Reaching the Isolated

Today’s Guest post currently hails  from Central Asia. Amira likes to plan impracticable road trips between Turpan and Isfahan, in addition to her real jobs of researching minority recipes and homeschooling.  She writes at The Golden Road to Samarqand.

One of the most common arguments I hear regarding why women don’t need the priesthood is that the priesthood cannot be used to benefit a priesthood holder since it is only used to bless others.  In my experience, this isn’t entirely true.  As I’ve lived overseas in very isolated areas of the Church, I have seen too many examples where women are unable to receive ordinances, do not have access to any leaders, and are excluded from Church administration.  When I write about isolated women or men, I’m talking about people who are not assigned to a ward/branch/group/twig/ whatever, or who are living very far away from their assigned unit.

A priesthood holder can take the sacrament no matter where he is on the planet.  I know a vulcanologist who blesses bread and water for himself when he does research on remote volcanoes.  Church leaders have talked about carrying supplies to administer the sacrament while they were in the military.  My husband can administer the sacrament to me and my family (if he is home), but many, if not most, isolated LDS women don’t have a priesthood holder around and are completely cut off from the sacrament.  It bothers me that so many of us are not able to take the sacrament.  I know women who have been active members of the church for nearly 10 years and have only been able to take the sacrament a handful of times.It seems possible to give isolated women authority to bless the sacrament for themselves. Women are allowed to participate in other specifically priesthood functions like missionary work and administer some temple ordinances. In my mind, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to extend the limited authority to bless the sacrament to worthy, isolated women. And there are many isolated women all over the world.  Some were baptized while going abroad to university and then returned to live with their families in places where the Church isn’t organized.  Somelive with their non-LDS husbands in countries or regions where the Church is not.  Others like me choose to live in a country temporarily where there isn’t a mission, let alone wards or branches.  There are many other reasons why women are physically isolated from the Church, but I feel that too many of us are completely forgotten.A major contributing factor in our isolation is that we have little or no access to our priesthood leaders.  I have had no personal contact (including by phone or internet) with my priesthood leader for the last year and I know many other isolated women in the same situation-except some of them have had no contact for many more years.  When I am without a ward or branch, I am under the authority of either an area or a mission president who lives very far away.  There usually are no opportunities for in-person contact, and sometimes effort isn’t made to have phone, mail, or online contact.  I’ve seen isolated priesthood holders in different areas who are in contact with their priesthood leaders, while women in the same places are not.  In our authority-based church, all members need access to our authorities.

I fully understand that there are times when the political, cultural, legal, economic, and/or religious situation in a given country might make it difficult for a priesthood leader to be in contact with isolated women.  It also is quite likely beyond the ability of an area president or mission president to keep track of all the isolated members in some missions or areas.  Those presidents already have significant responsibilities and I don’t expect that they can be like a bishop or branch president to all the isolated members in a mission or area.

However, I think it’s almost never impossible to make sure isolated members, especially women, are at least in contact with the Church. One solution might be to have women leaders (if they existed) contact isolated women informally if necessary, or at least not as official Church representatives.  They could also have more extensive contact with some women, making sure they are getting the _Liahona_ and General Conference if possible.  I cannot tell you what it would mean to me to get a phone call or email every few months to help me feel like I am part of the Church again, or to have someone remember that getting _Daughters in My Kingdom_ to all women in the Church includes isolated women.

Another result of my being under a mission or an area is that there are no women in council or in a leadership position over me.  I  hope there are some men who would consider it a disadvantage to not haveany women in council over or with them, but I don’t think there are as many who feel that way as I’d like there to be.  Particularly in the case of isolated women, there is no one at any level of the Church who speaks for us.  I have longed for women leaders over me this past year- there have been issues I am greatly concerned about here that I feel I cannot contact my priesthood leader about (for many reasons), but I think I might be able to contact a woman.  I’d be interested to see area Relief Society presidencies with councils made up of women from all over the area who have isolated women included in their responsibilities.

