Why I Stay: One woman’s quest for religious equality

by Noelle Johansen, photos courtesy of Debra Jenson

Small, golden squares form a starburst mosaic on the wall behind the podium in the Salt Lake City church. It’s March 8, International Women’s day. A pastor speaks, followed by a minister, another pastor and finally a rabbi — all women. If this were the setup for a joke, the punch line would come next. But for Debra Jenson, the final speaker at the Equal in Faith service, there’s nothing funny about the inequality she sees in her faith community.

Jenson is a public relations professor at Utah State University and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is also a chairperson of the executive board of Ordain Women, an organization that publicly advocates the ordination of women to the Mormon priesthood.

Her voice is soft yet powerful as Jenson addresses the small congregation: “I’m going to start by saying I am a woman and I am not ordained. It makes me different than the four who have gone before me,” she says of the other speakers. “I’m also Mormon, which means I’m going to cry eventually.” Her recognition of a stereotype elicits a murmur of laughter from her attentive audience. This is Jenson’s go-to strategy when discussing difficult topics: humor, self-deprecation and laughing through her tears.

She is also prone to laughing herself and others to tears. The hour-long ride from Ogden to the interfaith event passes quickly as she and her friend, Michelle Gehrett, trade sitcom-worthy banter about graphic novels and “Star Wars.” “I love it so much, I want to marry it,” Jenson says, describing a Princess Leia comic book she read recently. In between handfuls of white cheddar popcorn washed down with Pepsi, Jenson discusses cosplaying the galactic heroine at Utah’s next Comic-Con with Gehrett, an event they rarely miss.

Gehrett moved into Jenson’s Ogden LDS ward in July 2012, and the two became acquainted when Gehrett noticed Jenson’s humor in Church meetings. “We kind of became instant friends,” Gehrett remembers. “She saw me and my husband walking home from Church and he was wearing a fedora. She said something (to her husband) about how, ‘Oh, a fedora — we have to meet those people.’ And as they drove past, my husband saw their car and he went, ‘Mormons with an Obama sticker — we have to meet those people.’”

Gehrett’s friendship with Jenson was solidified later that year when Gehrett’s husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. “People don’t stick around during illnesses like that; it scares them and they run away,” Gehrett says. Jenson, however, proved different from the rest. “She stuck around and she was there anytime I needed her. She was there. She came over to my house and sat with me for hours in the middle of the night, the night my husband died. She was there.”

And Jenson is still there — inviting Gehrett out to take breaks from the stress of real life. Sometimes they binge-watch “Downton Abbey,” other times they attend events like the Equal in Faith service. “There have been a lot of times when I’ve just wanted to stay in the house and hide, crawl in a hole and never come out,” Gehrett says. “She gets me out of the house at least once a week.” Theirs is the sort of friendship that, after having been forged in such hardship, only grows stronger with time. “We don’t always agree on the same things, but it doesn’t matter,” Gehrett explains. “We don’t have to agree on everything. We don’t have to be a part of every movement together, because we just have to support each other through the movements or the trauma or whatever’s going on.”

At the Equal in Faith service in Salt Lake City, Gehrett helps prepare the post-service refreshments. She distracts herself from still-painful memories, focusing on carefully placing a tiny shrimp and a dollop of cocktail sauce on each cracker before placing it on a platter.

The shrimp crackers form part of a finger-food feast supplied by Donna Kelly, a friend of Jenson’s and mother of Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women who was excommunicated from the LDS church in June 2014. After her daughter’s excommunication, Kelly said nearly all her former friends from her ward and stake became distant and eventually left her life. Once again, Jenson was different. “She welcomes everyone. The Savior would be doing that if He was here,” Kelly says. Gehrett feels similarly, “She showed the most Christ-like love in that time than anyone else in that ward. … She’s the most passionate person I know, and the most loyal person I know. She’s fiercely loyal to everybody that she considers her friend.”

