“Missionary Weekly Report for 28 March-3 April, Mumbai 1st Branch, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” by Mattathias Westwood

Dear President Sudhakar,

Our key indicators for the week are 30 new investigators, 55 member-present lessons, 6 investigators who attended sacrament meeting, 1 investigator with a baptismal date. Zion Emmanuel is progressing but says he couldn’t afford the bus fare to make it to the chapel this week. I have asked Brother Dilip to pick him up next Sunday.

As you already know, our proselyting efforts this week were complicated by Elder Dnyaneshwar’s abrupt departure by train in the middle of the night on Thursday. I awoke to see his bed empty and his desk and cupboard cleared, and soon received a text message alerting me that he had arrived safely home to Visakhapatnam, and that I should not try to convince him to return.

I am sure you are wondering what led to this sudden action, and I have been wondering the same over these past four days. Of course, I should have noticed the signs. He had been even more homesick than usual for the past month, frequently mentioning his mother’s cooking and memories of his college friends. The work has been difficult here for so long, and the branch had been frustrated with him ever since his outburst at the member missionary fireside.  With the upcoming election, he has been easily distracted by talk of politics. And any of his former companions will tell you that he could be moody and argumentative.

But I thought things were changing. We have redoubled our efforts, and you know that it is only due to Elder Dnyaneshwar’s persistence that I considered tracting in Bharatiya Colony, where we have had most of our recent success. I am ashamed to admit that I was fearful of the crowds of beggars by the rail station there, and I did not think anyone in the mud-spattered shanties under the elevated highway would be interested in our message.

It was Elder Dnyaneshwar who reminded me that the Savior himself had nowhere to lay his head, and that he was followed by crowds of people who yearned for daily bread as well as the bread of life. And with Rajbabu and Shanti, Isaac Sion and Ammamma, I saw how mistaken I had been. They have been filled with joy since the first day we shared the Plan of Salvation with Shanti at the auto stand. Shekar, Jhansi and their sons have pasted a picture of the Temple on the crossbar above their door and have begun collecting rupees in a jar with the hope of going as a family someday. And ever since Elder Dnyaneshwar challenged Naveen to prepare for a mission, he has been spending almost the full day with us, though he is still frustrated we will not let him take us to our appointments by motorbike.

So it came as a surprise when I awoke to an empty apartment after a day in which we had 16 member-present lessons to eager families and youth throughout the shanty-town, led by Naveen and Shekar’s 6-year old, Prakash. I had thought Elder Dnyaneshwar was relaxed and joking because he was finally starting to be comfortable here, not because he had decided to leave.

Some of the elders in the Zone will no doubt say he was always disobedient and rebellious, insisting on teaching in his own way and ignoring the counsel of his leaders. And given how he replied to the branch president’s suggestion that we were running faster than we had strength by teaching so many, or by teaching in the Colony at all, I understand why they think so. He was certainly a strong-willed missionary.

But perhaps it was simply that he saw what we could not. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, struggling in poverty, and unaware of their divine birthright, he knew the urgency of our call. We serve in a city of 21 million, 12 million of whom do not know where their next meal is coming from, in a branch of 300 members of record, 76 of whom attended sacrament meeting the week we arrived. If we alone carry the everlasting gospel and true hope of salvation, the balm for all the world’s ills, what are our efforts here but a drop in this ocean of suffering and need? The savior said the harvest was great and the laborers few, but if we truly recognized how great a burden lay upon us in this land, how could any of us stand?

Yours Faithfully,

Elder Arjun

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A Q&A about this story with Mattathias Westwood is available here

“Joseph and Emma Grow Old Together” by Eric Jepson

You never used to sleep this late,
motes of sun dancing above your
face. The years pull your eyes
toward your pillow. Your smile
has become permanent, even in sleep.
I like to trace the lines, each a testament
of God’s surprises, less frequent now.
Now, God gives you time to stand out
by the fence and watch
the few dozen members of your
obscure order plow and seed and reap.
He seems to have little to say.
He has become a nodding God,
satisfied with another harvest. But
are you satisfied? Ten thousand acres
outside Palmyra is more than your father
dreamed of; and as your children’s children
and your nephews’ children and the children
of Knights and Whitmers are born and marry
and work the land, as our Joseph
sits in the Assembly: we know the Lord
has kept his word and made us safe
as I had asked you to ask him to promise us
(once, twice, three times), but you—
you still miss (will always miss) the running
danger of our youth, our near escapes and
passionate celebration. But your
God gave us this corner and gifted us
with happiness and, Oh! Joseph!, as I run
my fingers across your every line,
I see the paths we’ve taken, while
you, in quiet moments, you, in the dark of night,
you, I know, see paths we did not take, paths
God held back—for himself?—for
another?—for ever?

