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    Blog

    My testimony

     

    a companion piece to the latest episode of Q.MORE

     

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    Putting my personal beliefs and opinions out into the public sphere and dealing with negative feedback is part of my job, but also part of what I feel is my purpose. There is a significant part of my patriarchal blessing that specifically talks about the importance of sharing my thoughts and ideas with the women of the Church.

     

    When I was young I sometimes wondered how that would come about. I never imagined that I would start a temple dress company and that there would be these things called “social media” and “podcasts” that would facilitate the amplification of my voice.

     

    While I wondered how this would happen, I never considered what kind of weight that would bear. I want to be clear that I don’t have some inflated self-view of my prominence or influence, but I do feel a sense of responsibility. Recently, someone left an anonymous review on my podcast, Q.MORE. To sum it up, it accused me of sounding like someone that was trying to lead people away from The Church to start my own branch-off church. While I don’t give this one extreme review more weight than the hundreds supportive reviews, comments, and direct messages, I do want to address it. 

     

    While working at the Church, an apostle asked the team I was on to brainstorm how we could tell the story of a tricky and important part of Church history, the Kirtland period. We brought in a handful of the biggest creative names in the Church to talk about different possibilities. Lots of ideas and opinions were shared, but one has stuck with me. There is a lot of media created for members who are 100% in the boat. These members will consume and enjoy everything the Church puts in front of them. However, they honestly don’t really NEED most of it. On the other hand, there are a lot of members who could really use media directed at them. They may be struggling or distancing themselves from the Church and they likely aren’t interested in the warm fuzzy Mormon Messages. Those members NEED church media, but very little of it is designed to be appealing to them.

     

    As I grew and started to face my own faith questions, I longed for someone or some source who I could trust to talk about my concerns. Mostly, I wanted the Church to talk about these things.

     

    As Q.NOOR grew and I started to understand its potential, I remembered a comment I heard while working at the Church from a general authority. I don’t remember much of the context, but he said, “The Church needs members to talk about things that the Church can’t.” We could have a huge conversation about the idea that the Church can or can’t talk about everything, but for me, the most important part of his thought was the encouragement to start conversations. I decided that rather than waiting around for someone to answer my prayers, I would attempt to play a role in the answering of someone else's.

     

    My purpose in sharing my personal struggles with elements of Church culture and institution is to start the conversations my heart longs to have. Talking about hard things is really helpful to me. It can be uncomfy and vulnerable but in a good way. Getting things out into the light helps me get a better look at problems and usually makes them feel less scary. Not talking about hard things makes me feel like I’m trying to hide from something and that feels vulnerable in a scary way.

     

    Recently I had a conversation with someone I trust about my motivation in contributing to these hard conversations in the public sphere. I shared that I was motivated to focus on the hard topics because I felt like there was enough conversation about the softer topics. We have yet to do a Q.MORE episode on all the good the Church is doing through humanitarian efforts and the likes because we already know that’s a good thing.  While tooting the Church's horn to the Choir isn’t bad, I just don’t feel especially drawn to it. However, my friend helped me see that for some who feel defensive of the Church, my focus on the hard may feel like an attack. For that, I’m sorry. That is not my intention. Nor is it my intention to pick hot-button topics just to get more traction or fan any flames. I simply talk about what feels important to my heart. 

     

    Some have asked, “if you have so many problems with the institution of the Church, why don’t you leave?” My answer is simple.  I believe in and love the Gospel of Jesus Christ and I believe this is His Church. Imperfectly run by imperfect humans and in the process of refinement and restoration? Yes. But His? Absolutely. I can assure you that if I didn’t have a testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I would not be fighting this hard to stay. When you love something so much, it is natural to want it to be its very best.

     

    My struggles need not be your struggles. My hope in sharing my personal struggles is that others who struggle will feel less alone. I hope it will help them feel like they can hold on to the Gospel of Jesus Christ a little tighter because only that will give them the strength to navigate any personally problematic elements of Church as a culture or institution. I hope to be a small example of someone who stays even when it feels incredibly difficult. I also hope that my experiences can be an opportunity for those who don’t have these types of struggles to gain understanding and empathy for people around them who do.

