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It’s Not A Vanilla Gospel

By Kellie Purcill

I stood up in front of over one hundred women, and started talking about my first contacts with the gospel and Church.

“I knew being baptised was the right thing to do, and I was prepared to do it. But the women in Relief Society? They terrified me.”

A laugh washed around the chapel, and I continued. I explained how the friendly women of my first ward loved to quilt, and craft, and had heaps of kids, and knew one hundred different things to do with potatoes but all told me they “didn’t have time to read”.

I looked out at the gathering of women, together to celebrate Relief Society, and told the truth. “I didn’t want that, didn’t understand that, and while I was certain the gospel was where I wanted to be, I was pretty sure there was no place in Relief Society for a freak like me.”

I saw a wave of heads nodding all over the room as I continued to specify my differences. That I would regularly choose to read a book instead of mop my floor – and still do. How, when I was called to be the “Enrichment” counsellor in Relief Society, I hot-glue-gunned two of my fingers together at the very first enrichment evening. That I don’t quilt, have never scrap-booked, and was a spectacular failure at being “a normal Latter-Day Saint woman.”

I laid it all out: my efforts to become a “proper” LDS woman, and the end result. “I… SUCKED… at being a Mormon women like the ones in my wards” I told the women sitting before me, only to wince realising the Stake President was sitting directly behind me on the stand. Eh, too late, and it’s true, right? “And the truth? I don’t want to be. And the bigger truth? The church, and God, and our wards don’t need us to be. They need us to be ourselves.”

Because one thing I’ve realised in the past fifteen years since being baptised is that this is not a vanilla gospel. This is a gospel with flavours and chunks nobody in their right mind would willingly choose – except that their personal favourite is right there as an option, even if it is sitting beside the tuna-enriched lime sorbet (which may very well be someone’s personal nirvana). There’s ice-cream, gelati, sorbet, ices, tofu-mousses and each in countless flavours and variations – exactly like us, our histories, preferences, fears, hopes and efforts. The gospel doesn’t demand everyone choose vanilla in and as their worship, though sometimes the people we know through church expect us to like their flavour, and to choose it as well.

Late last year, I watched my oldest son preparing the sacrament table while my youngest hummed under his breath beside me, reading a paperback. One of the older men in our ward came into our pew, reaching out – like every Sunday – to greet us. “Good morning!” he smiled, then released my hand and turned to shake Steven’s.

“Wow, nice bowtie!” he said.

“Thank you” Steven grinned.

“Do you have a normal tie or just a bow tie?”

Steven grinned wider. “Oh yep, I’ve got normal ties. But I like this one. Bow ties are cool.”

No harm no foul, right? Except the previous week Steven had the exact same conversation with a different greeter. Now, I have no doubt that if Steven had said that he didn’t have a “normal” tie both of these men would have brought him one of their own ties during the week, of their own free will and wanting to help. Sometimes, though, I get frustrated at the expectations people have of what taking part in the gospel should look like. These brethren weren’t noticing that my son was polite, instantly putting down his book in order to shake their hand (in the strong, firm grip he’s been taught), that he (and we) are at church early every week so my oldest (and now my youngest) can prepare the sacrament table. They were thinking of the congregational norm of wearing a long tie and my son was obviously wearing a non-conforming one. My son was eleven when it happened, still in Primary, and a huge Doctor Who fan (that last aspect hasn’t changed). What’s wrong with a bow tie?

Absolutely nothing. Because this is not a vanilla gospel.

My youngest doesn’t live by the beat of a different drummer – he’s dancing in his undies in the rain to music composed as he grooves. I’ve met people through and within the gospel who choose flavours I didn’t even know existed, and come with their own sets of preferences and tools for eating the ice-cream in their own way, so many aching at the constant evidence that they are never going to fit in/find a spoon/be able to share their favourite flavour with the women sitting both all around them and galaxies away.

My favourite ice-cream flavour is Maggie Beer’s “Burnt Fig, Honeycomb and Caramel”. I’ve been pretty sure I’m one of the few people on the planet who knew it existed. But earlier this year, the topic of ice-cream came up and when I said my favourite, the woman I was with grabbed my arm, eyes huge, and said with devout passion and understanding “Isn’t that just the most…. awwwoohh!”  Words failed, and I nodded in absolute agreement. We each understood each other a little better, and a tiny thread of solidarity connected us, adding to the other interests, struggles and things that we shared.