Emma, Emma, you
are enough for me.

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A Q&A about this poem with Eric Jepson is available here. 

“The Last Swing” by Sheldon Lawrence

At some point you will take your last swing from our arms as you walk between us on that gravel road, when you wiggle in and take each of our hands, and say one two threeeee as we lift you forward, your knees bent, squealing with delight, before our strength gives out, lowering you down, to start again, taking great leaps, flying almost, or like walking on the moon where one effortless step carries you twelve feet.

The time will come when we will say you are getting too big, too tall, or that we are too tired, or that mom and dad are talking now. Or you will just move on to different pleasures of the path, and never think again to ask. At some point there will be a last one, a last time. If we knew it, the occasion would deserve some kind of ceremony, some recognition that this is the last swing ever, and maybe we would even shed a tear, or feel gratitude that such moments were ours, that swinging from suspended arms is one of the many things life is about. But instead, when the last one comes, none of us will know it. We will release our sweaty palms, and you will skip away, and we will keep walking, talking, believing that nothing important just happened.

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A Q&A about this essay with Sheldon Lawrence is available here

“Proof That Sister Greeley Is a Witch (Even Though Mormons Don’t Believe in Witches)” by William Morris

  1. Sister Greeley’s first name is Agnes. Agnes is a witch’s name. No woman named Agnes has ever not been a witch.
  2. Sister Greeley doesn’t wear a pointy hat, but she always wears a gray shawl on her head and shoulders. Even in summer. Even when it’s 90 degrees out with no cloud cover.
  3. Sister Greely rarely laughs, but when she does, it’s… Well, it’s this high-pitched “ah-ha-ha-hah” followed by snorting that while not exactly a cackle is cackle-like.
  4. When people in the ward get sick, she shows up at their doorsteps with weird smelling poultices, creams, and teas. Even when people make a point of not telling her they are sick, she still shows up. Everyone usually thanks her and then tosses the stuff out after she leaves, but Sue Ann says her mom actually uses them and claims they work about 3/4 of the time. Of course, Sue Ann’s mom doesn’t let her eat anything with refined sugar in it.
  5. She owns a cat. His name is Harold. He is a very large white cat with very green eyes. I know witches normally have black cats, but maybe things are different for Mormon witches (even though Mormons don’t believe in witches). Not only that, but this cat follows her everywhere. Even to Church. Except he doesn’t come into the building (which might also be proof she is a witch).
  6. One time when we were kids, Sue Ann, Mark, and I were playing Harriet the Spy (I was Harriet, Mark was Sport, Sue Ann was Janie), and we spied on Sister Greeley while she was working in her herb garden, and we overheard her tell Harold to go catch her a grasshopper, and what do you know, but the darn thing went and caught one of those flying ones with bright yellow wings and brought it to her, and she buried it next to her horsemint plants.
  7. Okay, this one is just hearsay so grain of salt and all that, but Mark’s older sister Tiffany told me she heard that one time there was this sister (who has since moved away) who started bleeding and was losing her baby to miscarriage, and all the brethren were at a stake priesthood meeting, and somehow Sister Greeley found out, and she went over and anointed her with oil—on her stomach, not on her head—and gave her a blessing except she talked about the power of Eve and Esther and Mary and Sariah and Abish and told her that she was to be like Hannah and offer this baby to the Lord, but that her next one would be for her, and she did lose that baby and was super sad about it, but then she got pregnant again and had a healthy baby and was happy again.
  8. Sister Greeley has a wart on the side of her nose. That probably should have been an earlier item, but it seemed rude to point it out right away.
  9. Mark says that one time they horsing around outside at church, and Chris tried to pet Harold, but Harold hissed at him, and Chris said you’re a mean cat and your owner is an ugly wart face, and later that week he got, like, seven warts on the bottoms of his feet. Mark says that’s probably just because he skips showers after PE, but I don’t know about that.
  10. Sister Greeley invited me to her house for tea and cookies last week. I didn’t want to go, but my mom said it was a great honor, and that I should go. So I did. Her house didn’t look that different inside than any other old lady’s house. We sat at the end of the table in her dining room that wasn’t piled with quilting supplies and drank Brigham tea from porcelain cups. I didn’t like it at first, but then Sister Greeley put two more sugar cubes in mine and added some half and half, and after that I didn’t mind it so much. We talked about the normal stuff kids talk about with old people: school, church, weather, the Utah Jazz. Then Sister Greeley asked me how my mother was. I said she was fine. Sister Greeley noted that my mom had been a rock for Sister Hansen when her husband ran off to Reno with a waitress. I agreed. Sister Greeley said she knew a long time ago that Brother Hansen was going to be trouble, but the Bishop hadn’t listened to her. I said something about the Bishop being a very busy man. Sister Greeley nodded and said there are some things the brethren of the priesthood just can’t understand. And there are often things they just can’t do. That there are things they shouldn’t even try to do. She said some sisters try to ignore that fact and that only leads to more trouble. But other sisters were different. There was hope for some sisters. My mom was one of these sisters. I just nodded. Then Sister Greeley reached out and grabbed my hand. Her grip was firm but gentle. Her skin papery and cool. She said, I hope you’re going to be one of those sisters, Heidi. She said, the Church needs us. The priesthood might not know it, but they do, and you must promise me you won’t let them drive you away. Can you promise me that, Heidi? All I could do was nod. I didn’t exactly know what she meant. But that was the last bit of proof I needed to know that Sister Greeley is a witch. A Mormon witch. I know Mormons don’t believe in witches, and I don’t know for sure if I can keep that promise. But I’m planning to.

