by Michael Barker
I used to be the Young Men’s President in my ward.
When I first sat down with my counselors, I told them explicitly that I would be approaching some of the sticky issues with our LDS Church history. This caused concern with one of my counselors and he spoke to me about it. I frankly didn’t understand his concern. He told me, “If we lose just one boy because of something you have taught, that is one too many.” I responded, “True, but we already know what is happening when we don’t talk about these things openly. People leave the Church and they leave in pain.”
The first combined Aaronic Priesthood lesson I taught was about Joseph Smith using his seer stones that he had used for treasure digging, for receiving the Book of Mormon. My bishop asked me to give a Part II for the lesson. I did. In part two I gave handouts with all the primary quotes showing the process through which the Book of Mormon was revealed; Joseph with his head in a hat looking at one of his peep stones. The boys didn’t find it any weirder than the traditional story of using the Nephite Interpreters.
A few months later in Priest Quorum, we talked about the treatment of blacks in our church. I gave my bishop a copy of my DVD, No Man Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, so he could preview it before I used it for my lessons. He approved and for a whole month we watched the DVD and then spoke openly about what was presented. It went well.
Disillusionment, Disenchantment, and Anger
A few months later, I found out that some of the adults didn’t like me teaching history as it actually happened. Complaints came regularly to my poor bishop, but no one would come and speak with me directly. It really bothered me that members in my congregation wouldn’t just speak with me.
I saw the writing on the wall. I knew that my calling would not last very long. I was “kicking against the pricks.” My understanding of the discord I was causing in my ward didn’t make it any easier when my bishop called me into his office to talk.
With tears in his eyes, he let me know that he was going to release me as the Young Men’ s President. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t angry. I was very angry, but not angry at my bishop; I was angry at my ward. Angry at them for not being mature enough to speak to me directly. Angry for them not sitting and reasoning with me.
I told my wife that I was going to call the Elder’s Quorum President and ask to be released from my home-teaching families. One of these families was a part-member family.
A few years back, the father found their infant, who had cerebral palsy, not breathing. He attempted CPR to no avail. She died. I went over with my bishop later that day. He had been a bishop for only a few months. What does one say? The next day, the mother let me know that she wanted me to speak at their daughter’s funeral service. My heart exploded that she would allow me such a privilege. In my anger, this was one of the families from which I was asked to be released.
As I told my wife of my decision to be released from home-teaching, she wisely told me to slow down. She knows I am rash. She knows I am hot tempered. I figured if my gift to my ward was not acceptable, nothing I had to offer was acceptable. I would take it all away – decision I still regret.
My bishop called me a day or two later to see how I was doing. I really let into him. I told him my disappointment with the lack of maturity of the adults in my ward. Why would they run tattling to him like little children? Why? I understood why he would release me. We live in a poor part of the city. There are lots of low-income families needing financial help. There are lots of half-way houses for drug addiction programs and it falls under my bishop’s stewardship to visit those members. The problems I was causing this young bishop, as I saw it, were just too much. If his life could be easier by my release, why wouldn’t he?
Sometime later my bishop listened to Sarah Collette’s interview of John Dehlin on the A Thoughtful Faith podcast. In this interview John spoke of his disillusionment with the institutional church and what brought him back. His Stake President just started listening to him. His Stake President would read books that John recommended. They would meet weekly. My bishop asked me if I would like to meet with him weekly to just talk. I said yes.
The first time he came over to the house on a Wednesday night, it was nine o-clock in the evening. He smiled and said, “So, what are we going to do?” We chatted and then decided we would talk about some of the tough issues that are causing contemporary Mormons to leave the Church. We would start with the Book of Abraham. I discussed briefly some of the issues. I showed him the original facsimiles and how what we have in the Book of Abraham doesn’t accurately depict the different scenes from the original scrolls. He listened.
He came the next week. He looked tired. He is a high-school Spanish teacher. He is the high-school cross-country coach. He has four sons between the ages of ten and three. I can’t imagine his burden. How tired he looked; he just isn’t very good at hiding how he is feeling.
I called him a few weeks later and told him that I could tell how exhausted he was and that he didn’t need to meet with me on a weekly basis anymore. He was grateful that I was able to see his exhaustion. I told him I was still upset, but “had stepped away from the ledge.”
Sometime later he called me and asked if I would help out with a fifth-Sunday combined Priesthood/Relief Society lesson. He wanted me to talk about my faith crisis and how to approach those who may be experiencing a faith crisis with less judgement and more love. He had also asked a sister in our ward, a recent leg amputee, who was being trained as a grief counselor, what we could do to help those who are struggling with physical disabilities and loss. It was a wonderful Sunday.
A couple of months later my cell phone rang around 11:00 p.m. I thought for sure it was one of my brothers calling me. I was a bit annoyed because they know I go to bed at 9:00. However my cell phone said, “Bishop Wallace”. I thought for sure something was wrong with a member in my ward. I answered, “Hello?” It was his wife, Shawna. Bishop Wallace was in the ER having severe abdominal pain. He had her call me to ask if I would come in and help give him a blessing. Me? He could have asked one of his counselors. He could have asked the Elder’s Quorurm President. He could have asked his brother-in-law. But he didn’t, he asked me.
