Eva Witesman: Wearing White to a Baptism

We pulled into the parking stall 10 minutes early for the baptism. As we prepared to get out, we saw that right outside the meetinghouse was the guest of honor: a jubilant little girl, swishing her new white dress proudly as her family began to gather.

I should have gotten out of the car and walked toward the building. But instead, a moment of panic set in.

My own daughter, sitting in the back of my minivan, was also wearing a white dress—the one we’d bought for her own baptism just a few months ago. She’d been so excited to wear it for this occasion—wanting to match her friend and to demonstrate that she had been baptized, too.

Now the decision to let my daughter wear that white dress seemed like a tragic misstep. You don’t wear a white dress to a wedding. Do you wear a white dress to a baptism?

My mind instantly created dozens of scenarios—all of them completely imaginary—in which my daughter’s decision to wear her white dress absolutely ruined her friend’s baptism day. In several of these scenarios, it also ruined their friendship. In a few of them, it ruined her friend’s whole life. (Admittedly, my imagination has a flair for the dramatic.)

I un-parked my perfectly punctual van, knowing that I would have to bend the laws of time and space to return on time. We can’t ruin this child’s baptism day, I thought, and we certainly can’t risk ruining her whole life. At the time, it seemed like an absolute moment of clarity. Turning the van around felt like the right thing to do.

We drove back home, dashed into the house, dug through the clean laundry bin, and swapped dresses as fast as we could. We leapt back into the car and hurried back to the baptism.

We walked in seven minutes late. A kind gentleman set up some more chairs for us—the rest of the seats were already occupied.

As always happens when I arrive at a church event past its starting time (with echoes of the biblical five foolish virgins in my mind), I reflected on the choices that led me to prioritize other things over a reverent, punctual entrance.

Hadn’t this been a noble decision, to (potentially) spare the (imaginary) feelings of the girl who was being baptized?

Um, no.

I revisited the logic that had initially led me to turn the van around and flee back home.

Sure, every romantic comedy in the world will tell you that wearing a white dress to someone else’s wedding would make you a monster. For the bride, the result would be tragic. By that logic, wearing white to a baptism was certainly ill-advised. But when we make covenants, we’re promising to abide by a higher law. A law that transcends dress colors and clothing styles and cultural norms. Though jealousy and friction may be social realities we face as we bumble our way through our interactions with the people around us, it is possible to let love replace jealousy and forgiveness replace friction.

Wearing white is a reminder of this higher law, and of Him who invited us to replace fear and judgement with love and forgiveness. When I attend the temple, I wear white neither to stand out nor to blend in. I wear white to symbolize the purity made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

My daughter’s best friend was wearing white to symbolize the purity made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.My daughter had worn white, too, to symbolize the purity made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

My 8-year-old daughter was celebrating not only her friend’s baptism but her own. Her solidarity in clothing was an outstretched hand meant to welcome her friend into fellowship with the Saints. It was a tiny slice of Zion, and it never really happened because I panicked and turned the van around.

Luckily, there was plenty of Zion to go around that day. The Spirit was strong during the service, and we were invited to a lunch with all the aunts, uncles, and grandparents. We were warmly welcomed at every turn and, though I was a stranger, I was made to feel like family. My daughter and her friend laughed and talked and ate and shared stories about going under the water.

Luckily, Zion is more than what we wear.

But if I had it to do again, I’d watch our little girls greet each other in white, swish their dresses like bells, and chatter about what brought them together that day.

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Eva witesman bio photo

Eva Witesman

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in 2002, Eva Witesman wanted to continue on to graduate school but was torn between her desires to further her education and to focus on motherhood. Following a prompting, she continued her education and received her MPA from Indiana University in 2004. After a hiatus—during which her husband, Owen, interned in Finland—she continued her education at IU and received her PhD in public management and policy analysis.

Witesman, an expert in evidence-based innovation and strategy, became a full-time professor of public management at the BYU Marriott School of Business in 2009. She teaches graduate classes and coordinates student-driven projects like GoodMeasure - program assessment and evaluation for dozens of local nonprofits, and Creating the Virtuous Organization - a series of classes, ongoing qualitative research, and community conversations based on how companies can be good, not just do good. Eva and Owen Witesman have four children, who, she says, are “individually and collectively the central joy of my life.”

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