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A Q&A with Wm Morris about this story is here

“Still Clean” by Sherry Work

A cleansing ritual
Pure water flows
Living water washes me
Clean every whit.

My heart is soothed
My spirit soars
At one with my Lord
Changed and renewed.

Daughter of the oath
Watched by my King.
“Come, Bathsheba.”
Oh you knew, you knew.

Wife and then widow
A mother in Israel
Would God I’d died for him,
Not my sin, but yours.

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A Q&A about this poem with Sherry Work is available here

“Beneath the Visiting Moon” by Lee Allred

I woke to repeated hammering at my front door. I staggered through from my bedroom wearing nothing but a tattered pair of Army sweatpants and a three-day beard.

Dawn’s early light revealed a living room right out of an episode of Hoarders. Amazing how much garbage can collect on the floor in so short a time. A kick sent an empty plastic milk jug skittering across the floor, bouncing across the detritus of meals I didn’t remember eating. My bare foot squelched on the blood-soaked pad of a plastic hamburger tray. Clumps of raw meat still stuck to the torn-open cling wrap, sour and reeking. Meat wrappers made up most the garbage on the floor.

The pounding on my front door grew more insistent.

“Brother Lawrence,” called a muffled voice outside the door. “Are you there? Are you okay?”

My home teacher, Brother Knowles.

“Coming,” I mumbled, still zonked from my meds. Rows of plastic pill jars from the VA sat on the scratched-up counter of my breakfast nook. Daily maintenance pills and the pills the size of horse tranquillizers I take on my bad days.

I’d taken two last night.

I grabbed a key ring off the wall peg and began unlocking my front door. I fumble about trying to put key to lock, my hands clumsy with sleep and meds.

Each deadbolt I threw back sounded like the shot of a hunter’s rifle. All four of them.

The chatty locksmith who installed the locks and the reinforced steel-core door thought I must be a prepper. The high deserts of Eastern Oregon are full of them and there I was a new move-in buying an old farmhouse miles away from anyone else. Then he saw my Iraqi vet hat on the sofa, added two and two, and finished the job in complete silence.

All those movies about us, I guess. There’ve been a lot of them.

