In this episode, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye chats with Meredith Nelson about her recent book, Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood (Not Necessarily In That Order), published as part of the BYU Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. Her book is a compilation of contemplative and scholarly essays on faith and the Church organization, of family newsletters, song lyrics, and playful doodles, and of letters to her still-young children. All of this blends together to form a picture of one bright and mighty Latter-day Saint life, refined to its current state by her discipline, by discipleship, and by a faith community that has challenged her, brought her casseroles, and taught her the holiness of humans. Melissa is currently on leave from the University of Auckland and has returned to the United States with her husband and four children, as she continues her fight with cancer. She is now working at the Church History Department, documenting the global history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Read our 2017 interview with Melissa, including photographs.
So Melissa, one of the delights of your book is that it follows your family trail all over the world—for work, for study—mostly via your family newsletters. So I thought it would be appropriate to start by asking where your family is right now.
Well, we’ve moved to Draper, Utah, of all places.
From Auckland, New Zealand, right?
Yeah, it was kind of precipitous. Basically we just decided in consultation with my doctors that the United States was probably a better place for us because we have all this family support. So we’ve just moved back, and the kids are in school and they like it. I found out from someone at church that my oldest son sits with her son at lunch. So it’s so great to know that he sits with someone at lunch! And another son, we call him the Sprout, was invited to a birthday party last weekend. So it’s good he has some kind of friend. The kids love running around in the kind of nature reserve across from the house, and chasing ducks and catching grasshoppers and feeding them to the ducks.
That sounds lovely. And you started a new job.
That’s right. So I am working at the Church History Department doing global history.
Can you talk about what your work is going to entail there, or are you still figuring that out?
Well I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole project, but I think the project of writing histories of people in all the different places where the Church exists is well underway. There are country by country, or region by region, or state by state, city by city, these various kinds of histories of people in different places. And the challenge is, how do we tell the stories of the Saints in a way where the voices of the local people come out and the understanding and the authority of the local people comes out in those narratives?
Wow, wonderful. I really look forward to hearing what comes out of that project. That’s been a focus of the Mormon Women Project as well. We have interviews with women now from almost fifty countries around the world. And it really is interesting to see both the unity in the voices from all these different places, and also what different challenges people face, and what different facets of the faith shine depending on where the light is illuminating it in the world.
Right, that is so interesting. And actually I think about that many, I think a few more, are available online already if you go to the Church History website.
I’ll find that link and share it. I wasn’t even aware that that resource was available.
Yeah it is. Not all the countries are done. I think they’re a little more than halfway through. And it’s not just countries, actually. So for example there’s a history of the Church in Hawaii that’s separate from the history of the Church in the United States, because when the history of the Church begins in Hawaii it’s not a U.S. state.
Awesome. Well I’m really excited about your work there and wish you good luck in it.
So I’m just going to read one line from the introduction of your book. It says, “I hope that this collection of ‘crossings’—writings that bridge gaps of faith, culture, and generations—will illuminate the sacred space in which we connect with our fellow beings, even in seemingly mundane and non-religious contexts.” So Melissa, I’m curious why human connection is the focal point of your lessons to your children. Because the book really is written to them, right?
Well, I think that’s the source of our strength. It’s the source of our power, our knowledge, our understanding about the world, our sense of security. I think that’s the key to everything. And then the irony, or maybe that’s not quite the right word, but the problem is that sometimes we allow our ideologies and this idea of truth to exclude the possibility of certain kinds of human connections, or the idea that certain kinds of human connections can be valuable. And I think that’s very impoverishing. And when you’re considering your own mortality and thinking, you know, what do you want to leave your kids with, the question is really with whom do you want to leave your kids. You want to leave your kids people. And that’s where I think life’s richness comes.
You’ve studied lots of faith traditions around the world. Is there something unique about human connection within Latter-day Saint theology and practice?
I’m not sure if it’s unique, because I haven’t experienced every single different culture. I think many faith traditions bring people together. But what I think is very peculiar and very distinctive about us is that we are always getting together for various reasons, usually not very exalted reasons. You know, if you look at the total number of minutes in sacrament meeting, you can probably find a few moments in which people feel the Spirit, or a couple of minutes in which there’s this kind of deep sense of peace and reverence, but for so much of the two hour block you’re just kind of sitting, listening to people talk about stuff. But because we spend so much time together, and get to know each other in these various ways through activities, or through taking care of each other, or through knowing what Sister So-and-So tends to say in Sunday School, or what Brother So-and-So tends to say when he bears his testimony—all of those things add up to a kind of interweaving in the community, where you feel a connection to people, where people feel a kind of loyalty to each other, and I think that’s really valuable.
