MIConversations #6—Margaret Blair Young with Terryl Givens, “The deep waters”
Maxwell Institute Conversations are special episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.In this episode Terryl Givens sits down with Margaret Blair Young to talk about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Congo, faith transitions, spiritual healing, writing, and more.
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BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to another episode of Maxwell Institute Conversations, with Terryl Givens. I’m Blair Hodges, host of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Margaret Blair Young is an American author, filmmaker, and writing instructor who taught for thirty years at Brigham Young University. She’s written with Darius Grey about early black Latter-day Saints and her latest project is a film about more recent black converts in Africa. The film is called Heart of Africa. Terryl Givens sits down with her in this episode to talk about the Church in Congo, faith transitions, spiritual healing, and more.
Maxwell Institute Conversations with Terryl Givens is part of the Maxwell Institute Podcast and sponsored by the FaithMatters Foundation. And now, here’s Terryl Givens and Margaret Blair Young.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello, and welcome to another installment of Conversations with Terryl Givens, sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation. I’m your host. Today my guest is Margaret Blair Young, author, writer, potential movie scriptwriter and director, and collector and teller of stories. Is that—
MARGARET BLAIR YOUNG: That’s the one I’m comfortable with. You didn’t get there until that last one.
GIVENS: Saving the best for last. So we’re delighted to have you wish us on our show today.
YOUNG: Thank you.
GIVENS: I’d like to start by getting a little bit of information on your background and your life story thus far. I usually start with a terribly morbid question asking you about what your obituary is going to look like. But maybe I could phrase it a little more gently today—
YOUNG: I hope my obituary will be written in at least four languages, and that very few people will read it, and that it will be an intimate little thing for my dear friends and family.
GIVENS: What things will you be remembered for professionally?
YOUNG: Oh I suppose I’ll be remembered for books. I suppose that what I’ve done in race issues, which I did with Darius Gray, will be remembered. The big thing, I would say, one of my biggest epiphanies in this whole life journey, I’m now sixty-two, but I always wanted to be a published writer and then when I finally became a published writer I realized it wasn’t that big of a deal. Then that was when I started taking my covenants very, very seriously and asked God for something that would matter, that maybe I could use my talents, but it wouldn’t just be so I could have a byline. That was what led me to Darius Gray. That was absolutely attended by angels as we worked together to tell those stories. But in all of that, I think now as I look at what I’m going to be doing for the next twenty, twenty-five years, however long I have on this earth, I want the byline to matter less and less. I want it to be a little footnote in God’s story. The name I most want to be called by is disciple.
GIVENS: Excellent. Let’s back up a little bit and see if you can tell us about some of those moments of transition, or illumination, or epiphany that moved you in the directions that you have taken. You mentioned your collaboration with Darius Gray is one. You’re kind of reorienting around a particular vision of discipleship that we want to talk more about. But can you go back to your early life and tell me what were some of the most shaping spots of time, as Wordsworth calls them.
YOUNG: I lost my dad February 19, 2016, and I spent the last two years of his life with him almost every dialysis session. I would rub his feet with oil, which was a lovely ministry. We talked a lot about what my life had been. He is my father and we are so similar in the things that we love, but he talked about my position as the oldest in our family. I’m the oldest of eight children.
I’ve just returned from the Democratic Republic Congo—note my hair, I do not usually wear my hair this way, somebody was supposed to undo it but they weren’t able to—but when I’m in the Congo, this is what I look like. I was just there with my brother and we are living what our dad taught us. Our dad was a man who saw the world through the gospel lens, not the gospel through the world lens, and that has been… his faith was so fundamental, so foundational to everything we did as a family. I haven’t gone to the very beginning, but I would say the first, when I welcomed my little brother when I was one year old, with the words “baby, baby, baby,” and then he and I, he turned sixty-one while we were there in Congo, having just returned from that, and really the legacy that we were presented as children where we were taken to Mexico when I was eight, he was seven, I would say all of international travels have been formative. All of them have included huge spiritual experiences.
The sojourn into black culture, African American culture, which I could only do with a mentor, Darius Gray, who protected me from being too stupid or from letting people know I was so stupid, and introduced me to his songs, the songs of his mother, the life stories. I have a deep memory of when we were writing about his ancestors who had been slaves. As we brought them to life we gave them their real names but we tried to imagine—
GIVENS: And this is the series of books called Standing on the Promises.
YOUNG: Standing on the Promises. Right. So this would have been our second book that deals with the slave years, but as we put names, as we tried to imagine what that slave auction would have been like for his great-grandmother, his great-grandfather was born a slave. I remember as we did our process, which is I would write and then he would read it back to me, I learned this from my linguist father, that you listen to how somebody reads it and what they change as they’re investing with their own soul. We both wept going into a slave auction, even though we had only imagined it. But with those names, those sacred names of his family members, was a deeply spiritual and emotional experience.
Then as we went deeper into what the Lord had in store for us, we referred to manna. We would get phone calls, Darius was at a drug store one time when somebody said, “I think I need to introduce myself to you, but I’m not sure you’re going to want to meet me.” It was a man who had been in Lan Hope’s ward. Lan was a black convert who participated in World War I, so a convert at the end of the nineteenth century. He had been told that he and his family would not be permitted to go to church because they were black. This man was the son of the father who was the branch president who had participated in that decision. Through all of that we had so much material, photographs, recordings, and the details that sometimes it would be the day that we were writing something and somebody would call and say, “Hey, I wonder if you could use this,” and it would be exactly what we needed. One of my regrets is that we didn’t track it. We didn’t journal, “we got this manna today,” I wish we could go back and do that.
