(FULFILLING YOUR DUTY TO GOD = DO NOT DATE OUTSIDE THE CHURCH)
All I Wanted Was a Hug
By HOLLY WELKER
New York Times
Published: October 30, 2009
I WAS strolling through a park in Taichung, Taiwan, hand in hand with my missionary companion at the time, Sister Shi. Although she was Chinese and I American, we both were 22-year-old women serving as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons. Our stroll wasn’t recreational; we were looking for people to chat up, hoping to persuade them to accept a pamphlet and invite us to their homes for an in-depth discussion of the church. Skip to next paragraph
We hadn’t met with much success, so partly for mutual support, partly because we liked each other well enough and partly because it was a perfectly acceptable thing for women to do in Taiwan, we held hands. Before long, we came upon a teenage girl and boy who, like us, were conservatively dressed and holding hands.
“Will you look at that?” Sister Shi said in Mandarin, turning slightly to watch them walk away. “That’s disgusting.”
I was a year into my 18-month mission and could talk comfortably in Mandarin. “Why?” I countered. “They’re just doing what we’re doing.”
“But anyone can look at us and see there’s nothing going on,” she said. “If you look at them, you know something is definitely going on.”
The teenagers actually struck me as utterly innocent. But Sister Shi was right about one thing: Nothing was going on between us. In fact, nothing was going on between me and anyone. Up to that point in my life, nothing much ever had. Courtesy of my Mormon upbringing, I was, aside from a few unremarkable dates, completely inexperienced.
Heading off on my mission only extended and, by design, enforced my isolation and inexperience. Many of the rules missionaries live with are meant to reduce intimacy so that we are seen — by ourselves and by others — as servants of God, individuals set apart for a specific period of righteous labor, rather than as normal human beings pursuing normal human activities and relationships.
We were instructed not to let anyone call us by our first names. We were forbidden to engage in physical contact beyond a handshake with any member of the opposite sex. We were forbidden to date or pursue romantic relationships with anyone living within our mission territory.
Girlfriends or boyfriends back home were allowed, but interaction with them was limited to weekly letters — no phone calls. While men become eligible for missions at age 19, women can’t serve until they are 21, partly because many believe that the slight age difference reduces romantic attractions between missionaries. Companions are reassigned every few months, which can prevent either love or hatred from becoming too intense.
I sought out connection where I could, within the bounds of what was permitted. Descended from no-nonsense Mormon pioneers, I am not and never have been excessively affectionate, so even today it jars me to look at photographs from my mission; I am shocked at the displays of physical affection that became part of my friendships with women when I had so few other avenues for intimacy.
There I am in the photos, over and over, my arms draped around my roommates, their arms around me, one woman kissing another on the cheek. This is not to say that I was overtly affectionate with every companion or roommate I had. A few shared my strong physical reserve, so although we liked each other, we did little but exchange an occasional awkward hug. But in many cases, when we women felt at liberty to express our affections, we did so enthusiastically, without reservation, because we knew it was both innocent and harmless.
My desire for affection from male missionaries — that was neither innocent nor harmless. In most of the photographs of me with the “elders” (an ironic title, given they were only 19 or 20), we stand discreetly side by side, a good six inches or more between us, my hands clasped chastely in front of me, while their hands are in their pockets.
There are a few joke photos: In one, I am posing with one hand on my hip and the other behind my head while an elder conspicuously checks me out. In another, taken during an outing at the beach, a good friend kneels in the sand at my feet, hands clenched imploringly before him while I turn away in disdain. These playful, suggestive poses raised eyebrows but weren’t serious infractions, as no actual contact occurred.
In particular, I had a massive crush on Elder Corelli, one of the highest-ranking missionaries in Taichung. A gangly, 6-foot-8 basketball player, he was good-humored and flirtatious, with a toothy grin and freckles.
Despite being younger, the elders were set up as authority figures we female missionaries were to consult with about our problems. Mine ranged from a broken rib and occasional bouts of vertigo incurred in an accident to plain old religious doubt. With the fervor of a young aspiring poet, I obsessed over the question, “What does God think of art?” Meaning, is it possible to be a righteous servant of God if you are more interested in the writings of Shakespeare, Austen and Woolf than those of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith? I was pretty sure the answer was no, and I was unhappy about it.
One night I asked the elders for a blessing because my heart was so disorderly. Asking for a blessing — essentially something you can ask of any Mormon man who holds the priesthood, which most adult males do — had become one of my main recourses for comfort.
Getting a blessing involves having at least one and preferably two or three priesthood-holding men carry out a ritual that involves putting a few drops of consecrated olive oil on the top of your head. Another man seals the anointing by invoking his priesthood authority and blesses you with health or wisdom or whatever you’ve asked for.
That night, seeing that I was miserable, Elder Corelli and his mission companion, Elder Davis, asked me what was wrong. I decided to reveal some of what I felt. “You know how they say the Book of Mormon is the yardstick by which all truth should be judged?” I began tentatively. “I don’t think that’s right.” And I went on to detail my conflict about art and religion.