Kelly listens to Gehrett while she bustles around the church’s kitchen, looking for water pitchers and arranging snack bread. She remembers meeting Jenson at the first attempt of Ordain Women to attend the October 2013 Priesthood Session of LDS General Conference at Temple Square. At that point, Jenson had already integrated herself into the organization after reading about it online and attending the first public event earlier that year. “She just showed up and was instantly like one of the leaders because she was so passionate and articulate and willing to do the work,” Kelly said.

Former Ordain Women board member April Young Bennett was one of the first 19 members of the movement. She recalls when Jenson showed up to the press conference. “I had never heard of her before. … Lots of us hadn’t heard of her before,” Bennett said. Jenson found her people and dove into the organization. “She came in and she came strong.”

Chance led Bennett to walk alongside Jenson at an October 2013 Ordain Women demonstration where women asked for admission to an exclusively male session of the Church’s biannual General Conference. One vocal critic with a thick, Scottish accent caught Bennett’s and Jenson’s attention. “He was just heckling and being really obnoxious,” Bennett says. “(Jenson) started to talk to him about Scotland and it was like, this guy was trying to be nasty and he had to stop because he didn’t know how to continue being nasty when faced with such pleasantness. Pretty soon, he didn’t look angry anymore and he just started talking to us about Scotland and then he went away. I mean, I don’t think she changed his mind about whether women should be ordained, but it was fun to see her at work.”

Jenson would cringe to hear so much praise of her character. As the spokesperson for a rather controversial movement, she’s much more acquainted with negative feedback, not unlike that of the Scottish heckler.

Despite her cheery attitude, the constant criticism can be discouraging. “It would be so much easier if I could just wash my hands of the whole thing and never come back,” she said. “But for about eight billion different reasons, I can’t do that.” That is one of the most frequent, and most hurtful, recommendations she receives — that she leave the church. “I get it all the time,” Jenson says with a tired smile. “I get it from strangers, on social media. I get it from people who know me and have known me forever.”

So why does she stay?

For a moment, Jenson quietly turns the loaded question over in her mind. Finally, she says, “There are so many reasons.”

Jenson’s mother grew up LDS and in Utah, but was never especially interested in the church; she was “kind of wild for Utah,” Jenson said. Her mother was a high school sophomore when she met Jenson’s father, and they married soon after graduation. Her father was Catholic and served in the Navy. Then, as Jenson describes, “this weird thing happened.” Her parents lived in Oklahoma while her father was stationed on an aircraft carrier. “He came home from this long cruise and said to her, ‘What would you think if I got baptized?’ Because it turns out his bunkmate, the guy they randomly assigned him to, was a Mormon from Oklahoma who gave him the discussions on this cruise and they talked about it. He decided to join the Church and they got married in the temple.”

For the first five years of her life, Jenson went to church with her family. But when her father unexpectedly left the family without warning, it rattled her “It was like a bomb went off in the ward,” Jenson recalls. “It was the first divorce that had happened; nobody saw it coming.”

The aftermath of the divorce and the societal pressures of the church culture led Jenson’s mother to leave the church, her children following suit. It wasn’t until Jenson’s persistent grandmother stepped in that she returned. “When I turned 11, my grandma just decided that I was going to go to church with her. … She would come in her big white Cadillac; she would drive to my house and sit out in the driveway on Sunday morning and honk until I would go out and go to church with her.” Then, Girls’ Camp and Young Women’s — church programs for girls age 12-17 — snared Jenson’s attention. She tears up thinking of her women leaders throughout her youth. One in particular, Edna, was the first divorced woman Jenson met who stayed active in the Church.

The Young Women’s theme, an oft-recited statement that centers on values like faith, knowledge and integrity as well as the belief in heavenly parents, captivated Jenson. “The Young Women’s theme was everything to me. … Heavenly parents who know me and love me and sent me here with these values — the values were so important to me,” she remembers, tears in her eyes. “I met a lady who was on the committee that wrote it. She totally disagrees with me on everything, totally, but we talked for probably 45 minutes and I told her at the end — everything I have is because of that theme.” Even after Jenson’s family moved to the other side of town, she kept going to church alone. “I drove myself to everything. I went to early morning seminary and was in it to win it. If you asked me when I was 17, I was going to go to college, and then I was going to go on a mission.”