This isn’t a vanilla gospel, and I’m so delighted it’s not. The women in Relief Society don’t terrify me anymore, though I am regularly intimidated, and inspired, and astonished at the eternally vast and varied selection of ice-cream flavours we choose, have grown up with, have overcome, invent, try and share. There is strength in commonality of purpose, in solidarity – with added endurance and power in being our own true selves within that community, together with everyone else.

A month after Steven was complimented on his bow tie, BOTH of the mentioned high priests came to church wearing bow-ties, one even wearing matching suspenders. Steven went up to both of them and told them their bow ties were great. “Because bow-ties are cool.”

Both of them smiled, laughed, shook his hand and agreed.

Have you ever been intimidated or terrified by women in the gospel? What made and makes your flavour different to you what you see presented as vanilla? What’s your favourite flavour/combination/style of ice-cold dessert? 

About Kellie Purcill

lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

19 thoughts on “It’s Not A Vanilla Gospel”

  1. Ahhhh Kel …. Beautifully written as always. Truly you are inspiration incarnate <3 <3 Love you to chocolate chip pieces. I was called as 2nd counsellor in Relief Society recently and after looking around, bemoaned that "they were all old" *head thrown back in teenage frustration*. (omitting the little nugget that I am too!). Thank you for helping me to see I can take my melted fudge slurry and appreciate all the other flavours around me. Lot and sloppy wet kisses xoxo

  2. Oh, but it most certainly is a vanilla gospel, and I am delighted that it is so. Nothing could be more delightful than the flavors of the Delectable Bean. If there is one adjective that could describe the entire gospel, it would have to be vanilla. Isn’t that just the most…. awwwoohh! Of all the Lord's flavors, the finest ones were combined in the fruit of the vanilla. The vanilla bean and its inestimable extract gladden the heart and enrich everything they are added to. Vanilla encompasses bow ties and long ties and bolo ties and Colonel Sanders ties and no ties skirts and dresses and pants and quilting and scrapbooking and burnt fig and reading and gluing your fingers together and conforming and nonconforming and honeycomb tuna-enriched lime sorbet and all fabulous flavors rolled into one. I can't think of a better metaphor than vanilla to describe the gospel.

  3. Yes, I have been intimidated on occasion, but not once I have spent time with the women individually and seen (or been shown with eagerness by those women themselves) that they are normal, faltering-at-times, human beings. I love this post. It's true, AND we do our Relief Societies/wards/families a disservice by trying to be something we are not. And by that I don't mean we don't strive to be better – but better versions of OURSELVES rather than the Mormon "ideal" (and we have all had that ideal presented or taught to us at some point in our lives by ignorant but well meaning members).

    I am a lousy housekeeper and very disorganised. Turns out I can't hide those traits but trying to shrug off the shame I, at times, think I should feel for those failures which are often beyond my control (thankyou, autism spectrum), has allowed me to see that nobody really cares about that. The women in my ward don't. They see and like me for me. Anyone of worth will do the same for all of us. We just have to have the courage to be "us".

  4. I was helping a friend from church do dishes after a teen party where they made cake pops. (Disaster zone.) She kept apologizing for the dirty kitchen. I haven't mopped my kitchen floor in 3 years. (I keep thinking that I should mop last, but I don't ever get the rest of the kitchen clean all at once.) I, too, choose to read. I have friends imploring me to do crafts as a stress management strategy. I am so bad at fine motor skills that it would be stress inducing. My VT came over and I had file boxes all over the front room and Christmas gifts still out (in March). Messy! But I showed her a half dozen games I had created from scratch for teaching the 15 yos. I'd much rather develop teaching materials than clean up from the holidays. I'm more warts and all than I was in my 30s. Keep up that diversity! It's healthy in ways parallel to biodiversity. IMO. And bow ties are cool.

