Rebecca Worthen Chandler
REBECCA WORTHEN CHANDLER lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and teaches English
at Laurel School, a private girls’ school. She and her husband, Neal, are the
parents of eight children, and she contributes to Dialogue, Sunstone,
and Exponent II. She
delivered an earlier version of this paper at the Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake
City, August 1992, and at the subsequent Midwest Sunstone Symposium. All of the
names in this essay are pseudonyms.
We were a group of women who had absolutely everything in common. Together we
had organized ward parties, run Primary, directed road shows, planned work
meetings, gone visiting teaching, chaperoned youth dances, gotten out the ward
newsletter, taken the girls to camp. We had driven six or eight hours to the
temple; cared for each other’s children; celebrated births and birthdays,
landmarks and anniversaries; and had, from time to time, been more than willing
to bear one another’s burdens.
This Sunday evening convocation in Kirsten’s living room could have been
any one of a long series of evenings that over a decade or more had featured
mostly talking. Sometimes we had characterized ourselves as the Shaker Heights
Fine Needlework Society (or, less formally, Stitch-n-Bitch) and sewed or quilted
while we talked. Sometimes we met as a self-styled literary society with an
agreed-upon paperback as the centerpiece of conversation. Other times we were
the GGP (that’s the Great Games Players) and worked our way around the
perimeters of various board games in a plodding sort of way as we talked.
Husbands were sometimes invited to these sessions but only if they were more
interested in talking than in winning. Usually they stayed home.
We had never met regularly, or even all that frequently—it’s just that
there had been a remarkable lot of water over the dam in the years we had known
each other. This particular Sunday might have been as unremarkable as any of the
evenings that had proceeded it—except that it wasn’t. We, who had never been
at a loss for words, who had vied for the conversational floor, struggled to
fill the silences. We groped, not just for words, but for the right words, or at
least not the wrong words, clinging to the tenuous strands of our friendship,
determined to preserve what we could—to do no further damage.
Tern Lynn was back from Syracuse. Her visit had occasioned this gathering.
She told us she was fine. She insisted that she was fine. Everything was going
to be fine. Brent and the two older girls were moving back to Cleveland. She and
Brittany would find a small apartment near the hospital where she had found a
job. It was fine. She preferred it this way. Really.
Yes. The fact that, when they moved away, they had left the Church as well as
our ward behind them probably had made this inevitable denouement less painful.
But that was okay too. It was fine this way.
Marilyn was fine, too. She had spent nearly a year—closer to a decade or
two actually—weighing this decision, and it was a tremendous relief to have
finally cut herself loose. "It’s not that I’m never coming back,"
she assured us, but for now, attending her neighborhood Methodist church made
better sense. For twenty-odd years, Marilyn had struggled on the margins of
Mormonism. She had done all the right things, served in every imaginable
calling, forged friendships—but, she insisted, she had never really felt that
she fit. With us, maybe, but not into the mainstream.
Early on, in the 1970s, it was probably her political activism that had been
the problem. As students at Antioch College, she and Ted had attended a "para-military
ward" near the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where unconditional support
of the Vietnam War seemed to be a precondition for being deemed "truly
converted." Relentless peaceniks, they had angered ward members by what
they wore, by their participation in any number of demonstrations, by being
jailed. Unable to reconcile what was being preached (and prayed) over pulpits
and in classrooms and foyers at church with what they were reading and seeing
elsewhere, and generally ostracized for their unpopular politics anyway, they
had left the Church for a hiatus.
After graduation and after the birth of their first daughter, they had tried
again in a Southern California ward characterized by some political diversity.
The problem now was that Marilyn was in medical school—something that was
virtually unheard of for a wife and Mother in Zion twenty years ago. She now had
the evils-of-working-mothers doctrine to deal with and little acceptance by the
ward sisterhood as well. Moving to Cleveland four years later to start her
pediatric residency and Ted’s dental training, they had moved into the old
Cleveland Second Ward and found a more tolerant and more accepting LDS climate
than they had ever known. For the first time, Marilyn had made actual Mormon
friends. Ted was called into the bishopric. There was another hiatus— this
time, a very positive one. And it had lasted for a number of years. But lately,
things seemed to be coming apart. Just as they were dealing with some tough
problems personally and professionally, a new conservatism seemed to sweep
through the ward. Marilyn had been willing enough to brook criticism when it was
directed against her, but now her children were coming home on Sundays with the
same old grievances— some social, some theological, some political—many
gender-related. She wanted a safe place to worship that would support rather
than undermine her family’s values, and she started attending Sunday morning
services at the Church of the Savior concurrently with serving in the Primary
presidency on the afternoon block schedule in our ward. The annual January
schedule swap with the other ward had forced a choice between the two, and she
had made it. And it was fine. She was fine. It was good. She was happy.
That’s what she said.