I love how you called it “the people warp across which we must weave our lives.” I thought that was a beautiful metaphor. So diversity becomes a big theme in your book, and the value of diversity seems like an important message you have for your children. I wanted to read, if I may, one paragraph from your book. It’s from an essay called “Rotten Things Rotten, Good Things Good.” You wrote,
“You meet so many different people at church: scholars, homeschoolers, feminists, survivalists, professional street performers, elite runners, appliance delivery people, chicken sexers, lightning-strike survivors, the guy who runs Disneyland, big jerks, lifelong friends, musicians, and, just today, husband-and-wife intercontinental ballistic missile operators. Among my sisters and brothers, I have lived not one life, but many.”
So I assume those are all from your real life experience.
Yeah those are actual people! And I haven’t even mentioned the Rider of Rohan, and the Horse of the Rider of Rohan. Yeah. It’s like my claim to fame.
I love the sentiment you expressed, that you have lived many lives through your contact with these other people. I’m wondering if you have a story or two—it can be from your book or not from your book—just of connecting with someone at church who’s very different from you, who you might not have expected to connect with.
Yeah definitely. Everyone at church is so different because they have such distinctive lives, but just for example, in one of the wards I’d been in, there had been some older ladies who have had very conservative political views and who have said things that I would think are kind of shocking when it comes to race, the history of race in the Church, or the role of race in the Book of Mormon, but who have been my survival net when I was doing chemotherapy and needed someone to watch my kids and feed them and take care of them and keep them from killing each other.
I remember once I was in a ward with someone—she was my visiting teachee—who said something about how Obama was a Muslim and so he was letting Muslim women go through the airport without being screened or something like that. And so many things about that just kind of jarred my own political positions and my own ideas about religion in America. So at that moment I had this kind of reaction of contempt and scorn, like, “I can’t believe you are actually saying this. You are crazy.” But then I had to suppress that because she was my visiting teachee. And later on, when she came over to my house and I was visiting with her, I asked her to share an experience where she had recently felt the Spirit. And she shared this experience, and as she shared it I also felt the Spirit. And it was a sacred and holy moment. And I just, you know—people are sacred and holy. And it’s so foolish to allow certain kinds of “check box” things to allow us to be divided from each other. I mean there are so many ways in which I violate someone’s list of check boxes. But I hope that they would give me a chance to just be human with them.
I promise I’m not going to read your whole book aloud, but that made me think of another section in an essay you wrote called “Conversations are Like Casseroles.” You wrote,
“Some people might feel as if chatting up ‘angry activists’ or ‘ignorant reactionaries’ at church is not worth their time. And yet, engaging someone in dialogue requires just the same generosity and gumption as any other sort of Christlike service. When someone needs a meal, we automatically volunteer to spend one to two hours of precious time washing greens, stir-frying chicken, cutting fruit, and delivering everything to the door. When someone needs to move, it’s a no-brainer to spend half the day cleaning bathrooms, painting walls, and schlepping chests of drawers. So when someone takes a stance on a gender or sexual orientation issues that is completely opposite from our own and yet fundamental to that person’s testimony of the gospel, we should be willing to give twenty minutes to listen.”
So that’s what I heard you saying just now, when you related that experience with that sister. That we dishonor each other and we’re not showing Christlike love when we won’t even listen to each other.
Right, and when we won’t even treat the other person like someone who’s living, breathing, intelligent, and basically good.
Sacred and holy, as you said.
But I do agree actually, when you read that section I feel like you’re preaching to me. Like, I do think that it’s actually really hard. It’s much easier to help someone move than it is to engage on certain issues that just kind of push buttons.
Yeah, so kind of related to this idea of diversity and having these conversations, is a theme in your book that’s pretty prominent. It’s the idea of marginality in the Church, and living on the margins, or feeling maybe removed from the “core” membership of the Church. And this is something you have experience with. We have another interview with you on the Mormon Women Project where you talk a lot about this, but I wonder if you could describe again a little of your experience on the margins.
