Latter-day Saint Life

After feeling painfully different, what one military officer realized about fitting in at church

Amber Lewis with her daughter Emily before conducting a uniform inspection.
Amber Lewis

For years I felt like I needed to learn how to fit in at church—until I realized that I already did.

When I was 8 years old, I attended an air show put on by the Air Force. I can remember staring wide-eyed at all the planes; my young eyes couldn’t get enough of how big, fast, and cool they were. Right then I decided that I was going to join the military. In fact, as I got older, I felt pulled to a career in military service in a way I couldn’t ignore.

Throughout the rest of my childhood, my games of pretend revolved around my dream career. I have many fond memories of playing with my Micro Machines tanks and aircrafts and setting up simulated battlefields and operations in my yard. Occasionally I would convince my friends to play “academy,” and we’d all line up and march around like we were cadets in school.

In high school, I began to notice that my future aspirations were not the same as those in my Young Women class at church. For example, those were the days of the Personal Progress program, and for one of my projects, I chose to make a collage showing all my life goals. Getting married in the temple was at the top of my board, right next to attending the Air Force Academy. As part of that project, I presented my collage to my Young Women class. I remember feeling so pleased with myself and excited as I stood up and explained each goal to the class. But I can also remember what felt like judgmental looks on my peer’s faces and the silence that followed my presentation. I sat down and wondered why it was so quiet in the room.

While it seemed all my peers were talking about applying to Church-owned schools or four-year universities, I was filling out applications to all five United States service academies and asking my congressional representatives for nominations.

College applications can be daunting, and United States service academy applications are no exception. In addition to applying to each individual school, I also had to request and receive a nomination from a congressional representative or senator. To receive a nomination, I would have to go through interviews with panels of former academy graduates and be recommended by them for the nomination. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 41,989 people applied to the five service academies for the Class of 2023. However, there are only about 4,100 slots available each year, which makes the overall service academy acceptance rate only around 9.8 percent.

I filled out applications to all the academies and requested nominations from my congressional representatives and senators. I felt that Heavenly Father was my biggest supporter through the process: I had a drive that made applying for all the schools feel meaningful, and I also was led to a part-time job at a business whose owner knew our local congressman. She called her representative on my behalf the day I told her where I was applying for college.

Soon enough there I was, standing in front of the panel of interviewers assigned to determine the best choice of candidates for congressional nominations. I answered their questions and hoped they could see my earnest desire. Then my dream came true! I received a congressional appointment to two academies, along with one acceptance letter. I eagerly grabbed my chance and went to my first year of training at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in New York. While it wasn’t the Air Force Academy like I’d pictured growing up, I was told I would have an excellent chance at a flight position coming out of that school, so I was excited to go.

I loved my unique college experience. There were a few things I didn’t like, such as wearing uniforms to class and having to wake up way too early for my taste. But I made some amazing friends and got to experience some amazing things. One of my four years of school was held completely out at sea—while earning college credit I got to travel to Hawaii, Japan, Korea, and even China. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything! My time at the Merchant Marine Academy was simply the best.

Amber at sea.
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Amber during her year of school at sea.
Amber Lewis.
Amber in her bunk at sea.
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Amber in her bunk at sea.
Amber Lewis
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Amber during her year of school at sea.
Amber Lewis.
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All the midshipmen from the academy who were members of the Church went to Sunday meetings together dressed up in our uniform, per school rules. The young single adult branch was small: the elder's quorum was made up of mostly midshipmen and the Relief Society was mostly sisters who were working as full-time nannies for wealthy families in the area. The contrast between those sisters’ current circumstances and mine as a member of the academy felt glaringly obvious. I felt very out of place and that began to bother me, to the point that I lost my confidence at church and my activity waivered.