So I’ve given an overview instead of specifics. I would say my first big recognition of what I would be doing for my life was when I was at girl’s camp, about twelve years old, having been quite bullied, and being absolutely insecure about the possibility that anybody could possibly love me or like me. Then watching a young woman say goodbye to her youth leader and just weep and say, “I just love you.” Then it was as though my cells absorbed that word, the word love, and I could suddenly feel this overwhelming sense of “you are so loved.” I’m so grateful that I had that because at least two of my children have reported having something similar.
My son, who as he recovered from an addiction, as he went through the step in addiction recovery of confessing everything and making recompense, was something that he was not at all looking forward to. But as he finally did it, he went to a park and he was filled with love. He said it felt like a mother, not like a father, it felt like a mother. You can imagine Fiona would relate to that, in a park, in the middle of nature, and this nurturing, “You are mine. You are my son. Everything is fine. All is well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” So that is fundamental, that ability to feel love and gratitude.
Recently, as working with Sterling Van Wagenen and Russ Kendall on “The Heart of Africa” project, which at one point we were, it was just a film, it has become much more than just a film. But as we made some decisions that would send me back to the Congo without a solid sense of this is what we’re going to be doing, I went to the temple and I was absolutely overwhelmed by gratitude that this journey, that was not the journey I had anticipated with Sterling and Russ and Reed Smoot, was something that was so important that whatever was going to happen, and we still don’t have all of that.
GIVENS: Okay let’s back up a little bit. How do we get from working with Darius Gray to the Congo?
YOUNG: Okay. First of all, I’ll give my legacy as a Blair. My father was a linguist. So we were raised to be world citizens. So Spanish is my second language. I lived in Guatemala and I lived in Venezuela; I lived in Mexico. Then I feel the Lord directed me to work with Darius Gray, that that had all been prepared. I merely had to offer myself and it was given to me.
Then my husband and I were called to work in a branch presidency in the Missionary Training Center and surprised it was in French. I had assumed that it would be Spanish, because I had taught Spanish institute for ten years, my husband spoke it quite well. But he had served a mission in France. A lot of these young men were called to the Congo. I thought that’s going to be a hard mission. I think I will adopt these young people. My oldest son had left the church and I had a yearning to be a missionary mom. I was an incredible missionary mom. They got hard mail, they got emails, but I sent candy and cookies. We learned how to label it so it wouldn’t get stolen. It was “Elder Fuel,” not “candy.”
Through these young men—and only men, in the Congo there are no Anglo women, and they don’t go to Kinshasa yet. They’re in other parts of the Congo but not the Democratic Republic of Congo—then I got to meet their companions and one of the companions became a dear, dear friend. He had been a member of a revolutionary group before joining the church. To me that was a fascinating story that was sort of my beginning point of a screenplay about a kid who has been raised in a racist environment and doesn’t really recognize the level of his own racism being a companion with an African young man who has been raised in a revolutionary environment where he’s been taught to hate whites and put them together and watch them heal that rift in the relationships and the perception of each other. I loved the idea. I still do. It’s still something we’re working on.
GIVENS: So that became the nucleus of the screen—
YOUNG: That became the nucleus of the screenplay. So then I went to Congo. I’ve just completed my fourth trip. We did some documentary filming when I was there the first time. Then Russ and Sterling and Reed, we did some location scouting. The big thing was recognizing there’s no infrastructure here for filming. There were no cinemas. The project then morphed into something where we recognized there is no cinema here. We can do more than make a movie. It’s kind of the, as I’ve been listening to Mere Christianity, one of my audible books while I was in Congo, that George MacDonald quote of there’s a house. Consider that you are a house and you feel some tinkering and understand that was going to have to take place. But now it’s becoming massive and huge. Balconies are being put in and then you realize that this is not going to be just a pleasant little cottage. This is going to be a palace, and God himself intends to live there.
That’s kind of what has happened with the Heart of Africa Project. It started as a good idea that started for a film, and it’s still a very good idea for a film, and that will happen. But it has become much, much more than that as a vehicle to bless other lives, which I find consistently is the case, that as we open ourselves to do what the Lord asks us to do, or as we say, “Here I am. What can I do here?” My brother talks about the “I am a child of God and he has sent me here.” Joseph of the Old Testament, can you say that while you’re in jail? He has sent me here. There is a reason that I am here.
I’ll even tell you one of the oral histories that we got when we were in Congo. The Joseph story made me think of that. A woman, an Evangelical woman, whose brothers became very jealous of her because she had received the bulk of the inheritance, actually they had spent all of theirs, she hadn’t spent all of hers. So they kind of took over the home and cast her into jail and paid somebody to kill her in jail. The man who had been paid told her that he had been paid to do that and that he wasn’t going to. Well there was another man in jail who had been convicted of manslaughter. He had been in a car accident where somebody had died and he said to this woman, “I wish I had met you before.” Because the woman was preaching the gospel of Christ, “Because now I’m going to die tomorrow and I don’t have time.” She said, “Oh, you’re not going to die tomorrow. You’re going to be released. You will have a lifetime to preach the gospel.” That’s exactly what happened. As Del, my brother, and I were talking to her about I am a child of God and he has sent me here, a terrible, terrible place, a jail in the Congo is a terrible place to be, but there is something that you can still do. There is something that God has called you to do. If you were sent here, then you will be asked to do something.
