Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Love that cries with you: A plea for Mormon compassion

CompassionToday we have our second of the three prize-winning entries to the New Mormon Voices contest. (Click here for Eric Facer’s grand prize essay, published last week.)

This honorable mention piece grabbed my attention with its specific plea for compassion. As an unwed Mormon mother, Alexandra Michelle Rucinski was scared and in desperate need of church members to “mourn with those who mourn.” But as she relates, “the truth is, in my moment of need in the church I did not receive compassion. They slammed the door in my face.”

But maybe . . . just maybe . . . the door has since been opened a crack. — JKR


“Love That Cries with You”

by Alexandra Michelle Rucinski

She sat in front of my family in sacrament meeting. I was only a small child, but I knew she had done a very bad thing. Everyone in our small ward was talking about her. My mom leaned in and whispered in my ear, “That’s Sarah. She’s having a baby with her boyfriend.”

The tone of my mother’s voice confirmed Sarah had done something wrong. She wasn’t married. She wasn’t supposed to be pregnant.

I saw her in the hallway later that day and said “Hi, Sarah!” though I had never spoken to her before. She barely mustered a smile at me, she was so sad and alone with her growing belly. I never saw her at church again.

Years later, there I was sitting in the bishop’s office with my boyfriend. “We are considering excommunicating you,” the bishop said.

We had just finalized the plans for our son’s blessing. Now we were discussing the possibility of kicking me out of the fold. All my church blessings gone. My sealing to my family members no longer valid.

“What you have done is second to murder.” The bishop said this calmly, as if I didn’t realize his carefully chosen words meant that I as an unwed mother had done something almost as severe in the eyes of the Church as spilling someone’s blood.

I wish I could say I was strong. I wish I could say that I told him that I wasn’t almost a murderer, but even then in the midst of that cruelty I respected my bishop’s authority. I sat there and cried. I left that office, scooped up my four-day-old baby, and cried some more.

Before that meeting I was hopeful I could stay in the church. I thought maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be a new “Sarah” in my ward. But now I was the one who had no desire to go back.

You can say I chose to be offended if you want to. You can say that I should have come to church anyway. You can come up with many different excuses, but the truth is, in my moment of need in the church I did not receive compassion. They slammed the door in my face.

I received a letter a few weeks after my meeting with the bishop informing me they had decided not to excommunicate me, but to disfellowship me instead. But by then the damage had already been done. I did not feel welcome, nor did I feel loved. I just felt alone.

It’s been two years since then. A few weeks ago I agreed to see visiting teachers for the first time. I was nervous about it, but there is a new bishop now and his wife wanted to meet with me. She seemed different . . . or at least I hoped she would be different.

We met a few blocks from my home, our two-year-old sons playing while we talked. I let my guard down and told her what had happened to me.

She listened to everything I had to say and then she cried. She cried a lot. For the first time, someone in the Church cried with me and cared about the pain I’d been through.

She told me that she was sorry this had happened, and I knew she meant it.

For the first in a very long time a Church member showed me Christlike love. No shame or judgment. Just pure love, the kind that cries with you. The kind that doesn’t have an agenda.

If I do ever come back it will because of people like her. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to really listen and show raw compassion.

Inactive people like me don’t need cookies and a half-hearted note. We don’t need letters telling us the light is missing from our lives.

We need you Mormons to do the thing you sang about in Primary. We need you to try to be like Jesus.


Alexandra RucinskiAlexandra Michelle Rucinski, 25, lives in Iowa, where she is a stay-at-home mother to an energetic, beautiful son. Her love of writing was born from reading as many books as she could get her hands on as a child, and from daily journaling. She particularly enjoys reading memoirs, noting that there is much we can learn from the life stories of others.

