090–091: Witnessing Even When Things Hurt So Badly

This past week, the wonderful Mormon mental, spiritual, and sex therapist Natasha Helfer Parker was scheduled to defend herself in a membership council called by the stake presidency in her former stake in Kansas (even though she had moved to Salt Lake City sixteen months earlier). Six friends, including Jana Spangler and Jody England Hansen, two of the women in this podcast episode, were also scheduled to testify on her behalf, and many more were holding a support vigil in a pavilion on the stake center’s property, including our other panelist, Shandra Harris. Many things went haywire that evening—as well as in the weeks leading up to that scheduled council—and this podcast shares those stories here. Ultimately, neither Natasha, Jana, Jody, nor four others who had been approved to give testimony before the stake presidency were allowed to participate as promised. It was an emotionally and spiritually painful evening for all there as well as for many others who witnessed it vicariously. The toll from this devastatingly wrong-headed and massively mis-executed council is yet to be measured.

In addition to going through the events herein, we have chosen to focus on the vital spiritual role of witnessing, even when it’s witnessing the abuse of others. Being witnessed is a big part of what allows someone to stay strong and, perhaps, eventually find comfort and peace. Witnessing involves, as Jody shares in this episode, the ability to stay in the present moment even in times of great suffering. Witnessing also extends past the event(s) as continued care for others’ well being, especially as they experience the inevitable ups and downs that come with continued processing of their grief and anger. 

No one wishes that any of the events that occurred around Natasha’s council ever happened. It was unfair and abusive from the very beginning. But we all also know that for our own physical, mental, and spiritual well-being that we must ultimately find our way to healing, for it is in these processes that we discover our own true strength, along with a new, larger, more magnificent God than our old paradigms had ever allowed us to imagine. May this discussion be a stepping stone on the healing journeys for all who choose to listen.

6 thoughts on “090–091: Witnessing Even When Things Hurt So Badly”

  1. Thank you for this. This series of events surrounding Natasha Has shaken me to the core. I am trying to process my feelings and listening to each of the participants speak in a calm, level headed way was helpful. Especially thanks to Jodi for reminding me that love is the most important thing for all of us to practice, even towards those who would abuse their power.

    1. Melinda,

      Thank you for your comment!

      It certainly is a tough situation. Jody’s father, Eugene England, taught that Church is the “School of Love” where we get to learn how to love one another. (https://www.eugeneengland.org/why-the-church-is-as-true-as-the-gospel) Being a school rather than a refuge, it implies that we may well have negative experiences as imperfect humans at all levels exercise behaviors that aren’t truly loving. Consequently, I think we can see how bad behavior on the part of church leaders isn’t an act of god, but the act of humans expressing their humanity in less-than-inspired ways. I might ask, “why does God allow such to happen in God’s church?” We might also ask why God sent us here with no real knowledge of the premortal existence or what we’re supposed to do with our lives. But, at least in our narrative, we believe that God did exactly that, and gave us our agency to screw up or succeed. I have become convinced that God doesn’t author evil or abusive acts, but I do struggle that God doesn’t intervene when acts are truly wrong. I have no answer as to why such happens, but I am convinced that God is with us in our suffering, and God can inspire us to find the best way through our situations. That is the hope I see here.

      in peace,

      Faith Journey Foundation

  2. Steve Christensen

    Trauma and anxiety are experiences that are very personal and individual in nature. I can’t tell you what should be a bad experience for you, nor can you tell me. That said, I personally don’t see how the experiences relayed in these podcasts would trouble me. At all.

    The build-up to the event in Kansas seems much more troubling then the event iitself. Essentially, the witnesses here made a long trip only to be turned away at the door. Natasha was not permitted to proceed because she would not surrender what could have been a recording device (the church has learned from the Dehlin experience that peoole–maybe not her–are willing to surreptitiously audio record something meant to be private). I’m not sure if that is enough material to dwell on for two podcast episodes.

    I wonder how you would expect the local Priesthood to act differently. Just let Natasha bring in what may have been a recording device? Act differently at the door so the witnesses don’t accuse you of being cold-hearted (a very subjective claim, mind you)? Allow the witnesses to witness after the event was dead once Natasha would not comply with their request?

    Additionally, my sympathies are with an organization that has a prominent detractor calling the leadership “patriarchal pricks”. Can a church respond to that and similar criticism without hurting feelings? I don’t think a church can.

    1. Steve,

      Thank you for your post. It’s great to hear multiple points of view in response to the podcast.

      You wonder how local Priesthood authorities might have acted differently. Listening to the podcast this morning, It seems clear that Natasha was in full compliance with the local authorities’ request: she agreed not to record, but she had her notes to read on her mobile device. The leaders did not stipulate in advance that she could not do so, but rather, changed the rules on her in situ. As well, they imposed rules that were not in harmony with Church policy, refused to hear the witnesses who had traveled considerable distance, and called the police on active, temple-recommend-holding members of the Church. All this is well documented and attested, and none of it is in harmony with either the policies of the church, nor of any benevolent church association. My expectation would be that local authorities should (1) act in harmony with policy, (2) keep to their agreements, and (3) act with compassion as befitting a member of the Church of Jesus Christ.