To my surprise, they responded with kindness. Elder Davis even told me I reminded him of his mother, which he meant as a compliment.
Elder Corelli then said with disarming sincerity and kindness, “I love you, Sister Welker. I think you’re my favorite sister. I really love you.”
It was the first time any man, except for my father, had told me he loved me, and I was stunned. It was unexpected but exactly what I wanted: to be loved and to be someone’s favorite.
A few weeks later I asked for yet another blessing. This time, Elder Corelli sealed the blessing. He stood with his hands on my head and didn’t say anything for a good three minutes, which is a long time when two men are cradling your head in their hands. Then he told me to be happy, healthy and balanced and to set my priorities in order, and he said, “By the spirit of the Holy Ghost I would like to, well, to prophesy that you will be a very important tool in the hand of the Lord.”
It’s odd to be prophesied about, one of the strange boons of the church, a sort of affirmation of your cosmic significance, as long as you’re willing to affirm the cosmic significance of the system affirming you. It’s this weird mixture of approval and disapproval that adds up to recognition, as long as you stay in the system.
If you leave, of course, it’s another matter entirely — you’re nothing, you’re no one, you’re on your own — as I would ultimately discover. But at the time, it provided comfort, such as it was.
And that comfort helped. At least until a few months later, near the end of my mission, when a meeting was held in which our mission president handed down new and seemingly arbitrary standards that increased our onerous weekly work schedule.
Desperate and confused, I rose to challenge him, actually blurting out that what he was proposing was “stupid” and “wrong.”
The mission president looked at me in astonished outrage, and the other missionaries turned shocked expressions upon me as well.
Horrified and ashamed, I turned to leave the chapel.
“We’re going to end this meeting now,” the president announced. “Sister Welker, sit down!”
Someone grabbed my arm and held me on a pew while we sang the closing hymn, after which the other missionaries drifted home. But I knew I had to stay and apologize to the president, and needed to work up the energy to do it.
FOR a while I sat on a pew in the empty chapel, listening to my companion play the piano, something she loved but had too few chances to do — a scene and circumstance that only magnified my feelings of powerlessness and isolation. Before long, Elder Corelli, who must have noticed my bicycle still parked outside, wandered in and sat down beside me.
“President’s really mad at me, isn’t he?” I said.
“I think you hurt his feelings.”
We listened glumly to my companion’s piano playing. Thinking of the difficult apology before me, I wasn’t anxious, just empty. I knew I would manage to say what had to be said. But I also knew that with this episode, my disillusionment with the church was almost complete. I knew that at the core of my conflict were issues of honesty and openness and that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for in the church I’d worked so hard to persuade others to join, a realization that wounded me as much as anything in my life.
Greatly in need of comfort and support, I said to Elder Corelli, “I don’t suppose you’d let me hug you?”
He shook his head. “You know I can’t, Sister Welker.”
I stared at my hands, tangled in my lap. “Can I hold onto your shirt sleeve, then?”
He nodded, so I grasped the edge of his sleeve between my thumb and forefinger and held it, trying to pretend it was a form of human contact that offered any solace.
In any event, it was all I had.
As teens begin dating, crushes and religion don't always match up
By Jessica Ravitz
The Salt Lake Tribune
dances just around the corner, high school student angst will soon soar, as will
the number of sweaty palms and "OMG" text messages.
The school year's start, indeed, brings for teens a whole
new set of possibilities and challenges. They might devise fresh styles of
self-expression and find the classes and activities that will shape future
goals. Temptations will test their character, growth spurts will signal who
they'll become and, amid all of this, hormone surges and inevitable crushes will
make their hearts race.
In a state such as Utah, where LDS Church predominance is
marked by the seminaries that sit beside public schools, it's fair to wonder how
much faith influences high school dating. It's one thing for the student who is
in the majority, but what of the others? And does what matters to kids
necessarily align with what parents - and, in the case of LDS students, prophets
Jonathan Browning, seminary principal at Highland High
School, is confident it does. He says he's seen kids overwhelmingly embrace
religious counsel. He's quick to read excerpts from "For the Strength of Youth:
Fulfilling Our Duty to God," the go-to pamphlet for faithful young members in
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to rattle off quotes from
The message for Mormon teens is to stay away from "steady
dating," Browning explains. At 16, only if they feel ready, are they free to
casually date and go out in groups. So if it's all casual and nothing's serious,
does it make a difference if a kid grabs an ice-cream cone with someone outside
the fold? Yes it does, he says, pointing to words issued by President Spencer W.
Kimball about 40 years ago. One never knows, after all, where an ice-cream cone
"You want to date individuals who you can ultimately see
yourself marrying," he answers, saying he really doesn't know of Highland
students who go against this advice. "For the kids who live the standards,
there's a light in their eyes . . . and they're happy."
It's this kind of teaching, this sticking to one's own,
that leaves Paul Murphy sometimes aching for his son. Alex, a senior at
Bountiful High, has asked girls out only to be told they won't date him, even
casually, because he's not a Mormon, Murphy explains.