GIVENS: So tell me a little about how your Latter-day Saint faith intersects with this kind of vision of discipleship which is international and cosmopolitan and service-oriented. How do you see your discipleship in this particular form shaped by your Mormon past, your Mormon commitments?
YOUNG: My Mormon past and present. I am absolutely a Latter-day Saint, and one who recognizes that everyone around me is potentially a Latter-day Saint, even if right now they’re a Catholic priest. That the idea of sainthood, that we’re willing to give our very lives, the idea of consecration, the idea of evolution, that we accept all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Those revelations are personal and intimate and callings to serve a particular person at a particular time in a particular place.
So it informs everything I do as I start the long wrap, I hope it’s a long wrap, of my life. Who I am as a Latter-day Saint, who I am in the temple as I bring names out of the past, when I’m serving as an ordinance worker and we pronounce names that are centuries old to give them blessings, to sanctify them for a moment. Those are sacred, sacred things. I honor the fraternity, the spiritual fraternity that I have with everybody here on earth. Some were born with more melanin than another. That is pretty irrelevant to me, except that because there have been divisions there are more opportunities to serve. There are places where my willingness to serve will be called upon because I’m willing to go to a place like Congo, where I won’t necessarily have water, I won’t necessarily have electricity. That’s, again, because of the way I was raised. I’ve learned to not have expectations of what I deserve. That I can be anywhere and serve God.
GIVENS: At this particular moment in our church’s history a lot of people on the road to discipleship seem to find their ways harrowed up with concerns about church history and polygamy and feminism. Have you found any of these contemporary issues to be impinging on your quest for discipleship?
YOUNG: No. Maybe I did twenty, thirty years ago. I find them to be distractions. Joseph Smith talked about wanting deep waters. I think of myself as someone who has entered the deep waters of Mormonism. I’m not really interested with the stuff on the shore. I’m not really interested in the—
GIVENS: Why do you think we tend to get so distracted by those? Is it a matter of focus? Is it an institutional problem? Is it cultural?
YOUNG: I think right now we’re in a time that we’ve not had ever before where we have Internet, where you can have whole communities conducting a faith transition. I say that I am in a faith transition, but mine is perpetually growing. I will continue to have a faith transition making my faith greater and more nuanced, but there’s another kind of faith transition where everything is shrunk and it is so possible to get caught up in one particular issue, and then it becomes the filter for everything that you see. I’ve witnessed a lot of people start having allergic reactions to the church, where the core isn’t seen.
I hate to say anything that sounds too judgmental, because I’m not in the situation where I go to church and then go home and complain on the Internet about all of the terrible things I saw, but I have noticed that in some groups. There’s a lot of complaining and absence of gratitude, where the end focus becomes not one of love and community, but one of I don’t fit in, I as an individual don’t fit in to what I perceive they are doing. My bishop is so involved in patriarchy. You can attach all sorts of names to different people, and we are now schooled in the names that we can attach. We have particular phrases. The truth claims: “I couldn’t accept the truth claims of that religion.” We’re given a vocabulary, the young people are, that I hear echoed and so often it feels like an echo chamber that feels dissonant and not familiar to me, not consistent to the spirit of God that tells me pure religion and undefiled is to serve the poor, to serve the widowed, and the homeless. Granted—again I’m nervous about sounding too judgmental—I appreciate that people who have left the LDS church often engage in wonderful service. For me, personally, this is my core. At my very core I am in the fundamental Mormon perspective that this is a great journey that was designated by God that we agreed to, that we are proving ourselves. I tend to think of it as not so much we are showing that we can pass this particular test, but that we are glorious beings—
GIVENS: You’re sounding like a storyteller now. You like the Mormon story, the Latter-day Saint story.
YOUNG: Yes, I do.
GIVENS: So talk a little bit about that. Is it because it’s more cosmic in scope? Is it because it’s more optimistic? Because I think, it’s my sense that, this is a theme that I keep coming back to, that I don’t think we have fully appreciated or celebrated the radical distinctness of Mormonism’s founding narratives in our efforts to build bridges.
YOUNG: I’ve used your material, Terryl, when I teach LDS literature. I pull out When Souls Had Wings and we talk about how radical the idea of a preexistence, not so radical that it was never talked of before, but radical in a sense that this is not something that most religions adhere to.
GIVENS: Right. But it seems that it’s a great adventure in the Mormon conception.
YOUNG: It is a great adventure.
GIVENS: We start with—
YOUNG: You know what’s funny about that is that’s what I always told my children it would say on my tombstone: “It will be an adventure.” Because whenever we’d get lost I’d say, “Oh, come on! We’re lost, but think of the things that we’re going to see that we wouldn’t have seen if we hadn’t been lost.” That’s very much the Plan of Salvation. Oh, well dang, here we are, we’re lost. Look who we’re lost with. What are we going to discover together? What kind of community are we going to build in this situation of being lost together?
GIVENS: Well you just seem to live your life rather as an adventure, rather than a scripted play.
YOUNG: I do.
GIVENS: I want to get back to your expression, because I really love this expression, the deep waters of Mormonism. Expound on that a little.