     

    I am far from a perfect example. I’m not saying that to appear humble or be cute. I’m saying that because it is very true. I am flawed, prideful, hypocritical, judgmental, and make wrong choices. I even wear bikinis, watch some rated R movies, and swear when golfing. I’m sorry if you have been disappointed in the example I have set. The good news is, you already have a perfect example. Jesus Christ is really good at His job and I have zero aspirations to take His place.

     

    At 29, I know I have a lot to learn. I look forward to my thoughts and opinions changing and developing as I mature, but I don’t believe we need to wait until we are old and gray before we have something to contribute to Zion. If that were true, we would be far less comfy with the idea of 19-year-olds going out to share the story of a 14-year-old called to restore the gospel of a man in his early 30s.

     

    My story is not for everyone and I'm really ok with that. One day I will able to stand before my Heavenly Mother, Heavenly Father, and my brother Jesus Christ (I also have my fingers crossed that by big sis Eve will be there, too) and know that my heart and my actions are perfectly and completely understood. That’s enough for me.

     

    At the end of the day, some may feel I could do better at sharing my testimony. And to that I would say, this IS my testimony. How I share and what I share may not start out with “I’d like to bear my testimony” or include a series of “I know”s, but it is my testimony all the same. Also, couldn’t we all?

    A Good Example for All

     

    Melissa Leilani Larson


    Jane Manning James was a pioneer in every sense of the word. As a young, freeborn Black woman, she strove to center her life on Christ. She wasn’t satisfied with the Spirit she felt in Sunday services until she heard Latter-day Saint missionaries preaching in her hometown of Wilton, Connecticut. Jane was so moved by what she learned that she was baptized within the week. Her whole family, buoyed up by Jane’s joy and testimony, also joined the Church, following the missionaries to Nauvoo in 1843.


    Upon arriving in Nauvoo, the Mannings befriended Joseph and Emma Smith and Jane became a permanent fixture working and living in the Smith family hotel. It was there that Jane met her future husband, Isaac James, and established a close friendship with Emma Smith. Emma invited Jane to be sealed as a child to her and Joseph, but the sealing power was a very new concept, and Jane confessed to not completely understanding it. She told Emma no.


    Jane and Isaac were among the first Saints to trek west. Jane gave birth to a son along the trail in Iowa. At Winter Quarters, she didn’t hesitate to give half her store of flour—two precious pounds—to her friend, Eliza Partridge Lyman. Jane and Isaac arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in September 1847, where Jane would remain the rest of her life, unswerving in both her faith and support of the Relief Society.


    Yet to many modern Saints, Jane’s story is unfamiliar. Her voice hasn’t been lost, thanks to the diligence of Black Latter-day Saints who recognize and relate to Jane’s steadfastness. But Jane’s is a name and story all Latter-day Saints should know and cherish. Her faith is a beacon to everyone with a desire to know Jesus Christ.


    Years after leaving the Nauvoo temple behind, Jane watched another rise in Salt Lake City. She was able to enter it and be baptized for her “kindred dead,” but because of her race, she was not allowed to receive her endowment or be sealed to her husband and children.


    Jane now realized the importance of what Emma had offered her back in Nauvoo. She wrote humble, straightforward letters to her leaders asking to complete her temple ordinances: “Is there no blessing for me?”


    Jane very likely had personal interactions with every Church president who served during her lifetime, including Joseph F. Smith, who called her “Aunt Jane” when he spoke at her funeral. She sat in the front row of the Tabernacle every Sunday and paid a full tithe. And yet her continual requests to be endowed and sealed were denied.


    Fifty years after Emma and Joseph offered to adopt Jane as a child for eternity, Jane continued to petition Church leaders to honor that promise. That year, in 1894, Wilford Woodruff approved a proxy ceremony that “attached” Jane to the Smiths as a servant. But Jane was not satisfied; this “attachment” did not fulfill Emma’s offer or ensure Jane’s eternal salvation. She continued her appeals until her death in 1908.


    Jane’s temple work would remain unfinished until 1979, the year after the priesthood and temple ban against Black Saints was lifted.  