The movies are wrong, of course. Those of us who’ve returned, those of us who returned other than who and what we were when we left, we’re not Hollywood’s vicious killing machines. We just want be left alone, to live alone.

But human beings cannot live alone.

Not and stay human.

And I’d learned I wanted to be human.

I opened the door.

Night sky had brightened to a colorless grey. Stars had faded from few. The moon, though, still hung ghostly white on the horizon, just beginning to wane gibbous, the barest of slivers missing. “Visiting moon,” Brother Knowles once said. Something from a line in Shakespeare, he said.

Blue-black morning stubble on his chin, Brother Knowles stood on my porch in his rumpled Oregon Ducks t-shirt and Old Navy cargo shorts.

Shorts. I used to wear shorts. Only wear long pants now. Legs too scarred up, a real horror show. Went my entire rotation patrolling the narrow streets of Baghdad without a scratch. My last week, I get mauled half to death by a pack of feral dogs.

Mauled more than my legs. Mauled my old life to death.

Brother Bellamy’s Ford pickup sat parked in my driveway. Clattering diesel engine idling so the cab will stay heated. High desert nights are cold. Blue-grey diesel exhaust puffs upwards.

Brother Bellamy lay slumped over the steering wheel, asleep. They’d slept the night parked there in the truck, the same as they do every time I know I’m going to have a bad night.

They park there in case I ever did get it into my head during a bad night to unlock my door and go do something stupid, they’d be the first thing I’d see. They’d be there to talk me down.

“You okay?” The concern in Brother Knowles’ voice as real as the concern in his eyes. One human being to another.

Human being.

“I should be okay now,” I said, talking to my feet because I can’t look him in the eye. “Thanks.”

He asked if there’s anything else they can do for me. As if they hadn’t done enough. A mechanic at the Ford dealership in town, Brother Bellamy would be dead on his feet all day. Brother Knowles works on the country road crew, he wouldn’t be much better.

And yet they came back time after time, month after month to sleep cramped all night in a pickup cab. For me.

I’d cried exactly once since Iraq, once in all the hospitals, the counselling sessions, the long lonely hours of the pitch black nights.

It was on their third visit, after I knew the difference they made in my life. They’d asked, just like now, if there was anything else they could do. I cried in frustration with my inability to express just how much they’d done for me already.

The VA and all their programs and fancy doctors gave me the means and the meds to cope. What they couldn’t give was a reason why I should.

These two men have.

They have given me back my humanity.

After muttered thanks and a brief prayer, they drive away. I watched their truck trundle down the long dirt road back into town, framed by the last fading glimpse of the pale, pale moon hanging on the horizon.

Somewhere among the Ponderosa pines behind my house, a wolf put back his head and cried, calling out to all his brothers to join him in the wild.

Instead, I turned and went back in my house. I got out a broom and mop and began to clean up the sorry mess I’d made of things.

Because that’s what human beings do.

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A Q&A about this story with Lee Allred is available here

“After the Fast” by William Morris

The problem with fasting forty days and forty nights is that he had, once again, forgotten how to eat.

He had been on individual assignment this time. There was so much need in the world now he and his companions often split up. This one had not been so hard. He had helped a lonely, sad woman pass peacefully into a death he would never know. But it had required much fasting and prayer. For all her loneliness and pain, she had clung fiercely onto a life that while full of disappointments was at least a life she was accustomed to.

She was needed on the other side. He knew it. She knew it. But she still wouldn’t let go. And when she finally did, he found that he no longer had an appetite. He had forgotten how to eat.

Not that he and his two companions needed to eat. Not exactly. Their nourishment came solely through the spirit. Light equals intelligence equals truth equals power equals a full belly (or rather: equals sufficient energy and nutrients for their cells to go about their work). But while their bodies technically needed no additional sustenance–stuck as they were between mortality and immortality–the ability to eat was still crucial for them to magnify their callings.

For one, the power of the fast was useless without some sort of privation and whatever celestial physics and chemistry governed the feeding of their post-translation state was impossible to dampen or turn off. Not even, say, withdrawing to a place with no sunlight. Or immersing oneself in the depths of the sea. Thus, the only way for them to fast was to eat—eat well—and then stop eating.

