Rejoice in the Diversity of our Sisterhood: A Samoan Mormon Feminist Voice on #OrdainWomen

This blogpost was originally posted on the Young Mormon Feminist blog, April 19th 2014. The author, Lani Wendt Young is a Samoan/NZ Maori writer, blogger and author of eight books.

I was driving home from church one Sunday in Samoa, when I saw a couple dressed in church clothes, having an altercation by the roadside. The man was shouting, dragging the woman ( his wife?) by the hair with one hand.  With the other he held his scriptures and was using them to beat her around the face and head as she cowered and struggled. Two small children stood to the side, crying.

It’s been a long time now, but that’s an image I have never forgotten. The symbolism brutally obvious. A man using the weight of scripture and religious authority to subdue a woman.

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My name is Lani Wendt Young. I consider it a blessing and privilege to have been born and raised in the LDS church in Samoa. I was taught from an early age that I am a child of Heavenly parents and that my elder brother Jesus Christ is to be my example in all things. I am a feminist because my Saviour is. “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God.”

On Saturday April 5th, 2014 a woman named Shayla Hudson carried my name with her as she walked with five hundred supporters of Ordain Women (OW) to the Tabernacle in Temple Square and asked for admission to the General Priesthood session of Conference. Because of Shayla, I was able to lend my quiet, faraway voice to those articulating issues of gender inequality in our church. Seeking ordination is not my cause, but I support efforts to ask for change when it comes to women in this gospel.

There are many who find OW offensive and threatening. A common criticism I see across social media is along the lines of: “I’m an LDS woman and I feel equal. I’m happy with the church as it is and I don’t want the Priesthood…Out of millions of people in this church, there’s only 500 of you!”

In other words, you’re in the minority so your experience, feelings and thoughts don’t count. Shut up and sit down. This seems at odds with the teachings of Christ who urged us to seek out the one, to value the needs, hurts, the testimony and faith of  even the least among us. What happened to our baptismal covenant to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ and ‘comfort those who stand in need of comfort’? Just because we may not agree with their views and may not have had similar disheartening experiences in the gospel – doesn’t mean we should condemn the women of OW and tell them to ‘leave the church if you don’t like it!’ I am reminded of the wise counsel of Chieko Okazaki, ‘Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood…it is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts.’  (It seems the rejoicing in our diversity is sorely lacking when it comes to  critics of OW…)

I also challenge this critique because it counts me in the millions, it assumes the agreement of all my Samoan sisters and brothers here in the Pacific and anyone else, anywhere outside the Utah Mormon bubble. Just because we don’t walk on Temple Square, doesn’t mean we don’t support OW, or that we don’t want to participate in discussions about the position of women in our faith. And even if we don’t support women’s ordination, it doesn’t mean that we too are happy with everything and “feel equal”.

The women I serve with are busy trying to live the gospel as they work, raise children and contribute to family and village duties. Their faith is a strength and an example to me. Their testimony nurtures my own. But due to a combination of factors, that include the intersection of culture and religion – many of my sisters are hurting.

Samoans are proud to tell you we are a Christian nation founded on God,  Fa’avae i le Atua o Samoa. Schools begin each day with prayer, hymns and scripture, and the whole country shuts down on the Sabbath. We have multiple churches in every village and families contribute great amounts of money and time to their religions. Almost forty percent of the country is LDS.

And yet, ours is a country rife with abuse. One Judge who sees such cases come through his courtroom every week, said that “the sexual assault of young girls by mature males is becoming an epidemic.” One study estimates that over fifty percent of women in Samoa have experienced some form of violence in their families. A disturbing survey showed that sixty percent of women believed that a woman deserved to be hit by her partner ( or his family) for a number of reasons, including serving him burnt food for dinner. Almost every Samoan I know has a story to tell of childhood abuse – often relayed amidst much laughter – about beatings from older cousins, parents and even teachers and pastors, using brooms, metal pipes, pieces of lumber, belts and frying pans.  These are only the barest hints of a widespread and deeply ingrained attitude that sanctions and normalizes violence – particularly against women and children.

Many of our LDS families are no exception to this attitude. Yes, the gospel teaches us that such behaviour is wrong. Yes, lesson manuals instruct us on how a man who holds the Priesthood should behave, how he should treat the women in his life.  But as long as men continue to hold all the leadership positions in this church, as long as women are told in the temple they covenant to the Lord through their husbands, as long as only men sit in judgement on a disciplinary council making decisions about a woman’s worthiness, as long as a woman’s divine worth is too often assigned to her biological capacity for growing babies…the list goes on… As long as these things ‘are the way it is’ in our church culture and doctrine – then both men and women will continue to use these structures as excuses and rationalization for abuse.