I drove to the ER. In his room was his father-in-law, a bishop and a past Area Authority. My bishop looked to be in a lot of pain. His eyes were closed. I anointed and his father-in-law blessed. Bishop went home later that evening, but returned shortly after to be admitted because of the pain. He was hospitalized for almost a week. I visited him a few times and we would chat.
In our many conversations before and after my release, my bishop has told me that my unique experience with almost resigning my membership due to my crisis of faith has given me a unique perspective. Once he shared the following quote with me:
“Like being lost, survival is a transformation; being a leader can ensure that, when you reach the final stage of that metamorphosis, it is with an attitude of commitment, not resignation. The transformation of survival is permanent. People who have had the experience often go on to become the best search and rescue professionals. They have come to understand, perhaps unconsciously, that they can only live fully by helping others through that same transformation. All the survivors I’ve talked to have told me how horrible the experience was. But they have also told me, often with a deep puzzlement, how beautiful it was. They wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world” (Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why, 174).
Isn’t that quote perfect? I feel an obligation to reach out to others that are in pain due to historical, doctrinal, and social issues within the Church. I definitely don’t have all the answers. And sometimes the best answer to stop the pain is for that person so sever their relationship with the institutional Church. It pains me to say that, but it is the truth. However, I do know that much of this pain can be diminished by just listening and being present with the person that is struggling.
So, where am I now? The chaos of my faith transition is gone. The “head-work” almost done. Emotional-work, the heart-work, is still in a very dynamic state. But things are calmer.
Blacks and the Mormon Priesthood
I emailed my bishop the link to the Church’s web-page discussing its history in regards to those of Black-African descent the day it came out. We exchanged emails about it. He told me that he was going to address it in Sacrament meeting. The Sunday he discussed it, the Stake President was on the stand. I’ll never forget as he read what I believe is the most powerful paragraph:
“…Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form…”
Isn’t that wonderful? But wait, it gets better. Shortly after I emailed him the link, he let me know that he was going to teach the fifth Sunday lesson in December, and that the text of his lesson would be the Church’s statement on race.
As a combined Relief Society and Priesthood group, we all took turns reading out loud the Church’s statement. Every so often we would pause as my bishop gave some further historical perspective, some other insight, or to show part of the documentary, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. It was amazing. I heard older members say, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” as we read about Elijah Ables. He closed with the re-stating the four purposes of his lesson:
1) To inform
a. Some past theories and teachings of the Church and its members have now been disavowed. All members should be aware.
b. We have the responsibility to not teach the theories of the past as if they are true and to correct them if we hear them.
2) To gain empathy
a. “Empathy is the process of placing oneself in the framework of another, perceiving the world as the other perceives it, sharing his or her world imaginatively” (Thomas Oden, an American United Methodist theologian and religious author).
3) To build faith
a. By looking at the extraordinary examples of black members who remained faithful despite not being able to receive saving ordinances.
b. By looking at the example of a latter-day prophet who would not give up the wrestle [Spencer Kimball].
4) Invitation: To evaluate the traditions of our Fathers and to be willing to repent of those that take away light and truth. Receiving new revelation and changing your ways is a form of repentance.
a. Doctrine and Covenants 93:39 – And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers. 40 But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth.
Regarding the latter point, he said explicitly (and I’m paraphrasing the best that my memory recalls):
“I don’t want the first time your children hear that those of black-African descent could not participate in temple ordinances and the men could not have the priesthood, while on their missions. The first time they hear about this, it should be from you – their parents. You need to teach your children about this.”
He finally closed by reading the written testimony of a black member in our ward, ending the testimony, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” He then turned to the wife of the black member of our ward and asked her to give the benediction.*
Last April my bishop listened to a great podcast series from Mormon Matters about different Easter traditions. He contacted me shortly after finishing the series and asked that I be in charge of exploring how we, as a ward, could use some of these traditions in our congregation to bring more sacredness to Holy Week and then present some ideas to the Ward Council. I was elated.
Since then, I have contacted one of the local Presbyterian Churches, a Methodist congregation, the local Episcopalian church, and last night I met for an hour with one of the local Catholic Priests. In two weeks I will be presenting a possible plan of how our local ward can observe Holy Week.
What is my relationship with my bishop? Less some of you misinterpret my relationship with my bishop as all rainbows and roses, it isn’t. We disagree on a lot of things. But, do you know what? He will talk with me. We will have great discussions as he tries to understand my perspective on things. I still think I should have not been released as the Young Men’s president, but the man that took my place is a wonderful man doing wonderful things.
Two months ago I asked my bishop to come over my house. The reason isn’t important, but what happened at my home was. We talked. We talked about the Ordain Women Movement. We talked about Queer Theory. We talked about Wear Pant to Church Sunday. We talked about the Church’s position on monogamy when we have such a colorful past with polygamy (my words, not his). Did he offer a defense? No. He listened because he wanted to understand. Because he listens, I love him and I am loyal to him. And, because of my bishop, I am loyal to the Church.
That’s why my bishop is Mormonism’s bishop. No, you can’t have him, but maybe he’ll let me lend him out to you.
*If you would like to read my bishop’s lesson notes, please click here.