For another, if they didn’t eat, they had trouble focusing on their work. It was as if physical nourishment was necessary not to the functioning of their bodily systems, but rather to the psychological conditions required to keep them tethered to this reality (as opposed to that other reality they felt coursing through their veins but that otherwise was just out of reach). Without eating, without regularly partaking in meals they lost their purpose. They felt the sins of the world as irritants rather than sorrows. They saw the suffering of others as something inevitable and intractable rather than something to be coaxed towards hope and faith.

To fast was to draw with strength upon the powers of heaven and direct them toward a particular purpose or cause; to eat was to connect deeply with the mortality they had left behind centuries before.

For him, the easiest way to remember was to have a particular dish that jolted him back into the desire for the experience of eating. A poached egg with sourdough toast and mushrooms fried in butter from this one café in Noe Valley. Canned tamales. A pomegranate molasses that had just the right amount of sugar to cut the bracing sour and that hadn’t been available since before the first world war. But the danger of such particularity, of course, is that if you’re not careful, it becomes a habit, and then that brand changes its formula or the restaurant loses its chef or an ingredient becomes impossible to get.

He started with fast food. It was not as reliable as it once had been, but sometimes it still worked. When the order was ready, he found he just couldn’t do it. He tried various fine dining establishments—concealed himself so he could watch the dishes be cooked and served. But nothing appealed to him. It all seemed too great and spacious. He wandered the aisles of an upmarket grocery store in a daze, eyes sliding off of every item with no stirring of desire—not even the hope for the particle of a desire.

He needed to leave the city. That was all. Someplace new would bring him back. Someplace not so wretchedly hot. He rented a car. Drove a little too erratic and fast. Drunk (so-to-speak) on his fast. Had to talk a highway patrol officer out of giving him a ticket.

Without knowing how, he found himself pulling into the driveway of the house belonging to the woman he had wrestled with lo, these many weeks.

Breaking in was not difficult. Being there was, especially with the air conditioning turned off. He sought the coolness of the basement. Studied the swollen metal cans, the barrels of hard wheat, the packs of freeze-dried strawberries gone gummy with the years. He opened up one of the barrels and thrust his hand into the kernels of wheat. They were hard and cool. Slightly musty, but not moldy.

He thought of some of his travels behind the Iron Curtain. A certain notion developed. He decided to pursue it.

He went back upstairs. Found a pan. Took it to the basement and scooped several cups of wheat into it. Filled it with water. Boiled the wheat until it bloated—soft but still chewy. He added the contents of a box of dark, crystallized raisins he found in the pantry. Added a cup of sugar for good measure and a lot of cinnamon. Poured it all into the olive wood bowl he had washed a month earlier after tossing the fruit that had been molding in it.

He set the largest of her doilies on the dining room table and placed the bowl on top of it. He had no cocoa powder, so he made the cross on top with a chocolate syrup so dark it was almost black. He stepped back and looked over his creation. It was not the most presentable colivă he had ever made, and certainly not the usual offering for a tough old Mormon woman who had died. But it was suitable. He looked at it for a while longer before coming to a decision: he had never died, but he could eat food for the dead.

He strolled to the kitchen in search of a clean spoon.

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A Q&A about this story with William Morris is available here

“Counsel” by Faith Kershisnik

Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon adam, who slept: and Onlybegotten said:

Lord, you lied to adam.

And Lord God began to form woman. And Onlybegotten said:

You told him if he ate of the fruit, he’d die. That day, he’d die. We know that’s not true.

Lord God continued to form woman. Then Lord God taught Onlybegotten, saying:

I didn’t lie to adam. Every time he partakes of experience, adam dies. He becomes a new adam, and he may not always be a better adam than the old one. Experience can corrupt, or it can perfect.

Mortality will be a million little deaths, everyday, if he eats of this fruit.

And when Lord God finished speaking, He also finished forming woman.

And again Lord God turned to Onlybegotten, saying:

I’ll tell you one more thing, Son. It may not be the whole truth on a physical level, but it works. You know why it works?

Fear.

They’re in paradise right now, with nothing to fear, nothing that prepares them for mortality.

If they’re going to Live, I need to know they can make a reach through their fear.

A reach for each other,
a reach for you, a reach
for me, a reach
for happiness
through
their fear.