YOUNG: Well I’ll maybe just refer to an essay I wrote, “Mormon Scholars Testify.” I talked about being a swimmer. My family, we’re all swimmers. My father, when I had my very first meet and I still really couldn’t swim and he said, “Don’t worry about beating anybody. Just keep your form. Just keep the form right.” I tried but I was just awful. When I saw that everybody was way ahead of me, I just lost my form and struggled to get to the end of the race. I have since learned how to actually keep my form correct. In my swimming life, in my covenant life, there are certain things that are simply a part of how I conduct myself.
When my father, two year before my dad died, we were in a pool and Dad had never seen me do butterfly. So he said, “Let me see you do butterfly, Margaret.” So I did it for him and he said, “That’s great. Let’s race.” I started beating him and he stopped and said, “I didn’t mean for you to beat me.” He was actually kind of distressed. I stopped and said, “Sorry, I’ll walk with you.” That kind of was our, for the last two years, I would say that my father’s death is probably up to this point the thing that has affected me most deeply. The miracles of, the blessings that God gave to my father as he wrapped up his life. The projects that he was allowed to finish, that were not necessarily the ones he thought he had to finish, but I knew what they were and I saw God’s mercy in allowing him to—
GIVENS: So is this what you mean by the deep waters of Mormonism? Those moments when you penetrate the veil and see larger purposes?
YOUNG: Yes. I would say absolutely. Getting caught up in the Book of Abraham, polygamy, the minutia, for me it’s minutia, is playing with the seashore, playing with the bubbles and the seaweed and not being actually in the depths, not being where you are fully immersed or where you can be as you go under. From an immersed position I think you are able to be led from a position where you are already in the depths and you simply ask God, you control the waves, take me away where you want me to be.
GIVENS: You make frequent reference to the temple in your personal narratives.
YOUNG: I do. Yeah.
GIVENS: With all due decorum, could you talk a little bit about the influence of the temple in your life?
YOUNG: Yeah. I want to say that not all members of my family love the temple as much as I do. I want to acknowledge that it’s a difficult worship system for many people because it is foreign to the ways that we do things.
GIVENS: And gendered.
YOUNG: And it is gendered. For me, I’ve recognized, in fact over the last little while adjusting to getting back from the Congo, adjusting to the current, there’s a whole lot of turmoil happening right now, the date that we’re recording this, in the U.S.A., getting back to that I’ve longed to get to the temple where it’s the story I know and love, but which still opens itself up to me that is a story about me, although told in the persona of Eve, of coming to earth, of what I am asked to do. But it’s also meditative, where certain words are repeated over and over. It’s a mantra. They’re the words of anointing. They’re the words of initiation. They’re the words of endowment, of receiving great gifts. They’re the words of glorification and sanctification and consecration. Those are, to me, the reminders of just my core floor. I’ve needed to get back to seeing those familiar images again. It calms me at a cellular level.
GIVENS: Do you find the veil particularly thin in your temple experiences?
YOUNG: I’m not one who has visions. I’m one who has had some pretty remarkable experiences at the veil. I’ve not seen angels. I’ve been privileged to be with people and in different languages where I know that God has wanted me at a particular place at a particular time. Those are probably too many to even go into detail, but I’ve had a number of experiences in the temple where I’ve been able to minister to somebody, not necessarily in my work as an ordinance worker, but just noticing that somebody needed me and sometimes somebody with a language issue that I was able to address. So those have just been reminders that wherever I am, I am called to minister.
GIVENS: No temples in the Congo.
YOUNG: Yet. Under way.
GIVENS: Is there one under way?
GIVENS: Okay. I missed that. The nearest temple right now would be Ghana?
YOUNG: Ghana. Yep. And South Africa. I’m not sure what the mileage is. I went with my friends, this former missionary, we went to Ghana. He is now a facilities manager for the Kinshasa temple. So he is being trained at Ghana, at South Africa. He’ll be trained in all of the temples in Africa so that he knows exactly how to keep the temple—
GIVENS: So the church seems to be fairing well in the Congo at the present.
YOUNG: Eight stakes right now in Kinshasa. It hasn’t gone throughout the Congo, but in the areas where it is it’s thriving and the retention rate is like ninety-five percent.
GIVENS: Are there many Congolese themselves serving as missionaries?
YOUNG: Oh yes. In the D.R. Congo there are no Anglo missionaries. The perception of the D.R. Congo as dangerous is one of the big things that we’re fighting against right now. It’s something that keeps the Congolese from progressing as well as they need to and keeps Americans from going there. Whenever I said that I was going to the D.R. Congo the first thing would be, “Oh, stay safe.” There’s a sense of especially in the Congo that you’re going to be kidnapped, that there are these Africans with guns, which is, other than the teenage policemen, who have their guns because that’s part of the uniform, it is a huge exaggeration and a tremendous disservice to who the people really are in the Congo.
So that’s one of our objectives as we move to get cinema going there as we try to show it to the world, is these are the actual Congolese people. These are the people who love each other, who build their families. These are the things that matter to them.
GIVENS: So you’re a collector of stories. Tell us a good story you’ve picked up in your Congolese adventures.
YOUNG: Well I’ll tell you, oh my goodness, I have so many because I’ve been gathering oral histories that we’re using oral history as peace building. We believe that if you have people from different tribes and they open themselves up to receiving somebody’s story, that it’s healing, that it provides a space to come together as brothers and sisters. So I’ve been gathering stories. One is a filmmaker’s father.