I looked around the room. Karen hadn’t said much. She seldom did. But
lately we had come to see in Karen a quiet strength that had surprised many ward
members. Three years before, when her husband, Tom, was serving as bishop of our
ward, he had been stricken very suddenly with leukemia. The odds against
recovery had been tremendous, but he had fought hard—the whole ward had fought—and,
miraculously, he had beaten those odds and recovered. His convalescence had been
a slow one; but once he was reliably home, Karen had sized up the situation,
considered certain other odds, and enrolled in a nursing program at a community
college nearby. Raised in the Church, she had married young, had started her
family early, and had frankly never thought much about a life outside her home,
her five children, and her unrelenting Church service. Tom’s illness had
challenged all her assumptions. During his recovery, he had assumed the role of
house-husband, and she had studied. This summer she had graduated from the
program with honors. They were still married, and they were still active. Tom
was finally getting back to work. They had survived.
She was as clearly bewildered and distraught about what was happening to our
friends, though, as I was. Finally, and very uncharacteristically, she broached
the subject we had all been edging around: Why? Why did you have to deal with
your problems by leaving the Church rather than by using its strength to help
you solve them? What went wrong?
"Well, Karen, there are problems and there are problems." This from
Maryanne. "News of Tom’s illness went through the ward in possibly twenty
minutes, and people had to stand in line to bring you dinner or to drive you to
the hospital. We had a ward fast day—make that three ward fast days. People
were hovering around showing concern the whole time. I’m glad we did, and I’m
glad it helped. But what about the Bradfords? Their son’s situation was
every bit as potentially fatal as Tom’s was. But people spoke of it in
whispers, if at all. No one visited the treatment center—not even a home
teacher or a member of the bishopric. No meals, no offers of help. Nothing. What
support the family found, except for a very few close friends, all came from
outside the Church."
It was true. For the most part, the ward had shown itself capable of rallying
behind a troubled family only when the cause of grief was a socially acceptable
one. Angela had needed assistance with her young family when she was ill, and
ward members had helped with cooking, with cleaning, with laundry and
baby-sitting, but little had been said or done to help the family of one
suicidal teenage girl who had been repeatedly hospitalized. New mothers enjoyed
hot meals and baby showers; but when Kirsten’s alcoholic husband dropped out
of sight, members didn’t offer much but their curiosity. Marriages that
tottered on the brink of dissolution, did so quietly, generally with both
partners fading into inactivity, and the children lost somewhere along the way
Another silence, and then Kirsten spoke up. She didn’t pretend everything
was fine. But she did offer an explanation for the swollen lump on her forehead,
the broken blood vessel in her eye, and the bruises on her arms and legs.
"Bruce did it," she admitted, and she began to cry. This had happened
before. At first rarely, but then more and more often. My stomach sank, and I
sat there somehow condemned as well. Some of the group had known about this. I
was one who had not. How could we have let this happen to her?
Gradually the story unwound beginning with their courtship at Ricks College.
They had both been new converts, excited about the gospel and eager to adopt an
idealism that stood in stark contrast to some of the difficulties in both of
their backgrounds. They had wanted a good marriage—and it had been good.
Returning to Ohio, Bruce had found a good (well, a decent) job in Columbus. They
had three children and had been able to buy a home. He had been a wonderful
father. He had loved and played with the children; there were regular family
home evenings; they had been active in their ward. When he lost his job, they
had prayed about moving to Cleveland and had felt it was the right thing to do.
But things had unraveled. No job that he found seemed to last very long. They
borrowed repeatedly against the equity in their home and finally sold it
altogether. A fourth child was born. Pressures mounted, and Bruce resumed some
old habits with "substances." Remembering the good times, and the good
person within, it had been hard for Kirsten to draw the line. To find a
babysitter and a job. To seek a divorce. To limit his contact with her and with
the children. Until now. Now she had a restraining order. And now the children
didn’t want to see their father any more anyway. And Kirsten was supporting
her family by driving a cab—far too many evening and weekend hours.
She couldn’t remember when exactly she had given up on the Church, but she
figured it was probably about the same time the ward leadership had given up on
her. When she had needed help, when she had asked for it, there had been
restrictions and complications and embarrassing questions and delays. Years and
years of faithful service and paying tithes didn’t seem to qualify her for
financial help when she needed it most.
Now, thanks to the intercession of two or three friends, the ward seemed
willing to help, but on their terms only—terms she found unacceptable for a
number of reasons. On her own, she had some independence, some dignity. Tim
could play soccer, and Elizabeth could have a new bike. Efforts were clearly
being made to "fellowship the kids," and they did attend an occasional
youth activity; but for the most part, they had withdrawn into a tight little
family huddle, to fight the battles as they saw them—just the five of them.
She was okay about all this. Really. She was fine. Things were better now. She
would manage, now that she had that court order. It was going to be okay.
