If the Mormon family came to me for therapy this week, it would be Molly, 5 adult children, and Peter, her husband, coming to talk about Thanksgiving dinner next week.
Me: Hey, Molly…. Peter, it’s good to see you again. Sounds like things have changed a bit. You’ve brought some friends with you, this time? How are you?
Molly: Yes, these are our children. This is Adam and his twin sister Eve. This is Steve and that’s Amanda, they are friends of Adam and Eve’s. This is our adopted child – Penny, her birth mother is a Colored, err, African-American… descended woman. Kids, come on in & introduce yourselves.
Adam: Oh, mother. We aren’t kids anymore. We’re all over 18 and can make our own legal decisions as upheld by the law. Hi, LaShawn. This is Steve, my spouse. Mom isn’t quite used to the idea, yet.
Eve: *raises hand* Same. This is Amanda. We had joint wedding ceremonies this summer and this is our first set of holidays together with the extended family.
Me: Hi Steve, Adam, nice to meet you. Thanks for coming today. Eve, Amanda, pleasure. And you’re Penny?
Penny: Yeah, hi. I’m just here because they all keep bringing me into the conversation. They do this all the time. My spouse couldn’t come today.
Me: So, help me understand what’s happening. Peter, how about you start us off.
Peter: LaShawn, it’s like this… Thanksgiving is next week and we’re trying to be fair to everyone in the family with expectations about how we’ll spend the holidays with all of these changes that have been happening. We had a family meeting and came up with a decision that keeps everyone safe and establishes a standard expectation of behavior. You know we value families. We’re trying to express to our kids that we value them and their….friends. We just have beliefs that are really important to us. We’re starting to feel attacked and disrespected, to be honest.
Me: Okay, the holidays can be a hard time for families in general. It sounds like you all tried to come to an agreement but you’re feeling stuck. Peter, thanks for the update.
Eve: LaShawn, if I may, our dad is leaving out some key information from the family meeting discussion that’s made this much bigger than he’s admitting.
Me: I’m interested in hearing everyone’s perspective, Eve.
Eve: Thank you. So, it’s true, we did have a family meeting about how we were going to spend the holidays, as we’ve all been in long-term relationships and only recently married as of this summer. While we were looking forward to starting new traditions, mom and dad made this really weird change about who can come to family dinner. They said that we can come and bring our spouses, which is fine, but then they said that our children aren’t allowed to come unless they are 18.
Me: How old are your kids now?
Eve: They range from 3, 7, 12, and 16 between me, my brother, and our spouses.
Me: That seems like a bit of a dilemma.
Molly: It’s not. This is just to protect their kids from hearing any discussions that might confuse them or cause contention when they go back home after Thanksgiving dinner.
Adam: Yes, it’s some new family “policy” that just feels like a veiled attempt to tear our families apart. It’s just like what they did to Penny before the adoption was final in 1978.
Penny: *mumbling* except that it’s not…
Peter: I didn’t hear you complaining when we had the policy with Penny and her family where they could only come for the appetizer but not the main course or dessert. You guys always liked having more turkey and pie and taking home left overs. Why the sudden change?
Adam: That’s because everybody treated Penny like that, so it was normal for you guys to do it too. We just hoped that maybe you had learned from treating her that way and wouldn’t treat us that way too. Nobody else is treating us that way. What gives you the right?
Molly: But Penny didn’t even complain and make a fuss like you guys are doing. We prayed and received revelation that she could stay for the full Thanksgiving dinner. Forget what we said before then. It didn’t matter. We even stopped inviting Elder Petersen over. Even now, Penny still lets you all eat first and reminds you to save a seat for her at the table, which you never do, so she’s been creative and just brings her own chairs. She is so forward thinking. You all could learn something from her. LaShawn, we used to always have to get some of the folding chairs for her and her family and the extra table in the other room. Still, she trusted that we were doing what was in her best interest.
Penny: That’s not necessarily true…
Eve: Fine. Listen, it’s different now. She gets to come and stay for the whole time. You don’t say that her kids can’t come until they are 18 unless they disown her.
Penny: Guys… can you leave me out of this? I’ve had a totally different experience than any of y’all are even saying right now.
Peter: Dis-AVOW, not disown. There’s a difference. We want your kids to disavow that you and your friends are actually married. We don’t believe that it’s right. They can still love you as their parents. Just like we love you as our children.
