who were openly unloved by the religiously intolerant.
- He even associated with and served those religiously intolerant people, themselves. There is a lesson in that, too!
- He also loved and served military “centurions” and the hated Jewish “publicans.”
He also taught about the evils of thinking ourselves better than others.
- To the pious self-righteous, he once began a pointed message with the words, “A certain man had two sons…” And he ended with “Verily I say unto you,… the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”
- He taught that I should not complain about the mote in the eye of another, for there is a beam in my own eye.
- He taught that my debt of 10,000 talents to God is greater than any man’s debt of 100 pence to me.
- On another occasion, He began, “Two men went up into the temple to pray….” And He ended with this truth: “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
We must eradicate from our thinking any notion that we are better than anyone else, regardless of their differences to us. We must become respecters of no persons, or perhaps differently said, respecters of all persons. We must find in ourselves no justification for believing that we have a right to look sideways at or to neglect anyone. Such thinking is the antithesis of Christianity.
How do we feel about diversity? How do we feel about people who are different from ourselves? During his discourse on the gifts of the Spirit and the body of the Christ (1 Cor. 13), the apostle Paul had much to say about diversity and unity and we need to be familiar with it. He said:
4 …there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
5 … there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
6 … there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God….
7 …the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man [and woman]….
8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit….
12 For … the body is one, and hath many [parts], and all the [parts] of that one body, being many, are one body:….
13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free;….
14 For the body is not one [part], but many.
15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it [really] therefore not of the body?
16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it [really] therefore not of the body?
17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?…
19 And if they were all one member [if we were all the same!], where were the body?…
21 …The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
22 …Those parts of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour;….
24 …God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked:
25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.
We read in the Pearl of Great Price that in the Zion City of Enoch, there were “no poor among them.”
In our South Highland “Zion,” there are poor among us. Some are financially poor. Some are spiritually poor (and not coming to the Savior at the moment). Some are emotionally or mentally poor. Some are friend poor and fellowship poor. Some are doctrinally poor. Some are poorly understood. Some come from circumstances that leave them feeling like they are a poor fit in our Zion. Some aren’t sure what they believe or what they should believe and struggle to relate to a bunch of people who seem to know so much with so much certainty. Some are divorced, widowed, or never married and feel maritally poor in our “ideal family” culture.
In our stake are high percentages of activity, based on many common church metrics like sacrament meeting attendance and full-tithe payers. Percentages can be useful because they can paint a general picture quickly, but what makes them most valuable is that they are derived from both a numerator and denominator and inside that denominator is every single individual person. Salvation and happiness and all the things that matter most don’t happen in percentages. They happen for and within individual human beings who live and struggle in their search for meaning and happiness.
So, within the high percentages reported by our stake, are these realities:
- There are 231 individual people in our stake above the age of 8, plus non-members, who have not received all the ordinances they need for exaltation. Each one has a name and a story.
- There are 418 individual people in our stake who choose not to be with us for Sacrament Meeting most weeks. (There are even more who avoid Sunday School and the rest of our Sunday meetings.) Each one has a name and story, including a reason not to be here. Many of those stories are not merely about disinterest. And, of course, some people are physically or otherwise unable to come.
- There are 481 (or more) individual members of our stake over the age of 12 who cannot or choose not to correctly utilize a temple recommend. Each one has a name and a story.
Among these hundreds are some who feel like they’ve been mistreated, perhaps from priesthood leaders or perhaps from next-door neighbors. Among those hundreds are many who actually have been mistreated. To those we could add many more who are totally active by all typical outward measures, but who struggle to feel like they fit in because of some difference that is not understood or that feels unwelcome.
In our stake are too many human beings who are too invisible. Some have literally withdrawn to their basements, seeking to seldom, if ever, be seen by us.
Now, is that simply their choice, their problem? To think so would be a good way to absolve ourselves of responsibility, but in most cases, it’s not that easy. And it’s almost always best to assume that we can help improve a situation through better understanding on our parts, by finding meaningful ways to help, or sometimes by simply smiling, talking, accepting, and maybe giving a welcome hug.