  5. You think gluing two fingers together with the hot glue gun in Relief Society is embarrassing? …. Well, okay, it probably was. But try gluing two fingers together with the hot glue gun in Webelos. Because apparently having a Y chromosome means that tool skillz are supposed to come instinctively.

  6. I love many things about our Bishop, but one that really stands out is the way he wears neckties that are not conservative. He'll wear them and even point them out when he's conducting a Sacrament Meeting. He has a marvelous sense of humor and brings that into our meetings as well. He isn't being irreverent, he's being the wonderful person he was created to be. His example shows all of us that it's okay for us to be the wonderful individual people we were created to be. 🙂

  7. I like vanilla, but that is because I like to add my own stuff and create something that is mine. Mostly because I like all ice cream and can't choose something so permanent as a carton of a specific flavor. I usually end up baking something to go with it. Or making cookie dough and risking disease.

    When they called me to be Enrichment/2nd counselor in RS, I was 24, just had a baby who didn't sleep (still have PTSD from that), my parents had just split, I have a hard time talking to anybody, barely cleaned my house ever, didn't know how to sew and I had never attended an RS additional meeting in the ward. It was like, you want me to do what?" And they were confident I could do it. Weird. Three years later I've got it in a good routine (maybe they'll release me soon??) But holy cow this whole thing is contrary to who I am. Thank goodness we only have a crafty activity once a year. Because I'm in charge.

  8. I love it, kel. I worry often if being in a somewhat vanilla ward, and being more sour pineapple cheesecake with coconut sprinkles. I confuse the heck out of people, and refuse to just sit down, shut up, and smile about it. And my kids are _weird_ and love it. Yet I I persist in always showing up….but I worry about speaking up. But….I do anyway. Recently, a friend who was investigating the gospel came to me for a long discussion about just this….the impossible and often imaginary ideal of the Molly Mormon, how she doesn't fit that, yet loves the gospel. And I love her so much, and was able to show her several writings, yours, Angie's, etc, by women who feel the same–that the gospel is true and there is place for each of us, and welcome for each! Thank you. Xxo-HB

  9. I love vanilla too! Most of the other flavors have vanilla in them too. We all need vanilla so we can have the other flavors too.

  10. Well written and well said, I would have enjoyed listening to a presentation like that. But I'm confused by the bow ties. You are certain that these two older brothers,

    "… weren’t noticing that my son was polite, instantly putting down his book in order to shake their hand (in the strong, firm grip he’s been taught), that he (and we) are at church early every week so my oldest (and now my youngest) can prepare the sacrament table."

    And you are convinced that,

    "They were thinking of the congregational norm of wearing a long tie and my son was obviously wearing a non-conforming one."

    Yet a few weeks later both brothers come to church with bow ties of their own. Given that evidence, maybe it was you that didn't notice that these older gentlemen were not being judgemental but instead were extending a hand of fellowship and friendship, not only to you, an adult peer, but to your 11 year old son, who they could have just ignored, but didn't.

  11. At Stake Conference this Sunday, my husband (branch president of the YSA) was wearing a light purple shirt and a purple plaid bowtie when our stake president and the member of the presidency of the seventy, who hubby had been in meetings with all day Saturday, came by to shake his hand. Our stake president made a necktie gesture and said "I like it!" My hubby, as he's shaking the GA's hand, says, "Well, I figured if I wore this I for sure wouldn't have to worry about getting called up to bear my testimony!" Big chuckle from the member of the seventy 🙂 He always wears a white shirt (with a smashing tie!) when he's presiding, but the whole white shirt custom drives me a bit crazy. I don't think looking like an FBI agent = more righteous or capable in their priesthood calling.

  12. What a wonderful, terrible post to read when I'm trying to cut back on ice cream … My mouth is watering over thoughts of that inconveniently buried carton in the freezer, and my mind is wandering through the flavors of sisterhood I've encountered.

    I still remember the first time I attended RS after high school and an elderly sister (by "elderly" I mean older than my grandma) insisted I call her by her first name after a few minutes of speaking to me as if I were her peer. I still don't know if I felt more flattered or disoriented, but the fact that she went out of her way to demonstrate my "belonging" has remained with me over the last (almost!) three decades.

