In the latest issue of Sunstone, Dana Cattani presents “The Eleven Percent Solution,” an open letter of protest about the burden of cleaning the church. The final scene in her essay retells a conversation between the author and another ward member while they clean the church building. The sister with “a generous heart” admits she’d rather pay 11% tithing than clean the church; Cattani follows up by saying, “If I have to clean the building, I think I should be paying less, not more, and 9% is my top offer” (17).
Cutting one’s tithes by 1% because of voluntary cleaning work comes off as tasteless at best and apostate at worst. However, I was even more disturbed by the opening story: her friend from another church helps coordinate two nights of shelter for their city’s homeless. When Cattani was asked if her church would be willing to shelter the homeless on one of those nights, she “blurted out, ‘Who would clean the bathrooms?’” (15).
Let’s back up a bit here. For one, even if Cattani is currently serving as Relief Society President or compassionate service director, she actually has no right to unilaterally decide whether or not her church building could be used as a homeless shelter. That decision would have to be made by the Stake President and, most likely, approved by the Church’s legal department. For another, I am embarrassed to think her friend’s impression of the LDS Church (through Cattani’s carelessness) is that we don’t provide service because we might have to clean up afterward.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is arguably one of the greatest humanitarian service agencies in the world. I have seen it firsthand: Elders’ Quorums helping families move; Relief Societies arranging flowers and food for funerals; eight-year-old girls in Activity Days weeding gardens for the elderly; young men and young women volunteering their evenings to babysit for single mothers while they work or go to school. Many of us have also read about or witnessed worldwide humanitarian work. I lived on the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Latter-day Saints from my ward and stake took time off work, dragged trailers behind their trucks, and cleaned up all along the coast.
The hours we spend volunteering, cleaning, cooking, making quilts, moving furniture, pulling weeds, donating school supplies, and visiting the needy reflect one important principle: Discipleship.
We all agree that discipleship is part of following Christ, taking his name upon us, and being good Mormons. But why are we so quick to dismiss stories about discipleship? We tend push them toward the pulpit or Deseret Book. In Mormon literary circles rather than celebrate discipleship, we often criticize acts that would reflect our commitment to Christ.
If a story or essay centers on discipleship, it is the first to be scrutinized as “not literary.” Orson Scott Card’s short story featured in Dispensation “Christmas at Helaman’s House” was savaged by critics who called it “weak,” “pedantic,” or “homiletic.” Truthfully, the story has some structural problems, but critics aren’t focusing on the perspective shift or stalled movement of the story: they’ve dismissed it because it’s a story about consecration.
But discipleship and consecration of time, money, and talents shouldn’t only be part of who we are and what we do with our busy Mormon lives. Discipleship should be reflected in our literature. We can write essays that celebrate the time and effort we give; we can write stories that encourage us to be better disciples. Our poetry can reflect the humility of discipleship.
It is difficult to get out of the house on a day off and go clean the church. Especially if you can muster up all of the excuses Cattani gives: busy students, pregnant women, the elderly, and parents with toddlers. But more of us are willing to do the act of service rather than tell about it. We should celebrate our culture of service and our dedication to Christ in our literature, or we risk losing a core component of our identity.
This morning my husband, eight-year-old daughter, not-quite-two-year-old son, and I walked to the church for our cleaning assignment. We met up with our friends who have two daughters under three years old. James and I cleaned the chapel. Our daughter emptied the garbage cans in all of the classrooms. Our friends washed windows and doors and vacuumed classrooms and hallways. When I crouched down to clean the floor of the bathroom, my friend said “I can’t believe you can do that!”—because I’m nearly six months pregnant. We sort of look like that group of people who Cattani feels shouldn’t have to clean the church. But after we finished cleaning, my daughter invited our friends over for lunch. The kids played in the sprinklers while we cooked together. Cleaning the church brought us together, gave us a reason to talk and play.
I think this is why we don’t pay 11% tithing for janitorial services; we have a lot to learn from each other. Let’s get those stories out there, so we can celebrate rather than criticize discipleship.
. . . and the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest is a good place to send those stories!