In some ways these things might seem small.  The sacrament isn’t a saving ordinance, and lots of people feel isolated or cut off from their priesthood leaders for many reasons. Councils with women might not be necessary; we went without them for decades (or so some might argue).  But if it’s important that members in the rest of the world partake of the sacrament weekly, it’s important for isolated women to have the same opportunity.  And if women in most countries now have access to priesthood and female leaders, I’d like to have the same wherever I live.
So no, I can’t agree that women aren’t limited because we don’t hold the priesthood.  I  don’t necessarily think that means we need the priesthood to overcome the limitations I’ve mentioned, but I do think we as a Church need to do a better job at making sure all members have access to the same blessings and the same leaders.  Even more importantly, I hope we can be sure that all women in the Church have a voice.

Comments

  1. isolatedmormonwoman says:

    I’ve had to go for many months without the sacrament within 4 miles of an LDS chapel and for reasons that have nothing to do with worthiness or desire. It has to do with a rare and incapacitating health condition. I am a woman.
    I won’t go into detail, because my situation is so unusual that I am afraid I would be identified by mentioning it, and I am afraid of being identified.
    I do have a worthy husband, and he has permission to give me the sacrament, but not alone, and he is the only one who can have enough contact with me to give me the sacrament. Hence, I don’t get the sacrament. This isn’t a decision the bishop made; unfortunately, it was taken out of his hands and made by the stake president.
    The fact is that there are two women in my ward with whom I feel particularly unsafe talking about my problems, and they are the RS president and the first counselor in the RS presidency. They know very little about me, but before I was incapacitated my experiences with them taught me, both by superficial conversations and attempts to understand them and by the Spirit, I know that I cannot trust them.
    The idea that women are always “safer” for other women isn’t true in all cases. Sometimes women can be harsher towards their own sex than men.
    If I were able to discuss my situation with a man, I would feel safer with my bishop, who is man much younger than myself. My husband has spoken to him, and his compassion is real. I’ve had some e-mail contact with him and have found him very genuine and understanding. I have worked hard to keep the RS president and her counselors from knowing about my situation, because I know that they are keenly lacking in compassion. Others whom I trust have had similar experiences with them.
    The idea that women must always be safe for other women is simply too general.

    I’m sorry you have felt isolated. I do understand isolation to some extent. My situation is not “over”. At this moment I have the strength to type this out, but I don’t know from day to day what my situation will be.

  2. I believe that the Roman Catholic church has provisions to allow unordained lay people administer sacraments in the absence of a priest.

  3. namakemono says:

    Amira – you are lucky in that you have internet and understand English – there are probably many women who have neither. Yours and their faith is amazing, and makes my problems look small by comparison.

  4. casteluzzo says:

    What a great post, Amira. I really appreciate your perspective.

    It doesn’t address the Priesthood ordinances issue, but I think it would be really great if perhaps the General Relief Society Board might make up a little branch of the Relief Society for isolated women. I’m thinking of something along the lines of the Middle East/North Africa Area Presidency, which administers from Church headquarters. It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to set up at least a connection (by phone, email, or even snail mail) for isolated women to virtually “visit teach” one another, and call someone to be the “virtual” Relief Society president to make sure their needs were heard and taken care of, and to send out the Liahona, Daughters in Our Kingdom, and other necessary materials.

  5. While I agree with comment 1 that women are not always the best to talk to, there are certain things that most women can only talk about with other women. On the balance, I would prefer to talk to a woman. The OP was brill. It is hard to really let it sink in that some women seriously do not even have access to phones, and mail (!!). I think some sort of provision does need to be made for isolated women but I feel the Church Administration is slow to make any moves where the welfare of women are concerned.

  6. I spent 6 years in different parts of Africa outside of a church unit – what was really helpful was communicating with the church office in Frankfurt. I was able to get contact info for church members or units whenever I traveled, and whenever members came to where I was (Morocco, Mali, or Burkina Faso) I was able to hold meetings. That said, it was very difficult, because most of the time the other members were women, and we ended up with a prayer service rather than sacrament.

  7. Liz Johnson says:

    I have known women who have decided against amazing opportunities like joining the Peace Corps because they would be so isolated and disconnected from the sacrament and other church connections. This is a beautiful piece, Amira, and I agree that something more needs to be done to reach the isolated women throughout the world.

  8. Honestly, there’s always a way – I’ve hosted members who were Peace Corps volunteers, language students, BYU professors, NGO employees – and even had my recommend renewed by the Area Authority in Ghana and conducted long distance scripture study – there’s always a work-around!