In honor of her essay, a donation has been made to Safe Horizon, an organization that works to help victims of domestic violence.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • This reminds me of a somewhat similar situation I once encountered, where missionaries were teaching an inactive woman and her non-member boyfriend. They both felt the Spirit. He wanted to join the church. Ultimately they chose first to get married, which left him in a situation where he was not living contrary to the gospel. At the same time, with plenty of advance discussion and mutual agreement, understanding, and an outpouring of love from all involved, she was briefly disfellowshipped. It wasn’t too many years before he ended up in the bishopric, and they’ve been a rock solid family ever since.

  • Alex is the mother of my nephew, pictured above. She is in love and shares a beautiful life with my younger brother, and I thank God every day she came into all of our lives. My family had a hard time understanding how someone in her church could tell her that her love wasn’t justified and her baby wasn’t as pure or perfect as any other baby, simply because she was not married to my brother. I do understand, and value the sanctity of marriage, and there will be a day, soon, when she marries my little brother and they have “eternal love”. But until then, it is important to remember one of the more important things I have taken from my Methodist church to heart: God is the only person in my life who reserves the right to judge me. No human being is above another. We all make mistakes. We all pray for forgiveness for all of our earthly sins… We are all God’s children. <3 God is love, and people should try harder to embrace love, and not hate or cast scorn.

  • Not to diminish the rest of your relative’s experience, Sarah, but I’d be pretty shocked if anyone expressed anything to suggest a lack of purity on the part of the baby. Latter-day Saints view little children as innocent until the age of accountability, and do not attribute to any child the sins of the parents whether great or small. I sure hope this was not the case.

  • Sarah, thank you so much for your comment. It was beautiful. My favorite was “God is the only person in my life who reserves the right to judge me.” You are so right on. I’m so glad that Alexandra is a part of your family.

    As a Mormon, I’d like to say to Alexandra that I really hope you come back. Not only for you, but also for us. We need you and your voice and your experience. We all need to hear stories like yours so that we all work to be sure that no one else ever has an experience like yours. It’s far too common and we all need to work to stop it.

    I don’t know you, but I love you Alexandra. And I’m so sorry that this happened to you. Thank you so very, very much for sharing your story.

  • Tell that to my family member whose son was regularly called “bastard” by his LDS schoolmates. She was raped at 14 and decided not to give her baby up for adoption. Not all LDS members are kind, and many are far from it.

  • So, longtimegone, would you categorize your anecdote as typical, or as a shocking aberration? I think we all know that answer to that.

  • Alex is the mother of my nephew as well. I am married to her boyfriend’s older brother. I saw the pain and struggle she’s gone through to be the strong and confident mother she is today. She had a lot of pain and sadness early in her pregnancy, even hiding it until half way through. She was so excited for this baby she had always wanted but confused by people telling her she should be ashamed. Even being told she must declare her baby and her boyfriend basically as “sins”. These were the 2 people in the world she loved the most and someone who feels they have the authority to judge others on earth told her these things. I was sad for her losing the church she had loved and grown up in but we welcomed her to the Methodist church where we do believe God is love.

  • Emily, does the Methodist church teach that unmarried sex isn’t sin? Does the Methodist church not think it appropriate for a young couple who have conceived out of wedlock to consider getting married?

    You talk about “someone who feels they have the authority to judge others on earth” (presumably the girl’s bishop, who in LDS doctrine is considered a judge in Israel, even if Christ is the ultimate judge), but are not your criticisms a measure of judging of your own? Do you believe that Latter-day Saints do NOT believe that God is love?

  • Tom, perhaps it would help to read the essay again. It is about compassion, mourning with those that mourn, giving comfort to those who stand in need of comfort. That is the Savior’s message to all people. When someone says they are hurt, blaming them doesn’t help, it causes damage. What does help when someone is hurting is to acknowledge their pain and to simply love.

  • I’ve served in 2 Bishoprics, twice on the High Council, as an Elders Q Prez, etc, etc. I’ve never seen such a thing come so bluntly from a Bishop’s mouth. Sorry, just haven’t seen it. Have I been in many disciplinary councils?? Yes. Have I seen and heard many blunt things?? Yes. but, they were always in the context of hating the sin and not the sinner. In fact, just the opposite: whatever it took to bring the offender back in the fold, let’s pay that price. I’m tempted to believe that she has embellished the story a bit–in her favor, but I will resist that and simply believe her. There is no “you Mormons.” You are a covenant child and an accountable adult. Come back, forgive this hack Bishop, and let the Atonement work in you to move on.