My purpose is not to make everyone feel bad. There are many among us who are well sensitized to the needs of others and who actively reach out positively to address those needs and to help others feel welcome. For those sweet kindness, I and many others are grateful. Some, however, are not sensitive to all the things we should be sensitive to—and sometimes that includes me.
Now, who am I talking about that doesn’t feel like they fit in? Here are some types of people. (It’s not an exhaustive list.)
- People with anxiety and social fears who don’t want to speak or teach or perhaps even socialize—who say “no” when asked to speak or pray or who avoid certain classes and teachers and other situations. (By the way, for such people, I am not suggesting that we over-reach-out to them when they simply wish to have their space and time and to not be over-reached-out to. We should allow people their own space and their own speed and definitely not try to compel people to do things.)
- People of a different skin color.
- People with vastly different political views, whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise. Honest political differences can exist among good LDS people.
- Gay and transgender individuals.
- Physically disabled individuals.
- Mentally disabled individuals. This group includes quite a few whose challenges are not understood by others and are prone to be labeled as “weird” or “rude” or even “stupid” by some. Many disabilities and challenges are not publicized by those who endure them. Some are not even identified by those who endure them.
- Members who have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the authority of Joseph Smith and President Monson. (Is there a more important place for such people to find a home than with us?)
- Men (and some women and retired couples, for that matter) who have not served missions.
- Adults who are unmarried.
- People who are embarrassed or burdened with shame and so wish to be unseen.
I am not suggesting a flexible doctrine. I believe that we can be firm believers in the restored gospel with all of its doctrines and at the same time be accommodating in many ways to individuals. I am not suggesting, for example, that marriage between a man and a woman is not the only acceptable marital status for exalted individuals. And I am not suggesting that all forms of behavior are acceptable. Nor am I suggesting that people are not responsible for their own thoughts, perceptions, and choices. I am suggesting that the beam in my eye—which accompanies the 10,000-talent debt I have—should be enough to make me very accepting of my neighbor, who has but a mote in his eye and owes me merely 100 pence (which I surely owe him also, and probably more).
I am promoting a culture that is welcoming to all without personal judgment, criticism, or condescension. Some may quote the Joseph Smith Translation and say that we should “judge righteous judgment” and so we should. But there is no judgment that allows me—with my debt of 10,000 talents and that beam in my eye—to look down upon another human being and to consider anything about that view “righteous.”
None may say, even quietly to themselves, I have no need of another. None may think that one person is, as Paul said, less “comely” than himself or herself.
We Mormons get indignant at the accusations of our Protestant friends who say we are not Christian. But we need to ask ourselves sometimes, “What is Christianity?” And: “Where is mine?” The Savior stood with the outcasts. We can hardly lay claim to being Christian if we do not stand with them also—with acceptance and without judgment. Too often we unintentionally form an impenetrable wall of homogeneous culture—not just within the Church in general, but within a ward, or even within a family—and those who do not easily fit into it are left wondering if they have a place to fit into at all or if it would just be easier to stay out.
For those of you who feel frustrated by the intolerance you perceive from members of the Church, please do not whatever mistakes you see by allowing your frustrations to distance you from the goodness and blessings available to you through the Church! Even if you believe the Church has in the past or does today institutionalize intolerance, be patient and continue to provide an example of tolerance and acceptance.
In addition to these three facts:
1) God administers his Church on the earth through imperfect human beings;
2) our ways are not His ways; and
3) each of us lacks significant perspective and knowledge…
…are these two facts:
1) a perfect Savior does stand at the head of an imperfect church filled with imperfect, struggling people; and
2) the restored Church does include God’s authority to administer ordinances through which we can eternally bind ourselves to our Father in Heaven, to the Savior, and even to each other.
Let me offer a wonderful, true example of the kind of Christian behavior I am suggesting. This is a true story from one of our own wards in this stake. It could easily happen in any of our wards.