  9. Literally, the Sacramental prayers are just that, prayers. They simply request God to bless emblems and water. The prayers do not mention priesthood authority.

    Because the language of the rite makes no reference to priesthood, it would not be difficult to change the policy and explicitly allow isolated women to say a prayer on bread and water to remember and to witness before God.

    In the meantime, I don’t know why a person could not perform other actions to remember Jesus and to witness unto God willingness to take Jesus’ name and willingness to keep commandments. While the prayer refers to having God’s spirit flowing from to witnessing certain things before God by taking the Sacrament, I don’t see why God’s spirit is dependent on the witnessing being done by taking the Sacrament. I have no doubt that God’s spirit is just as present whether or not the witnessing is in one’s heart or by means of an outward rite.

    Finally, in these days of online communication, I do not see why blessing the Sacrament could not be done by video or other conference. Perhaps during a virtual Sacrament meeting.

  10. In 3 Nephi 18:5, it seems specific authority is required to administer the sacrament (at least for that group of people at that time), and it would make sense that authority would be priesthood authority. If the priesthood authority isn’t necessary, then the idea of gathering together oft to partake of the sacrament could just as easily be achieved by attending another Christian church’s service, assuming their basic intent is the same even if their tenets aren’t exactly. If the priesthood authority is necessary, then why isn’t this simply a request to grant women the priesthood?

    More fundamentally and gender issues aside, there’s a reason so many Mormon immigrants sacrificed everything to “gather to Zion”, and even with satellites and skype, I think some of those reasons still hold.

  11. isolatedmormonwoman, I hope things change somehow so that you can take the sacrament or that you can have more people around you who you can trust and who understand you. I completely agree that women aren’t always safer- your situation makes that clear. But I do think that, in general, women are safer for women who are isolated for legal or politcal reasons.

    casteluzzo, a brach like that wouldn’t be hard to set up. I’d be happy to volunteer to at least email or write to all the isolated women in my area if I only knew who they were. But I cannot get that information.

    volupt, we’ve noticed that not all area presidencies are equally helpful. We’re always hearing good stories about how the area presidencies in Europe are interacting with isolated members. That is, unfortunately, not always the case, despite an isolated member’s best efforts. And I agree there are lots of ways to be creative, but you’re very limited in this church which places such an emphasis on authority if you don’t have the backing of your priesthood leader.

    DavidH, I’d love to see the sacrament blessed virtually too, but even in the virtual branches, women can’t have the sacrament if there are no Priesthood holders physically present. And I completely agree that there are things you can do that can substitute for the sacrament in some ways, but if you’ve only attended church 3 times in the seven years you’ve been baptized, you might need a little help getting started on that.

    Martin, I wish some of the isolated women I know could gather elsewhere. Unfortunately, they can’t now, nor are they likely to be able to in the future.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  12. This reminds me of the several months that I was a virtual Sunday School buddy for a friend of mine who was on assignment in a remote place and was, as far as I know, the only member where she was. I can only imagine how hard it is to feel so isolated, but I’d encourage you to do what you can to create some community for yourself with regard to the formal aspect of Church rhythm – -lessons, etc. We did it one-on-one by email.

    Your post is a reminder that there are still Mormon pioneers having to make sacrifices to not enjoy all the blessings of the gospel. The Church is still a growing entity. Again, I can only imagine how hard that must be. But I agree with martin that I think there are reasons for this kind of order of things where the sacrament and gathering together are still a non-virtual experience.

    p.s. You mention that your husband could bless the sacrament for your family. He actually wouldn’t be able to do that without authorization from someone with keys. And when you say, “Women are allowed to participate in other specifically priesthood functions like missionary work and administer some temple ordinances” the same holds true there – authorization from someone with keys is still necessary for women to be able to perform these responsibilities. Neither women nor men are able to perform ordinances without the organization and authorization via priesthood keys. So in my mind, it’s not quite as unrestricted for men as your OP makes it out to be. I know that still doesn’t address your gender-related concern, but again, I still think it’s worth considering why the order of things is as it is. It’s not something I fully understand, but I think it’s valuable to mull over.