When he was a little boy he fell from a mango tree and broke his back. He fell on a branch as he was falling and it broke his back. He was the son of a healer, the village healer, and so this was a huge thing. He was the only son. He was the future in that particular village of the healing possibilities, and here he was with a broken back. They knew that if he died it would be a rift in their entire community. So as I’ve played with that, and I’ll tell you the whole story in a second, but as we interviewed the father and the filmmaker started listening to the experiences his own father had had that he hadn’t been aware of, he started saying, “This needs to be a film. My own father’s story. This needs to be a film.”
Well they took him, they buried him up to his neck every day for most of the day so he couldn’t move so that back would be braced by the earth. They put chili peppers all over his skin and then wrapped it in cloth before burying him, and then lit a fire behind him. I was at my niece’s wedding reception and told this to a cousin of mine who is a doctor and he said, “Heat therapy!” There they are in traditional medicine and they figured out how to use heat therapy in a setting where a kid has broken his back. Well the story to me as I kept asking the question, if you’re really doing an oral history you keep asking the questions, so we could still spend another week on that one story. We’ve asked enough that we created the book and presented it to him. The idea that people throughout that village who want healing could be a part of that little boy’s healing and when it was time for him to show that he could walk, for the whole village to see this little boy take his first steps after this terrible accident, the son of their healer who then becomes the symbol of their own community. It’s a huge story. The importance of a single child and how everybody comes together to help this little boy take a first step.
The other part is when I gave him the book, that was three days before I left Congo. I had really nice paper and a printer with me which stays in Congo, but I had printed up the book with his pictures. I took it to him, we met, and he tried not to look at it. He was trying to hold conversation, but he kept sneaking little looks. Our friend who is one of our big filmmakers called and said that his father had called him and said, “We’ve come a long ways. I’ve been poor all of my life. But my son is going to be a filmmaker. And now there’s a book about me.” Just one copy. But it’s a book about him. An American has presented him as something having value. That opening up when he opened up with his story, and by the way I couldn’t speak the language as he opened up, but I could read the facial expressions and he and I would have eye contact and then his son would be our translator. But we had a real experience of brother and sister. When I returned to give that book, it was a joyful family reunion. We had gotten to know each other through sharing that story.
GIVENS: This is a healing story. You and I have spoken in other contexts about healing.
GIVENS: And the expression “Christ as healer.” It’s true, of course, that Latter-day Saints believe in Christ as savior, but it seems to me that there’s a beautiful shift in emphasis that could follow from using the expression “healer” as often or more than “savior.” Since “soter” translates either way. Because Mormonism doesn’t begin from this position of failure and catastrophe in Eden, but from hopefulness in pre-mortal worlds, and if you see the cost of mortality in terms of pain and suffering and sorrow and fracture, rather than just sin, then it seems that healing might be a more appropriate metaphor for Christ’s great work.
YOUNG: I have to credit my brother, because this has been his theme for the past several years, the idea of healing, healing and families, healing and nations, healing between peoples who have divided themselves for whatever reason. But he talks about the idea of wholeness as being healed, so the Savior saying, “Wilt thou be made whole?” It’s a question of there will be something required of you. Wilt thou be made whole? We can do this, but you’re going to have to take a step.
GIVENS: It seems an idea whose time has come in the church. I think of the gospel topics page addressing the priesthood ban. I think of the more inclusive language for gay and lesbian people. I think of the church sponsorship even, of concerts, and so forth. So there does seem to be this gathering momentum moving in the direction of wholeness, integration, completion.
YOUNG: Yes. And it’s up to us. We are the ones. If we take our prejudices with us and refuse to be made whole with the people with whom we’re working, we can come out as prejudiced, you know, as missionary couples. You can come out as prejudiced after your mission as you were before, unless you are completely open to the stories there.
GIVENS: How have you personally experienced in yourself, or your family, the kind of healing that you’re talking about?
YOUNG: I went through a divorce when I was twenty-eight, which just absolutely leveled me. I did not imagine that I could recover from that. Had a little girl. But everything that had led up to that was so soul searing, that recovery, the idea of feeling loved was just beyond me. I don’t want to insult my ex-husband, he had some issues, but one of the things was him telling me how ugly I was. I’m a redhead so my eyelashes don’t actually show up unless I have mascara on them, and my sense of myself was this very, very ugly person who had to be made up and wear false eyelashes so that people wouldn’t see how ugly she really was.
In that situation I started my master’s degree and took literary criticism from Bruce Young. He saw me and that I was quite made up. He was single, he was thirty-four and single. I think especially because I was much made up, he didn’t like the idea of getting attached with me. But we did eventually start going out, and it was one where I recognized who he was and I don’t think I would have seen that in my teen years, my early twenties. I don’t think I would have seen Bruce’s qualities had I not been through what I had just been through.
But there came a night where it was maybe a week before we were to get married and I was terrified of what he would do when he saw me, it sounds so ridiculous that I would have such little self-confidence, and so little confidence in his ability to love, but that was the truth. I really imagined that it would be, “Oh, I didn’t realize.” So we were at his parent’s place and he said, “Well, wash your face. Let me see.” I was terrified. I was just terrified that this would have a horrific ending. I did it and he looked at me and said, “You’re more beautiful without your makeup than you are with the makeup.”