This story is about a man in our stake who was arrested for a serious financial crime, felt publicly embarrassed, and whose first instinct (as it might have been with me also) was to withdraw from his ward while he was waiting to begin serving a prison sentence. At the urging of his bishop, however, he and his wife came to Church, quite nervous about what they would encounter there. Now I want to share with you part of an email he sent me recently. I quote him:
I have been thinking about emailing you for the last week or so and then on Sunday [Rob F.] emailed me (he is so amazing; he emails me once a week and is kind in listening to my prison rants) and… what he wrote brought such fond memories of what happened to me. I know that I have shared this with you before… but that first Sunday back walking into those chapel doors was so intimidating. I can’t describe in the right words just how nervous I was. I have never been met, though, with more love from a group of people in my life. I remember that after Sacrament meeting was over, there was a group of people waiting to hug me and offer an encouraging word. I remember during Gospel Doctrine tears pouring out of my eyes and the sweet sister next to me putting her hand on my shoulder and giving me comfort. I remember during opening exercises of Priesthood meeting men asking me to sit by them and also putting a hand on my shoulder. I want to keep giving examples of this (there are so, so many examples of love that ward members gave to me) but my eyes are tearing up typing this and prison isn’t the best place to be seen crying.
The point is that my ward family was such a non-judging shelter from the storm. After that first Sunday, I counted the hours to church and when it was finally there I didn’t want it to end. Because of the people there, church was, a lot of the time, the only time that I felt safe from the storm. That time in my life should have seemed so horrible but it was filled with so many, many blessings. I love our ward family so very much. I can speak from experience as to what feeling loved and not judged can do for someone.
Now listen as he continued and described some of the effect that his loving, nonjudgmental ward was still having on him. He says:
It is funny. I used to daydream of big vacations or going to an amazing restaurant or doing something incredible at work. Now my favorite thing to daydream about is sitting in sacrament meeting with my family surrounding me, and surrounding us is our sweet ward family, and the sacrament is coming my way, and I take it. That will be such an amazing day. I look forward to that day with so much longing.
Brothers and Sisters, let us remember these words from the Book of Mormon:
“…he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
Let us remember the words of Paul, that we should bestow “more abundant honour to that part which lacked.”
Not all who “come unto Him” will come down the same path to Him in the same way. Some will choose the road less traveled. Some will become confused or disillusioned and lose their way for a time. Some will be mistreated and feel all but chased away.
Everyone deserves our respect of their agency and of their time and space, just as we hope they will extend the same respect to us. Our invitations to people of all kinds—to find peace in the Savior, to trust Him and His plan, and to take advantage of the ordinances of salvation—should respect their agency and appreciate wherever they are on the path at this moment (or at any past moment). We can invite with genuine love and interest that is not conditioned upon their acceptance of such invitations or their responses toward us.
In our LDS culture, we love to embrace the Savior’s invitation, or command, to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” But it is interesting to consider the two verses that immediately precede and lead to his invitation:
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Can we love all? Can we salute all? Another translation of the word “salute” is to greet. So let’s consider who we can and do greet at church besides our friends and the people who think and act just like ourselves. For example…
- Can you greet an expectant single young mother?
- Can you greet someone with purple hair or with visible tattoos or with gauges in his ears?
- Can you greet an unmarried couple who lives together?
- Can you greet someone who smells of smoke?
- Could you greet a former inmate?
- A Muslim?
- A member with doubts about the Church—and who expresses them and openly questions?
- What about someone who just seems odd.
- A person with an accent or a different skin color?
- Could you greet a woman you formerly knew as a man?
Brothers and Sisters, let us love all. Let us greet all with a sincere smile. Let us welcome all. If I am the right eye of the body, let me value the left hand and be glad that we can work together and that we are together. Let us do our best to never say or do anything that might allow a person to feel that they are not welcome—and not only welcome but embraced as fellow members in the body of Christ.
I pray earnestly for our Father in Heaven’s forgiveness for the times I have fallen short in that regard.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.