    When I think of the sisters I've grown closest to during that time, I rejoice in how DIFFERENT we've been from one another. I'm so grateful that being thrown together in ward and stake service offered me the chance to see beyond their sometimes unappealing "flavor labels" to sample the delightful goodness within them.

    I admit, I haven't always enjoyed every spoonful. Some were harder to swallow than others, but I've learned from them, too.

    I'd share more deep thoughts, but I've now inked-in an appointment to dig out a half-gallon from the deep freeze. It's Neapolitan, in case you're wondering, so I'll be triple-flavoring my bowl. With chocolate sauce on top. 🙂

  13. I think we do ourselves and each other a disservice when we pretend to be something we aren't, trying to fit ourselves into an idea of the ideal LDS woman. There was someone in my ward that I really thought I'd have nothing in common with, only to discover that she watched one of the same TV shows I did, that wasn't something you'd expect a churchy type to enjoy.

    Once we start talking to each other, we can find common ground and discover that we are all sisters in Zion, we all have a place, and that there are a lot more of us who'd rather read than clean. It would be nice if more of us would admit it.

  14. I'm a lifelong member and it always surprises me when I hear what is assumed to be the "norm" or "standard" or "expected" within the church. Ties? Really? Maybe it's because I grew up where the members of the bishopric (my own father included) frequently wore bolo ties on Sunday, and I don't recall ever seeing my stake president WITHOUT a bow tie, but I didn't even think twice when my deacon-aged son asked for a bow tie (his motivation was the same as your son). I've also never had anyone comment negatively to me about it, and bow ties have actually become a mini trend among the young men in our (Provo) ward.

    I believe that, to have a successful group of any kind, you need a tricky, but fabulous balance of sameness and differences. In Relief Society, we need the sameness of the Gospel, our love of Christ and pursuit of Truth. Then, (and if you read personality books, business management books, etc. they back me up on this) we absolutely need diversity of strengths and abilities in order to get the work done of teaching/learning/caring for each other and our families. Too often as women, we expect that we have to be everything to everyone all the time, which leads to feeling absolutely overwhelmed and that we are never "enough." If we could could each be honest with ourselves about the strengths we do possess, as well as those areas where we feel weaker (and in turn recognize the strengths and gifts of the sisters around us), I believe we would all find a greater sense of belonging and be infinitely happier and more productive.

  15. Funny enough I just had this discussion with my Dad just a few weeks ago. I told him he gave my baby Brother the talent of artist, and my baby Sister was the perfect Molly Mormon, that could bake and sew and and and then's there's me! I am the oldest I should have gotten all those qualities I was the first. He laughed and said maybe you would be a good mechanic. DAD Really!!! Being a convert I have come to some thoughts myself. First all new converts should have to go through Sunbeams on up. How are you going to know the song's and how the "ranks" rise if you haven't gone threw them yourself? It was hard as our 7 children grew up to understand what they were talking about when I hadn't been through those things. Next there needs to be lessons on cooking such things as funeral potatoes and dry ham. LOL I got the dry ham down pat, but the funeral potatoes I always have to wait for someone to die and hope I knew them well so I would be invited to the luncheon! Next there needs to be quilting and sewing lessons. Not just a super Saturday thing, cause then its too late. You can't walk into a room full of ladies and them ask you to stitch in the ditch and pretend you know what they are saying! Then there must be a Jello class! I HATE Jello, my kids say I have post traumatic Jello snydrome. The one time I tried to make it for my children (you know being a good LDS Mom requires this) and went to measure the boiling water and missed the measuring cup and poured that boiling water down my hand. Yes it was absolutely horrid, and so painful I cannot even relate it to something you would understand. Then once a Bishop found out that I hated Jello he told me I had joined the wrong religion. Wait could that be true??? So there's still lots and lots I need to learn before I leave this world, I can bet you right now it won't be mastering the floating of undesirables in Jello!

  16. Beautiful post. Thank you. Love the ice cream analogy.

    Also reminds me of President Uchtdorf's symphony analogy:

    "We are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples…

    "In the great Composer’s symphony, you have your own particular part to play—your own notes to sing."


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