  • From my experience and what I’ve read, the Methodist church (like many Protestant churches) teaches that unmarried sex is a sin, but doesn’t elevate it to the degree that many LDS do. It is a sin like any other–dishonesty, gluttony, anger, envy, greed, etc. I don’t think any Methodist minister would ever say that it is “second to murder,” which, by the way, is a common misconception among members due to a misreading of Alma, and something I’ve heard taught a lot over the years (it wasn’t merely sex that brought Corianton condemnation!). So this bishop was not only being kind of heartless, but also not doctrinally correct! Do we really believe that two teens having sex have committed a sin worse than a man who beats his wife and kids? Or someone who lies and destroys someone’s reputation? Or someone who embezzles the life savings of people who trust him? Or someone who steals a child from its parents? Of course not.

    I’ve also sat in many disciplinary councils, and have overwhelmingly seen evidence that they are councils of love. But I have also seen relentless judgment dished out by members towards people who really really needed Christ-like love instead. We can and should do better, and that’s why I think we hear so many talks in conference about loving one another. Because we need to hear it!

  • Thank you for sharing your story. We had a chance to circle the wagons to protect and nurture one of our own in need and failed miserably. For some reason, God allows us to make terrible mistakes that deeply wound others, even those we sustain as inspired leaders. The result is messy and very human. I trust God to right all wrongs. Every time you give the Church another chance, you give us a chance to try again to follow our Exemplar.

  • Laurie, ministering isn’t limited to compassion, mourning, comfort. A bishop’s ministry may also include calls to repentance, the hearing of confession, employing delegated authority from the Lord to alleviate the penitent of the burdens of sin which they may be carrying. By all means these things should also be done with love and compassion, and for the most part they are. There needn’t be mutual exclusivity here. If someone is going to judge a bishop, and by extension the LDS church, for adhering to its doctrines on whether or not unmarried sin is considered a sin, it is fair game to ask if the Methodists have suddenly changed their tune on the matter considering they are being held up as the superior Christians in this case when this isn’t even a battle of who the better Christian is. (The entire concept is unseemly.)

  • In my ward is an unwed mother who, as she puts it, can’t hide what she did the way other sins can be. And that having her son has been the biggest blessing in her life. I do not know what repentance process she had to go through (that’s between her and the bishop, not the congregation), but we’re lucky to have her. She adds a perspective in classes & discussions that helps expand the conversation. It’s human nature to divide the world up between “us” and “others” or “outsiders”, but by having her as a part of us, we think and talk of situations in a different way.

  • Fred writes: “I’ve also sat in many disciplinary councils, and have overwhelmingly seen evidence that they are councils of love. But I have also seen relentless judgment dished out by members towards people who really really needed Christ-like love instead. We can and should do better, and that’s why I think we hear so many talks in conference about loving one another. Because we need to hear it!”

    Thanks for your perspective. While I have never participated in a disciplinary council and hope never to receive such a responsibility, the people I have known through the years who have been in such positions have personalities which lend themselves far more toward compassion, love, and reconciliation than anything else. Examples of “relentless judgment dished out by members towards people who really really needed Christ-like love instead” generally tend to come from the regular membership more than the leadership. Indeed, we can and should do better, and need regular reminders thereof.

  • David, I personally tend to avoid discussing current situations because the internet is a pretty small world and I would hate for anyone to come to me one day and express concern that I have violated their privacy. That said, similar situations to what you have just described have crossed my path in recent years, and in every case I’ve witnessed an outpouring of love, concern, and inclusion in people’s activities and lives, both from priesthood leaders as well as a sizeable percentage of the Relief Society membership. Not just merely indulging the person’s presence as might have been done in the not too distant past, but true envelopment in the arms of the wards involved.