    In writing the screenplay for JANE AND EMMA, I’ve had the opportunity not only to listen to Jane’s voice but to study and amplify it. I want her story to become as familiar and dear to other Saints as it is to me. What we have tried to do with this film is present Jane as completely as possible—as real, thinking, breathing person with wants, hopes, and flaws. Through the power of drama, we have the chance not only to hear about Jane’s faith but to see her put it into practice.


    When I’m faced with difficult days, it’s easy to think— “I don’t need to go church today, it’s too hard,” or “I’m too tired.” But now I often think of Jane—of what she was asked to do, and how willingly she did it, even when she knew what she deserved and what she was denied. Jane had every reason in the world to leave the Church, but she stayed. She knew where God wanted her to be, and she held His expectations above everyone else’s.


    “I try in my feeble way to set a good example for all,” Jane said.


    Hers is a voice we all need to hear and echo.


    **

    Melissa Leilani Larson wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film JANE AND EMMA, as well as 2015’s FREETOWN (Utah Film Award Best Picture, Ghana Movie Award, Best Screenplay). The winner of 3 Association for Mormon Letters Drama Awards, her plays include SWEETHEART COME, THE EDIBLE COMPLEX, PILOT PROGRAM, LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. She was recently commissioned by UVU to adapt Kelly Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON for the stage. Mel earned her MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

    The Black Cain in White Garments

    My time as a model forced me to take note of the striking under-representation of women of color in the fashion industry. Runway show after runway show was a long string of white women with the occasional token black model. From day one of Q.NOOR, I have made an intense effort to have an ethnically diverse group of models on our site and Instagram. Finding models of color for sure takes more time, but I feel a deep responsibility to do so. 

     Representation matters.

    Today I am honored to feature the BYU 2018 Martin Luther King Day Student Essay Contest winner, “The Black Cain in White Garments,” by Melodie Jackson.

    We still have work to do to end racism in our LDS community. LISTENING to the words and learning from the experiences of our Black sisters is a great way to start.

    The contest essay prompt:

     June 8, 2018 will mark the 40th Anniversary of the LDS Church’s historic revelation restoring priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy members. In connection with the King holiday and in celebration and contemplation of this important moment in LDS history, we invite you to explore and reflect on Official Declaration 2, the Church’s “Race and the Priesthood” website, and recent statements by LDS leaders on current racial issues, and to write an essay discussing the long struggle for freedom and the work of building Zion.

     

     

    The contest winning essay:

     I talked to my grandmother the other day. Though age beats upon her brow and 3 scores and 10 asks remembrance of her body, her mind slips into repetition and comments about doing right and trusting in God, and not having taken an aspirin in 20 years. She remembers the fields.

     “We lived on white’s man land,” she said: “We spent our days sharecropping on his land. Those were hard days. Sometimes we were overworked to exhaustion. But Papa never let us miss school. No matter how many crops we had to picked, we went to school. We would walk eight miles there and eight miles back. The white children passed by and laughed, but we kept walking. Sometimes it would just be me and three more other students in the classroom during harvesting season. The fields and school. We first went to school and then to the fields.”

     The complexities of being Mormon (LDS) ad African-American are so far-reaching that it’s often difficult to articulate. In a Church that boasts 15 million members worldwide, one may ask “Why?” Well, my blackness has been a direct opposition to a church that has distanced such to reclaim whiteness. Paul Reeve, a Mormon historian, stated in his book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, that the LDS church reshaped its identity and gained acceptance from the American public by alienating blackness almost completely. Though earlier black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis held LDS Priesthood and participated fully in LDS congregations, in later years, missionaries were banned from directly seeking African American investigators. Many black and African cultural practices, such as black religious art, music, and root work were taught as wicked traditions of fathers that lacked “inspiration” from God. Black members’ church participation was subsequently limited to baptism, confirmation, and sacrament. The necessary ordinances of exaltation and other blessings, like sealings, endowments, and missions were denied only to blacks of African descent in this attempt to reclaim whiteness.