If adam or the woman can’t make that kind of reach, they have no business eating that fruit. They have no business Living, because Life isn’t worth anything if you can’t reach through the fear.

And Onlybegotten saw Wisdom in the face of the woman they’d formed, and wept.

And in the Garden, Jesus wept, adam slept, she awoke, and God was.

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A Q&A about this story with Faith Kershisnik is available here

“New Rhythm” by Tanya Hanamaikai

As soon as she made it through the gate, Morah pulled off her sandals and jumped into the bobbing crowd of red and blue dressed girls, grounding herself in the feeling of the hot stone floor under her feet. Here, she was safe. She would dance and forget him, his words, those strange words. Just a few strikes of the drummer’s beat and her synchronization would be set, surrounded by her Lamanite sisters, cut off from that Nephite’s words, so many words. And what a grace from the Sun that she made it home with just enough time. The drummer was still beating out the morning practice.

The House for Noble Brides owned a single drummer. He had blind, clouded eyes that couldn’t be tempted by the girls’ training in attractive charms. When he wasn’t drumming, he sat with the dust at the corner of the courtyard. Under the shade of the House’s towering red walls, as if burdened by them, he hunched with his arm bones hanging over his knees. Loose gray hairs wisped across his face whether a breeze blew by or not.

Ah, but when he drummed, he controlled the whole court, and Morah could succumb and have relief.

He hit his stretched ring of sheepskin, pounded out a rhythm, rhythm, rhythm with his mallet. Step and step and step and feel your beat combine with Earth’s. The drum blended and replaced the thud of everyone’s pulse, gave their hearts permission to relax, flow in unison, and remember their connection, through Earth, to one another.

Had he really said Sky?

Father in the Sky.

Though the stress on his words was all wrong, Morah was certain the Nephite meant to say Sky. But why would anyone dwell in Sky? As she tried to look into the open, empty, elusive Sky, her neck resisted the awkward angle. She had to drop her head to where it belonged, and she bowed in respect to the foundation under her feet.

All the Lamanites had was their Earth. Rain and the Sun and the minor spirits of the land played their roles, to be sure, but whether there was food sickness, war—it all depended on what Earth, the Great Spirit, decided.

Morah hadn’t ever thought much about the Great Spirit while dancing before. She tried to give herself up to the drummer’s song, to fall into the hypnotic summons of his beat and turn, bow, pull her arms to whatever direction they led.

The drum beat picked up speed, forcing the girls to hop faster, sliding their feet across the dusty stones rather than lifting and stomping. The dry, old man sagged his head back, closed his blind eyes and chanted. Something in the ancient fathers’ original Hebrew no one understood anymore.

The friction of their different paths shuffling the dirt shoved Morah even deeper into her thoughts.

Nephites were liars. Liars are cunning. Maybe everything he said was all some kind of lure to take her away and murder her somewhere by the river where no one would have heard her scream. She knew all this, what Nephites were capable of. She should be stamping his words from her mind. Stop letting them repeat again and again with the pound of the drum. Stop the urge to go out to the forest again and find him and make him explain what he meant by everyone living again after death.

She hadn’t grasped anything he rambled about regarding god, spirits, laws and promises. What she did understand was that he knew more about her heart than a stranger could have, especially a Nephite.

He was a Nephite.

She bumped into someone, losing both their steps with the music. The other girl found her stride quickly and twirled on. Morah tried, but she couldn’t connect with the drummer’s beat again. Not anymore. Instead her thoughts kept pulsing under the Nephite’s words:

God’s daughter, his daughter, his daughter.

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A Q&A with Tanya Hanamaikai about this story is here

“A Perfect Voice” by Katherine Cowley

Clara took her place next to the sister missionaries on the pew. She’d agreed to attend the Mormon church today because there was a “special musical number.” The chapel was rather plain, but it should have decent acoustics, and there was a grand piano and an organ. Not a pipe organ, but at least the Mormons had an organ.

She removed her moleskin journal where she kept a record of every musical performance she attended. Using the program, she transcribed the details: date, location, singer, accompanist, and the song, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which was one of her favorites.

She leaned toward the missionaries. “Do you know if Ashley Wilson is a soprano, a mezzosoprano, an alto…?”