Karen and I exchanged glances. This was more than either one of us had
expected, and we seemed to be outnumbered here. Angela would have known what to
say. A convert from Catholicism, she was absolutely convinced of the truth of
the gospel—of the plan of salvation. She was very good about providing the
Eternal Perspective when the rest of us seemed grounded in mortal, purely
But Angela and Bill had felt uncomfortable in Cleveland Heights. Their
children had been harassed in school. As a family, they had fasted and prayed,
and they had felt impressed to move to Chardon—had been led to the exact right
house—in a neighborhood where the public schools were less problematic, and
the LDS youth programs were stronger.
It didn’t matter really. If we were to appeal to Angela for balance and
perspective, it would only be fair to bring back Nancy, too. Nancy who had
always been more "anxiously engaged in a good cause" than anyone I have
ever known. Who did compassionate service without being assigned, without
thinking almost, and with a flair that made the recipient feel cherished, not
just cared for. Who had the gift of hospitality, and who entertained endlessly,
amalgamating various ward elements into an enthusiastic group of people who
truly enjoyed each other’s company. Who sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family,
and eventually five more of their relatives, until her little house on Maple
Avenue was bursting with Asians eating her food, using her phone and her hot
water, and speaking in a foreign tongue. Nancy also did all the standard active
Mormon church lady things. She was in the Relief Society presidency; she taught
Gospel Doctrine; she wrote the roadshow—all of this for just shy of twenty
years. But news from Illinois, where they had moved when her husband had
(finally) finished his many medical residencies, had it that they, too, had
given up on the Church.
The last time I had been in Chicago and had had a chance to visit with her,
she had been in the throes of indecision. "I grew up in a nice little
Protestant church that taught me that God loves all his children, and that good
people everywhere go to heaven," she told me. "This Mormon
preoccupation with kingdoms and judgments, with recommends, and with who gets to
go in and who has to stay out, has been bothering me ever since I joined the
Church. I was honest with my bishop—I told him I had a lot of reservations—but
he encouraged us to be baptized anyway and resolve our difficulties with the
help of the Holy Ghost. Well, I guess I never did. I like Mormons, and I think
it is a good life-style, mostly. But lately, whenever I walk into a Mormon
chapel, my stomach sinks, and I just feel sick inside. The atmosphere is
absolutely repressive to me."
I ought to have responded with something more encouraging and sustaining than
I was able to do at the time, but I certainly didn’t feel in any position to
do so. This was hardly a woman whose priorities in actually living the gospel
needed any straightening out from me, and I found it hard to argue that all the
rest mattered as much as I’ve always been taught to believe it does.
It was getting late. Judging from the amount of fizzless soda left in the
two-liter bottles and the remaining Dorito crumbs in the bags, it must be time
to go. What else was there to say? That we cared about each other? That we
worried? That we supported each other even in decisions we had hoped would not
be made? That our friendships still mattered? What more?
I left my friends—my cherished friends—feeling as physically empty as I
ever have. Some reference to the last days was playing itself out in my mind—something
about the very elect falling. It’s not that I hadn’t been warned, it’s
just that I hadn’t expected this. Somehow, "the elect" had
always struck me as the pompous and self-satisfied——those who rather
deserved to fall. But these women ... They were the elect. What had gone
Most were converts. Their tap roots were not as deep as mine and had fewer
rhizomes. But they had certainly given Mormonism a fair trial. All had been
faithful, committed members of the Church for the better part of two decades.
And, I suspect and I fear that they are not unique. I am aware of a number of
childhood friends, former roommates, other associates from my young adult years
who have made similar, and, I am sure, equally painful, decisions.
Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine class we read about the apostasies during the
time of Alma which led to the inevitable discussion about apostasy and apostates
in general. "They’re bitter," the instructor explained,
"because they’ve tasted the sweetness of the gospel and denied its
truth." Was that the problem?
Variations on the "seeds of apostasy" lesson seem to come up with
some regularity. I’m sure I’ve given it myself more than once. But these
particular "apostates" don’t fit the pattern in the manual. They
haven’t discarded their garments so they can wear cocktail dresses, drink
forbidden substances, and go out looking for a good time. Except for Tern Lynn
(ironically, the only one of the group who was raised in the Church), all
continue to be active in a church community. Kirsten is attending the Society of
Friends; and Nancy, raised a Baptist, has found a compatible congregation near
her new home. They are now making donations of their time and their means with
the same fervor they once invested in our Mormon ward. They are doing their best
to lead upright lives and to teach their children to do the same.
I remain in the ward, bereft of friends and fellowship that in large measure
I once considered my reward for enduring church activity. The ward has survived
these defections, and it will survive others. On balance, statistically, the
Church continues to grow—if it’s sheer numbers that are important; but
despite a membership figure that has passed 10 million and a world-wide
sisterhood of 3 million, I think we must acknowledge that we are, as a
congregation, diminished by these loses.
When I was in high school, I remember reading John Donne’s Meditation 17
that concludes in part with these lines: "Every man is a peece of the
Continent, a part of the maine—if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is
the lesse as well as if a Promontorie were. ..." It seemed like a nice
sentiment to me at the time, but not one to which I could particularly relate.
Now, I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant.