For those of you who don't know, I'm a happy member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I'm a Mormon. This past weekend was General Conference (basically where everyone is invited to listen to our church leaders speak to us through the Internet, broadcast, etc.) and it was EXCEPTIONAL. I have so much to say about it, and I'll take the rest of the month to write a little here and there. You are currently reading my current thoughts about it. Please share yours!
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Today I was blessed enough to go to the Sunday morning session of General Conference in Salt Lake City. Seriously, guys. BLESSED. We passed so many people who were just begging for tickets, and I felt awful that I didn't have any to give them.
Anyway, it was a great day. The talks were amazing, the choir sang heavenly, and I was happy.
My sesh had just finished and I was walking out when I accidentally stumbled out of an exit without my group. It really wasn't a big deal, but anyone who's been to Conference knows just how crazy the terraces around the center get when it's over. Imagine 21,000+ Mormons swarming in the dead middle of the city. It's insanity.
I was pushed along until I reached a crosswalk humming with noise, and I couldn't help but smile. There, standing within precisely measured, city-prescribed boundaries with Jewish flags, Amish dresses, and towering signs blaring words like "Hell" or "Joe Smith" or "idols" in blocky caps lock like they always are, were the most dedicated Conference attendees in town: protesters.
Why would I smile? Well, to be honest, I like the protesters. A lot. I make it a point to pass by them and see them every time they're nearby, because they're really fascinating individuals. They've got stories. Seeing them also validates the power of my beliefs, because anything powerful has obvious adversary. That's just how it is. Those guys on the street reaffirm my testimony every time. That's why I walk past them without being bothered by them for the most part.
With that in mind, I've quickly discovered that I'm a minority.
It's all well and good that I don't mind the protesters, but every single time I go to Conference and every single time I pass one, I can practically feel the disdain of the crowd sticking to my skin like heavy humidity. It is EVERYWHERE. In a dirty look, in a roll of the eyes, in a muttered, "What a waste of time. Why would they come here and sit here and think they'd convince anybody? Really." Whispers, scoffs, people yelling back. People not using their voices kindly. I hear it all immediately.
It's less and less surprising to me, unfortunately, that members of my church walk from the Conference Center all happy and uplifted and ready to love the world and INSTANTLY have their bubbles burst by lone individuals with signs. They don't look at them (if they do, it's just to glare), they don't talk about them like they're children of our Heavenly Father. They simply react as if those protesters are little life-wreckers, as if our beliefs are too good to deserve criticism -- again, the criticism is reaffirming, in my opinion -- and those people are too lost to be worth loving.
I don't get it. But I guess last summer opened my eyes to things.
I'd never been truly frightened of a protester until I was performing in the Hill Cumorah Pageant last summer. On opening night, I remember standing in a thicket of trees and looking at cop lights flashing in the distance, a huge yellow van covered in anti-Mormon rhetoric that passed back and forth at the perimeter. There were grown men, some with children, screaming at us. Not yelling, screaming. With megaphones. About how Joseph Smith was an incestuous rapist, about how early women in the church were whores. And this time, I wasn't surrounded by 20,000 saints. I was in the middle of rural New York where Mormons aren't prevalent at all. I was on the smaller team.
I remember standing in that thicket and just trembling, crying in my heart, "Why do they hate us so much?" They stood there in the dark like that and screamed the whole night, and when we slid out of the parking lot in the buses after each show, a fog caught the flashing lights and they flickered across poster after poster 100 feet down about hell and torment and death. The eyes of those men (and some women) narrowed and they spat at us and they thrust their signs toward the bus windows where young people my age, most children, pressed their noses.
I was terrified of those protesters, and at first, I think I hated them.
As time went on, as shows went on, something began to change within me. The protesters never changed, they never used any different strategies, but each night when I turned and looked out at them, I felt a deep and longing sadness. I stopped hearing any word they said -- something I can only attribute to the Holy Ghost, because it was impossible to not hear what they said -- and started feeling their confusion, their inability to understand; what they deprived themselves of by standing there every night and fighting us and fighting the pageant we'd worked so hard on to inspire our audience. I felt God's love for those protesters, stronger than I'd ever felt it. To this day I wonder if they've ever felt that love before, that immense and encompassing compassion, because to me, it was almost tangible.
Because I knew how God loved them, I loved them, and as Enos did for the Lamanites, I prayed for the protesters. It became easy to pray for them, to earnestly seek their well-being. When I stopped caring about what they said, I started caring about how they felt.
On closing night, the chairs were cleared away, the stage was taken down, and the children danced in the open field. The protesters were still there, still shouting, still telling the little ones they were going to burn in hell, but I felt peace and contentment. And I kept that peace and contentment. I've never been able to do that in the face of opposition before, but I did.
I've come to realize that that is a critical use of the Holy Ghost. If you hang onto him, you will be and feel okay. It won't matter what the opposition is saying. You will be able to feel truth instead of being distracted and dismayed by the lies people shout. You will see past the signs and rough exterior and realize that there is a human being underneath it all, and that human being, no matter how much he yells and spits and screams, is loved by a Savior who would endlessly coddle and succor him if he would but let Him, a God who once held his soul in His hands and revered it like we do the stars.
That's why I don't care what the protesters have to say. That's why I don't get angry when I see them on the streets.
Here I am. What will you do with me? is the unspoken question that every human being, yes, even every protester carries with them into the world. Be the kind of person who can answer that question by saying, "No matter what, I will love you anyway."