There is a small subway stop near the southern tip of Manhattan. The cast iron stairs were cold and slick as we made our way upwards, into the grey winter light. It wasn’t raining so much as the air was heavy with mist, just barely above freezing. It’s a bit surprising to find oneself rising from the subway tunnels into a church yard. If you jaunt half a block to the left, you are on Wall Street, the hustling, busy financial capital of the West, and if you reach your hand out to the right, you can touch a 300 year-old tombstone in a very old American graveyard. The dissonance of place and time is startling.
For the fourth Sunday in Advent, I found myself in New York City with some friends. Even though all of us are Mormon, we decided to go to services at Trinity, an Episcopal church founded in 1697. It also happens to have become something of a pilgrimage site, since not only are Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza buried in the churchyard, but so are Angelica Schuyler, Hercules Mulligan, and Phillip Hamilton, who are all super famous now thanks to a certain Broadway musical.
We gingerly picked our way through the mud of the churchyard to visit the famous graves before heading towards the heavy chapel doors. I had been to Trinity before, but never for Sunday services; I knew the chapel was beautiful, I expected incense and candles and a choir and Christmas hymns. But the low-church Mormon in me just wasn’t at all prepared for an Anglican Advent.
We were late, but as we pulled open the heavy doors, a wall of music hit us- angelic choral music. Clear, bright and holy. The pews were full, but the usher quietly assured us we were welcome, and we stood near the back. The chapel was warm, decorated with pine boughs and candles, actual frankincense burned on the alter, and the winter light illuminated the brilliant stained glass up the nave and into the apse. The usher handed us a program containing the music, and we were invited to sing. I could not. I couldn’t move- I stood there holding my program, transfixed.
As the recessional began, the attendants moved the cross and candles from the altar and down the center aisle; standing in the back, my view was unobstructed. Holding the cross aloft and leading the recessional down the nave, in her robes of the holy priesthood of God, was a black woman. Her head was held high, her joy visible on her beautiful face, as her hands carried the symbol of her Savior. My Savior. Your Savior. Behind her walked the altar boys and girls. And girls… and girls… and girls. It echoed in my head…and girls.
I thought I was fine. My eyes started to swim and my breath caught in my throat. I didn’t know it mattered, but there before God, it mattered so much. It mattered more than anything I had ever felt, and the physical impact was a hammer to my chest. My hands were shaking and I gave up and let the tears roll indiscreetly down.
The service was over, the usher extended a hand, “Peace be with you.” I smooshed a kleenex over my face to clean up the emotional wreckage, and extended my hand, “And also with you” came out in a hoarse whisper, but it was sincere.
Representation matters. Seeing a woman take part fully in the devotional of her faith matters. Having space for women to be full disciples of Christ matters. I have never felt so keenly the lack of space for me in my chosen faith as I did in that chapel.
In Mormonism, women are invisible. We are the hands behind the scenes that make the smoothness of our religious lives possible. I don’t want to hear about Relief Society, or Ward Counsel, or Young Women. There is nowhere women may stand before the congregation, with power and authority, a full disciple of Christ. There is no amount spin, or cartwheels, or convolutions that will change this fact. We are absent. We are absent in our Sunday worship services, we are absent in our highest rituals in our temples. We are not there. Representation matters.
I do believe this will change someday. I do not believe God requires his daughters to be absent, invisible, silent. I also believe God allows humans to make their mistakes and learn from them- even in church. Even in our church. For me, that’s the hope of the Restoration- we have an open canon and the promise of revelation. It isn’t happening on my time, but the promise holds.
Every once in a while, I wish my heart wasn’t actually converted to Mormonism. I wish I could walk away and find another church, a church where I am not plagued by dissonance and even occasional fury at the absence, the injustice, the gaslighting, and the patronizing defense I find so often in our Sunday services and classes. No matter how I struggle around these very uncomfortable things, I circle back around to the core fact that this is my home, these are my people, for better or for worse.
But sometimes I get tired of hurting. I remember that beautiful, beaming face, so like my own, holding aloft the symbol of our Savior. And it helps.