That was the beginning of personal healing for me. My parents told me that they had seen my light go out in that first marriage, and that as I fell in love with Bruce they say it come back on. As a mother I’ve been through occasions with my children where their light has gone out, and I have been so grateful to have been guided. One of the most profound was when my son, who I’ve referenced before, was having some really difficult things. Had made some awful choices. I just was so desperate to find what to do. I’d never imagined that I would be facing this kind of a situation. What do I do? The thought came, do you remember that you can schedule the Groberg cabin? My grandparents, Delbert and Jenny Groberg, left us a legacy, their cabin in Island Park. I hadn’t used it in twenty years, but that’s part of being part-Groberg, is I can use that cabin. I did it that day right after that strong impression of going to the cabin. I took my son there and it was just us, no television, no Internet, some fish, the wide universe. We sat on the front porch and at a certain point he said, “I’m ready to tell you everything.” Then just opened up. We weren’t finished with the journey.
Shortly thereafter, the day we were coming home, there was a time deadline but he wanted to go tubing. This was a day where I was getting a particular scripture over and over and over, it was sort of like angels were saying, “By the way, in case you forgot, there’s this scripture, and it’s right here,” and then somebody would text me, I’d open a book and there it would be, and the scripture was “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount as with wings of eagles. They shall run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.” I in my motherhood was really struggling to get up and walk. My son and the various problems that he had brought into his life was in that same sort of a situation.
I was talking to my husband saying, “He’s tubing right now and I can’t reach him. We don’t have a telephone,” and I was starting to get frustrated. Then it was a three-time thought, hit me very hard three times and with the very same words, “You need to wait. He’s almost here. You need to be right here, and you need to be happy.” When he returned he couldn’t have me saying, “Do you realize what you just put me through?” With the entire detour that we had just been on. It couldn’t be, “Do you realize what you’ve just put us through?” This was the prodigal son, and we rejoice, and we restore the ring and we are there in love in happiness. So multiple times, and I stayed and finally there he was, and I waved to him and I said, “What did you find?” And he told me about a school of fish that he had seen. He told me about watching a big bird had come and grabbed a fish. He had been on his adventure. I didn’t greet him with frustration. I greeted him with happiness. That scripture has been fundamental to me.
GIVENS: This reminds me of a story I just heard this past week. I was with Chris Williams, his name is, a member of the church who lost his pregnant wife and two children in that terrible, tragic accident, killed by a drunk driver. The miracle of his story is the miracle of forgiveness that came into his heart so immediately. The words that he used to describe his motivation at the time are ones that I’ve also heard in other contexts where tragic death was involved. He said, “My concern was not to get in the way of God’s grace.”
YOUNG: Oh, beautiful. I love that.
GIVENS: And I think there are few things that we could more devoutly desire than to just get out of the way when God’s grace is operating. It sounds like that’s what you were… it was important that you not create an impediment for the healing that was about to transpire.
YOUNG: The healing between me and my son, for him it was that first night when he said, “I’m ready to tell you everything.” That was important. And he said, “You can ask me anything and I’ll tell you the truth.” My answer was, “I don’t need to ask you anything. We’re okay. We’re moving forward. We don’t need to keep going back to the past.” We continue with that journey.
With the stories when my father gave devotionals back in 1998, I think, the introduction was all flashy and full of all the academic titles and the papers he had done, and the books he had done, and the honors he had received, and then he began and he just told stories. So you see where I get this from. The stories he told were King Mitus, the prodigal son, and Joseph and his brothers. King Mitus I told, using my dad’s words which were translated into French when I was in Congo. They had never heard it, and every time when we would get to where he touched his daughter and she turned to gold there would be a gasp, “Oh no, really?” That was a huge, big story for them. With prodigal son, my brother used that in teaching English and to have them involved, it would be, “So there’s a ring. What do you think the father says in the ring? What words are engraved in the ring?” And as they worked with the English it would be things like, “You are my son,” “We are always together,” “We love you.” Of course there’s a point where he throws the ring down as my father tells this story, and then when he comes back with, “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he sees the ring and puts the ring back on. The other, Joseph and the brothers. That glorious moment where whatever has gone before is erased, because there is a reunion. There is reconciliation. “Brothers, I am Joseph. God has prepared a way for me to deliver you.” Everybody realizes how they have sinned against each other, and everybody rejoices that they are in a different situation now they’re reconciled.
GIVENS: I think the Book of Mormon is such a sadly tragic book when you read it against the Old Testament, because you have that long patriarchal cycle that ends with such total reconciliation. The Book of Mormon starts with the same brotherly rift, and ends in apocalypse instead.
YOUNG: Yes. Yes.
GIVENS: I think you have to read it against that. I want to talk about two of your stories that you’ve published. Before I had ever met you, or knew anything about you, I had read Salvador. I think I remember writing at the time I thought that was one of the books and you were perhaps the greatest living Mormon author.
YOUNG: Oh goodness. Well thank goodness others have long taken that position.
GIVENS: Then another book I read of yours, Heresies of Nature. I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a similar kind of preoccupation in both of them with the possibility of self-deception. Talk a little about that and why that theme in particular is of interest to you.
YOUNG: I think one of the things as I’ve moved to the morphing of the Heart of Africa Project, one of the things I’ve thought about is now where are you in this? Are you making yourself the centerpiece or are you able to move into the background?
GIVENS: So give us just a thirty-second overview of those two works.
