I would like to relate an experience I had while I was a student at Brigham Young University. I had many good experiences there, but I had a few bad ones as well. And since painful experiences stay with us in ways that positive experiences to not, this event left an impression on me that has never gone away.
It happened in a religion class, almost 25 years ago. All students at BYU are required to take religion classes as part of their General Education requirements, no matter what their beliefs may be. If this sounds odd, you may ascribe it to the fact that the church subsidizes the tuition of all students, even those who are not Mormon. The tuition non-Mormons pay may be higher than the rate members of the church pay, but it still does not cover the total cost of their education, or at least it did not do so when I attended the university. The religion classes are part of the deal.
It may seem unusual to people from other Christian traditions, but even though BYU religion teachers teach church-designed classes at a church university, they do not have any kind of official capacity within the church. Our church does not have trained clergy or any training program (which sometimes really shows) and BYU religion teachers are all professors who have been trained in other fields. As professors, they have some freedom to teach whatever they would like, meaning that while their lessons usually conform to established church doctrines, this is not always the case.
This particular professor, on this particular day, decided to talk about birth control and how wrong it was. That is not the position of the church, either then or now. In fact, while it is true that some Mormons eschew birth control, it is actually a common practice among faithful members of our church, which means that it is also common at BYU, where a large percentage of the students are married.
One of the women in the classroom decided to express her disagreement with his lesson and included the fact that she and her husband practiced birth control and why they did so. The teacher responded by condemning her for not having sufficient faith that God would take care of them if she became pregnant. A few of the members of the class joined in and ganged up on her. It was ugly and she left the room in tears.
While several people attacked her faith, no one stood up for her. More importantly to me, I did not stand up for her, even though I agreed with her completely. When she left the room crying, that hit me more than anything else could have. I resolved never to let such a situation go by again. I was determined to stand up for people who were being unfairly attacked.
I am sure I have not been perfect in following this principle, but I have tried. One of my strongest memories was when I once defended my church and my own beliefs. Defending my own group wasn’t quite what I had determined to do, but it was close enough to satisfy me. It happened a few months after my experience in that religion class.
My sister Tamara was working as a nanny in New York City and I made some extra money over the summer. Instead of spending my extra cash on something practical like a well-used car, I kept walking and riding my bike round town and flew to New York City to tour it on the cheap (still not a cheap trip). Tamara set me up in the apartment of a friend and arranged for people to take me to interesting places during her work hours. It was an amazing trip that included seeing Les Miserables on Broadway. The actor who had originated the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway had returned for a special visit that night and we took in the show from the fourth row. I remember a lady we met in line praising my sister for the low price she had found for those prime seats. The musical and the entire week were an incredible experience for me and I have never properly thanked her for what she did for me.
One of the things we did together was go to her Institute Class. Institute classes are religion classes for Mormon adults of college age, but outside of a formal university setting. They are similar to the BYU classes and follow the same textbook. I do not know whether or not the teachers have the same freedoms that BYU religion professors have, but I doubt it.
New York City did not have a large number of Mormons or Mormon chapels at the time. The lack of church buildings meant that my sister’s institute class was held in a public building at West Point, a military university campus. At the same time we were there, another religious group was meeting just down the hall. Someone in our group realized the others were watching the movie The Godmakers. This is a piece of anti-Mormon propaganda that was very common at the time and there probably weren’t any two words in existence that could raise Mormon hackles the way the title of that movie could then.
And it certainly raised mine. I stood outside the door of that antagonistic meeting, listening, not daring to go in…until it ended. As soon as it was over, I went in and confronted the group and told them that the movie they had been watching was full of half-truths and lies. They were fairly polite in their responses. For my part, I felt I had followed through on my recent determination to stand up for those who were unfairly attacked.
Generally speaking, my determination to stand up for others has not led me to be so bold, nor has its focus been on defending my own religion, though I have done that as well. Occasionally it has led me to confront members of my own religion regarding their treatment of others.
In the end, no matter who I am defending from whom, it all goes back to that day in my religion class at BYU when I saw that woman leave in tears. I guess I already kind of knew how it felt to be an outsider, to feel like everyone was against you. After seeing bullying like this happen as an adult, I could never be a part of it again. I could never again be comfortable remaining in silence and let other people treat another human being that way without raising an objection.
This matters to me. It is one of my personal rules. And even if I am not perfect in following it, I do try and I intend to continue.