When I first met Nancy I thought, “She must be a convert. There’s no way a life long member would ever say that.”
That first impression was less about what Nancy actually said and more about what she did. Nancy rarely answered Sunday School questions with words. Fairly often she gave a sound–some of which were musical, others guttural, and others as “humphs” or “ah-ha’s.” Other times she simply gave a movement: a flip of the hand or a drop of the arm or a roll of the head. When she did answer with words she usually started with, “I don’t know where this is coming from but I just find myself thinking. . .” And then the blank would be filled in with anything but what the teacher was expecting. When she was called as the Relief Society chorister instead of leading the music with standard 4/4 loops or 3/4 triangles Nancy waved her arms in circles and walked the room as if she were gathering our voices and hearing them and mixing them in some sort of harmonic alchemy. She would then nod and look at each of us and smile as if thanking us. Our half-hearted sounds had somehow turned to gold in her ears.
Nancy isn’t your standard “Utah Mormon” or “Molly Mormon” or whatever other label we use to describe each other. Nancy is something else. Nancy is unorthodox, but in a truly unorthodox way. She isn’t jaded or disaffected (which seems to be the standard version of unorthodoxy). She is unorthodox in a real way. An honest way. A faithful way.
I was doing my second tour of duty on the Enrichment committee when I finally got to know Nancy better. She offered to run an “expressive arts experience” for the sisters and it was my job to help her set up and take down and make sure the opening prayer got said. It was an easy-peasy, run-of-the-mill, do-it-with-my-eyes-shut assignment.
When I arrived that evening Nancy had already draped the door to the gym with red and orange fabric and posted a sign that said, “Silence Only.” She was contemplating adding flames to the door frames–somehow it just seemed right–but didn’t want to scare anyone off. When I entered the gym she had set up tables with clay, tarps on the floor dotted with small, empty canvases, and a big drum circle outlined with scarves.
This Enrichment was going to be something else. I completely forgot about the prayer.
That night only a few sisters showed up, but each left with several pieces of her own “art” and a slight smile on her face. As they walked out of the gym Nancy commented on each work and what she’d remember about it. Basking in Nancy’s glow, I felt like a three year old–but in a good way. Like I’d just played harder than I knew I could and felt things for the first time and learned things that I didn’t yet have the words to describe but couldn’t wait to discover.
Nancy said, “Jesus created the Earth. He is an artist. THE Artist. And He made each of us just like Himself. He made us to be artists. Each of us is the writer and painter and dancer of our own experience. We may not be experts but we are artists.”
Tonight we had another expressive arts experience for Enrichment. This time it was folded into our annual Relief Society Garden Party and there was a great turnout. “What color is Christ to you?” Nancy began. There were a lot of sidelong glances and giggles. A few sisters even asked if she was serious. But each picked out a single pastel, closed her eyes, and meditated on Christ and let the crayon guide itself. Then Nancy invited us to put ourselves into the image. What color were we? How did we fit ourselves into our vision of Christ? What did He mean to us? Then, what words would we add to the image?
Women began to panic a little. How were they supposed to draw the right thing with their eyes closed? How could they pick the right words when (for some of them) English wasn’t their first language and (for the rest of them) they weren’t even writers? Coloring and free-associating seemed silly and more than a little embarrassing. What was everyone else going to think?
One by one, as Nancy directed us, we gave in and played at creating something. We let go of our everyday selves and tried to find out what color Jesus really was. Lots of sisters picked cool blues because Christ calmed them and held them up like water does. Some sisters picked yellow because Christ was the light. Some made Him circle, like a hug, and others drew Him like a river. One sister even drew a turnip (she said she couldn’t explain it but it just came out of the crayon. Maybe because Christ nourishes her?). In another picture the sister drew a mermaid and layered Christ around her in different shades of water–some of which were yellow because she remembered someone describing faith as a glowworm and Christ was like a glowworm to her. And maybe, just maybe, we were all like glowworms for Jesus.
At some point, the Spirit snuck in and sisters were bearing testimony through simple art and disambiguated yet meaningful words, without even realizing it. And I couldn’t help but think that this was Mormonism at its best. People with little in common leaving behind their skill sets and comfort zones to bear–to create–testimony of a real, living Christ and fumbling to incorporate His light into their lives in artful ways. And through the process becoming just a little more like Him.