By Jacob Baker
Always look for the helpers.
There’s always someone who is trying to help.
I feel fortunate to call Jerilyn a friend, although this is a rather common relationship since there are literally thousands who claim the same.
I first heard of her on social media, an increasingly prominent name who became known for doing things like reserving a spot on the pew next to her for anyone who struggled with being at church, and especially for LGBTQ folks, or for making her home a public safe zone for the vulnerable and alone. Her entire ward knew she did this because she made sure that they knew. There was always a seat next to her in the chapel and a spare bed in her home. Her social media feed—public, bold, and unapologetic—proclaimed that if nowhere and no one else was safe, she would be.
Jerilyn’s courage fascinates me, almost entirely because I so often painfully lack it. My situation is complicated, I tell myself. I have children; I have a calling; I have a job (or no job, as the case may be); I have a reputation; I have a complicated family dynamic; I have a project to finish.
But that’s exactly why it’s called courage. We consider courage a virtue—at least in part—because, as with most virtues, it’s a difficult achievement: something that must be fought for and attained, not a passive value that can be possessed and appreciated by admiring it from afar. There are innumerable ways of demonstrating courage, but this pre-requisite seems to be foundational and stubborn: courage is a feat of considerable effort, discomfort, and sacrifice, and it cannot be won with any kind of finality—a trophy placed on a shelf commemorating all the virtues one has achieved and then forgotten. It must be struggled for and obtained again and again.
But courage is also complicated, because it breaks the usual order of things, unsettling those who encounter it. Jerilyn’s church leaders (and probably ward members) live in various states of anxiety whenever she shows up. Who might she bring today? What stranger might sit next to her? What will she say? How will her presence complicate the meeting, the talks, the lesson?
Courage is often thought of as a strong force inflicted on circumstances and events by strong people to coerce an unexpected result. However, Jerilyn, being female, has no administrative power in the Church. She is a weak force.
But she is a weak force in the way Jesus was a weak force, in the way that the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of Reversal, and therefore a kingdom of divine weakness. As Jesus taught, first is last. Out is in. The lost are found. Weak forces like forgiveness and peace rule this kingdom, not strong forces like dogma and authority. The Kingdom of God reigns wherever the most vulnerable find favor and safety, where the one is preferred to the ninety-nine, where enemies are loved and family is despised (because our attachment to family so often prevents us from letting the persecuted and lonely into that circle), where the powerful are put on the defensive.
We know that the kingdom is this way because Jesus didn’t just teach the divine Kingdom of Reversal, he lived it. He didn’t just declare to his friends the moral wrongness of Roman and Jewish power, he went to the ground zero of their wrongness—the powerless people they had created—and did what he could to feed, heal, and empower them. He went to the sick, despairing, and outcast and showed them the seats in the pews and the beds in the homes that God had sent him to build. And so even before he gave his life for this cause, he showed that a kingdom built by divine weakness can only be realized through personal sacrifice. Genuine courage requires it: giving away part of oneself for someone seemingly less than oneself.
People like Jerilyn revitalize the name of God by re-imagining God’s name as the direct antithesis of power and tradition, as the opposite of omnipotent might and strength, and they do so precisely through their relative powerlessness. Their strength is “the powerless power to melt hearts that have hardened, to keep hope alive when life is hopeless, to revive the spirits of the dispirited and despairing, to pray for something otherwise than the world that is closing in around us on every side, to turn death into life.”1
Jerilyn’s work is not impossible to emulate. She is not attempting the nearly impossible top-down work of getting a policy changed or a teaching accepted or repudiated. She is simply performing the work of a genuine disciple of Christ: working at the bottom, where the suffering and loneliness are most acute. She is unsettling and destabilizing the order of power by bending the margins toward the center, creating material solidarity with those who are less powerful.
But this work can only be done by going to where those people are and putting something important on the line on their behalf, helping where help is most needed. It is a work that will always require a little more courage than we are comfortable demonstrating. By its very nature, Jerilyn’s own courage is something that often requires more than she has to give. She would be the first to insist she isn’t perfect, but courage doesn’t require perfection. It only requires that we find our particular strength in our particular weakness.