I’d usually manage to make it to church one or two Sundays a month because I felt guilty missing too many weeks in a row. I still loved the gospel and God, I just didn’t feel like I belonged at church on Sundays. I started bringing church clothes to change into once I arrived at church, then before returning to school I’d change back into my uniform. It helped me not feel as though I stood out as much, but I also felt out of place trying so hard to blend in. So, for my entire four-year college experience, the part of me that felt as though I didn’t belong wrestled with the part of me that loved God and wanted to belong.

Keeping Things Quiet

After graduation, I missed my full activity at church and felt that with the other changes coming in my life, now was the right great time to recommit myself to God and the gospel. I knew church was where I wanted to be because it was the only way I could fully participate in the gospel of Jesus Christ. My motivation was also encouraged by the fact that I no longer had to wear a uniform to church on Sunday now that I had graduated.

Amber at her graduation.

As I went back to full church activity, I thought I could minimize the pain I felt from not fitting in by keeping my career choice quiet. If no one knew, I could be just like the other women in the ward. My plan worked for the most part, and when I got married two years after graduation and started having children it was even easier to blend right in. No one at church needed to know anything about the part of me who wears combat boots to work. Even when I went on a nine-month deployment, I told only a few people from the ward I was leaving.

When I did choose to tell people at church about my deployments, some made comments such as, “I could never leave my family for that long.” Those comments stung because of course I didn’t want to leave my family. When I had my children, I chose only to continue with my career after a lot of prayer confirmed that God wanted me to pursue my career.. That assurance didn’t make deployment easier, however, and leaving my 18-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter on the pier was more painful than I can describe. I remember months before my first deployment I went down on my knees and prayed desperately for a way to not have to leave my children at all. Occasionally, I even fantasized about what it would be like to smuggle a small child aboard in a duffle bag as a secret roommate—but I knew that was impossible.

While I was on deployment once, my visiting teaching companion emailed me what felt like a sharp chastisement for not attending church. I calmly replied that I had been attending church while on board a ship. She didn’t email me ever again, and we never connected when I returned from deployment.

I did manage to find a couple of friends at church during this time, however. For example, I was called to serve in the nursery and once admitted to the sister who was called to serve with me that I was more comfortable in the nursery than in the Relief Society. My comment led her to share that she was single and also sometimes felt out of place. That mutual experience helped me feel connected to her and like someone at church could empathize with my feelings.

My Cover Is Blown

After a few years of hiding my uniform from church members, I was assigned to a base on the East Coast. Because the traffic is so horrible in the Washington, DC, area, our family decided to live on base so that I wouldn’t have to commute and could spend more time at home.

Now my ward was mostly military families and living so close to them made it nearly impossible to hide the fact that I was a service member. My cover was quickly blown in that new ward when I, in full uniform, dropped a child off for school and saw another sister from the ward. While I don’t know what she was thinking, the surprised look on her face didn’t help ease my anxiety about the situation. Only about 16 percent of service members are women, and I assume that percentage drops considerably for members of the Church. I’ve really only known of one or two other active-duty sisters, and it seemed like this ward member of mine had never known any.

For a while, memories of that sister’s surprised face drove me to sit even closer to the back of the chapel, and soon I picked up the habit of purposely arriving late to Relief Society and ducking out a few minutes prior to the end so I could avoid having the “work conversation” that always felt awkward to me. I didn’t want to hear how other sisters would never or could never be in the military. My job was hard, but also fun and rewarding and there didn’t seem to be anyone who understood that. I also feared people assumed I was working to avoid interacting with my children—which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Taking Charge

After a year of this, I realized my feelings and reactions were inhibiting my worship and my connections with other members of the ward. I believe it was the Spirit helping me see how I was limiting myself and prompting me to change.

I decided that instead of hiding, I needed to try to make peace with standing out. My love for my job is a big part of who I am. I wanted reconfirmation that God loved that part of me, I wanted people at church to love that part of me, and I wanted to completely love that part of me. I also knew I needed and wanted support and a more genuine connection with those in my ward. After all, no matter what I do for work, first and foremost I am a child of God, a disciple of Christ, and shared that with everyone else in my ward.. I worked to build upon that instead of focusing on our differences.

