On this week’s episode of This is the Gospel, two storytellers discuss how fitting into the body of Christ can sometimes be painful and difficult. Suzanne, who moved after ending a 40-year temple marriage, felt invisible in her new ward. After moving a second time, she was cautiously optimistic when she walked through the doors of another Church meetinghouse. Little did she know that sisters from Relief Society would welcome her with the words, “You are exactly where you need to be. This is the healing ward.” Read why the sisters’ complete honesty and vulnerability during a Relief Society lesson about temples changed Suzanne’s life.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
My story starts with the decision to divorce my husband. We had been married for 40 years. I was 60 years old and we have seven children. They were all gone from our home at that point.
It was something that had been building for many years, but it finally came to the point where I felt like I couldn’t stay. I was the one who packed up and moved to a different place. That was quite an experience for me. I had either been taken care of by my parents or by my husband. You might as well have put me on the moon.
When I got to my new ward, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to have great sisters here. It’s going to be okay. I’m going to make it through this.” But it didn’t quite happen, at least not for me. I was not treated badly. I would never say that. But they didn’t know what to do with me.
I handed the bishop my tithing every couple of weeks. Other than that, we had no contact. I sat on my bench in church. I would sit on the side and I would sit all the way in next to the wall so that if someone else wanted to come and sit, because everybody’s looking for a place to sit, my bench would be available. I lived there for two years, and I sat alone on my bench.
It’s very difficult to go to church when you don’t feel like you have a connection to the people in the Church. I really wondered how this was supposed to work. And finally, one day, I talked to my Relief Society president. And I said, “You know, I’ve lived in this ward for six months. I do not have home teachers. I don’t have visiting teachers. I don’t know anybody who is in this ward.”
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And so then I did receive home teachers and visiting teachers, and they were wonderful. I liked knowing them. It was nice to have a face at church and in Relief Society that I recognized. But I still felt very, very separate and practically invisible.
I sold my home and moved to another part of Salt Lake. I was really considering staying under the radar for as long as possible. It’s very hard to stay active, especially if you are moving to a new area where you don’t know people.
Because I had felt so frustrated with my experiences in that first ward, I felt like maybe I needed to write a letter and explain that to the people at Church headquarters, or at least to tell them my story because I felt like there were so many sisters who they would not be hearing from. I wanted them to know how difficult that it is for a single sister and a divorced sister.
I felt like there were many sisters who actually were becoming inactive because they didn’t feel that they were being heard or seen. I figured it doesn’t hurt to tell them and maybe if someone else writes the letter, then there’ll be more than one voice. So I finished my letter, and there was some fear and trepidation that went along with that. But I put a stamp on it and sent it off.
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So when I moved into my new home, lo and behold, my bishop came over. I thought, “Whoo! I got a bishop! He knows me and here he is!” And that was a very positive experience. And it was still a little while before I decided to make the plunge and go to church.
Now when I went to church that very first Sunday, I walked in the door. I was greeted by an absolutely lovely sister, who introduced herself and asked me if I was new, and I said yes. She was very friendly. Then I went in and sat down alone on my bench. And then, we had Sunday School, then we had Relief Society. And I thought, “Meh, I don’t really want to go to Relief Society. I’ve done my due diligence. I’ve been here for two hours.” But I thought, “Nah, buck up and go to Relief Society.”
So I went into Relief Society and the sister who had greeted me at the door when I very first walked into sacrament meeting came over to me and she said, “Do you mind if I sit with you? Because I don’t think anyone should have to sit alone.” And I almost burst into tears. I just thought she was so sweet to do that.
But they were handing out . . . you know how they do those papers where everybody gets a paper, you have to read your little thing and answer your question? When I read what my question was going to be, I realized that the lesson was going to be on temples. I had just ended a 40-year temple marriage. I was not in the mood to discuss temples. I was still trying to figure out where I fit because I am no longer married to the man that I’m sealed to. So I really, really wanted to get up and leave. But Relief Society had started and there was no way that I could gracefully get out of that room, or I would’ve.
