Pharisees and Sinners, Volume 4, Number 4 (Spring 1978)

Pharisses and Sinners
Personal Essay
Laurel T. Ulrich
Durham, New Hampshire

I sometimes hear Mormon women talk about being caught between two worlds. They can’t identify with the hostility of secular feminism, yet they feel ill-at-ease and mistrusted in their own small wards. This conflict, though painful, is unavoidable, it seems to me, and it holds rich opportunities for service and growth.

A few years ago, as I prepared a Relief Society lesson on obedience, I decided to try a little object lesson on my class. I went to the meeting in old jeans, with my hair stringing down over my shoulders. I was quite pleased with the thought of the Pharisaical responses I would provoke and with the discussion this would stimulate later in the lesson.

But I had not anticipated how difficult it would be for mo to walk into the room. I found myself buttoning my coat higher, sitting down hurriedly in a corner, and twisting my ankles back under the chair to hide my sneakers. Having deliberately violated the norms of my community, I was ostracized by my own self-consciousness long before I was rejected by anyone there. I have tried to remember that.

I have also tried to remember how much fun it was to give that lesson when I finally took my coat off and stood up. Part way through, I confessed that my costume was intentional and asked the women to share their honest responses to it. One sister, fresh from Utah, said: “Well, I thought it was pretty strange, but I decided to ignore it. I’d heard they did things differently back here.” (Needless to say, she and I became good friends!)

The bishop’s wide said: “I was shocked at first, but I knew you and so I didn’t worry.”

“But what if you hadn’t known me?” I asked. The answers were thoughtful and brought out the expected points about Love, Tolerance, Judge Not That Ye Be Not Judged. I know the Pharisees in my class learned something that morning, but the Sinner learned even more.

I had barely survived my own period of Culture Shock in that ward. I had left an unusually open and accepting Mormon community, and at every turn in the new one I offended and gave offense. I’m not sure which was the bigger mistake—to pounce on my sisters with my well-polished collection of new ideas or to go into hiding nursing my differences. Both responses showed a remarkable lack of confidence in myself and in them. It took me awhile to learn that people can’t reject you if you know you belong.