The third ward verses the seventh ward. Us verses them. Insiders verses outsiders. My buddies and I were third warders. We were full of ourselves. But why wouldn’t we be? Our ward display case was full of softball trophies. Our scouting program was full of Eagle scouts. Our report cards were full of A’s. And our bulletin board was full of missionary photos. By comparison, the guys in the seventh ward had few of those things. I needed those guys, but only to remind me how low they were. The lower I made them out to be, the higher I stood. Loving my neighbor didn’t apply to the seventh ward.
Dan arrived in town and moved into the seventh ward when he and I were about thirteen years old. He was a nice enough kid, but ward boundaries made him an outsider. I had my third ward friends. He just wasn’t one of them.
One day in a junior high school science class, Dan sat down on the tip of pencil I happened to be holding. I felt bad for doing it, but not bad enough to have kept me from doing it in the first place.
Dan and I attended the same schools, same dances, same seminary, and had our missionary farewells and homecomings in the same building. But our paths seldom crossed. As adults, we went our separate ways. In my early thirties, my young family and I moved into Dan’s ward. I was called to be his home teacher, and got to know him for the first time.
Dan worked as an Electronics Technician, and had made a career as a civilian working for the Goverment. He was skilled with circuit boards and other electrical doodads that would undoubtedly boggle my mind. As a fix-it man, he’d take stuff that didn’t work and turn it into stuff that did work.
I became a Licensed Professional Counselor. As such, I had developed the capacity to feel empathy for virtually all my clients, to enter their world in a sense, and validate them for their good and encourage them to do better. Multiple forces created them and multiple course corrections lay within their grasp. They often chose paths I wouldn’t have taken, but that was okay. I honored their right to exercise their agency, and believed any attempt to manipulate or coerce them violated the principle we all stood for in a distant veiled time and place.
Dan had grown into an outgoing, friendly, and respected man, both at work and in his ward. He cultivated rich and lasting friendships, and generously included me in his circle of friends. His generosity stung my adult conscience. Dan and his wife, hosted parties and barbeques, and opened up their swimming pool—possibly the only one in the whole town—to our families.
Dan, the conversationalist, and I, the professional listener, served each other well. He shared many stories from his childhood, and I began to see that, even though we had attended church in the same building, we had outrageously different experiences. While my buddies and I were studying chemistry together, many of the boys in his neighborhood were practicing the art of “better living through chemicals.” While our priest quorum advisor taught us to respect women, his advisor had the boys make an oath of secrecy before introducing them to his pornography stash. “You can’t tell anyone,” the advisor advised. “People won’t understand.” When our Sunday school teacher taught us the sacred value of chastity, his told the kids that it was all a big lie, that he and his girlfriend were having sex, that there was nothing wrong with it, and then he encouraged his students to share how far they’d gone. And while I taught the gospel and encouraged people to join the church as a young missionary, Dan’s mission president manipulated, coerced, and intimidated the missionaries into implementing a teaching program based on manipulation, coercion, and intimidation.
I wondered how I would have responded to a priest quorum advisor who used Play Boy and Hustler as lesson manuals. How would I have responded to a coercive mission program, especially after learning late in my mission that the program originated with the presiding general authority and my mission president despised the program as much as I did?
Dan seemed none the worse for wear. He had become a high priest and served where called, including positions of leadership. He even sat in judgment with other leaders and occasionally joined with them to turn insiders into outsiders.
I added his stories to hundreds of others I’d heard over the years and placed them on a shelf in my personal library. Other prominent stories in my library came from my work with victims of domestic violence. I had learned through their remarkably similar stories that trauma is usually the result of violated expectations. When a priesthood-bearing husband violates his wife’s expectation of respect, then she quite naturally loses respect for him. Her respect for “the priesthood,” however, usually remains intact. If, however, when she seeks help from “the Church,” and finds “the priesthood” aligning with her husband, then often the violation is too great to bear. She learns that not only is she married to an abuser, but that she is a member of an abusive church. The Church ceases to be “true” for her because her expectations have been violated at a foundational level. Sometimes she loses her faith in God, or perhaps worse, that if God exists, He’s the lead despot in a kingdom of aspiring despots.
After living in Dan’s ward for some six years, Sarah and I decided for the second time in our marriage to move far from our home communities—this time to a small town on an island in the pacific. I kept occasional contact with Dan for the next several years. He was fine. New home, new ward, new community. Promotions, raises, and professional success. Then last winter Dan called and told me he’d been reading about DNA and Book of Mormon archeology. “Did you know about that?” he asked.
“Yes, I’ve read a bit,” I said.
“And that book by Ferguson? My dad bases his testimony on that book. Did you know the author left the church?”
“Yes, I remember reading that.”
“How come you never told me?”
“What would I have said?”
“You know,” he said, “I used to tell my investigators that archeologists used the Book of Mormon to help them know where to dig.”
Dan found a listening ear with me—something not always easy to do when discussing the darker aspects of LDS history. He became consumed with discovering the truth. Every Google search result dripped burning acid on his foundational church circuit board. The Kinderhook Plates, the Book of Abraham, The Nauvoo Expositor, Adam/God, scriptural revisions and reversals, first vision accounts, peep stones, the Masons and the temple endowment, and the ugly details surrounding polygamy; standard fare for anti-Mormons. Each new discovery produced a new violation of his expectations until his expectations changed, and then each new discovery confirmed his new expectations. Always a man of deep integrity and still a conversationalist, Dan shared his findings with his wife, his neighbors, and his friends. Some would tell him, “Dan, I’ve learned to put those questions on the shelf for now.”
“You’ve got a mighty big shelf,” Dan would reply.