"They want to go out with kids who share the same morals.
. . . But to assume that if you're not LDS you don't have moral standards is a
bad assumption," says Murphy, whose family is devoutly Christian.
The Rev. Gene Hasse, pastor of Bountiful Vineyard
Christian, is - like Murphy - involved with The WAY (Wasatch Area Youth), an
interfaith program for young people. He, too, has heard from students who've
been rejected because of their faith, and about LDS parents who've interceded to
put the kibosh on innocent relationships. "Kids aren't allowed to be kids," says
Hasse, who believes marriage should be between people with like-minded beliefs.
But as high-school students, they should at least be free to cultivate
friendships, he says.
One person who definitely agrees is Anthony Sweat,
seminary principal at Salt Lake City's West High.
"I preach to my students that of course they should date
nonmembers," he says. "Friendly dating, social dating - who cares if they're
Methodist, Buddhist, Hindu or agnostic? . . . Does that person have high
standards and can you maintain your standards with them?" Sweat also points to
the LDS Church pamphlet Browning promotes, but he reads the 2001 publication
differently: "Nowhere in there does it say you can't date someone who's not
LDS." He views this as a "deliberate" decision. Yes, serious relationships
should be reserved for when someone is ready to be married, but he says that
should come after a young man's been on his mission. "That's the message I think
most people teach. That's how I teach it anyway, because I think that's how 'The
Strength of Youth' reads."
Jacob Rokeach, now 22 and of Los Angeles, was never
planning to go on a mission; he's Jewish, after all. And when he was a student
at Skyline High in Salt Lake City, he says he certainly wasn't out to find a
wife. He did like girls and loved to date, but he didn't seek out Jews because
(a) the pool was beyond small, and (b) those who were Jewish he already knew too
well; they were more like family.
Of the high-school relationships Rokeach did have, one
with a Mormon girl lasted about four months. He says her family was wonderful to
him and often invited him over for Sunday dinners. He even once went to church
with her. But he marvels at how their paths diverged and their cultures differ.
"She got married at 19 years old or 20," he says. "I'm still not dating to
A recent Mormon graduate of Salt Lake City's East High,
whom The Tribune agreed not to name, says she, too, wasn't really expecting to
marry her high-school boyfriend. Many of the kids in her circle, she says, were
dating outside the LDS Church fold. And she scoffs, based on people she knows
there, at Browning's assumption that the same isn't rampantly true at Highland.
Her senior-year boyfriend, whom she describes as non-Mormon but "a really
spiritual guy," was someone she could talk to about most anything and a person
who taught her more about herself and others. Her seminary teachers knew and
liked him, and yet when they led lessons about dating, she says she "felt sort
of singled out and almost angry."
She admits she's always dreamed of getting married in the
Salt Lake LDS Temple, and says while she might have fantasized about him
converting to Mormonism, she'd only want him to do that for himself, not her.
He's now in college out of state, and she has a hard time picturing a future
with him. But she has no regrets and feels the LDS Church stance and teachings
on dating fail to take into account the realities affecting youth today.
Madie Porter, who is also LDS, feels the same way but for
different reasons. She's only 16, a junior at Brighton High in Cottonwood
Heights, but she's already had a one-year relationship, which recently ended.
Her ex-boyfriend, also a Mormon, came into her life at a critical and perfect
time. In her circle of friends, which included Mormons, kids were partying,
drinking and dabbling in drugs. Porter says she wasn't strong enough to say no,
and he gave her that strength by setting an example.
"I really needed him," she says. "Without this wonderful boy in my life, I wouldn't be who I am in my faith." Was she breaking church teachings by exclusively dating one person? Sure. Is she sorry? Not at all. They maintained their morals and values, only kissed, held hands and "never got intense," she says. And he made her a more devout Latter-day Saint.
"It's so hard to really find someone who can really
connect with you, get everything you're going through and help you through your
pain," Porter says. "If it's a significant other that's helping you, and you
want to date, I think it's fine."
Quotes and Excerpt
"When you are young, do not get involved in steady dating.
. . . Have a wonderful time with the young women. Do things together, but do not
get too serious too soon. You have missions ahead of you, and you cannot afford
to compromise this great opportunity and responsibility." PRESIDENT GORDON B.
HINCKLEY - addressing the priesthood at the church's fall 1997 General
"Date only those who have high standards and in whose
company you can maintain your standards. . . . Do not date until you are at
least 16 years old. Dating before then can lead to immorality, limit the number
of other young people you meet, and deprive you of experiences that will help
you choose an eternal partner. . . . When you begin dating, go in groups or on
double dates. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person." AN EXCERPT -
taken from the section on dating in "For the Strength of Youth: Fulfilling Our
Duty to God," published by the LDS Church in 2001
"Do not take the chance of dating nonmembers, or members who are untrained and faithless. . . . One cannot afford to take a chance on falling in love with someone who may never accept the gospel." PRESIDENT SPENCER W. KIMBALL from "The Miracle of Forgiveness,'" published in 1969
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