Then, a wrench named Keith was thrown into the mix during Jenson’s senior year of high school. “He was six years older than I was and he probably wasn’t going to wait around for me to turn 21 and then go on a mission and then come back.” Jenson was 19 years old when they wed. “I got married in the temple while my entire family waited outside, except my grandma and my aunt and uncle,” Jenson says, tears flowing once more, her voice quiet and thoughtful. “My mom made my dress and I left her outside.” As she and Keith walked out of the underground tunnel from the Salt Lake temple, Jenson’s aunt told her that her mother was waiting to see her outside. “I dropped Keith’s hand … and I hiked my dress up as high as I could — I had this big hoop skirt and it was ridiculous — and I ran, I took those stairs like two steps at a time, to get out, and almost knocked her over.”

Jenson and Keith have been married for 20 years and have a son and two daughters, one of whom is in the Young Women’s program. Jenson’s love for her husband and children is obvious through both her office décor — family photos smiling from various frames — and the way her face lights up talking about them. Still, she feels she wasn’t adequately prepared for the binding promises she made in her temple marriage to Keith.

“For me to adequately explain to you how much everyone in my family is in love with my husband would take days. … He is the nicest guy in the world. … But nobody told me I was going to sign away my direct line to God that day.” Jenson refers to a portion of the temple marriage ceremony where the wife promises herself to her husband, while he promises himself to God. “I didn’t realize I was doing it, I was a dumb 19-year-old kid. … But all these people that I loved, including my husband, were there and didn’t seem to have a problem with it so it couldn’t be that bad, right? … The idea that I have to obey him while he obeys God is just antithetical to everything that brought me to this church. It just violates everything that I thought made this church so empowering for me.”

“So why do I stay?” she poses the question herself, this time determined.

“I stay because it’s my gospel, too. Because I’m allowed. There’s a sign on the door that says visitors welcome, first of all. Second, I’ve invested decades of my life and thousands of hours and dollars and actual blood, sweat and tears, because this is a place where I can find some truth. This is a gospel that in so many ways speaks to me.” She goes to church to sit with her husband and support her daughter who is following in her footsteps as “a little feminist.” She stays to serve others in her ward, whether they know so or not.  She stays to lend her voice for those who can’t raise their own. “I can look at four women in my ward who have approached me via private message, or have come to my house and have said, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing. I can’t do it because my family won’t talk to me anymore if I support it publicly, or my husband will divorce me. But I support you and we need you to do this.’

“And some days I feel like, you know what, it’s somebody else’s turn to take this bullet over and over and over again; but I go for them, too,” Jenson says. “But it’s not just for other people. It’s for me, too. I’m not going to let other people decide when I leave. I’ll leave when I’m dang good and ready.”

At the Equal in Faith service in Salt Lake City, Jenson’s tears and laughter have spread contagiously through the congregation. She concludes her talk and the meeting with this story:

“Everybody should have a cool history behind their name. Like my son — his name is Jake, and I named him after the hot guy in ‘Sixteen Candles,’ and I make sure he knows that all the time. … My daughters were named after women in my life and women in history. I tricked my husband into naming my youngest daughter after Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

“My mother would never tell me who I was named after. My parents didn’t know anybody; they just liked the name. Once, in school, we were challenged to find the history in our name. I remember being so excited when I looked in the Bible and found out in Judges, chapter 4, that Deborah was a person — someone I had never heard about, by the way, in church.

“But Deborah was a judge. And I thought, ‘I like telling people when they’re right or wrong, this is cool.’ Sounds like my parents named me appropriately. Not only was Deborah a judge, but she was a prophetess. She is called ‘prophet’ in the Bible, and I remember thinking there is more to me. Not just because of my name, or because of who I am, (but) because my heavenly parents — whom I’m told I have, but I’m only allowed to acknowledge one — my heavenly parents who created me in their own image, sent me here as a chubby little kid, as a bossy little kid, as someone who liked the idea of telling people whether they were right or wrong and with the possibility of being a judge and a prophetess.

“And I refuse to acknowledge or to accept that I am anything but equal in faith, and I will do all I can to make sure that every women is equal in her faith community.”

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