Sure, I guess it’s hard to name all the ways in which I feel alone! So I’m usually the only bald woman in the room. I’m often the only woman of color in the room—though definitely in Auckland, New Zealand our wards there were very Tongan, Samoan, and Maori so that was really fun. But I often feel pretty liberal for the room, though in academia then I feel really conservative and religious for the room. And then, you know, physically speaking, not just having to do with the Church, when you feel deathly ill, as I have felt and sometimes feel, then you also feel very marginal. People are talking about their long term plans and all those kinds of things, and you think “I’m just not a part of that conversation at all.”
So, the thing I’ve learned about marginality is that it makes you humble, and it forces you to give others a pass because when you’re the bald woman in the room, how could you possibly feel critical about someone for their hair or their style, or anything like that? It makes you feel quiet, I think. I noticed when I was feeling really sick the first time I had cancer, I drove much more slowly, which is kind of interesting. So I think it’s a kind of thoughtful way to be. And I think that it helps you to both experience vulnerability, but then also to develop resilience to lots of things. I found that as a parent, I’ve gotten better at not flying off the handle since I’ve been sick. As a liberal person—for the Church in most places—I’ve gotten better at being kind of patient and modest when discussing my personal political or theological or ideological views. I think all those things help us to understand the largeness of the world. You know where Enoch sees everything and he says “Now I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” When you feel like nothing, you see a lot of the big picture, which I think is part of the Plan of Salvation—understanding the big picture, seeing as God might see people.
I love that. There’s another line in your book that says, “When a hand gets a wound we don’t ignore it because the feet are fine.” And I think we tend to marginalize each other sometimes at church by saying, “Well, she complains a lot about women in the Church,” or “He complains a lot about LGBTQ issues, but that’s not how most of us feel so we don’t need to talk about that.” And I think that’s a really great metaphor you use, that we don’t ignore an injured foot because our head is okay.
Right. If we’re serious when we talk about the body of Christ, and if we’re serious about being brothers and sisters, it’s not okay to lose one person. We can’t just sluff them off. We’re not dead skin. We’re living things.
Having said that, from a global perspective, when you think of something like LGBTQ issues, you can’t ignore people in the global south, who have a very stark view of homosexuality, and whose sense of right and wrong is tied to that view. So the inconvenience of a global church is that we’re all stuck with each other, and we can’t sluff off anyone, even when we think their views are deeply wrong, or incorrect, or rooted in false assumptions. And that’s the problem that we have in the Church, in terms of our positions on controversial social issues. Because our brotherhood and sisterhood encompasses everyone in the world. I myself sometimes become very impatient with the pace of change in the Church on certain issues, but at the same time I think we need to be sensitive to other kinds of pain, and other kinds of exclusion, that are felt by people around the world when there are these kind of drastic social shifts. I think we have to be aware of that as well.
Yeah. The margins extend in both directions.
So talking about institutional changes, in the book you talk about how change happens—or maybe should happen—both from the bottom up and the top down. I’m curious what are some examples of the bottom-up work that you advocate. Like what are things that we should be doing as members on the ground, working to improve the Church as an institution?
I think that this new focus on a less formal Sunday church, and encouragement for home study and studying groups, is a way in which we can tailor our teaching and the things that we’re talking about to issues that are really relevant for our kids and for everyone. So when the two hour church was announced, there was some sort of provision for people being able to get together to talk about the Gospel—that’s a great opportunity to talk about complex, tricky issues; to introduce ways of being together that are tolerant and inclusive and loving. So I think these new structures have made some space for that. In addition to that, within the kind of existing formal structures, like the two hour block, we can, if we see something, say something. If we noticed that there were no female speakers in sacrament meeting, we can say, “You know, it’s probably really important to have women and men speaking in church, because the young people today are used to counting and they will notice these things.” Just little things like that I think can really change our local culture. And when our local culture changes then the whole church changes. Because that’s basically what the Church is: local.
I really appreciate your compassionate approach toward Church leaders and toward the Church as a human institution. One other paragraph that I wanted to read is from an essay called “The Problem We Want to Have.” It says,
“Like the crosshairs of a scope, the vertical obligations that support the order of the Church and the horizontal obligations through which we learn from one another and fulfill sacred covenants on an equal footing as children of God will help us stay centered on Christ, though probably never right on the mark.”
It’s just a very compassionate and practical way of thinking about how the Church really functions and how both of those obligations are meant to help us stay centered and focused on the goal of becoming like Christ.