Steve: But what about Penny? She married Jeffrey from that small town in South Dakota and their marriage wasn’t legal until 1964 because he isn’t even black! Her kids don’t have to disavow them or their marriage.
Penny: Y’all. Please…. Stop. Jeff isn’t even here right now, it’s not fair to talk about him, or me, or our relationship or our family when we have nothing to do with what’s going on with Thanksgiving dinner next week. We have other things to worry about.
Molly: Well, you know, we actually have done much better ever since Penny and her family started staying for the entire dinner. Just this past weekend, we were remarking about how welcoming we were. The Newsroom spontaneously re-released the article we shared a few years ago after that one gospel topic was updated the weekend that that nice man in South Africa died. Obama’s cousin… you remember.
Eve: Mom, it was Nelson Mandela. He’s not related to Obama. Nobody even saw the gospel topic update anyway. It’s been 2 years and people still haven’t read it, let alone know that it exists. It’s not like i’s being read from the pulpit or discussed at General Conference. Some people think it’s just a public relations issue. And if teachers try to use it in class, they get worried, with good reason. Plus, you had 2 of Penny’s second cousins saying that they always got to eat Thanksgiving dinner with you and never had to bring their own chairs to do so, as if that makes it true for everyone.
Penny: Again, y’all. Leave my name out of this, please. Folks will start poppin off… you know what? never mind.
Molly: Well it sure did make us feel better to hear from those two brothers about how welcoming and accepting we are. I don’t know why you just can’t believe them and stop protesting this change in family policy. We accept you and we totally disavow that we ever treated Penny poorly. See? We disavow those things we don’t like, and then we just get on with living. You should try it!
Peter: See, LaShawn? We just can’t get them to understand that we’re doing what’s best for them. Can you help us figure this out?
Me: You know, family identities are complicated and evolving. They’re an experience of crisis and commitment. It sounds like you are in crisis and struggling with the direction that commitment may take you. You all are no exception. Life demands much of us, and not all of it is contained in a handbook. You didn’t get here overnight and we can’t make any significant changes to your situation in an instant that would be long-lasting. It sounds to me like each of you are hurting and feeling unheard, all at the same time, yet you aren’t able to really talk to each other unless you’re referencing Penny’s experience.
Penny: They always do this, though. Whenever they have an issue with each other, my name comes up because my siblings think they’re being treated as poorly as I was – and, in many ways, continue to be in and outside of the family, but definitely by our family. They think that because things changed on paper in 1978 that everything is fine now as if I don’t still bring my own chairs to the table every Thanksgiving.
Me: So, let me ask…. Molly, Peter, Adam, Eve…. What makes Penny’s story so significant for each of you that your own story has a hard time standing alone?
Adam: It’s like we’re repeating a really bad recipe that gives everybody food poisoning at what should be the best meal and the best gathering of family all of the time. I don’t know why we reference Penny so much. Maybe it’s because she’s been really strong through this and we want to be strong too if Mom and Dad aren’t going to change this policy and we all have to choose between our kids and our parents instead of making them choose between their parents and the best dinner of their lives with their grandparents, parents, and cousins.
Eve: I guess I thought Penny was over it. I didn’t know she’s still going through it. I never really realized she still brings her own chairs to dinner each year. I never noticed that there wasn’t room for her at the table because we added our spouses before we added her family… Our family. I don’t think I understood how much this hurts until I realized I was being treated like Penny. My first instinct is to complain so that I can avoid the shame and stigma of being excluded. I’ve never NOT been part of the family and it hurts to be on the outside when I look just like you. I just thought that was something you did to others because of what we were taught to believe about them being less valiant, less worthy, just because their skin color is different. I don’t like it being done to me.
Molly: Well, we don’t want to treat any of our children poorly. We just want what’s best for you and what will keep the right people making the food for Thanksgiving every year using the recipes we have enjoyed for so long.
Adam: But mom, a recipe is a recipe. It shouldn’t matter who’s making the food if we all have the same guiding principle behind our actions – love and fellowship with each other. That’s what makes a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner and gathering each year. We all want the same things.
Molly: I know, but what will the neighbors think if all of you are in the kitchen cooking the same traditional food that I cook?
