I’ve always found it rather awkward to have to explain the terminology of “wards” and “stakes” to my friends of different faiths. But lately, I really like the connotations that are at least dimly present in the word “ward.”
The usage of the term in the Church is left over from a time when civic and religious government were seamless in “Mormon Country,” and the church “ward” simply corresponded with political and administrative districts. We actually live in a place now where some neighborhoods are still known by their Ward numbers, and it has been fun to talk to realtors about whether we want to live in the “Second Ward” or the “Old Sixth Ward” (I have no idea where the new sixth ward is!). The other context in which we most often use the word “ward” is, of course, in referring to divisions within a hospital–the maternity ward, the critical care ward, or the pediatric ward. (In newer hospitals, it seems that these divisions often have their own “wing”, but we are not so far from the older usage that we don’t recognize it).
I like thinking of the ward at church in these overlapping ways. There is the buzz of activity of the political ward: leadership meetings, Primary administration (always the busiest precinct!), the chatter of rushed activity planning, appointment making, and the constant hum of friendly nosiness. The hallways are crowded with campaign posters, urging attention to Enrichment Evenings, upcoming firesides, the food storage competition, or the Institute class. The choir director, like Dennis Kucinich, constantly begging us to follow our better angels and show up to practice singing, even though absolutely everyone knows the ward choir is a lost cause.
In the midst of this ward, the Relief Society President and the bishop and diligent home teachers and careful, unassuming friends see the other ward, the hospital ward. The woman with the crumbling marriage, the brokenhearted father whose son has just announced he’s never going on a mission, the lonely widow, the young mother staggering to church through the haze of postpartum depression, the self-loathing gay man trying desperately to be someone else, the Beehive who just doesn’t fit in and is mercilessly teased by her classmates, the 14-year-old who hates Scouts and basketball, the middle-aged woman recently diagnosed with MS, the new convert with a burning testimony and equally burning nicotine addiction… It is a hard ward to walk through.
I used to wish that we could be more honest with each other, that Sacrament Meeting talks and Relief Society discussions would be more “real,” that we would be less shy about letting our wounds show at church. Sometimes I still wish this, and I treasure those moments when something breaks through from one ward to the other, when our collective eyes and hearts are opened for a moment to the suffering around us and we realize for just an eyeblink’s time how desperately we need each other, how tender we ought to be.
But I’ve lately learned to be grateful for the buzz of the political ward, as well. I think most of us could not bear it if we saw the hospital ward steadily. It is too hard to unbandage our wounds and let others see and heal them, too hard to gaze for long at the afflictions of our dear ones. It is a sadly human necessity to retreat into the comfortable thrum of busy-ness, to attend to the mundane and unthreatening duties of church administration, the routine of visiting teaching and making visual aids and baking refreshments and high council talks and 72-hour kits and basketball tournaments. We long to visit that other ward and offer real comfort and have our own aches and pains tended to, but secretly, we are also glad when visiting hours are over. I think we should forgive ourselves our squeamishness and our weakness, and be grateful that a merciful God gives us so many practical tasks to distract us.
It is He, after all, whose wards we are.