We started planning this issue of Exponent II Magazine in the early months of 2020, intending to highlight and celebrate the long history of public engagement, service and activism among Mormon women going back to pioneer Utah. Then, just as we began to work through the features and articles, the COVID-19 virus hit, followed by the horrific and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd at the hands of police or white vigilantes.
Thrown out of my comfortable routines, faced with a global pandemic and the further unmasking of structural racism, I found myself frustrated and unexpectedly helpless. I wanted to act, to offer relief, to make things better, but the toolkit my Mormon spiritual ancestors left me did not seem to contain an adequate response to the challenges before me. I began to have doubts about the magazine’s planned theme: would it seem quaint and irrelevant to celebrate suffrage rallies and Relief Society service projects in a world that feels suddenly, utterly changed?
But this issue of Exponent II makes very clear that we are not being called to our foremothers’ activism. BYU student Gretel Tam responds to a call to march in solidarity with her LGBTQ friends, despite her mother’s concerns and the contrary messages of her upbringing in the church. Historian Andrea Radke-Moss reveals that Utah’s suffrage movement succeeded because, paradoxically, it upheld the patriarchal structures modern-day Mormon feminists are actively questioning. Tam and Radke-Moss, along with artist Kalani Tonga and poet Dayna Patterson, take inspiration from their ancestors and spiritual foremothers while consciously going in a new direction.
Those that went before us may not have provided us with a specific roadmap for public engagement, but they had courage and confidence to try to create a more perfect world. If this is the legacy of social action they bequeathed us, it lives on in the brave Black women calling for change in our churches and communities so justice, safety, and spiritual fellowship may be enjoyed equally by all of God’s children.
I take heart from the words of Kalani Tonga, who points out that “activism is really just a willingness to invest your time, resources, and privilege into bettering your community.” This magazine issue offers several different paths we might follow in keeping up our Mormon tradition of active service and hard work for a good cause. Fara Anderson Sneddon shows how the church’s Just Serve program creates a space for female leadership and service in keeping with the original Relief Society mission. Brita Brown Engh shares her experience serving as a mentor and “Big Sister” to a young, Muslim new American in Salt Lake City. Sarah Gusky Kemer’s lovely sermon on consecration shows us how even simple acts of service can become sacred. Throughout this issue, art by Black, indigenous, and other women of color show us the beauty of the world around us and present a vision of a more just and equal world to come.
In the face of a massive public health crisis and powerful, heartbreaking pleas for social justice, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. I hope you will find inspiration in this issue of the magazine, as well as beauty and balm for your soul. Like the Magi in T.S. Eliot’s poem and our Mormon pioneer foremothers, we must continue to move forward with courage, hope, and humility, seeking to find God and build Zion in the best ways we know how.
(Photo by Tim Umphreys on Unsplash)