I walked into the chapel and sat in my usual pew with, for my own sanity, very low expectations. It was in this very room, after all, that I endured an Easter sacrament service devoted to the concept of tithing (of all things) just three years ago. My mind was playing on the tasks I would need to perform after church was over: putting the folding chairs in the car, not forgetting the vegetables and the hot cross buns, and then driving to my sister-in-law’s house for Easter dinner.
The first talk by a youth speaker was par for the course, as the young man gamely tried to talk about the atonement. I appreciated that he actually tried, with mixed success, to quote one of his seminary mastery scriptures (from Isaiah 53). As youth talks go it was definitely better than average. See?–my lowered expectations were paying off already.
But then the next speaker began. Her name is Mary; she’s a beautiful black woman from Cameroon. I knew immediately this was going to be good; I would be happy to listen to her read the phone book in her lilting West African accent!
The talk started out pedestrian enough; some scriptures, and a quote from Elder Faust. Later, when she quoted a line from the Lord’s prayer, she quoted 3 Nephi rather than the NT; ah, she’s been a Mormon long enough to learn some of the tricks of our speaking trade, I thought.
But then she started to speak of her personal story, and the talk really sprang to life.
As I mentioned, she was born in Cameroon to a large, poor family, with ten people living in a small house. She remembered her young childhood, when she lived with her parents, as very happy. But then when she was eight her older brother took her away to live in the city, and her struggles would begin.
He and his wife basically treated her as a slave. She had to wake at 5:00 a.m. and do a very long list of chores, and she had to do the same at night. Her bed was a chair with two cushions. But her one salvation was that she could go to school. She only had one uniform, and she had to walk a long way by herself, barefoot. It would have been easy to give up, as lots of girls did, but she always made sure to go to school.
When the time came, she took the exam for entrance to secondary school and passed! She was so happy. But when she came home and told her brother, he told her to forget about it, that there was no way he was going to pay to educate a girl.
Luckily, she also had an older sister who had promised to come and get her; and she knew her sister would keep her promise. Eventually she did (they had to lie to their brother to get him to let Mary come with her), and Mary was able to go to secondary school.
When she graduated from secondary school, she came to Chicago and attended Roosevelt University, studying social work. She became the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college.
But she was not happy. She harbored immense anger and resentment, first towards her brother and his wife for the things they had done to her and the way that they treated her, and second towards her parents for letting him take her and not protecting her. From the time that she was eight into her adulthood she had nursed this grudge against her family members, and it ate away at her.
Then in 1993 on Good Friday she slipped into the back pew of a Presbyterian church a block from where she lived, and the pastor was speaking on forgiveness. He talked about what Jesus had suffered and endured, and yet he forgave all, and he asks us to forgive others, too. So many of us go around carrying grudges and hating each other; we need to follow the Savior’s example, for he led the way. She felt the pastor was speaking directly to her, and her soul burned within her. She cried and cried, and then she prayed and asked God to forgive her for not having forgiven her family, and she felt the burden lifted, and a deep sense of relief. She went home and called her parents–it was 7:00 a.m. local time, and they didn’t actually have a phone, so someone in the village had to run for them–and told them that she loved them, and her heart was lifted.
For her, she said, this is what Jesus dyinig on the cross really means.
The only bad thing about the talk is that I was so moved I couldn’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I squeaked out a line here and there, but I just couldn’t get it together to sing the whole song.
So, with Kristine, for today I foreswear my annual ritual of experiencing Holy Week/Easter Sunday sacred envy. There was nowhere I would rather have been this morning than in my own chapel listening to one of the sisters of Zion tell a tale of Christian forgiveness that sprang from the African continent.