Welcome back! After a Bright Angels & Familiars hiatus (that we might better engage with Mormon Lit Blitz), we are picking up with a terrific story from Levi Peterson. Unlike his famous The Backslider, the hero of this story is not a dirty ole backslid cowboy but a rich stake president from the hills looking down upon Salt Lake City. Like the eponymous hero of Orson Scott Card’s “Christmas at Helaman’s House” (available in Dispensation and Keeper of Dreams), our stake president lives in the foothills, on the bench surrounding the Salt Lake Valley, among his fellow rich. In Card’s story, Helaman feels guilt over his wealth and comes up with a plan to share his largesse with the poor of his community. Sherman Colligan, on the other hand, and his stake have never thought to question the rightness of their dripping wealth. The poor must come to them, in the form of Rendella Kranpitz, before the poor become anything more than an abstraction.
Sherman’s heard of Rendella from her bishop (who wants to excommunicate her for contentiousness. Sherman finds “the charge incredible. No one was excommunicated these days for contentiousness”) and initially dismisses the bishop’s proclaimed desire as a bit of irony.
Everything about Rendella screams damaged. Her “entire left side [is] atrophied: her leg . . . shortened, her arm dwindled, her breast shrunken, her cheek and ear diminished. She list[s] and lean[s], having not two sides, but one and a half.” In conversation, her mind seems to match her body. She’s impossible to like, but that won’t prevent the wealthy Saints’ “foremost shepherd” from loving her into normalcy. Rendella doesn’t make it easy, but he doesn’t give up. Even if he comes to sympathize with her bishop’s fatalism.
I find it hard to judge this story on its literary merits alone (though these are many and excellent). I suppose most of us have known a fellow Saint and traveler who was hard to shepherd. I knew a woman who, whenever someone in Sunday School might mention a difficulty they’ve experienced, would interrupt the lesson to harangue them for twenty minutes because they don’t know what suffering is like she knows what suffering is. I knew a fellow always calling around the ward desperate for scriptural justification for his anger or tales of how he was wielding said anger. Or another who hung around coffee shops and told people about Joseph Smith and hell. Serving a Rendella can take all the energy of a ward yet yield no measurable benefits. “The Christianizing of Coburn Heights” likewise does not end with a tidy happy ending. And serving those in greatest need? How rare it is that we provide them with tidy happy endings.
What I find most interesting about this story is that it is told through the point of view of a man who has lived a charmed life, who has never met a Rendella, who has been sheltered from problems without solutions. Combine our time in his head with the story’s title, and Peterson is presenting us with a terribly interesting argument. One we should be compelled to respond to.
So what is our responsibility to mentally ill lost sheep who will never be well? Do we return to the wilderness again and again and again? Or do we focus on the remaining ninety and nine who may fall away but who can also be persuaded to return and stay returned?
What would Jesus do?