  13. David H. , thank you for pointing that out about the sacrament prayers. I don’t see why a woman or a man can’t bless the sacrament themselves, especially in situations where a spouse is ill, etc. It doesn’t seem to need the priesthood blessing it.

    Isolatedmormonwoman, in the same circumstances here, our bishop gave permission to the woman’s husband to bless the sacrament each Sunday in their own home. I see no reason why your husband can’t do the same
    even if the stake president has a problem with it. Any other stake president would think it was fine.
    The important thing is that you get to renew your covenants and have your sins forgiven each week.
    That’s huge.

  14. Michelle, I do think it’s less restricted for a man because he can bless the sacrament for himself without authorization (if not, I know quite a few men who don’t follow that rule when blessing the sacrament for themselves when they are geographically far from the church). He might not be able to do anything else with the priesthood that specifically only blesses him, but a priesthood holder never has to be without the sacrament if he chooses not to be. A woman doesn’t have that choice.

    Even if you don’t think that’s kosher, the permission is easy to get. We’ve always just sent an email to our far-off priesthood leader and the executive secretary who knows nothing about us writes back and says we can have the sacrament at home. It would be just as simple to do that for an isolated woman.

  15. michelle says:

    Like I said, Amira, I realize that my comments re: authorization don’t address the gender side of things, but handbook-wise, authorization is still supposed to be there. Like I said, I don’t understand all the reasons for why things are as they are, but I do think there may be a reason for it. I don’t agree with David, for example, that the sacrament prayers are just prayers and are not tied to priesthood. I think our scriptures teach otherwise.

    I know what the sacrament means to me, so I am not trying to minimize the frustration you feel or the reality that it must be very hard for women who are isolated and unable to partake of the sacrament.

  16. Just wanted to say, I love this post.
    What about the wives of the area authorities – can’t they be given some ecclesiastical authority?

  17. Observer says:

    David H: “Literally, the Sacramental prayers are just that, prayers. They simply request God to bless emblems and water. The prayers do not mention priesthood authority.

    “Because the language of the rite makes no reference to priesthood, it would not be difficult to change the policy and explicitly allow isolated women to say a prayer on bread and water to remember and to witness before God.”

    Everything must be interpreted in context. While the prayers do not mention priesthood authority, the scriptures introducing the prayers do.

    “And the elder or priest shall administer it; and after this manner shall he administer it—he shall kneel with the church and call upon the Father in solemn prayer, saying:” (D&C 20:76)

    “The manner of their elders and priests administering the flesh and blood of Christ unto the church; and they administered it according to the commandments of Christ; wherefore we know the manner to be true; and the elder or priest did minister it— And they did kneel down with the church, and pray to the Father in the name of Christ, saying:” (Moroni 4:1-2)

    Both Moroni and D&C make it clear that blessing the sacrament is performed by those holding the authority of an elder or priest.

  18. yourpeople says:

    Thanks for the post. I think this issue is SO different for ex-pats than for local women. Ex-pats generally have contact with other Church members (even through personal correspondence) or internet access (blog posts=sacrament talks as far as I’m concerned), at least. The same cannot be said for a random member married to a non-member hours or borders away from a faith community. Ex-pats can definitely come up with “work-arounds” for the years or even decades they know they will be out there, but how many of us could sustain our faith totally independently for a whole lifetime? Man or woman, it would be very hard.

  19. Nothing really to add other than a big thank you. In 2007 I went to the BYU Jerusalem center where I became (somewhat) aware of small pockets of members in more isolated countries. Thank you for enriching my perspective with yours. I hope to hear from you again. Thank you so much! And thanks BCC for posting this.

  20. I think that there is no reason Relief Societies couldn’t function independent of wards and stakes. Really good stuff, Amira.

  21. Timely post. This very topic has been swimming around in my head recently, as my husband is living/working in the Amazonian jungle in Peru right now. The nearest meetinghouse is about 5 hours away (by boat), so he was given permission to give himself the sacrament. He holds his own little sacrament meeting for himself every Sunday morning – complete with hymns, prayers, a talk, and of course, blessing and giving himself the sacrament. I am glad that he is able to perform this ritual while living alone — the ordinance seems to be very meaningful and strengthening to him.

