LEAH: Last Sunday, before I drove my family to our local Protestant church, I chose between between being mean and on time, or late and kind. I opted for the latter, and the six of us trooped in to the chapel during the first hymn.
The only pew with enough room for us was near the front (isn’t that always how it works?), and had a single occupant: a frail older lady. She saw us, smiled and patted the pew, and then scooted over to make room for our rustling winter coats and wriggling little kids.
We’ve all heard horror stories about people being mean to kids and about noise at church. Often these stories indicate an age rift, where older people complain about younger families: “Get off my pew!”
Nothing like that happened here. We were surrounded by older folks, and they were nothing but nice to us, even when my four-year-old insisted on being rocked, and my six-year-old eagerly waved at our pastor. They smiled reassuringly at us, and, after the final “Amen,” said that they’d enjoyed having us there, that they love the sounds of children, and that they hope we’ll be back next week.
This mirrors my best experiences with loving grandparent-types in LDS congregations, and I was grateful for it. Who doesn’t love feeling wanted, despite one’s feared public deficiencies? Their welcome reminded me not to regard my kids and their noise as adversaries, and invited me to wonder if I’d given these older brothers and sisters enough appreciation in return.
Another common American church horror story is the one that suggests mainline Protestant congregations are nearly extinct. I’ve been Mormon all my life, and I’ve done my share of quoting sociologists and sharing statistics with other Mormons. Through a Mormon filter, it’s easy to think the demographics display a kind of religious survival-of-the-fittest principle that proves God’s favor moved from stagnant non-Mormon churches to fertile, truer, better-in-every-way LDS churches, where the pews fairly burst with children.
There was a time I liked this triumphant narrative, mostly because I’ve fairly bursted with children myself. I’ve spent my entire adulthood making babies and then taking babies to church, where I sweated bullets trying to keep them quiet as Puritans for three hours. These enthusiastic demographic apologetics were usually repeated by Mormon men, often denigrating graying Protestant congregations, and—now, to my shame—I liked that, too, because it was one of the only times I heard these men imply that young mothers matter. It was one of the few times I saw myself in the church narrative.
Women are rarely seen in the LDS church; it’s led by a crowd of male octogenarians and, off to one side, nine women. The men project an image of wealth, power and maleness, a quorum of CEOs. None of the nine women looked anything like me, or the other moms I knew. No babies on one hip, no machine-washable clothing; the women look just like the men, but pastel, and with skirts. The message to me as a young mom was clear: I could have children, so long as I didn’t look or act like I did. It was best if I could look like a powerful, child-free male, but in pink. In other words: if I wanted to have value, I needed to be the opposite of a widow.
I longed to be recognized by men in my church as more than just an invisible broodmare or a holy house-elf. So I liked it when the apologists talked about young congregations. I existed in the estimation of a Mormon man. I was the matriarch of a demographically valuable Young Family that proved God’s church was winning, and I was doing it by having children and while wearing denim. That felt great.
That’s what I thought then. Yesterday, fresh from the widow’s kindness, I had to repent of my earlier arrogance, and confront my acquired assumption that the “winning” churches are ones with young people. Mormons are the last people who can afford to scorn the elderly, and that ageism becomes absurd when I compare the gerontocracy that leads the LDS church with the young, energetic mom who pastors my congregation.
Do I have more statistical value to the LDS church because I’m under 40, or because I’m married to a Mormon man? Are my husband and sons the only reasons the LDS church would bother to care that my daughters and I are attending another church where we’re visible and welcome? Why are we looking at people like they’re points on a scoreboard or cattle to be traded? That seems Biblical in the bad way.
The Old Testament is full of examples of how little women are worth, especially past their sexual prime. The New Testament shows that the Pharisees perpetuated this caste system, too. That’s why Jesus’ loving, respectful treatment of forgotten women is so inspiring; that’s the counter-cultural power in the Savior’s story about the widow’s mite. God sees women; God sees what we have to give. The widow next to me just gave me and my noisy kids a smile, and that was enough for me.
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