Tuesday, September 1, 2009

John's Story - by Lewis Campbell

Quite some time ago, I moved into a ward where I turned out to be the only temple-recommend holder Elder. The Elder's Quorum was led by a high-priest. Of course, it took about a week before I was in the Stake President's office and found myself as the new EQ President.

There was a gentleman I'll never forget. I'll call him John to protect the innocent. My ward is on the Dineh (Navajo) Nation. John was a quiet Navajo man who was really faithful. He attended all the service projects and really cared about helping others. We ended up calling him as the EQ Secretary.

Not long after, he stopped coming to church. Eventually, one of the other members came to me, angrily demanding that I release him immediately. Apparently, he showed up drunk some place where this other member was. Two more people came to me with the same complaint. We ultimately had to release John.

I visited John and he broke down and told me all about his lifetime struggle with alcoholism. I asked him to please come back to church, because I really felt he needed love and support. He lived by himself and we were really the only people he knew who didn't drink. He told me he was afraid, because he knew everyone would look down at him and criticize him. I knew he was right, but I told him that no matter what happened, no matter what anyone said or did to him, he could sit by me and my family and I would be happy to see him there, and I would never look down on him. He started coming again for a while, but he was right. There were disapproving looks, and sometimes outright criticisms. He came less and less, and finally not at all.

One night, I had a dream. In my dream, I was presiding at a funeral in our ward, and John was the man in the casket. Within days of my dream, John's brother died in an alcohol related accident. At the funeral, I took John aside and told him about my dream, and begged him to come to church. I told him I was afraid that the dream would come to pass if he didn't. He agreed, and started coming to church, but after a while, the same thing happened. The disapproving looks. The general malaise. He eventually stopped coming.

Then, one day, he went on a drinking binge and ended up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. For some reason I'll never understand, the hospital released him at 1AM without anyone of us, his friends or family there to help him. He walked out onto the highway straight into the path of an oncoming semi. A few days later, my dream came true, and I attended John's funeral.

Ever since then, whenever I get the opportunity, I rail against judgmentalism and the kinds of attitudes that we sometimes have that are inconsistent with Christ-like love and patience. I try to remind people that, unless your name has “Bishop” in front of it, you are not called to be a “judge in Zion” for anyone but yourself. Our call is to be diligent in avoiding sin, yes, but to be focused on our own sin, not so much the sins of others. I remind people that although the chapel is sacred, it is not the temple. There is no recommend required to enter. “Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.” (3 Ne 18:32) Chapels are the emergency rooms of the church, and the Savior is the chief physician. “And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31). Even today, every time I think about John, it breaks my heart.

Flash back to many, many years before this incident, and many years before we moved into this ward. A long, long time ago I left the church for similar reasons as some others. I am a pretty opinionated liberal or progressive or whatever you want to call it. I'm a card-carrying member of the green party. And a few years after being baptized, I came to the conclusion that I couldn't deal with the pushing, the absolutist attitude, the guilt trips, and all that. And, more importantly, I couldn't make my progressive ideals mesh with what I thought was an overwhelmingly conservative church.

I'm not telling this story to make people think they're wrong to leave the church or to be skeptical. On the contrary, I'm telling it to say that I truly understand what some people go through because I've been there. Like many LDS spouses, my wife has always been very straight-up conservative LDS, and she almost divorced me when I left the church. To make it worse, her family was furious with me, and I was under a lot of pressure.

But for me the path was different. As I said before, a few years later we moved to New Mexico and I took a job where I was surrounded by active LDS people. But they were different — less judgmental, more Christ-like. And I learned, slowly, that all the stuff that drove me crazy was culture, not doctrine. More importantly, though, I learned for myself that the core of my individual faith was following the Savior's statement of the two greatest commandments: To love the Lord thy God with all your heart, mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think about it, progressive values are Christ-like values. They are the embodiment of "loving your neighbor as yourself."

Fast-forward to today, I'm still vocal and opinionated. People around me now know that I'm going to open up a can of smack-down on them if they try to get away with some snide comment like, "We'd better get ready for the second coming now that Obama's in office." (Actually, I try to be kind but firm, but you get the point.) But everyone from my bishop to my stake president supports my right to believe what I believe, even though they disagree with me, because this truly is a partisan neutral church, and they truly do believe in President Hinckley's admonition to "disagree without being disagreeable." So far, I haven't been released.

Also, I’m happy to say that John’s death, in my opinion, was not in vain. It changed me. I repeat that story to my counselors often, and we have learned how to help people like John understand that they are wanted and loved in our ward so that they can have the emotional support that comes from being in such a community. I really feel like, for every John whose life ended in tragedy, we have five others who were able to overcome. Of course, battling addiction is a never-ending thing. John is one of the battles we lost. But largely because of John, we are winning the war.

I don't know why all this cultural nonsense is so prevalent in the church. But I have to say, that for me, it's all irrelevant. I'm truly happy being both LDS and progressive. And I when I left the church and came back to it, I left all the guilt behind. Mostly now, I just take joy in helping all these men and their families who are trying to eek out their way in this life, and seeing them grown and change. In my opinion, that's what an Elder's Quorum President, or any church member, should be doing. That's what Christ did. That's what he wants us to do. The rest of it is just details.

1 comment:

Carol said...

Excellent post. I strongly believe that since all of us fall short of the glory of God, all of us us need God's grace to save us. Thankfully, in our ward, we welcome and embrace those who may feel uncomfortable attending--those who smoke and drink, those who are tatooed all over, the ex-convict, the drug addict, etc.

Although we live in Utah and although our ward is very politically conservative (I don't feel comfortable sharing my political views with anyone because I have been soundly ridiculed when I do), I love the way the members embrace those who need the Church. We could be more friendly to those who are active, but we are quite good as welcoming those who aren't.

Hopefully, some day more members will realize that the conservative political view does not address the problems of poverty, inequality, and injustice in ways that the Savior would. Until then, it's nice to read a website that shares alternative political views.

I think it's helpful if LDS members remember that when Utah was made a state, half of the members of each ward were assigned to be Democrats and the other half were assigned to be Republicans. In my opinion, it would be comforting and healing to see more political diversity in the Church.