    Sure, there are other ways a woman could seek to learn/study about the gospel when alone, but there is nothing like partaking of the Body of Christ to remind oneself what is most important. Either we believe the sacrament to be what we say it is–essential for salvation–or we don’t. Why the emphasis on weekly sacrament meeting attendance if there is not a real, salvific power that comes from the ordinance? Makes me sad that a woman in a similar situation cannot also benefit from that same centering strength.

  22. I don’t have anything to add, but I really appreciate this post.

  23. namakemono says:

    re women and sacrament prayers – when I was doing the interpreting for Sacrament meeting in our ward (Japan – I was translating to English), I wasn`t allowed to say the sacrament prayers (even though it wasn`t “giving” the prayer – just translating what the PH holder blessing the sacrament was saying) – I had to ask a PH to do the translation for that. I imagine there is no official policy on that, and it was the decision of our bishopric. Now the translating is done by the missionaries (elders) so no problem (well, expcept on fast Sunday where they can`t keep up with the off-gospel-topic talks, but that is another matter).

  24. namakemono (no. 23) — You’re right, there is no official policy — a sister can do a translation of a sacrament prayer as a service to others, if the presiding authority will allow her to — but if not, well, we serve wherever we’re able.

    When I travel alone, I don’t administer the sacrament for myself — I see the sacrament as a priesthood ordinance and a gift, and when I administer it I do it for others, and when I partake I accept it from others. This works best for me in my mind. When I’m alone, I pray and sing and ponder and read, and that suffices for worship for me.

    The sacrament ordinance is not essential for worship — a small group’s praying and singing and reading and pondering and testifying can be real worship. One need never let the absence of a priesthood holder stop a group from worshiping our God.

  25. Kristine says:

    “I think that there is no reason Relief Societies couldn’t function independent of wards and stakes.” How would they call or set apart officers?

  26. Kristine (no. 25) — Perhaps a traveling mission president could call and set-apart a Relief Society president, and then go on his way. When he passed through there a year later, he could visit and see how things are going. They could exchange correspondence in the interim.

    But maybe they won’t need other “officers” — I think that’s a construct we carry over from into the church from our congregationalist / democratic / bureaucratic environments and backgrounds. The sister called as “president” could minister to others and ask others to help her, all without callings and sustainings and settings-apart and so forth. Her focus would be on ministering, not on staffing an organization.

    Imagine that — a focus on ministering rather than staffing an organization — sounds almost like pure religion to me…

  27. Elements of this discussion remind me strongly of accounts I’ve read — and posted — about scattered members of the Church in the Southern states, and occasionally elsewhere, 100-130 years ago, where a convert would accept the gospel and be baptized, the only one in a family or for counties around, and then not see or hear from another Latter-day Saint for years on end. Certainly far from ideal, and almost certainly many were lost in their isolation, but many of them kept their faith.

  28. I know I’m late, but I’ve heard this idea before that ji (24) brings up and wanted to talk about it a little more:

    “When I travel alone, I don’t administer the sacrament for myself — I see the sacrament as a priesthood ordinance and a gift, and when I administer it I do it for others, and when I partake I accept it from others. This works best for me in my mind. When I’m alone, I pray and sing and ponder and read, and that suffices for worship for me.

    The sacrament ordinance is not essential for worship — a small group’s praying and singing and reading and pondering and testifying can be real worship. One need never let the absence of a priesthood holder stop a group from worshiping our God.”

    While I agree that worthwhile worship can be accomplished without the sacrament, it’s also clear that there is something unique and important about the sacrament (at least I hear a lot about it in General Conference). Sure, if you’re traveling for a couple of weeks in a place where the church isn’t organized, missing the sacrament for a little while isn’t a problem. But would a priesthood holder on his own really not bless the sacrament for himself if he were, for example, in Peace Corps for two years, or assigned by an employer to live in some seemingly remote place for 6 months? Also, I really like the sacrament because it’s one of our very few rituals. The wording, the actions, they matter for the ordinance. I’d not like to lose that long term, and I think it is a big deal to not be able to take the sacrament for months or years at a time.

    I also think that if you haven’t had any experience in the gospel, or with other members, or in regular church meetings, or even in religious services of any type, it can be extremently difficult to figure out how to worship on your own. At least the sacrament gives you a specific ordinance to focus on.

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