     The Church refused the black body whole recognition and divinity. To Nephi, I was not fair and delightsome. To Joseph, I was a violator of the most sacred principles of society, chastity and virtue. To Brigham, I was Cain’s curse. To McConkie, I was an unfaithful spirit, a “fence-sitter.” To you, I am colorless, my blackness swallowed in that whiteness reclaimed, “a child of God.” Seemingly, I am invisible yet hypervisible; for my body, although shaped and twisted into Mormonism’ image, will never fit properly in a culture that quickly vacuums spaces for blackness. To be Black and LDS is to be black first and LDS second, lest your identity is erased by “faith” and you become invisible and nonexistent.

     Moreover, while conversations regarding black bodies within a Mormon imagination often surround those bodies male and black, there is a void of black female voices. We must create space for and re-center conversations on black LDS women. The priesthood ban should be labeled “The Priesthood and Temple Ban.” The Church discarded black women’s divinity and recognition, too, among LDS congregations, by denying temple access and blessings. Though many women remain nameless and faceless, in discussing bans and declarations, we must remember the Jane Manning James, the Mary Francis Sturlaugsons, and the Alice Burches. These conversations must bleed into our present wards as we navigate the current racial and cultural tensions against the Sistas in Zion, the Janan Graham Russells, and even the Melodie Jacksons.

     On the cusp of the 40th anniversary of the “Priesthood and Temple Ban,” we mustn’t neglect current racial strife and dissonance in our own spaces. We should recognize that black members still struggle. I still struggle. We must go to school. We must learn our history. We must remember, if we are to labor in the fields, “white already to harvest.”

     My grandmother taught me repeatedly, “School first, then the fields.” The road is difficult. I am often jeered along the way, but I keep walking. Even if it’s just myself in the classroom of Mormon historical truth, I remain. I am on white man’s land and am frequently overworked to exhaustion. Some days are hard. But, my Heavenly Father, my ancestors, my grandmother, Jane Manning James won’t let me miss school. I must seek first to obtain the word before I can work in God’s field. My hope is that we wander no longer in the wilderness of denial, racism, and silence for another 40 years. Like Jane Manning James painstakingly wondered, “Is there no blessing for me?” Zion’s blessings will come only when black members are visible, acknowledged, heard, and truly unbanned from within LDS congregations.

     

    Crowned in Charity and Power

     

    I don't think I can express to you how honored I am to share this piece on Q.NOOR's blog. I named this company Q.NOOR, meaning Queen of Light, because my mom always taught me that I was a queen-in-training. 

    My desire to learn about my fellow queens-in-training and women of God, both Mother and Father, has grown so strong in the last few years of my life. Amber has truly offered us a gift in this piece, Crowned in Charity and Power. In this piece, Amber introduces to us women we all should be honored to know and by so doing helps us better understand ourselves and our Heavenly Mother. 

    I hope you will read and study this lesson. I hope you will think about it deeply. I hope you will share it with the WOMEN and MEN in your life. Everyone can be blessed by the examples of these Queens. 

    Amber, we thank you!

    Please CLICK HERE to download the piece. 

    Amber is a writer and storyteller living in Provo, Utah. Her latest endeavor, Splitting the Sky, is a YouTube documentary series that captures the stories of women connecting with God. Follow her production company @welcometableproductions on Instagram for information regarding other upcoming projects!

    Girl Power Gift Guide

    Clothes are fun, but knowledge is freaking forever!
    Check out this little list of rad book recommendations for the women in your life. 
    There is one shirt, because like I said, clothes are fun. 
       
    The sweetest children's book sharing the stories of strong women.
     
    A BEAUTIFUL coffee table book sharing the stories of women in business.
     
    A group of talks given by women in the church and my favorite book in all the land! You'll never be so proud to be a woman in this church.
     
    TEAR JERKER. This book will give you all the feelings and make you feel connected to Heavenly Mother in a way you may not have realized you craved. 
     
    Brene Brown said this book is the reason she is still married and that's good enough for me!
    "No exaggeration, no hyperbole, it changed my life." Brene Brown
         
    This is beautiful workbook teaches boys and girls about strong and good women. Order the recent issue or a whole subscription.

    Just the cutest little Ts in big and little girl sizes.