When I was 10 years old, I went with my father to inspect an old house he was considering renting to use as an LDS Church meetinghouse. It had been unoccupied, and I remember stepping through an untold number of dead cockroaches as we walked through every room and my dad inspected the structural details. My dad wasn’t a carpenter or a builder or even a handyman. He was a university professor and a polio survivor who had limited physical ability, but he was going to be the branch president, so this was his responsibility. I’m not sure why he took me, but as his oldest child, I was excited to help, since it would mean church in our own town instead of an hour-drive each way to Sunday meetings. And I was sure that he valued my opinion about the house.
We rented that house and used it for church services for 7 years before church leaders decided to build us a real church building. It started as a very small branch, and I remember more than one Sunday when my parents, siblings, and I were the only congregants. On those Sundays, I distinctly remember watching my father conduct the meeting, say the opening and closing prayers, bless and pass the sacrament, and even play the piano—which is probably one reason I was so eager to help when he handed me the hymnal and asked me, then a mere 11 years old, to teach myself how to direct music and called me as a sacrament meeting chorister. Later I was the pianist. In that environment of such need, I didn’t really notice all that I could not do; there were so many opportunities for a young woman to serve that are not normally open to youth.
I am now raising my son and daughters in a ward where there are adults to take on most callings. The contrast between how much my son contributes to Sunday meetings and what my daughters contribute is stark. I want them to experience the same commitment to serving in the Church that I felt from personal ownership in the process. During the times when I was still building my testimony, my commitment to attending church, because I was needed there, kept me from ever sitting at home on Sunday. I wish the same for my daughters.
When the LDS Church was young, I imagine everyone felt this same urgent need for all hands on deck. The creation of the Relief Society organization came from just such a desire, and Joseph Smith welcomed the participation of the women. He accepted their ideas and taught them that there was even more they could contribute—more than they then envisioned. Early records of Relief Society meetings tell of blessing and preaching and speaking in tongues. I’d bet that none of those early Relief Society organizers envisioned these activities when they first decided to meet as a group and sew shirts.
I have an ancestor who was a member of the Church in those early days. His journal records that he kept the books for the Kirtland Temple and directed the music at its dedication. He breakfasted with Oliver Cowdrey and Joseph Smith when they discussed revelations they had received, and Brigham Young came to his home to sing with him. One day I was reading through his journal, and I noticed, recorded at the end, several father’s blessings he gave to his children. In the headings of many of them, it read “as your father and mother place their hands on your head.” Oh, how much joy those words gave me! It warmed my heart to read in one simple but powerful phrase that he considered his wife an important partner and that she stood with him to bless their children.
The LDS Church needs everyone. We have a lot of members now, even in that little branch where I grew up, but compared to the work that is to be done, we are still very small in number. I want to instill in my daughters that same spirit of commitment to the Church that comes from being really needed. That, for me, has come to mean participation in the priesthood. It is beyond me why, as a church organization that needs everyone, we would tell over half of our members that we simply do not need their full contribution.
Honoring our past, envisioning our future
Lori LaVar Pierce, the author of this post, has a profile on Ordain Women.