Yeah, and I think since being sick I’ve developed this real appreciation for hierarchical power. And hierarchical power doesn’t just exist in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s everywhere. It’s in government, it’s in schools and education, it’s in family relationships, especially in my case Asian family relationships. You know, you’re supposed to pay attention to your elders and listen to them. And as a professor I also have a role in which I expect students to pay attention to me, and to listen because I’ve got something to teach them. And I think that what I’ve learned as a cancer patient, who really really really needs all the power I can get, is that it’s really helpful when good people have power and influence over you. You know, when I’m in the middle of wondering how long I’m going to survive, and if I will ever get better, and if my family will be okay, there are these people like my uncles, my aunties, certain Church leaders who have moved me through the Spirit they’ve helped me to feel—you know, I really appreciate that power.
It’s really hard to have faith all by yourself. And when someone who is in a position of influence over you does something to help you, that influence is really significant. Does that make sense? So like, I don’t want to just be all by myself getting personal revelation all by myself, and be completely just me and God. It’s really hard to have faith sometimes. It’s really hard to have spiritual strength and when you give people power over you, they can give that to you.
Thank you for that testament. I really felt the power of what you were saying. I wanted to read, since we’re on the topic of pain and the prospect of death, there’s a beautiful letter in your book that you wrote to your daughter shortly after she was born. And you describe your mother’s painful struggle with cancer before she passed away, and you also describe your labor. You wrote,
“I lie here in the bed thinking about your birth and Mom’s death and how pain was a hallmark of both experiences. In the case of your birth it became a source of triumph. Perhaps, when we meet again, I will learn that Mom’s pain too became deeply meaningful to her. I wonder if in a way, the involuntary pain and anxiety of death reprise the involuntary pain and anxiety that were also part of birth. I believe that on the other side of death, the side we can’t see, there is also peace and happiness in equal measure. Death, like birth, is simply another great spiritual passage, and this transition is marked by great contrasts that make it meaningful, solemn, sorrowful, and joyous all at the same time.”
Just remarkable words and thoughts. You’ve now more than once faced the prospect of death in your ongoing battle with cancer, which you’re really candid about in the book. (And I have to say that the humor and the realness with which you approach it gave me courage, even reading it.) But to close our conversation, I wondered if you would share what you’ve learned about the Atonement, or if and how your connection to Christ has changed through cancer.
I think that because of my illness I’ve had a couple of experiences in which I’ve realized that no matter how “awesome” I am, I am just completely dependent on God. I just feel like before I was sick, you know I was the kind of quintessential oldest child, very achievement-oriented, very goal-oriented, and I wanted to do this and that—I went back to my journal when I was in sixth grade, and I had had this goal to be the top academic girl in the school, and it was kind of shocking! I just watched my sixth-grade self kind of relentlessly tracking my progress toward this goal. And I found that a little frightening. So my whole life I kind of lived with this idea that I was awesome because I set awesome goals and I did awesome things. But then when you get cancer, you realize that you’re super weak and completely messed up and in dire need of assistance and kindness and patience and grace and miraculous healing, and all of those kinds of things. Again, I feel very marginal, very small. But that has helped me to recognize my dependence on God, and that in terms of parenting my kids or in the work that I do, I’ll just do what I can, and trust—it sounds so cliché—but trust that what God gives me strength to do, that I will do. As long as I can.
Seems like a long time though. For example, I had just gotten my port reinstalled, which is kind of demoralizing because it’s this piece of medical hardware that goes into your body and it sticks out like a lump in your chest, and they stab you through it and you get your toxic chemicals through it and stuff. And I had gotten it out several months ago when I had thought that I was done with cancer. But then in June it came back. So in August I was packing up my house and getting ready to leave New Zealand and go to America, and all this work. I was in the shower and I had just gotten this new port, so I was looking down at the bandaid on my chest—but I just love showers, I’m Japanese, and it was so hot, and I think I was singing some sort of song, and I just felt really happy. So life is terrible and life is wonderful at the same time. It’s just startling how those two things, those two states of being coexist.
That was the feeling I got from your book, just the whole way through. Wow, terrible, wonderful, terrible, wonderful. That’s how the Church is, that’s how our lives are, that’s how our families are, but it’s all fermenting together to create this beautiful, delicious loaf of bread that hopefully we’ll all get to partake of together someday.
Well Melissa, thank you for your time, and for your writing, and for continuing to write even through the warfare that you’re going through right now. I want you to feel my blessing. I am praying for you actively all the time, and for your family in their transition, and I’m really glad that your kids are getting invited to birthday parties and all of that.
Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. Thank you.