YOUNG: So Salvador is based on, they’re both based on true stories. Salvador is based on an experience that Dad and I had back in 1978, because this happened the year of the priesthood revelation. I remember it very well. In Guatemala. I changed the country, I changed names. People who knew the situation recognized what I was doing. They recognized all the situation. So it’s about a girl who visits with her uncle, he wasn’t actually my uncle, but a man who has gone to save the world, to save the Indians in Guatemala. He does wonderful things at the beginning, but he becomes the heart of darkness type of thing. He becomes a little god. That self deception in thinking that he’s the one who’s doing this, that he’s the one who deserves all of the adulation rather than he’s somebody who leads them to see God, that’s one of the things that we are told in the temple is don’t wear fancy jewelry, you as workers should be invisible. You are only the way to point them towards God. Well in this case he had forgotten that and things had gone way off where they should have been, into some betrayal. It’s basically the story of the protagonist, Julie, recognizing what’s really going on and her initiation. The other, Heresies of Nature—
GIVENS: I was just going to say that if there’s a, I don’t know if this was intended, but if there’s a parallel in the unfolding of the LDS church, it’s not the tendency of our leaders to self-aggrandize, but there is a kindred tendency of the members to erect them to flawless heroic—
YOUNG: Sadly, that is something that really has got to be addressed. I know that it’s something that you and Fiona have talked about. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot as well. I think that’s a subject for many other conversations. The second book, Heresies of Nature, deeply personal. My husband’s sister had multiple sclerosis and the story that the novel is about a woman with multiple sclerosis whose husband commits adultery, you understand his reasons for doing that, but it is a story of self-deception.
GIVENS: To me that was the most compelling part about the novel, is that you worked so effectively to garnish sympathy for the adulterer.
YOUNG: Let me tell you, when I went to Nancy, that of course was factual, I went to Nancy and said, “Nancy, I really want to write a story.” Well, let me just back up a tad. Nancy, her husband sent her to live in the rest home during the last portion of her illness. She had become really paralyzed. At the airport he said, “In order to do this, we’re going to need to be divorced.” So he divorced her. She was on that whole flight knowing that he was going to divorce her and then as soon as the divorce was final, he was married two days later. There had been an affair there. But I was so upset by what he had done. I said to Nancy, “I want to write a story about it. What I want to write is that he divorces his wife and then on the way home from the court he’s in this terrible accident and he becomes a quadriplegic and he ends up in the same care center as the wife. But of course that’s a revenge story, and that’s not the purpose of literature.
So I examined really carefully what it must have been like for him, that move into empathy. What was this like for you? This experience which I saw you carrying my sister-in-law, she bumped her head, and you yelled at her. You were carrying her to the bathroom and she whacked her head against the wall and you said, “What?” And that was so huge. That moment of humiliation and meanness was so big to me that it shadowed any way to have compassion for him. So it was something I worked on really, really hard. What was this like for you to have your wife just become completely paralyzed? What did you go through as you watched this happen?
Ultimately we made it into a play. We called it Dear Stone which is from The Winter’s Tale, “Chide me not, dear stone,” it’s when the statue of Hermione is ready to become living. I interplayed Winter’s Tale a little bit, both in the novel and the play. But the day that the play was to open, early in the morning, we got a call from the care center where my sister-in-law was, and the person who took the call said, “I think you should come.” I said, “Is she dying?” She said, “I’m not allowed to say that.” I’m like, “Come on, I know you’re at the care center, I know you’re not supposed to say these things, but is she dying?” She said, “Just come.” So we went, my husband and I, our children were in school, and were just with her as she died. She received a visit from a visiting teacher who said, “I didn’t know this was happening. I just felt I needed to be here.”
Then she died at about five, then at about seven thirty we opened the show. My husband had already written a tribute to Nancy, so we had two weeks after this sad, sad, end to a life where her son was there in the room, but her family had kind of dissolved, the husband had gone into this other marriage and the children didn’t know how to handle everything that was left. I changed things a bit as I scripted both the book and the play, but having the people who were taking care of real Nancy come to the show and having the actors from the show go to Nancy’s funeral was just an amazing experience. It was one where I realized, “So this is what I do. I use my talents and then God takes them and does something much better.” I didn’t realize that God was going to take this and use it as a tribute to Nancy. But that’s what happened.
GIVENS: C. S. Lewis once said that the greatest evils and the greatest temptations always occur on the steps of the altar, by which I think he meant at least in part that it is when we become self-conscious about our righteousness that we are most prone to fall. We are so adept at weaving narratives to exculpate ourselves, to justify ourselves, and it seems to me that has to be a preoccupation of yours to some extent because it’s a thread in both of those novels.
YOUNG: The idea of narrative is one of the big things that I look at. What kinds of sins do we allow ourselves to commit because of a particular narrative, whether it’s self-justification or our groups, our particular protests, we are justified in doing this, and we are justified in treating you badly because this is what we believe.
GIVENS: Is that a problem that you associate with militancy of any kind?
YOUNG: I do. I do. Any time you have a narrative that takes over and leaves a human being vulnerable to meanness is a problem.
GIVENS: Let me wrap up with just three questions. What do you think we, as a Latter-day Saint people, are doing particularly well?
YOUNG: I love our programs, especially when they’re functioning beautifully. In the Congo I loved the first Sundays when these darling little girls would come in and recite in French “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father who loves us and we love him. We will stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places as we strive to live the Young Women’s values, which are faith…” This worldwide theme that unites us in a vision of the future, that’s the biggest thing in the Congo. The biggest problem.
GIVENS: So you’re praising correlation.
YOUNG: For that particular thing, yeah, you betcha. I am praising them for the Young Women’s theme which unites us in a vision of something, who we are to be.
