Jana Riess: Mormonism’s tortured genius

The big-C Church may let me down, but the little-c church keeps a light of hope kindled in my heart.

These past few weeks have been something of a public relations nightmare for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It has tried twice to deny a recent Associated Press story documenting how the help line for Latter-day Saint bishops failed to help victims of sexual abuse in an Arizona family. The church insists the AP story “got it wrong” and says there were “egregious errors in reporting and editing.” While it raises an important question about the timeline of the abuse and the extent of what the bishop knew, the tone of the second news release is even more defensive than the first was. The release concludes with a pointed complaint about the way the church has been treated in the media’s investigation, as though the church were the real victim.

The “boohoo, we are so persecuted” tone that permeates the release is at odds with the last line, in which the church says “we are constantly striving to be better and to do more” to combat abuse. How can that be true, I wonder, when the overall message communicated by the release was “we did absolutely nothing wrong and will attack anyone who dares to suggest otherwise”?

How does an institution improve upon what is already, by its own account, unimpeachable?

So that’s been the news this month. It has been revolting.

Also this month, unfolding at the same time that the big-C Church has been tripping over itself in its haste to avoid blame and to assail investigative journalism, beautiful things have been happening in the little-c church all around me.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint historian Kate Holbrook speaks at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City in 2018. She died Aug. 20 at age 50.

My friend Kate Holbrook, who died Aug. 20, did so while surrounded by love from the untold numbers of people whose lives she touched. Many of these people were members of the church. Women from her ward, or congregation, held a vigil outside her house, singing hymns through their tears. People cleaned, babysat, baked cookies, told stories, brought casseroles. All wanted to make their love for Kate real through service to her and her family.

Her funeral Saturday was likely the most beautiful Latter-day Saint funeral service I’ve ever attended. The meetinghouse was packed with people who wanted to celebrate her life and also honor her wish that the funeral show forth the love of Jesus. And so it was, with speakers highlighting not only the compassion and the beautiful soul of the woman we were mourning but also the Savior who animated her to become that person. One of Kate’s young daughters wanted us to understand that while Kate made goodness look easy, it was a choice; it was effortful. She kept on choosing to love.

While I was in Salt Lake City for the funeral, I was missing out on an opportunity to love at home. My stake (regional) leaders in Cincinnati asked each ward and branch in our area to contribute at least 10 adults for hard labor all weekend in eastern Kentucky, mucking out the homes of people who had lost their homes in terrible flooding. Volunteers worked a 12-hour day on Saturday and a good part of Sunday as well. They brought their own tents, food, tools, N95 masks and bedding, prepared for hard physical labor. Because my calling is to be the historian of our ward and stake, someone texted me a photo of them in the early dawn on Saturday, all decked out in their bright yellow “Helping Hands” shirts and ready to roll.

My heart swelled with love. These are my people, and I’m proud to know them.

The genius of Mormonism has always been at the ward level for me, where people enact community on a daily basis. There’s nothing romantic about this, because it’s hard work. It’s like Kate’s daughter said: It’s a choice, an ongoing choice. Little decisions and habits add up to a lifestyle.

At the little-c level, I have always felt that the church makes me a better person. It puts me into wards with people I didn’t choose and don’t necessarily have a lot in common with, and prods me to build a life in common with them anyway. There is a general sense of equality in the little-c church: Yes, we have a bishop, and the bishop is the recognized leader of the community. But the bishop is also one of us, sharing in our fellowship and our struggles. We don’t stand on ceremony. We just dig in to help where needed, because we all have decided that we love Jesus, and we want to be around people who love him, too.

I don’t feel this way about the big-C Church. It has consistently refused to acknowledge fault when it’s done something wrong. It also won’t account for where its money is going. Both of those are basic, foundational spiritual disciplines we expect of every church member; why is the big-C Church given a pass?

The reality of Latter-day Saint life for me has always been that the little-c church is the way we bless the world. The genius of Mormonism is the little-c church. We need the big-C Church for administration — to provide the logistics of our service and make sure everyone is outfitted with a yellow Helping Hands shirt — but the institution is not the best part of us. The hierarchy more often seems to get in the way, which is the “tortured” part of the religion’s genius.

Every once in a while, however, there’s a moment of grace when I glimpse my two churches coming together. On Saturday after the funeral, I spotted apostle Gerrit W. Gong matter-of-factly stacking chairs at the back of the meetinghouses, just like any church member would do after a potluck or activity.

The sight of someone who, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, overtly represents the big-C Church pitching in to do what was needed for the little-c funeral was something I truly needed to witness. He wasn’t calling attention to himself or his service, just quietly helping.

More of that, please.