Me: Molly, if I can interrupt you, I’d say your neighbors, who have learned to respect you because of the hardships you and Peter have endured – would see your kids cooking and it would make sense. You understand what I’m saying about the experiences you share that are similar to Penny? Remember when your ancestors were closer with her birth parents’ side of the family and other relatives? Remember when you actually were treated like black people? You were racialized and ostracized for being Mormon? And how you survived? You had a decent relationship with some of Penny’s ancestors at that time. It was unheard of in this country.
Peter: Yes, they would talk about Brother Elijah coming to the table and Sister Jane. Brother Flake. Brother Lay. They brought their own chairs too. But Elijah had a place and he always tried to save a place for them. He always did. They were strong. We leaned on each other. We leaned on them.
Me: And what happened?
Peter: Well, I guess we forgot about those times and those relationships. We got so comfortable finally being accepted as regular Americans that the best way for us to maintain that comfort was to distance ourselves from our friends. We didn’t want to be treated like that. It’s as if we’re never too far away from being right back there even now.
Me: And that has caused, and continues to cause, pain, because now these are your children and grandchildren going through pain from your hands. You are their parents, not strangers in the government. The government is actually attempting to relieve pain and it’s as though you’re moving in the opposite direction. You say it’s for protection, but I’m not sure whose protection is really at stake. If the neighbors see your kids in the kitchen next week, they’ll probably think that there are awesome cooks at your house, and if they are lucky, they’ll know that you’re all related and full of love unfeigned toward each other. True charity. Imagine the variety of dishes your children bring to the family. Maybe there are some signature dishes they can make with the same family ingredients?
Eve: Seriously, we’ve learned so much from you, mom, about how to be good cooks in this restaurant called Life. We want our kids to experience what we’ve experienced. Do you think we can talk about this policy and suggest some changes as a family that work for all of us?
This story is ongoing, and it’s kind of like a “choose your own adventure” book where the ending depends on the choices made. There is no answer at the moment. And there may be some time before we truly get clarity as to why we are where we are as a Church family. All I can say is, be brave, Saints.
I’ve cried a lot this month.
I’ve felt pain and I’ve watched suffering.
I’ve cried to think that I belong to a Church that’s inflicting a pain I even wondered if I could endure if I was a member before 1978. But I have been blessed with wonderful people in my life and a special relationship with my Father in heaven. My hometeachers gave me a lesson just last night that I knew needed to be part of my post today.
To my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters in the faith, I share with you what was shared with me, from Elder Eyring’s September 2015 Presidency Message.
Speaking of his father’s battle with cancer, he says:
“His parents had taught him by example to pray as if he spoke to God and that God would answer him in love. He needed that example to the end. When the pain became intense, we found him in the morning on his knees by the bed. He had been too weak to get back into bed. He told us he had been praying to ask his Heavenly Father why he had to suffer so much when he had always tried to be good. He said a kindly answer came: “God needs brave sons.”
So, I say to you: Be Brave, Saints.
This is hard and this hurts. This may not change overnight because we, as a Church family, didn’t get here overnight.
This is not new, Saints. This is the Vineyard.
Laboring in this Vineyard is tough work. It is as much soul-grinding work as it is soul-refining work. Are you ready to suit up? I think our Coach is putting more of us in the game.
Welcome to the Vineyard, Laborers. However late your arrival, our reward is the same because our worth is the same in the sight of our God.
I know that this is unfamiliar territory, in some ways, for you, to be fully excluded from an identity that runs to your core. You have had much support from members of our faith who identify with you much easier than they will identify with me. Please bear this in mind and let it buoy you.
In doing so, honor your developing story because it is yours.
Honor my ongoing story because it is mine.
Honor our shared stories as members of the same faith. Use our common ground as faithful Saints to keep the comparisons from cheapening the myriad lived experiences.
Remember that Mormons know persecution and most often have chosen to be brave. Though we identify with our Mormon-ness in different ways, it is our faith that binds us together as one Body and one Fold.
God needs brave children. God needs brave you. God needs brave me. Some of us will be brave on the inside. Some of us will leave and be brave on the outside. Still, we must all be brave. When we feel imprisoned for our faith or our testimonies, as Paul was (Phillipians 1:12-18), we must know that the Gospel moves on and it moves through us wherever we stand. Through good recipes and food poisoning, we are examples of the believers in this Vineyard of the gospel doing the best that we can with what we have.
Be Brave, Saints.