I find it funny that Mormon women have to organize a special day to wear pants to church. For so many reasons. But there it is. Just like a beard worn in the 1960’s or double-pierced ears in the 1990’s, the wearing of pants by women–at least in a formal church setting–signaled rebellion. To some Mormons, that is–the kind who may be a little too comfortable in their uncomfortable white shirt/tie combo or control top pantyhose. Regardless, LDS women, as a group, never followed the wider culture by adapting what they wear to church to reflect the fashion shift from skirts to pants. As the world changed, and as women resumed their place in the workforce after that weird post WWII period encapsulated in TV shows like Father Knows Best, wearing a skirt became a symbol of Mormon peculiarity. (And yes, Mormons like to be peculiar, which is a good thing. For obvious reasons.) Holding onto dresses was just one more way to make the Sabbath special in the face of 24/7 grocery stores and never-ending cable TV. But times, they are a-changin’.
Come Sunday, December 15th, 2013, the day anointed as the second annual Wear Pants to Church Day.
Normally, I avoid organized bandwagons, but I hopped on this one and wore slacks to church services. Why?
I like pants. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my first attraction to the event rested in my affection for comfortable clothes, the kind that don’t require me to keep my ankles crossed, a physical feat that my (ahem) shapely thighs don’t facilitate so well these days. That might’ve been enough for me to enlist, but when I learned the message the organizers were pushing as the goal of Wear Pants to Church Day, my thoughts turned from playful to serious.
Last year, the event received press as a protest regarding a woman’s place in the church. As my button makes clear (see above), I’m perfectly happy leaving the burdensome ecclesiastical jobs to the priesthood-holding men who sucker–I mean, agree–to take them on. In fact, I go all Sweet Brown at the thought of ordination. Well … okay. Joking aside, the truth is, if female ordination became a sanctioned reality, I’d get in line. Pretty quick. (Which LDS woman wouldn’t?) But it isn’t the reality, and that doesn’t rock my world. My point here is that Wear Pants to Church Day is not about female ordination. Its about something fundamental to the way we treat one another.
This year, the organizers did a great job of getting the word out that the event was intended to call attention to the need for increased inclusivity in our congregations. The basic idea being to have Relief Society sisters abandon their dresses for pants and priesthood holders, their staid ties for purple ones, in order to make themselves different, in order to remind us all to look past the outward and into the heart, and to cease from making petty judgments that alienate members and visitors who may not fit the Mormon stereotype in one way or another. I borrow the phrase from my Catholic upbringing: Wearing pants was an outward sign of inward grace.
Living outside the Book of Mormon belt, the majority of the members in my ward were clueless about the event or its meaning. I didn’t explain to anyone. All they knew was that Sister Downing (along with one other sister in the ward) exchanged her black skirt for black slacks. I made myself stand out, which was uncomfortable for me. You bet it was. But the beautiful thing is, absolutely no one treated me in any way differently than on any other Sunday even though they may not have known why I was breaking the unofficial dress code and even though they may have thought my pants meant something else entirely, beyond that I didn’t want to shave my legs. I was accepted, hairy legs and all.
My only hesitation in participating in the second annual Wear Pants to Church Day came because I find the premise that Mormons are unaccepting of what some movement followers are calling “misfits” a tad insulting, both to the “misfit” and to the general membership accused of excluding them. The Mormons I attend Church with are the most kind, most giving and forgiving, most sympathetic and empathetic collection of humans I could have the pleasure of knowing. Oh, we have our
jerks quirks, but they are the exception and not the rule. And yes yes yes, we have miles to go in some areas, most notably regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. And, in many ways, feminism. But we are progressing. Not long ago, a homosexual member would’ve been shunned simply for admitting s/he experienced same sex attraction. Now gay men and women hold leadership positions. Admittedly, with caveats. (More on this topic in a later post.) But as I said, the membership and the leadership is much more inclusive than it had been in previous generations. I note this because it demonstrates that Mormons, in a cultural and spiritual way, do want to be inclusive and are open to new ways of loving people, including those who are Other among us. Mormonism is often classified as the American religion. Well, yes; but no. We are worldwide. We are every culture, and North American Mormons are practiced in making room for the unfamiliar.
In other words, I hesitated to participate because it isn’t lost on me that, by participating, I could be sending the message that I think Mormons are, in a general way, a clique-ish and unwelcoming people. No, we aren’t perfect, but we are remarkable in more ways than not. I thought some might interpret me as saying, “Hey, we basically suck at including anyone who doesn’t fit our stereotype.” Which would a be judgmental thing for me to say or think. And an idea that is completely contrary to the point of the event. But it may also be a fair criticism of some participants. Maybe some only see our culture as excessively exclusive. I certainly can’t speak for anyone who holds such a negative, unkind and unrealistic view of practicing Latter-day Saints.
But what I can declare from the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul is that I understand that life is messy. Humans are complicated. People hurt and get hurt, usually by accident. Emphasis on “usually.” Most of us grow up. Eventually. I believe Latter-day Saints want to include everyone regardless of whether or not you left your cigarettes at the baptismal font, whether you are single or divorced, childless or overwhelmed with a dozen, and regardless of your political persuasion. (More on conflating conservatism with the gospel in a later post as well.) What we sometimes lack, like most people, is the social skill set to know what to–or not to–say to people who are different from us, maybe to those who are in the throes of a difficult personal struggle or who don’t think or behave in the same way we do. Being socially inept is not the same as rejection; sometimes a mainstream community can become isolated in such a way that lends itself to misunderstanding.
But not having the social wherewithal to comfortably speak to a widow left alone with children in the home is not the same thing as not wanting her with us. And not knowing exactly what to say to a man who’s wife just left him for the Sunday School teacher does not mean we judge him to be at fault or damaged goods. Because we say something inadvertently insensitive to the blind guy in the ward doesn’t mean anything more than that we are trying and failing. (Try this.) Those failures are, indeed, our own. Wearing pants last Sunday did nothing to teach us how to behave in a more inclusive way. That is the weakness in the day’s purpose, I suppose. But far be it from me to condemn the day as a waste because it can’t solve the problems it points to. (Ah, life’s ironies.) First, we call attention to a need. Next, we find ways to address it. I feel honored to have had the chance to participant in Wear Pants to Church Day and send kudos to the women behind the movement and the men who support them.
One day can’t be all things. What it can be is the beginning of a conversation. And that is why I’ve chosen it to open Life Outside the Book of Mormon Belt with it. Sensitivity for the Other among us is certainly the goal Jesus would want us to strive for. The life God gives us is the practice field. Play on.