This morning, I awoke in our cabin, nestled in the piney woods of east Texas, and found, on the floor, the same beautiful black and blue butterfly that had, only yesterday, fluttered by me each time I stepped outside to enjoy the natural world. Somehow, she is trapped inside this morning, motionless, with her wings outspread in the attempt to camouflage against a maple-colored plank floor that will have none of it. I know from the experience of capturing butterflies in my childhood that if I touch her wings, I condemn her. Instead, I find a piece of paper and lay it before her. Although it doesn’t seem natural to her, the butterfly steps onto the paper and I carry her outside, where she flutters back into the trees.
I love symbols. I look for them all the time. As I have struggled to come to terms with the pending disciplinary action against leading LDS feminist Kate Kelly, I couldn’t help but find an imperfect symbol of her predicament in this butterfly. Kelly had been in her element, struggling to give voice to an under-represented demographic, but this disciplinary council has her confined. The only way back to her world, back to advocating for LDS women, seems to be to accept the terms placed in front of her–to dissolve Ordain Women, assuming she has that power, or resign from it, though I suspect resigning will do little more than land others in front of similar courts. Still, I hope she is able to find a meaningful way to come out of this difficulty without losing her membership and its inherent blessings, perhaps reborn or re-branded in a way that still feels, to use her word, “authentic.”
I do not know Kate Kelly at all, except as an online presence. In fact, the closest I’ve come to meeting her has been on a day when she and I were responding to a Facebook thread at approximately the same time. That isn’t exactly a bonding experience. Nor do I know any of the Ordain Women leadership. I’ve never conversed with them. I’m simply one of the many who has watched the movement from afar. I’ve never joined OW by putting up a profile and have a public record of both praising and criticizing the movement. I know the basic church history that includes examples of women performing priesthood acts, including things done outside the temple, and have long wondered why these practices slipped from Mormon life. Like Ordain Women, I would like these things to be addressed in specific terms through official revelation, but I have not been comfortable with OW’s agitation or with the assertion I sometimes hear coming from supporters that our cultural problems will be resolved through the dissolution of the patriarchy. In other words, I am more moderate in my approach to feminist issues within the LDS culture. I’m not alone.
And yet I am deeply disturbed that the official church might remove Kelly from its records, might nullify the saving ordinances we all hold so dear, on the claim that she is leading people away from the gospel. Many women are standing up to tell their stories, relating to us that it is precisely because Kelly has given voice to their concerns, that they remain in the church. Here is only one such story, lifted from a popular feminist Facebook page:
“I’ve never read the scriptures or prayed a lot. I was drifting into inactivity. I just didn’t care. Then I discovered OW. And suddenly I was interested in the Church and its doctrine again. During my search to understand OW, I read my scriptures and prayed more than I had in years. I tried to get more involved in church again. I’ve continued reading and praying as I’ve discovered new topics. OW brought me an interest in the church that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. OW is a major reason why I try to stay in this Church. But now I’m being called apostate for being part of it … I’m so confused.”
This story is typical. Kelly may be an unorthodox missionary and you may think she is “converting” people to the wrong things, but let me share with you the official objectives of the Six Discussions program, currently in progress, though likely seriously interrupted by the news of the disciplinary action. Those objectives are: “1) To foster conversations that help people reflect on their own thoughts and experiences, 2) To reaffirm our faith in God and testimony of continuing revelation, and 3) To encourage continued membership and full fellowship in the LDS Church as we explore the topic of women’s ordination.” The fourth objective is a call to faithful agitation. While I part with OW there, I cannot ignore the fact that OW, again and again, directs its followers toward the Church, toward increased testimony, and toward full fellowship. At issue is the agitation.
Over the last couple days, I’ve encountered many voices who assert that Kelly has attempted to shame the church publicly, an accusation her supporters object to, suggesting the reverse has been occurring–that the Church has been attempting to shame her publicly, as well as all of LDS feminism. A little tit for tat on both sides seems both likely and understandable. Regardless, her walk to the Conference doors at the Priesthood Session has subtle subconscious linkage to Sonja Johnson and the way she chained herself to the Seattle temple. But Sonja Johnson wasn’t asking the like-minded to reaffirm their testimonies, to remain not only active members, but to participate fully. As much as the claim can be leveled that agitation shamed the church, so can the claim be made that agitation brought marginalized people to the church. If the sin of apostasy is a charge that Kelly is leading people away from the accepted doctrines of the Church, then that charge has a deep, ironic stain. Yes, Ordain Women, as an organization, has an expectation of what the answer to prophetic prayer will be. And yes, many mainstream LDS see in the recent conference talk by Elder Oaks an end to all debate on the matter, but Ordain Women heard something very different in the language of Elder Oaks’ message. I invite you to read their official response here.
