If you were sitting in church and a member suddenly stumbled in, clutching his chest, and shouted, “I’ve been shot!” what would you do? Would anyone in their right mind say, “Well, wait a second here. Did you bring this on yourself? Did you do something to provoke it?”
Of course not. To a person, I think we would all leap from our seats and dash over to the wounded member. Cell phones would summon 911, the person would be led to a bench where he could lie down, and arms would cradle his head. Jackets would peel off various brethren as they gathered around to wrap up the victim, those with medical training would try to stop the bleeding—in short, the whole ward would rally to meet a real emergency. A blessing might be given while we wait for an ambulance.
Soon paramedics would arrive and begin every life-saving measure possible. The wounded person would be loaded onto a gurney and not one medic would quiz the victim about his role in this misfortune. Nobody would say, “Listen, before we treat you, I need to know if you were you hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
So why can’t we all have the same compassion when someone’s problem is just as serious, but hits them from another direction? Why can’t we all respond as Jesus did, and simply address the concern? He didn’t ask if a person invited evil spirits to plague him; he just healed the person. Sometimes that level of love is exactly what a person needs to heal spiritually, as well. To feel genuinely cared for is a world away from feeling judged and then found deserving of a limited measure of aid.
In Victor Hugo’s famous book, Les Miserables, a Catholic bishop catches Jean Valjean stealing silver candlesticks. How much more powerful, more healing is it that the bishop chooses not to lecture him on honesty, but instead to make the treasures a gift, the purchase price of his soul, for God?
Life’s trials are sometimes thrust upon us, and other times brought about by our unwise decisions. But must we weigh them before we rush in to help? Must we cock our head to one side and evaluate every beggar, as if we can truly see into his heart? The scriptures tell us to use righteous judgment, but how many of us wrap ourselves in that cloak as an excuse to be miserly with our compassion?
I know several members who are ashamed to come to church. They’re afraid they will be judged and found unworthy by, to quote them, “The Molly Mormons.”
Is it true? Among those who are trying to show unconditional love and the kind of charity Christ taught, are there members whose unmistakable looks of disdain pierce others’ hearts like a dagger? Why can’t someone burst in and shout, “My son got arrested!” or “I’ve been evicted!” or “I fell off the wagon again!” and know that we would rally to help them in any way possible?
Sure, it would be a bit unorthodox for someone to shout out such news, but are they in any less of an emergency than a gunshot victim? They need intense, immediate caring— both temporal and spiritual—and ought to be able to find it in our congregations.
I’ve often said that the way we Home Teach or Visit Teach shows Christ what we’ve learned on Sundays. But it’s also true that we show him by how we treat random members whose problems fall into the “shame” category. Are some of us so certain that these problems will never brush against our perfect families, that we feel justified distancing ourselves from such people? Does our pride fill us to overflowing, so that there is no room whatsoever, for compassion?
I recall, as a new mother, hearing older mothers talk of their heartache over their children’s sad choices. And I remember thinking, “Well, that will never happen to me.” And I would review my excellent mothering skills and decide this other woman must have tripped up in some way. I was naïve and stupid. And yes, it came back to bite me. Picture-perfect LDS families have cousins, siblings, and even immediate members, with heart-wrenching difficulties and problems. There IS no Molly Mormon!
No one has the right to look down their nose at anyone suffering. Christ, the only being who walked this planet and actually could have been justified doing that, didn’t even do it. Just the opposite—he reached out to the sinners, the outcasts of society, the lowest and the humblest. How then, can we in our grand imperfection, decide to step away from the lepers and deem them unqualified to associate with us?
Thankfully, our wards are filled with people who get it, who know that all suffering shares kinship, and will rally with everything from food and bedding, to a listening ear, when someone is in need. But… because of a few self-appointed judges, we also know members who are still hurting from the sting of rejection. I know members who have actually moved in the face of embarrassing crises, rather than face the critical looks and cold shoulders of certain ward members. You probably know a few, too.
Some time ago I was standing on the porch of a less active sister whose husband had just left her destitute with small children. Her heart was broken, her kids’ lives were shattered, and she had no income to count on as her suddenly unemployed husband moved to another state with his new girlfriend.
And she was embarrassed to come to church. What would all those perfect, Molly Mormon women think? How could she hold her head up in the face of such humiliation?
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “They would rally to help you! You’re not the one who should be embarrassed. You are the victim, the same as if you had been shot!”
She laughed at my exaggerated analogy, but I wasn’t exaggerating. How was her situation any less of an emergency than someone with a bullet in their chest? There was hemorrhaging of a sort here, and she needed a team to snap into action. And here we were, the church that could actually meet her temporal and spiritual needs, and instead of rushing to the very folks who could help her, she was pulling back in shame and embarrassment.
Some of that was of her own, manufactured imagining—she really hadn’t tested the waters yet. But if some of that was based on judgmental attitudes she had observed in other situations, then shame on us. How puny and without excuse we are, for creating a climate of “unwelcomeness,” and for sending a message that this is some kind of exclusive club for which only a handful can qualify.
I’m reminded of a wonderful poem by Marguerite Stewart, called Forgiveness Flour:
When I went to the door, at the whisper of knocking,
I saw Simeon Gantner’s daughter, Kathleen, standing
There, in her shawl and her shame, sent to ask
“Forgiveness Flour” for her bread. “Forgiveness Flour,”
We call it in our corner. If one has erred, one
Is sent to ask for flour of his neighbors. If they loan it
To him, that means he can stay, but if they refuse, he had
Best take himself off.
I looked at Kathleen . . .
What a jewel of a daughter, though not much like her
Father, more’s the pity. “I’ll give you flour,” I
Said, and went to measure it. Measuring was the rub.
If I gave too much, neighbors would think I made sin
Easy, but if I gave too little, they would label me
“Close.” While I stood measuring, Joel, my husband
Came in from the mill, a great bag of flour on his
Shoulder, and seeing her there, shrinking in the
Doorway, he tossed the bag at her feet. “Here, take
All of it.” And so she had flour enough for many loaves,
While I stood measuring.
Each of us will be shot at in life, so to speak. Sometimes we’ll miss the bullet, sometimes we’ll go years without it even grazing our coats. But sometimes it will pierce us and bring us to our knees. It may, or may not, result from our own choices. But at those wrenching moments I hope we will find love and acceptance among our LDS ward families, dozens of loving friends who serve without judging and who rescue souls as if they’re on Christ’s official Emergency Response Team. Really, isn’t that just different wording for the covenants we renew every week, to keep the commandments and love one another?