“I’m not sure,” said Sister Jones.

“She has a beautiful voice though,” added Sister Perez.

A family with a baby and three young kids sat down in the pew in front of her (the Mormons obviously didn’t have a nursery or children’s service). The woman immediately turned around, introduced herself as Gabriella Sanders, and welcomed Clara to the “ward.”

“Sister Sanders is the ward choir director,” said Sister Jones.

“Oh!” said Clara. “Where did you study music?”

“I actually studied psychology, but I’ve always loved singing. Do you sing or play an instrument?”

“Not really,” said Clara. She’d played piano and clarinet through the end of high school, and taken years of voice lessons. But when she auditioned for a vocal performance BFA, she had been rejected. After two more years of voice lessons and two more rejections, she pursued a BA in music history. Now she had an office job, but she frequently attended the opera, the symphony, and churches with a musical reputation. She might not be good enough to perform, but she had a good ear, and her studies had given her excellent taste.

The meeting began with a hymn she’d never heard before. The only time she ever sang was during congregational hymns, and she enjoyed “O My Father” so much that she wrote down the poet’s name in her journal. They sang another hymn before the Eucharist, and then she waited impatiently through the ritual (which used water instead of wine) and two sermons (one of which was delivered by a teenager who clearly did not like public speaking). Gabriella’s baby did not make it through the second sermon, and the woman left with the child. Other parents would do well to follow her example and take their own children to the crying room.

Finally it was time for the musical number, and Ashley Wilson and her accompanist took the stand.

Clara leaned forward as the music began. Ms. Wilson’s opening phrase was a little flat, just enough to be grating. The performance did not improve. Her voice was weak and rather nasal. She smiled so much that she couldn’t form her vowels properly; any good singer knew you should smile with your eyes, not your mouth.

Ms. Wilson sang the second verse a capella and went so flat that by the time the piano came back in for the third verse, she was in quite a different key. It only took a few notes for her to correct herself, but still. The worse part was the finale—Ms. Wilson could, strictly speaking, hit the high notes. But not very well.

Ms. Wilson beamed at the end of the performance, and Clara looked around at the happy, grateful people seated throughout the chapel. A few even had tears running down their faces.

“Wasn’t that beautiful?” whispered Sister Jones.

Ms. Wilson had sung with feeling, but that was the only concession Clara would make. She wished she could erase the entry from her moleskin journal, but she had used a pen. Next time she visited a new church, she would wait until after the performance to record it.

“I’ll be back,” Clara whispered to the sister missionaries as she walked out, though she had no intention of returning. A Presbyterian church in a neighboring city had a great line-up planned for today’s services: the best children’s choir in the region and a guest opera singer who had performed in Carnegie Hall. If traffic was normal, she would arrive in time.

Gabriella was rocking her fussy baby in the hall.

“I loved sitting in front of you for the hymns,” said Gabriella. “You have a perfect voice for—”

“I do not have a perfect voice,” said Clara flatly.

Gabriella smiled. “Fair enough. Most people don’t. But I was actually going to say that your voice would be perfect for the ward choir.”

“Sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“I think sometimes God needs perfect voices. But other times, God just needs us. He takes whatever we’ve got and makes it into something more. Even if we’re not perfect, He still wants to hear our voices.”

The God that Clara knew could summon choirs of perfect angels. Why would he need her voice?

“If you change your mind, we’re practicing right after church. I have a beautiful arrangement of ‘O My Father.’”

Gabriella’s baby screamed again, and Clara took the opportunity to slip away.

She trudged across the parking lot, analyzing Gabriella’s words. The woman had been sincere, but Clara could not join a choir. She would always know that she was not quite good enough. She climbed into her car and closed the door firmly behind her.

Yet as she drove, she found herself humming the new hymn, “O My Father.” One line had lodged in her memory: “For a wise and glorious purpose thou hast placed me here on earth.” She had thought her purpose was to enjoy music, not to create it. Life had taught her that a desire and love for something were not sufficient. But she could not shake Gabriella’s invitation.

After a few more miles, Clara turned her car around and headed back to the Mormon church.

A Q&A with Katherine Cowley about this story is available here.