I spoke to him as a counselor would speak to a client, disclosing little of my own doubts and fears. We discussed Fowler’s stages of change, the process of grief, personality theory, our own family of origin issues, and the relativity of agency. One day he said, “What I did to those people on my mission was wrong. We actually lured people to the church to watch a movie, and then we’d take them in little classrooms and block the door until they got the right answer. I had women in tears. I hated it at first, but after a while I felt proud at how good I was at overcoming objections. I’d apologize if I could.”
We discussed the fact that his was not the only mission where such tactics were used.
“It didn’t start with us, ” he said, “and others have done far worse. I didn’t isolate young girls and women, some of them already married, and tell them they’d go to hell if they didn’t marry me.”
“You know, Dan. Some people consider those words to be blasphemy.”
“But if it’s true, isn’t is blasphemy not to speak them?”
“I don’t get it. The general authority who forced us to force people into the church gets up in general conference and bears his testimony. But if I dare mention the truth, then I’m at risk of excommunication.”
“We’re not very good at loving our enemies,” I said.
“A little dramatic, but the same concept.”
“But I’m not bragging about killing the prophet.”
“No, but you’re slam dunking our image of the prophet.”
“Move slowly, Dan. You’re not the first to walk this path.”
“No, but it’s my first time.”
“Some come out stronger for it.”
“I’ve got bishops taking me out for lunch, and family and friends praying for my apostate soul.”
“I believe an apostate is someone who fails to honor his own conscience. Some people who stay in the church are apostates, and some people who leave are saints.”
“Now that’s apostate,” Dan said. “And I couldn’t agree more.”
Dan scares me. As a boy and young missionary, he survived a fair number of church related violated expectations. Now, as a middle-aged adult, his new beliefs separate him from the mainstream church. He’s become an outsider—one of them. Of course, the new Dan places tremendous stress on the key people in his life—his wife, family, and friends—and they are dealing with their own violated expectations. What makes a guy like Dan respond to church history the way he does? What keeps more of us from joining him? Why do we love those who investigate themselves into the church and despise those who investigate themselves out? Why is it okay for our leaders to declare they’re not perfect, but it’s not acceptable for members to actually discuss their mistakes and declare them to be so? And if we can’t discuss their mistakes, don’t we increase our chances of repeating them—just as Dan and thousands of other missionaries were coerced to do in their formative years? Is it courage or foolishness that motivates Dan to share his findings? Is it prudence or cowardice that keeps my mouth shut? Am I apostate for staying, apostate for holding back, or apostate for leaving “Zion” and hiding out in my isolated little town?
I don’t know for sure. Maybe I’m just the lukewarm water that God is going to spew out at the last day. But I do know that I’ve seen too much good to leave and too much bad to fully join in. At any rate, Dan’s right. I keep a mighty big shelf in my library. Sometimes I peruse a few pages, sometimes I speed read, and occasionally I concentrate enough to imprint violating images upon my mind. I squirm in the presence of my shelf. But it’s only one shelf in an entire library. I’m not willing to forget all the other shelves and the books and stories I keep on those shelves that have nourished me over the years.
Recently the Southwesterly winds stirred up the seas. I hiked with a friend to a stunning place named Pucker Point. Granite cliffs, some fifty feet high, defiantly jut into the incoming surge as if to say, “Bring it on. I can take it.” Towering seawater walls exploded on the rocks, shooting tons of foaming water into the air, just out of our reach, and sometimes blocking our view of the sepia toned sky. I watched the waves roil and roll forward along each side of the point, until they rose up on land and then crashed back into themselves. I positioned myself on the edge of the cliff to maximize my terror. I imagined myself sitting in a kayak in a small section of relatively calm waters. And then my stomach tightened as the next wall buried my imaginary self.
Waves like these waves have been crashing against the edge of the earth for millions, if not billions of years. I am both repulsed and drawn to them. I sense that for now at least, I’ll continue to search them out and experience them, just close enough to quake in their presence but far enough to remain on solid rock.
Sometimes I wish for a safer world, a world without military bases, domestic violence therapists, large shelves, and mangled circuit boards. Our scriptures suggest such a world has existed, but as inspiring as it sounds, it makes for poor reading. Stories are born of conflict, contradiction, paradox, good and evil, and overwhelming need. When those things are gone, stories end. As long as human nature remains unchanged, there will always exist one ward verses another, us verses them, and insiders verses outsiders. And good people like Dan will continue to seek out truth, and be violated in the process. Like the churning seas, Dan’s stories and the stories of so many others both repulse and draw me closer. I want to mourn with those who find themselves on the outside—bruised and hurting, but I fear the consequences of retelling their stories and honoring their choices. “Perfect love casteth out fear.” I wouldn’t know. I realize now that fear has been a major motivator all my life. When I was kid, I didn’t win those softball trophies and I dropped out of scouts as a tenderfoot. I huddled close to my third ward friends partially because I was afraid I didn’t measure up, and I might find myself on the outside. And, as much as I hate to admit it, all these years later, fear continues to motivate me. Who would I be without it? How would my life be different if I enjoyed perfect love? Perhaps it’s ironic that I’m afraid to consider those questions too deeply.
I don’t know much for certain. But I know that the seas of the world are crashing against ancient rocks this very moment, and I would guess they’ll continue to do so long after my shelf and Dan ‘s circuit boards are lost and forgotten. As a kid, loving outsiders like Dan didn’t really matter to me—it wasn’t safe. More and more I’m coming to believe that loving Dan and everyone else is just about the only thing that really does matter—safe or not.
We’d like to thank our friend from Sunstone for submitting the above post