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“The Back Row” by Kelli Swofford Nielsen

It started years ago, probably when the boys were young. I’m convinced that in the fresh-faced newlywed days we sat up in the front, chins tilted up, drinking it all in. But, it wasn’t long before the back was just a better place to make a quick escape when someone screamed, or the infant needed a diaper change, or the two-year-old just kept saying “Amen” loudly over and over half-way through the meeting in hopes that the speaker would wrap it up and we could go home.

And soon it stuck. Like Thoreau before Walden Pond. “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity” when it comes to sacrament meeting seating, right?

That was before the late stillbirth, and the miscarriages. Church is a great and terrible place when you are mourning. There is comfort to be found . . . but also time to think, and watching eyes, and an abundance of pregnant women and newborn babies. The back worked then, when I needed to duck out and run to the bathroom, hiding in the stall and sobbing into the too-thin toilet paper.

The view from the back in those days was seen entirely through grief glasses. I was wounded, and every word, every sight held unseen barbs. I didn’t belong up there with the rest of the dry-eyed lucky ones who said things like “everything happens for a reason.”

But in time, I began to see something else.

I saw the single brother a few rows up who looked at his feet during those talks about marriage. He came every week.

I saw how the family struggling to make ends meet listened with slumped shoulders to the speaker talk about the purchase of their fancy new car and their recent family trip to Europe.

I saw the mother of three rowdy children make several trips in and out of the meeting, her eyes tired, while her husband watched sympathetically but helplessly from the stand.

I saw the sister who cried every time we sang “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” because they sang it at her mother’s funeral.

I saw the black man—a recent convert—who always looked a little uncomfortable in a sea of white people, but came anyway.

I watched the sister who spent every sacrament meeting in the foyer with her autistic children peek in to smile proudly at her younger daughter singing a simple, clear melody from the pulpit.

I watched people. But then I did something more. I started talking to them, and visiting them, and listening to them. I realized that there really weren’t very many “lucky ones,” and that nearly everyone was sitting figuratively at the back of the church at one time or another.

They re-aligned our ward boundaries a couple of weeks ago.  I wish I could say we handled it with mature, Nephi-like faithfulness, but there was plenty of Laman-and-Lemueling happening at our house. Change is hard. Our ruts were deep.

As we drove to our first week in the new ward, the boys entertaining their baby sister in the back seat, my seven-year-old clock-watcher said, “Hey, we might actually be early to church, today!” To which his father replied, “you have to show up early to get the back row!”

After a thoughtful moment the ten-year-old chimed in. “Why do we sit in the back?” he asked. “Is it so the bishop won’t see you and give you new callings?”

“Yep,” I laughed.

But then, trying to be less of a Lemuel, I amended. “Actually, Jack, the main reason I go to church each week is to worship Heavenly Father and Jesus, but the second reason is that I made a promise, as did you, to comfort those that mourn and bear their burdens, and when I’m sitting at the back it’s just easier to see and think about who is carrying some.”

“That makes sense,” he said, and I think it did.

Probably someday, when he begins treading his own soft and impressible path he’ll choose to toss off the traditions of his fathers and sit up front all wide-eyed and crick-necked, saying “Amen” at all the right times. He’ll like it up there.

But maybe he’ll also occasionally look back over his shoulder and catch a glimpse of a host of others in all those other pews, all the way to the back, and know that everyone has a story, and a burden, and that even when they may not feel like it . . . they belong.

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