The night of my court arrived without fanfare. As the clock wound down, I sat in my room waiting out the last few hours of uncertainty in solitude. As I waited, I contemplated the coming morning. Maybe I would awake and go to class. Or maybe I would awake and start packing, preparing to leave it all behind. Either fate was possible. The unknown felt dark and intimidating as it hung just beyond my view.
Then there was another possibility altogether. What if I woke the next morning still hanging in limbo? Still unsure of what would become of me? It could happen. The morning’s light could find me still occupying this same treacherous space, denied resolution. It had been 13 long, unyielding days since that first meeting with the Bishop. I didn’t think I could take a second more.
As instructed, I put on my best church dress. I applied a little makeup, not too much. I fixed my hair. Then I walked out into the inky blackness of the night. I came alone, as requested. What choice did I have?
I entered the Bishop’s office and sat in the same chair I had so naïvely occupied a few weeks before. Bishop Smith sat behind his desk, flanked by his first and second counselors. I felt small in comparison to the three grown men staged before me.
As Bishop Smith ruffled through a stack of papers I studied the counselors. One was an older man with indistinguishable features and a white fringe of hair encircling his balding scalp. He wore thin, wire-rimmed glasses and his navy suit looked crisp and formal. The other was a large Tongan man whose necktie appeared to be attempting to strangle him. It may have been my imagination, but he looked almost as uncomfortable with this situation as I was.
The Bishop opened the proceedings by asking me to repeat everything I had told him before. I did. The experience was raw and violating, detailing the intimate details of my every transgression before the judging eyes of these three older men, strangers in every way. It wasn’t cold in the room but my body trembled as if I were surrounded by snow. The emotions came strong and heavy. I felt naked and exposed, sitting meekly before them.
It felt wrong. Still, I did as I was told. I repeated everything. Afterward, I emphasized the work I’d done, over the preceding month, to repent. I detailed every action and step, hoping to prove my authentic desire for forgiveness and salvation. I had committed myself to doing whatever it took to resolve this successfully, eternally.
As my words began to run short, a phrase sprang to my lips unbidden. “I want to become a person of substance,” I said. The words materialized fully formed in my throat before flowing out of my open mouth. My brain hadn’t even registered them until they were said aloud. Unintentional though they may have been, they resonated with truth. The three men before me nodded appreciatively.
The men said nothing until I’d finished. Then the Bishop asked me to step out of the room so they could deliberate and pray. As I stood outside in the darkened outdoor corridor, I stared at the palm trees waving beneath the starry sky. It felt impossible that things could look so normal when so much hung in the balance. I paced the hall, my body still shaking uncontrollably despite the warmth of the breeze. Ten minutes passed as if they were molten lava oozing down a mountainside – slow yet treacherous.
When I was permitted to re-enter the room, I searched frantically for answers in the faces before me. The counselors mostly looked bored. Bishop Smith was still smiling the same placid smirk he had worn from the beginning. It was unsettling.
A beat passed in silence. Then the Bishop leaned forward, his hands folded in front of him. He seemed to be enjoying himself. I clasped my arms around my torso to stop them from quivering.
“I want you to understand that what we do here tonight is the will of God,” Bishop Smith intoned. “He has authorized us to speak for him in this matter. Do you understand that?”
I nodded uncomfortably.
Bishop Smith continued, “After reviewing everything, consulting with each other and, of course, with God, we have decided that you will be dis-fellowshipped from the church.”
I couldn’t feel my legs.
“Will I be allowed to stay at school?” I whispered.
He paused, thoughtfully, then replied, “Yes … I suppose … if that is what you would like to do. You would be under my direct supervision, however.”
Relief washed over me. It was short lived.
“What exactly does ‘dis-fellowshiped’ mean?” I asked.
“It means that you are to be removed from the general fellowship of the church,” Bishop Smith responded. “You are not allowed to partake of the sacrament, hold a church calling, or pray in public. You will be allowed to pray on your own. You will meet with me at least once a week so that I can track your progress in the repentance process.”
“How long does dis-fellowshipping last?” I asked, stumbling a little over the word.
“It depends,” he replied smoothly. “I will know when it’s time. I will tell you when the process is complete.”
I was both relieved and astonished. I knew that this was the median punishment, but even this seemed too harsh. Hadn’t I done everything asked of me? Hadn’t I come forward voluntarily? Where was the compassion? How could these men, these strangers who didn’t know me at all, dole out judgment like this?
I shoved the thoughts deep inside and tried to emanate only the relief. It didn’t matter. What was done was done. Protesting would only make my plight more perilous.
Bishop Smith reached across the desk to shake my hand. It struck me then how small he was. Yet he seemed infinitely larger here, in his element. He was grinning now. “Thank you so much for sharing with us! It was just so wonderful having you here. I am looking forward to working with you further.”
I smiled and nodded, wondering if he had meant his last remark to sound as threatening as it did.
I walked out of the office and into the dark night. I moved slowly as I wound my way back to the Hale. I was in no hurry. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was incredibly relieved to be staying … but it was tainted. I felt … I didn’t know what I felt. Anger? Incredulity? Angst? Sorrow? Grief?
A thought crossed my mind and I wished, for a moment, that they had kicked me out of school. Then there would have been a solid resolution – something to rage against, something forcing me out, forcing me onto a new path. It would be done. Instead, it was not.
I reminded myself that I wanted to be a part of this religion. I had wanted to repent. I had known what the church believed. I knew where they stood. I just hadn’t realized what they might do. Still, setting off down this road had been my choice, however uninformed it may have been.
I tried to be rational, but I felt despair nipping at my heels. Why was this happening? Was I even doing the right thing? The black emptiness of the sky stretched out above me, punctured with daggers of silver starlight. Their beams illuminated my path as I trudged through the moist night air. I gazed heavenward, pleading, but no answers came.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.