When I was in college my roommate, Wo, was called as a Relief Society President in our single student ward. One of her dictates was that we all sit together. We met in a smallish auditorium-style college classroom. There were maybe 75 seats but only 40 or so young women.
As is custom, we would sit with our friends or roommates in little clusters, leaving spaces between "us" and "them". Wo would have none of this. She refused to start the meeting until there were no spaces. NO ONE was allowed to sit alone.
Admittedly it felt a little juvenile sometimes. "Do I have to sit by her?" or "I need some space to spread out!" or "I just feel like sitting alone today". Like a mother-in-training, Wo held her ground.
Soon we were sitting together just to avoid the hastle. Did it make us closer? Did it create friendships we might not have had? Did it foster a spirit of unity? Who knows. It did make an impression. I never forgot it.
One reason this practice made such an impression was an experience I had around the same time. Another roomie, O, and I were asked to visit teach an inactive young woman in the ward. The request went something like this: "She moved here in the middle of the year and hasn't been to church once. Her roommates say she works a lot and isn't very friendly. She doesn't want anything to do with the church. Go visit her and see if she wants her name removed from the church records."
Now we were young and new to visiting teaching and this was a very intimidating assignment. O made the appointment and we nervously knocked on her door.
The girl who answered the door reminded me of a firecracker with a smile. She invited us in and seemed bursting with enthusiasm and excitement. She even giggled about how happy she was to have visiting teachers. We were shocked. We asked her name again to make sure we had the right girl.
We asked why she had not been to church. She said she often had to work on Sunday. She had a new job with better hours. She also had not gotten along with her roommates. They had not included her and left for church without her when she didn't have to work. She didn't know where our ward met (on campus there were church services in nearly every building and classroom) so she just stayed home.
We volunteered to show her where church was and invited her to walk with us on Sunday. She smiled and said she would like that. Then she hung her head and asked shyly, "Can I sit with you, too? I don't want to sit alone."
I have to say that is one of the most humbling, moving, life-altering moments of my life. How many times have I felt that way? How many others are afraid to come to church because they don't want to be alone in a room full of people? We all want to belong, to have friends and be accepted. Why do we think we are the only ones?
I think of this experience every time I think of visiting teaching or reactivation or friendshipping new converts. I think of this when I attend a new ward. Sometimes I am treated like I have a contagious disease with people leaving an empty seat between us on either side. Sometimes I am greeted by so many people that my head spins!
There are still times when I feel a kind of homesickness for the ward I grew up in. I feel nostalgic for the warm, welcoming feeling of being surrounded by people who love and care for me. I have felt that same belonging among Saints in many places. I have also felt that absence of that feeling. I am shocked and even hurt when I feel like an outsider at church. In most cases, that feeling disappeared over time. I have a certain tenacity when it comes to church and I will force my way into the church clicks if need be.
Others are not so determined. They are the ones who get bullied or snubbed right out of the church. Many have testimonies of the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel. They just don't think they fit in the church family.
How many are there? How many are like this young woman, in a new place, insecure, disoriented, anxious and alone? How many are silently asking "Can I sit with you? I don't want to sit alone."