Across the Parking Lot
Submitted by a Listener
It’s a question that many parents have heard or may be hearing soon: “Do I have to take Seminary?” This questions means so much more these days. In my home, with my daughter, it’s not about boredom. It’s not about opening up space in a high school schedule. This question is about something much deeper.
At an assembly at school today, I shook hands with our seminary teacher who had come in to watch with his class. In my role as an educator at a variety of secondary Utah schools, I have made an effort to befriend these upstanding men who happen to reside across the parking lot. I’ve always been impressed with their dedication to their faith. I respect them. Lately, however, my respect for the building across the parking lot has waned. It started, in fact, with a realization that the two buildings, the school and the seminary building, are currently teaching very different values to the students that enter.
In many of our Utah schools, we are blessed with an exciting amount of diversity among our students. I am grateful for this characteristic of our schools. I would argue that our schools contain more diversity than virtually any other institution around, reflecting a true cross section of society at large. Within a school building one might find the affluent, the poor, the motivated, the unmotivated, the athletic, the musical, the teacher’s pets, the wall flowers, the college-bound and the soon-to-be drop outs. In addition to this variety come other challenges: impoverished families, homelessness, single parent homes, special needs, non-English speakers and gay students. It’s upon the latter that I would like to focus my attention in my comparison between school and seminary.
We have been given the challenge of teaching math, English, science, and many other important subjects in our schools. Along with these academic areas, we also teach values like acceptance and love. We teach kindness and respect. We teach not only the need for, but the power and beauty of diversity. We value the need for different voices and opinions. We help our students practice inclusion and avoid isolation in every way. We celebrate being a family within the school, a family of different faces, cultures, experiences, opinions.
But, the bell rings and some of these students who have learned the value of this inclusiveness leave our building and walk across the parking lot. They enter a building that is run by an institution that doesn’t quite share this same accepting attitude. Instead, this short trek across the parking lot plunges our students into a world of binary, correlated thought, where the value of diversity is replaced by a form of quasi-elitism. We’ve heard it all before, Wheat and Tares, Tree of Life vs. the Great and Spacious Building, In the Boat or Out of the Boat. Slowly, the values of love and acceptance are subtly replaced with footnotes, disclaimers, and thinly-veiled platitudes…“loving the sinner, but hating the sin.” Instead of celebrating diversity, these students learn an institutional brand of tolerance. They learn that it is indeed okay to not treat some groups as equals.
These seminary teachers, it is not them. In talking to them, they know and seem to care about each of their students. The concern, this dogma of inequality, of non–acceptance, of exclusion. It comes from a level of the Church largely unfamiliar with our students. From polygamy, to blacks and the Priesthood, to women’s rights and civil rights, to same-sex marriage, major social issues…the LDS Church in its policies and doctrines has lagged behind the hard-fought social progress of our country. With the November policy and Elder Nelson’s recent remarks classifying the policy as revelation, my heart as an active Latter-Day Saint has been fractured. And I am not alone. When one considers the growing body of biological research behind homosexuality, as well as the policy’s potential victimization of innocent children, many are left questioning the Christianity, the humanity, of the Church’s message. This dissonance is magnified among our millennials. On January 10, 2016, Elder Nelson gave his own definition of millennials, as those who are, “morally courageous” and “…a chosen generation, fore-ordained by God to do a remarkable work…” As someone who works with these kids daily, I would caution that some of the best qualities of our millennial generation go directly against what the Church values.
Millennial characteristics relate to individualism, to thinking, to learning, to arguing, to doubting, to exploring…to accepting and valuing the differences of others. Elder Nelson and many of those in upper Church leadership, although inspired spiritual leaders, come from a generation whose life experiences are far removed from the experiences and realities of the millennials today. A generation that while accomplishing many feats, marginalized blacks, limited women, and scoffed at gays for the evil choices they made. For all of the good that I have seen in the Church in my lifetime, we’ve come too far to be limited by this antiquated, unequal view of one another in our modern, diverse, progressing society.
Across the parking lot one is to be proud to be peculiar…but the peculiarity we are observing now relates to bigotry. It’s based on fear. Its roots are exclusion. Its core is control. Our millennials are receiving a mixed message. Many, however, are uncomfortable in the ways of the old, and are moving with a growing, inspired passion toward this new way of thinking: the same way that is taught, that is emphasized, that is celebrated, that is modeled each day in our Utah schools.
“Do I have to take seminary?” It’s a question that has been asked and disregarded for decades. This question today, however, is much different, much deeper. It comes from a “morally courageous” generation and it carries more weight than it ever has. It is from one millennial, a true millennial, my daughter, standing at the school doors, looking across the parking lot, and saying, “Something over there just doesn’t feel right to me.”