As lines of people approached long tables filled with grilled tri-tip and baked potatoes, a small loaf of bread, sliced and ready for the taking sat by a large basket of rolls last night at the ward Christmas party. The paper laying next to the crusty loaf labeled it “Gluten Free”. Cranberry filled Jell-O with a cream cheese underlay was cut into generous helpings and divided into lots. One was gluten-free, the others endowed with a crunchy pretzel crust. Trays of gluten-free, chocolate-oozing dessert were delivered to table after table by the Young Men along with slices of regular chocolate and vanilla sheet cakes from Costco. In addition, a moist gluten-free coffee cake was there for your indulgence. It’s one of the small things we do in our ward for the handful of people who suffer from Celiac disease. That’s what love requires.
We have a handful of brothers in our ward, suffering from diseases not of the body, but of the spirit that caused them to become part of the criminal justice system, and for a time were (or still are) incarcerated. It’s not a happy thing, and tends to be uncomfortable, with infrequent whispers and queries from interested persons. I would guess that most people in our ward are unaware of these circumstances, months or years of absence and reemergence of sons to mothers into our ward. One brother frequently brings two friends he met in prison to church with him. While I don’t know what their crimes were, and I don’t think all people who have spent time in prison are dangerous, I am concerned about unknown risk there may be to our ward family. Another, a convicted child molester, now attends the local singles ward, but attends our ward and stake functions with his family.
Mormons are trusting folk, and it’s not uncommon to see unescorted five-year-old children leading smaller siblings to the bathroom or drinking fountain during sacrament meeting or roaming the halls during activities. I am aware of the games the children in our ward play as they dodge in and out of doors and hide in various classrooms or restrooms. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the potential for problems of the worst kind under these circumstances, but still they persist.
A friend of mine has shared similar circumstances in her own ward. A brother, a convicted child molester, attends services alongside his wife every Sunday. By way of agreement with local leadership, another brother has kindly been assigned to be with him. He goes with him into the hall, to the restroom, to Gospel Doctrine class and Elders Quorum. In other words, he’s never alone. From my own careful observation, this does not seem to be the case in my ward.
I believe these brothers should be welcome among us. I believe that if Jesus Christ can cover my sins, he can cover theirs too. But there are times I want to send out a warning call to all the parents in the ward. Three-year-old Jimmy shouldn’t be sent to the bathroom alone. Brother X just left the cultural hall after little Katie went to get a drink of water by herself. I confess to keeping a watchful eye on children that are not my own, to feeling anxious to the edge of exhaustion watching these brothers roam free and interacting with the children around them. Sometimes in our efforts to emulate the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, or in our subconscious pursuit of piety, we miss what forgiveness is. It is neither an act of faith nor an act of caring to fail to acknowledge disease that affects the spirit as much as physical disease affects the body. It would be unkind at best, to take an alcoholic to a bar. Love requires more of us. Helping those who are sick and afflicted requires acknowledgement that the person suffers. It requires care to not to do things that aggravate the situation. And it requires that we protect our own.
I sit still with my family in a pew in the chapel every Sunday and accept the silver tray passed to me. I eye three men seated a few rows up as the tray is passed by them. As I place a small piece of bread with an unfamiliar texture in my mouth I am reminded this emblem is gluten-free, because that is what love requires.