So, the lesson started. The lady who gave the lesson did a wonderful job. But it was in the responses by the sisters in Relief Society that just about blew me away. We had, of course, lovely sisters who talked about how wonderful the temple was and how much they loved it and how they went weekly or whatever. But we also had sisters who raised their hand and who said, “You know, I had a temple recommend, and I loved going to the temple. But I’m not in that position anymore where I can go, but I would like someday to return.”
And I thought, “Wait a minute, we don’t discuss this kind of stuff in Relief Society. Nobody comes actually out and says, ‘I don’t have a recommend.’” And she was not the only sister who said pretty much the same thing. They never disparaged the temple or said anything bad about it. It was always very complimentary, that it had been a wonderful place. It was peaceful. It was a place they wanted to be able to go again.
And then, which just almost knocked me off my chair, was the teacher up front said, “Well, sisters, actually, I don’t have a recommend either.” Then I said, “Sisters, I want you to know that I have never been in a group of women like this before.” The amount of honesty and the love and the comfort that I felt in that room where each sister felt that she could say what was in her heart.
So I thanked them for having that kind of a spirit. And I told them that I had never ever experienced anything like this before. And I shed a lot of tears at that point.
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Relief Society ended and I had quite a few sisters who came up and spoke to me after. There was such a common thread, it really struck me, because I would get this wonderful hug and they would welcome me, and they would say, “You are exactly where you need to be. This is the healing ward.” And I truly believed that that was the case.
A month or two after that, I got a call from the stake president. I went over and visited with him. I walked into his office and his desk was all cleared and my letter was right in the middle of the desk.
He just said, “Well, I got a call from the Area Presidency, and they told me . . . I needed to talk to you and see how you were feeling. I told him everything I said in the letter was true and I still believed everything, but that I had been placed in a place where I could heal. After I finished visiting with the stake president and he was showing me out, we talked for just a moment. And he said, “Well, I just want you to know that we will be changing some of the boundaries in some of the wards.” When he told me that, my heart dropped.
Honestly, my heart broke at that moment. And in just a few months, the boundaries did change. I went to the new ward and probably 75% of the people were brand new to me. But the thing I did notice, week after week coming to church, was that the sisters that I had seen in that original Relief Society meeting that had touched my heart so very deeply were not there. They didn’t feel, perhaps, that they had a place, and it broke my heart.
As time went on, I realized that if I wanted to be associated with sisters and have that same wonderful feeling, it wasn’t going to just happen. It had to be made to happen. So, as I talked to a couple of the sisters that I was acquainted with, I said, “You know, we really should just get together every once in a while.” So, we decided that we would meet every month. At first, I thought, “Well, do we need a book? Or do we need . . . an article or something that we can discuss?” I was dead wrong on that.
We’d just come together and we’d talk about whatever [was] on our minds. If that includes frustrations, then we hear frustrations. If that includes times when we feel like we got to win, then that is there too. It is such a wonderful feeling to gather with these women because we’re all close to the same condition in life, but we all got here in different ways.
We have one sister who is a widow. We have sisters who were not treated well by their husbands. We have sisters who were never married. We meet together . . . kind of in an atmosphere of healing. This is the place we can be ourselves under any circumstance. And I come home, and my heart is full. We’re not invisible to each other.
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Several of these women would sit on the back row. So, when one of us or when one of us single sisters would walk in, they would motion and say, “Come, come and sit with us.” I cannot tell you the difference that made in my feelings about going to church. The thought that when I got there, even though I was coming by myself, that I would walk in the door, I would see a face that I recognized and they would say, “Come and sit with me.” When you walk in, you know that that little section is going to be there for you. And it is huge.
Honestly, there were times before and after I went through divorce proceedings, that I felt extremely alone. I didn’t feel like my Heavenly Father really was interested in what I was going through. And I really felt like I was fighting myself to remain active.
After I had the experiences that I did, as I moved into this particular area, it was like a light bulb going off. And as I looked back and watched things that had happened to me and decisions that I had made because of those things, I thought, “I have been put here. I have been placed here very carefully, led by circumstance, but it has brought me to this place. This is the place that I was meant to be.” And I was so grateful for that knowledge.
I know that my Father in Heaven is watching over me because I’m here. And all I have to do is look around and I know that I was guided. Now maybe I was kicking and screaming while I was being guided, but I was guided. And He does care.