  • To all those who so kindly thanked me for writing this, I appreciate it. As for the person who hinted that I might have embellished my story to make myself look better, I assure you I did not. My bishop was very harsh. He did indeed say that what I had done was “second to murder” and it was a moment burned in memory because it just felt so wrong to called that. I was raised Mormon. I know how the church feels about premarital sex but to call a young New mother nearly a murder is wrong and there is no justification for it. It hurt then and hurts now thinking of other women or men like me who have been called the same. I’m grateful for the compassion I received from the new Bishops wife. The point of my essay was to show despite my hurt, in that moment when I saw her tears for me I felt loved in a way I never felt in the bishops office.

  • I would argue that for every member that is “flunking sainthood”, there are 20, 30, even 40 that are continuously trying to get it right, and who DO get it right *most* of the time. Mormons say stupid things sometimes. I know I’ve done it/do it and I hope that people forgive me. Non-Mormons say stupid things sometimes, too! It’s called human frailty.

  • There is a big difference between being a Mormon and being a Latter-Day Saint.

    Both believe the same things, the difference is culture. Mormon culture is traditionalist. It is the way things have been done. There is strength in tradition and it can feel like a rock in the swirling tides of life. However dogmatic tradition is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    A Latter-Day Saint is a person who puts Christ as the center of their lives. It is the most difficult of disciplines to follow. It means being obedient to the commandments, yet compassionate for those that do not. Even for yourself when you fall short as we all do.

    To give you an idea of Mormon culture there was so much it was overwhelming: Christmas programs, Roadshows, Mutual, Boy Scouts, Youth Conference and more activities, activities, activities than you can imagine. Then one day it all came to a grinding halt. All of it.

    The focus on Mormon culture was overshadowing what we were supposed to be: Latter-Day Saints. So all that ended with an emphasis on the gospel, not culture. Even the activity director was ended recently which has hopefully put the final nail in the coffin of Mormon culture.

    As Sarah found the change did not happen right away. The refocus on being Latter Day Saints has taken a lot of time and is still being done now to not let Mormon culture over take the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The message is clear we must go from being Mormons to being Latter-Day Saints.

    As the Latter Days are upon us I hope we all can strive to be closer to the Savior to become Saints of the living God.

  • Yes we all know the answer to that. Its not the one you want to hear. 🙂

    Judging by the tone of the article especially lines like
    “What you have done [unwed pregnancy] is second to murder.” The bishop said this calmly, as if I didn’t realize his carefully chosen words meant that I as an unwed mother had done something almost as severe in the eyes of the Church as spilling someone’s blood.”

    “Typical” would be the best way to characterize longtimegone’s experience

  • Tom your own response that lacks any compassion and is quick to dismiss someone’s pain as an aberration would make me more likely to think a lack of compassion is the norm.

  • Pieface – longtimegone shared a horrible story about some unusually cruel behavior toward the child of a girl who was raped at 14, which I rightfully suggested is an extreme aberration rather than the norm. Do you disagree? It would only lack compassion to diminish the seriousness of the crime itself, or to excuse the behavior of those who were cruel to the child. Pointing out that such behavior would be far from the norm in the LDS community doesn’t exhibit a lack of compassion whatsoever.

  • Can I just add one little comment…
    having sat on far more disciplinary councils than I would have liked I have found that they have profoundly altered the way I approach discipline now.
    I suspect that many people who knew me when I was younger would have thought me to have been very hard and judgemental when it comes to discipline but when you sit on one of these councils you are changed and your approach (at least mine) shifts as you are moved to mourn with those who mourn.
    Judgement and condemnation take a back seat to love, healing and forgiveness.
    At least, that has been my experience.

  • Great story Alexandra.
    I believe each Bishop does their best – but each has a different level of ‘best’.
    I would hope you can forgive your former Bishop and come back. Bishop’s wives are definitely an under-valued resource!

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