With my new resolve, I opted to try a direct approach with ward members that I called “ripping the Band-Aid off.” For example, when meeting someone new and the conversation turned to “What does your husband do?” I would immediately say, “Oh, I am the one in the Navy.” Then I would continue talking in a friendly manner as if it was no big deal at all.

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Sometimes that new approach felt like a conversation-ender, but for the most part, I could continue conversations about kids and life. Some sisters seemed intimated because I lived in officer housing. One sister even admitted she had to ask her husband if it was OK if she and I were friends since he was enlisted and I was an officer. I tried to shrug those things off and just continue whatever friendships I could.

As I took this new approach, I began to feel more as though I fit in. I slowly began to enjoy my church attendance. I started making friends and talking to other sisters, and the friendships I made proved to be even more essential to my life than I thought: two years after we moved in, my son was diagnosed with brain cancer, and the connections I forged with my new friends helped my family during a very difficult trial.

The March Out of Obscurity

Over time I’ve learned to embrace all my parts of myself, even while I’m at church. If we are all disciples of Christ and children of God, then really, we all do fit in. But even with all the progress I’ve made, I do still need to remind myself of that truth now and again. The last time we moved, for example, I found myself once again adopting the bad habit of hiding in the back of the chapel and avoiding contact with others. I had to take a moment to remind myself that it’s OK to be different. God wants me at church, and I believe He values my uniqueness.

looking over flight deck.jpeg
Lt. Amber Lewis, assistant public affairs officer, watches from the flight deck as the Nimitz-class carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) arrives in Hong Kong.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Benjamin Stevens

My feeling of belonging was challenged again when my husband and I separated. Someone from my ward once said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Oh, well weren’t you deployed for your whole marriage?” as if that was the sole cause of my marriage’s demise. That comment hurt me and reminded me that some still see a woman’s career as negative and even detrimental to the family. In reality, I spent no more than one year away from my family throughout my entire career, and anytime I did spend away from family was not the cause of my divorce. Knowing that some people perceive it that way was painful.

What those people don’t realize is that my career has allowed me to provide financially for my family and given my children access to top-rated medical care. And now as a single mother of five amazing and resilient children, I am grateful to have my career to support us.

Sometimes I wonder if God wants us to all be more open with each other about who we really are. Maybe that openness is what can connect us. After all, don’t we all feel inadequate at times? Don’t we all hide parts of who we are to try and fit a mold we believe we have to fill? Aren’t we all children of God, members of the same heavenly family? Doesn’t God want all of us at church? If those things are all true, then no matter how unique we feel we are, we really do all fit in at church. We belong.

In the April 2022 general conference Sister Rebecca L. Craven, second counselor in the Young Women General Presidency said, “If the restored Church of Jesus Christ is going to come out of obscurity, we must come out of obscurity. As covenant-keeping women, we must shine our gospel light all over the world by stepping up and standing out.”

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Maybe by coming out of obscurity at church first, we can then come out of obscurity in the world. For me, coming out of obscurity at church is how I finally began to feel like I fit in. I’ve learned the power of bringing our imperfections and weaknesses and who we really are to church. Elder Holland said, “So please, please, stay for the whole feast even if you are not sure about the broccoli. Bask in His light and lend your candle to the cause. They have it right in Primary: Jesus really does ‘[want you] for a sunbeam.’”

I believe that if we can figure out how to embrace what makes each of us unique and learn to better shine our lights at church, then we can better show our light to the whole world.

I describe myself as a child of God, a disciple of Christ, a child of the covenant, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a mother to five amazing (and sometimes wild) children, an academy graduate, and a military officer. I am perfectly imperfect in every way and I try hard not to worry about how other people might describe me (always working on that). I wrote this article in my free time, and it is my own opinion. My writing does not constitute endorsement by any military branch or the Department of Defense.

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