To Be Aware

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Sunday morning I headed to the church 45 minutes before the first block was scheduled to begin. The primary presidency had set up a teacher training wherein each teacher was to be reminded of his or her “lost lambs” – kids who were less active, or who couldn’t come to church because of less active parents. Before the teachers were loosed to gather the sheep – printed on cardstock with our students’ pictures pasted to them, hanging around the room – the primary president became flustered with her introduction. Quickly she motioned to the bishop to come up as she apologized for not being eloquent enough to say what needed to be said.

The bishop stood in front of us and told us to keep an eye on our students, each other’s students, our children, each other’s children. Someone in the ward had come forward with a child pornography addiction.

No need for alarm – just be aware.

The teacher training continued on, and numbly I walked around the room, plucking my scotch-taped lambs from the wall. The girl who only comes every other week when she stays with her dad, the shy little boy with the huge smile, the Bishop’s daughter.

Throughout singing time I was a mess. With every key change, every new melody, I would look at the Savior’s face up on the wall and feel an overwhelming heaviness on my shoulders. I thought about how hard it would be to be the Bishop, to have to treat this struggling child of God with all the kindness, empathy and tenderness he could muster, all while thinking about the safety of his four young daughters – as well as each child within the ward. I blinked back tears as I sang the words to “If the Savior Stood Beside Me.”

*

Northern Utah is farm country. Generally quiet, you know your neighbors, and chances are the next person you see is a Mormon. Schools, churches and other buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes and heavy snow. The scent of cow pies and marshlands waft through the air and can be smelled from just about everywhere. Northern Utah is a place you feel comfortable calling home. Where its safe to walk to the grocery store at night, where you can ask your neighbors to watch your kids while you run an errand, and feel completely comfortable doing so.

*

When my husband and I lived in Brigham, the Primary presidency gathered the teachers together with a similar announcement. In the ward that met before ours, a child had been allowed to walk down the hall to the bathroom. While he was in there, a stranger came inside and tried to take him away. They didn’t go into details, but I assume the child was a good screamer and a fast runner because they said he was safe and sound. From then on we were supposed to watch our students more closely and stand right outside the bathroom door, should they need to go.

*

We waited in the foyer during sacrament meeting, watching Jonah run from the drinking fountain to the coat rack with his little friend – a boy just six months older. My shy and smiley student’s two sisters were there too, one in the charge of the other while their mother listened to the speakers. Another little boy sat in his stroller eating a banana while his father sat in a nearby chair, body bent and head resting in his hand.

From my spot on the couch I could see into the chapel. An elderly man sat alone in the very corner, and every so often Jonah would peek behind the doorway and wave to him. The elderly man’s thin face would smile back –  what seemed to be a single second of relief from a life’s worth of sorrow and pain. I thought, its him. And my heart beat faster with each step Jonah took toward the door.

Minutes later, a middle-aged man with a haircut that couldn’t quite be classified as a mullet came around the corner and walked briskly through the chapel doors. It’s him, I thought. At the same moment a young father carried his child in an infant carrier, setting it down outside the chapel doors and peering in, as if looking for someone. Again, it’s him.

*

Jonah’s name appeared on a list outside the nursery door that morning. I thought he had three months left to go – but when I caught his name as I walked toward the training I was thrilled. He would thrive in nursery – he loves more than anything to socialize with other kids. No longer would I have to tote a thrashing toddler through the first hour of primary.

But as the bishop took questions after his word of caution, all I could think of was one thing: Bishop, how am I supposed to send my child to nursery?

Bishop, in four years, how am I supposed to send him to school? How does anyone have more than one child, Bishop? How will I live my life if I can’t have my children constantly in sight?

*
Apprehensively I pull up the state’s sex offender search site. I type in my address; 11 within half a mile. As I scroll down the list I am slightly comforted by the fact that I have never seen any of these men before. I click on each picture, pulling up their convictions. They all look like sex offenders – their faces with a twisted look that can only come from Satan’s tight clasp. I click through each picture until I reach #11.

The sad, heavy face of the elderly man in the corner.

My initial reaction included chills running up my spine. Jonah had been three feet away from the guy, smiling and waving at him. My next reaction was entirely different:

How much humility must this man have to continue to come to church, sit by himself in the corner, refuse the sacrament, all while knowing the leaders over children and youth would be informed of a potential threat. How remorseful must he feel, to sit in that chair, knowing that anyone with a computer could see his face among the ranks of the lowest of the low. Of all the sins you would never want to confess – how much respect does this man deserve, solely for the fact that he was there in that seat, in the corner, alone.

I do not condone what this man did. Nor do I feel I have to say how I feel about this particular sin. I will always be wary, I will never trust that the problem has been “solved.” I don’t believe it ever could be “solved.” But I do feel sad for him and what he’s let his life become. I feel sorry that he made that decision and all the decisions that led up to it.

But I respect him for coming forward and making his way through the steps of repentance.

Even though his shame is public – so is his testimony and the desires of his Spirit.

I get so depressed when I think about the state of the world. I get to the point where my soul feels so heavy that I want to cry out to the Savior to just come again already. I get so tired of having to watch out – having to be aware – that I forget about what’s okay in the world. I forget to be aware of the good in people’s souls – the true intentions and desires of their hearts. I forget to be aware of other’s struggles and circumstances. I forget to be aware that others, though their hearts have hardened or they’ve succumbed to temptations, have heavenly spirits that are crying out for Christ to save them, too.

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Jessica Anderson is a freelance writer/blogger and frequent recipient of the (sarcastic) mother-of-the-year award. In 2011 she gave birth to a baby boy with record-breaking handsomeness, and from there went on to help create and co-author For All Momkind the Blog, providing answers to life’s most perplexing parenting questions

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