      How should an institution react to someone criticizing them, or stating on their personal page that the leaders are “patriarchal pricks?” Most organizations have the maturity to recognize that members can and should express their opinions and views without fear of retaliation. In my professional experience, such criticisms were not only welcome, but also, triggered exploration on the part of the leadership team to understand the causes of the criticism. Before retiring, I was a senior leader, and was held accountable for the morale and satisfaction of my employees. Had I acted in the same way as these local leaders acted, I would be dismissed immediately. Further, my organization had multiple channels of recourse for employees to report abusive behavior on the part of leaders. It also actively promoted women to leadership ranks, recognizing that in today’s world, all voices need to be not only heard, but integrally part of the leadership structure.

      It is perhaps naïve of me to expect that my Church acts the way a professional business operates. Fair point. But I certainly don’t expect my church to act in ways that are inherently more brutal and unmerciful toward its members than my company does to its employees. I think the local leaders could have done a whole lot better in this instance.

      Thanks for your response.

      in peace,

      Faith Journey Foundation

  3. I feel the same way, this is traumatizing and heart-breaking. Thank you witnesses, for what you have done and continue to do, and thank you LDF, for lending this platform. The fact that the church has been observing this case all along according to (Jody’s?) call with an admin assistant at the COB, and that it knows that there were reports of bias, bungled procedure, etc., and has not lifted a finger to fix it, to intervene, and may ultimately rubber stamp it, feels like a deathly gut-punch. That can’t be our identity? What is there to do? Thank you for witnessing.

    1. Mortimer,

      Thank you for your comment! It’s great to hear from listeners, and you certainly expressed a view that many share.

      I have come to a place where I realize I cannot change “city hall” as it were. As I note in the response, above, to Melinda, the Church is probably more of a schoolhouse or a workshop for learning about how to love and contribute, rather than the perfect image of Zion. But that is, of course, no excuse for overbearing behaviors on the part of leaders, and our personal silence can often be complicit in what would seem to be unrighteous dominion.

      I think the clearest answer to your question “What is there to do?” can be found at the Waters of Mormon in Mosiah 18. Thinking of that scene, about 250 people, not even the full size of a modern-day LDS ward, gathered together to hear an excommunicated member teach them about the Gospel. To put a fine point on this, Alma was one of the church leaders of his day. He was a priest in Noah’s court. Let’s assume, for a moment, that Noah’s father, Zeniff, had brought with him the Church organization as it stood at the time, including priests and teachers. Zeniff dies, and Noah becomes “king” of this set of expats in the land of Nephi. Did he ordain new priests? perhaps, but more likely, he adopted and adapted the already ordained church leadership of his colony. These priests of Noah were the Church at the time and place.

      Now I’m not saying that our current Church leaders are the same as the Priests of Noah, not by any means. But the more important lesson here, at least to me, is the response by the people of Alma to this situation. For whatever reason, they found themselves in the borderlands of their faith tradition. Their response wasn’t to fight against the Church, but rather, to work inward, and among themselves, to be the true “gathering” of Christ. Their mindset, perhaps even their covenant, involved four basic principles: to lift each other’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn those who mourn, to comfort those standing in need of comfort, and to witness to and about a God in all things, in all places, and at all times.

      Knowing most of the people speaking in this podcast segment, and knowing Natasha personally, I sense very directly that that is exactly what these amazing women were doing: they feel called to lift burdens, mourn, and comfort those who are suffering. And they witnessed, or at least tried to. Is there anything more that they could have done? They are following the very spirit of the Book of Mormon in their personal practices and in this specific instance.

      It’s amazing to me to consider how Jesus said simply that he was called and “anointed to bring good news to the poor; to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord…” (Luke 4:18-19). And when he said this, his synagogue cast him out–excommunicated him–for speaking truth to power and defending the vulnerable, the exploited, the poor. In Matthew 23, he spoke in harshest of terms about his Church leaders. He called them “hypocrites” in verses 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, and 29; “blind guides” in verses 16 and 23, “blind” in verses 17 and 19, “fools” also in verses 17 and 19, “whited sepulchers” in verse 27, “serpents” in verse 33, generation of vipers” in verse 33, and implied that they are “children of hell” in verse 16. Most importantly, even among all these pretty strong words, he recognized that at the time, they were the authorized “Church of God”: “The scribes and Pharisees set in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, [you should] observe and do.”

      Sometimes I wonder what would happen to any member of the Church who truly follows Jesus’ footsteps or tries to be like Jesus in his relationship with his Church. No, actually, I don’t wonder: Natasha Helfer Parker is a case in point.

      So in your question: “What is there to do?” Did Jesus stop bringing good news to the broken hearted? He lifted burdens, he quite literally mourned with those who mourned, and he sends the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to all of us, animating us, giving us actual grace, that we may turn to each other and love one another as Jesus loved us. We don’t cease from this work, even if our Church insists that we stay silent in the face of oppression, and excommunicates us for speaking out. Our acts of lifting burdens, mourning, comforting, and witnessing are what Jesus calls us to do, and do them we must.

      in peace,

      Faith Journey Foundation

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