GIVENS: Because correlation takes a lot of bad raps. I’ve probably said my share of things—
YOUNG: Well and I’ve had some horrific experiences with correlation.
GIVENS: But one does have to acknowledge the strength of the idea, that it does create a unified sensibility as shared consciousness of sacred truths.
YOUNG: All over the world, from Provo Utah, I am there in the Congo and I know what they are saying, even though my French was still a long ways to go.
GIVENS: And what need we do better as a people?
YOUNG: Well as long as I’ve praised correlation, I will now condemn them. Our Sunday school answers are woefully lacking. They shut down people. My daughter had an awful experience when she said that she didn’t know that certain things were true, that she was really confused about, in that case it was patriarchy and gender issues, and she was shut down immediately with you follow the prophet, stick to the lesson manual. Huge problem. The conversations that can become dissonant start with being yearning for understanding. If we meet people there at the yearning it need not become seeking other dissonant voices and coming up to the conclusion of “I don’t fit in.” We could all say, “I don’t fit in.” I don’t fit into mortality. I didn’t get eyelash color. We figure out ways not to necessarily fit in, but to serve.
GIVENS: One hopeful sign that I’ve seen is that in a number of wards and stakes the gospel topics have been incorporated into the Sunday curriculum.
YOUNG: Oh, I hope you’re right. I don’t know. We’ve been so concerned that especially the race essay, which, I won’t say which other essays I might know about and who the authors might have been, but I will comment on the race essay. I felt that that was so hugely important for us to say, without saying, “We don’t know why,” without suggesting that God was in charge of the priesthood restriction, just saying, “We repudiate the idea that people were cursed because of a particular lineage or they had done something bad in the preexistence.” Thank God, that is a step. My understanding is that people weren’t even aware of the essays, let alone have read them. My dream is that the next temple film be made in Africa. We desperately need to see Adam and Eve as Africans. That is a healing that hasn’t happened yet, and it must.
GIVENS: Last question. Krister Stendhal once used the expression of holy envy, to say that we should all find practices, ideas, elements of other faith traditions that we have a sacred envy for. Can you single one out?
YOUNG: Shall I just tell you the ones that I’ve appropriated? My time in Congo I spent a lot of time with two marvelous Catholic priests, both of whom had schools. One is building a university. I talked to the one who I became really close to about the process of hearing confession, especially with the horrific things that had happened during the war. I heard him talk about mercy in such a beautiful way, that he felt that his job as a priest was to give comfort, to help people unburden themselves. I loved the devotion of these priests and nuns. I was able to go to a couple of convents and saw pictures of nuns who had given their lives to serve people who had Ebola. What a beautiful, beautiful thing. I was so deeply moved.
My father talked about seeing “Song of Bernadette” when he was a child. It was in a movie theater in Santa Barbara and on his way home he knelt and consecrated himself to God. That Catholic movie had moved that young Mormon soul into consecrating himself. I found that with the Catholic priests. With the Jewish faith, I used to teach at a Jewish school, the Sally Allen Alexander Jacob Beth School for girls in Detroit, Michigan. There was a day when the rabbi, who was the principal, said that I must not give homework because it was Easter, and they would be helping their mothers clean the house, getting all the leaven out. Well I asked the girls, “Okay, I can’t give you homework. Tell me about Passover.” As they told me I was hearing from my Latter-day Saint perspective, and I loved it. So we practice Passover in our home. Even my children who have left the church love Passover. We use a Menorah every Christmas. We don’t do the whole Hanukah, but we talk about light and we light the candles and talk about the festival of lights. I love those traditions. I love the songs of black Baptists. I love the spirit, the joy that comes through. I’d love to see us sing songs that had a good tempo.
GIVENS: We need to readjust a few Mormon metronomes.
YOUNG: Yes, I think so. I find just as humans of faith that we have invented such glory, such beauty, such majesty in the music, in the architecture, the sculpture. I love seeing what happens when a temple goes up in a particular country. I’m going to be so curious to see are we going to get any more black faces in the Kinshasa temple. I looked when I was in the temple in Ghana, I looked, do we have any color here? Nope.
GIVENS: Not yet.
YOUNG: But I know Marsha Livingstone, who is the temple matron of the Provo temple, went to great lengths to bring more diversity into the temple art and she has done it. We have the lovely image of Jane Manning James, which was not what the artist had intended, Elspeth Young had not intended that to be Jane, but enough people said, “That’s Jane, right?” That she said okay, sure, it’s Jane. We have Jane, we have some Native Americans, but in Africa I want people to see pictures of their own environment. Pictures of people who look like them. I yearn for the film to be them.
GIVENS: I’m particularly struck by what you say about mercy and the emphasis on mercy that you felt among the Catholics. Fiona’s spoken on the subject that the Catholic church and their theologians have made a conscientious effort to shift the emphasis from justice to mercy in their language, and they’ve been doing that for some time. I’m greatly heartened by what I think was one of the most beautiful expressions to come from President Uchtdorf when he said in a recent talk that we need to understand the day of judgment as a day of healing and mercy.
YOUNG: Oh, isn’t that beautiful?
GIVENS: I think that’s the kind of language that we need to hear.
YOUNG: Yeah. Amen.
GIVENS: Excellent. Well, thank you very much. It was absolutely wonderful to have you with us, fresh from the airport virtually.
YOUNG: Pretty much. Totally jet-lagged.
GIVENS: Best of luck on your continued African sojourn and projects.
YOUNG: Thank you, Terryl.
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