I realize the Church has its methods, its protocol and tradition. Church courts have been the way we address controversy. But in this instance, in this world of easy-access communication and knowledge, I don’t understand why Elder Oaks, or any other member of the Brethren, couldn’t have found a way to sit down with Sister Kelly and talk these things out, see her as a valuable daughter of God who represents many others who are hurting and together help one another understand the present dilemma each finds itself in. I don’t understand why threatening removal from the Book of Life–having her name erased from the records of the church–is the default action. Certainly unusual circumstances allow for unusual remedies. Certainly an apostle of the Lord can find a way to personally reach out to Sister Kelly, recognizing that in doing this–no matter his message–he will signal to many women who desperately want to hang on to their testimonies and their membership that they are valued in the eyes of God and the Church.
I’m not speaking of negotiation. I’m not speaking of Elder Oaks or any other member of the Brethren giving in or giving sway or giving out special privileges. I’ve heard the argument that the Brethren won’t meet with Kelly because they can’t meet with all who have complaints or questions. I understand not wanting to set that precedent. But Kelly is not just Sister Kelly. She represents so much more to so many more. She is both an individual daughter of God and a symbol of those who work hard to resolve their struggles with faith. In meeting with her, potentially thousands upon thousands of marginalized people will take hope and carry on. These souls are worth the effort. They are worth the time. They are worth the consideration. They are not a problem; they are human beings.
In addition, I feel obligated to point out that the counsel Latter-day Saints receive is to resolve differences in understanding in person, and with the person or persons, with whom the misunderstanding exists. In this case, Kelly’s misunderstanding is with the Brethren, not with her bishop, who will preside at her church court. Her bishop is, in essence, as powerless to receive revelation for the church as Kelly is herself. Go ahead with the disciplinary action. But between now and the date of that action, Sister Kelly will be living approximately one hour from the Church headquarters. Can’t some single member of the Brethren find the time to personally reach out to our sister? To comfort her? And, by proxy, so many others, including people like me who may not agree with her, but who identify with her faithful struggle?
“Oh, that I were an angel and could have the wish of mine heart!” These are the words of Alma, a man who had been called to repentance by an angel and a man who longed to bring salvation to his fellow men in the same way. We often hear the hymn “Oh, That I Were an Angel” sung in our Sacrament meetings and our meetings with missionaries. Yet, ironically, immediately after Alma expresses this deepest desire of his heart, he proclaims, “But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish.” (Alma 29:1-3) The hymn bears no trace of this admission. We sing Alma’s opening lines with devotion even though the context in which these lines appears clearly delineates that his desire is wrong. Why do we do this? Why is the admission of sinfulness omitted? Why are we okay with that?
I believe the answer is that we sing it this way because we celebrate and admire Alma’s ambition to do good. My hope today is that we all remember this song when we read of Sister Kate Kelly and the disciplinary action she faces. I want us to remember that we have all felt uplifted by this song, by this passage, this sentiment of Alma’s even though we are told his desire is sinful. I hope we realize that, even if aspects of what Sister Kelly has been doing are deemed incorrect through official disciplinary action, her desire has been to unite marginalized women with Christ. And that is a beautiful desire. It is a desire to sing about.
I need to step away from my computer. I have been overwhelmed by the chatter surrounding these events, the anger, hurt, sadness, judgmentalism–the controversy. Fortunately, I am in a beautiful place. Outside my cabin, the sky is an elegant Texas blue and the leaves on the trees that tower seventy feet overhead flirt with the breeze. I step outside and look for that black and blue butterfly. It’s here, just like it was yesterday, flitting among the deciduous trees that line the path. I pause . . . and then I see not only the one, but two and three butterflies. Its that time of year, after all. And I think how, even if I hadn’t noticed this particular butterfly trapped in my cabin, even if it had been destroyed because I had overlooked it, these others would still be out here, going about the work of beautifying the natural world. I take a deep breath as I stand just beyond the threshold, wondering if I should leave the cabin door open or close it.
Ultimately, I decide to leave it open. The risk of another butterfly becoming trapped inside is far outweighed by the fresh air I feel blowing past me, whispering its way inside. But for right now, I’m going to follow the path and sit awhile among the trees, feeling the breeze as I keep these things in my heart.
O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people! (Alma 29:1)