I personally don’t want to hold the Priesthood. (Beyond how we women participate in it inside the temple.) But through my various callings and my work I am troubled.  – I have felt the pain of my sister, a second wife, troubled by questions of our polygamous past and wondering where she will “fit” in the kingdoms to come – because her divorced husband has been sealed to more than one woman. I have seen the strength of my single sister as she struggles to remain faithful in a church that tells her marriage is the highest order of the Priesthood and a woman can only share in the priesthood authority of her husband. I have wept with my sister who can never have children and listened with her as leaders tell us that ‘men get the Priesthood and women get motherhood.’  I have felt the shame and discomfort of my repentant sister who must confess her sexual sins before a disciplinary council made up entirely of men. I have been in stake leadership meetings, one of only two women present in a room of twenty men – as they plan how to best serve the needs of several thousand people, where more than half of those thousands are female. I have been horrified when leaders tell a rape survivor that she needs to repent, a beaten wife that she needs to be submissive and have more humility, a teenage girl that she needs to make sure she dresses modestly so she doesn’t tempt a boy to sin because she will be “like a plate of raw meat left uncovered that attracts flies.” And  I have been angry on behalf of my sister who endures an abusive husband as he uses a triple heavy weight rationalization for his behaviour:

1.      Religion:I have the Priesthood and God said I’m the head of the family.

2.      Culture: I’m a matai, a chief. You are just a wife. You serve. And if we are living with my family, then you serve my mother and my sisters too. Because in our society kinship trumps marriage. ‘O le tuafafine o le ioimata o lana tuagane.’ A sister is the pupil of her brother’s eye. A sister is honoured, respected and listened to by her brothers. But a wife has little or no status.

3.      Biology: I’m a man. I’m bigger, stronger, better.

It’s not enough to tell these sisters to pray harder, be more patient in their afflictions, and ‘the Lord’s church is perfect but people are imperfect’ (so suck it up and smile?) It’s not enough to just get a lesson or talk on this issue once a year, employing vague terms and platitudes – especially not in Samoa when physical/sexual abuse are such a widespread problem.

I don’t know if priesthood ordination is the remedy for these hurts. But I very much want there to be forums available for us to have these difficult but necessary conversations about gender inequality in the church, conversations that are specific to women’s varied cultural experiences worldwide in this growing international church.

Specific to Pasifika LDS women in New Zealand and Samoa, I ask:

Instead of official letters issued from Church headquarters and read in our wards about how marriage equality is a threat to “the family” –  where are the letters condemning violence in the home, calling on men (and women) to stop beating each other and their children?

When the Chairman for the National Council of Churches in Samoa, tells women they need to make sure they bite and scratch their rapist because otherwise we will “know that she wanted it” and the reason why there’s so many social problems in Samoa is because young people have had “too much education and too much focus on rights” – where are the voices of local LDS church leaders speaking out against such harmful counsel from a spiritual leader?

Samoa is in dire need of trained counsellors and treatment programs to help abusers and survivors. The LDS church could take the lead in this area. Instead of beating the dead horse of ‘temple attendance and family home evening will fix everything and everyone’ – how about we acknowledge that our families have some serious problems and prioritize church funds to establish an agency similar to LDS Family Services, nationwide here?  Instead of paying to train more missionaries to go convert people, let’s put some of those funds into  training our Bishops, RS Presidents and other ward leaders how to better respond to and help those in their congregations that are living in abusive families. That way, the next time a woman sports a black eye at church, the Bishop can do more then tell her husband he can’t take the Sacrament for three months. (Oh, and pray more as a couple.) The Bishop can also refer the abuser to a therapist and make his attendance at an anger management program mandatory for future church participation. What would make these changes even more effective, is if the Relief Society president was consulted and included every step of the way as individuals, couples and families seek REAL help in their journey of healing.

I do not ask these questions because I am fiapoto. Apostate. A man-hater. Or seeking to cause trouble for this church. I ask them because I know we are children of God and our Heavenly parents love us and want us to be happy. ‘Men (and women) are that they might have joy.’ I ask these questions because I believe we can do better. I know our elder brother Jesus Christ wants us to be better at this. This is a church of ongoing, continuing revelation and there is room for change, for improvement.

I may never meet Shayla Hudson and those who walked with her last year, I may not be convinced that priesthood ordination is the answer, but I am grateful for the courage and strength of their convictions. Their personal circumstances and possibly their gospel experiences may be very different from mine – a big brown Mormon woman who has five children, writes books and blogs, and lives on an island in the South Pacific. But what connects us is a sincere desire to be better disciples of Christ, better sisters in Zion. I can rejoice in that which unites us AND that which sets us apart.

I can rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood.

Can you? 

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