I was touched by a beautiful post that made its rounds with my circle of Facebook friends last week about standing by Elder James J. Hamula. For those of you reading this who aren’t Mormon, have never heard of Mormons or try to avoid Mormons who knock on your door at 8pm in the evening, you probably have never heard of Elder Hamula. He served in my church in New Zealand, and from what I remember, he is a loving, spiritual man who has cared for and led many people to Christ.
Last Monday, Elder Hamula was excommunicated by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. He was sustained a member of the Quorum of the Seventy in 2008, served as Assistant Executive Director of the Church History Department and later as the Executive Director of the Correlation Department.
The church confirmed to the Deseret News that the excommunication wasn’t taken because of disillusionment or apostasy. Or in more basic terms, it wasn’t because he lost his faith or taught doctrine incorrectly or the like.
To say I knew him personally would be an overshot because I don’t. At the time that he served in New Zealand I wasn’t the best at paying attention to leadership – not because I was defiant, but more because I was a distracted teenager who never really grew out of that phase when you need to stuff your face with Cheerios during the first speaker or color in something because your fingers start twitching (because you ran out of stale hoop-shaped cereal).
But someone I do know is Ashley.
Ashley was a lover of animals, a mother of two, and an excommunicated Mormon. When I wasn’t eating her Twix she wasn’t supposed to have, or getting scolded for the tears in my skirt, she taught me about Jesus. And I listened.
I met Ashley the day after I turned 20. I was a very fresh, very naïve sister missionary that had been sent to the suburbs of Nottingham, England. I knew nothing about the world except crumpled school reports, part time jobs and overpriced berry smoothies.
It had taken us several visits to Ashley’s place for her to finally be available for us to come inside. She had been taught for over 5 years by squillions of missionaries, and she was sporadic in her attendance at church due to health problems. The plan was that my companion and I (the other sister missionary who I was partnered with) were going to talk about Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a topic we often brought up as a starting point. We were advised by the bishop and ward mission leader to visit Ashley, who needed to be taught all the missionary lessons before she could get re-baptized. Her baptism would be an important ordinance that would turnover her excommunication and mean that she would be received fully back into the church.
We followed Ashley as she shuffled us into her living room that smelt of steak pasties, floral perfume and animals. I fell in love with her affectionate cats that purred to the slow rhythm of her obstructed breathing. She was in her faded fluffy bathrobe, eyes glazed: a sign of fatigue, stress and depression.
Ashley had been excommunicated some many years before self check-out systems at Tesco’s and when Old Market Square was just Market Square. She had always believed in Jesus, and prayed to God everyday. But she had made some mistakes, that cost her her membership in the church.
But that didn’t change her testimony. Ashley was a God-fearing woman, full of hilarious inappropriate jokes and her pet name for everyone, “duck”. Over the course of the next five months I learned all about Ashley- how she joined the church, how she fell in love with the wrong person, how she suffered pain, how she lost her membership. She was brutally honest, full of half-healed wounds and disturbing scars that I would have judged as unworthy had she not taken off her broken shoes and let me walk in them- at least for a minute, to get a glimpse of the heart ache, pain and suffering that she had been through in her life.
One of the best memories with Ashley was reading scriptures with her. We would text her a chapter to read and then catch up with her later and see what she thought. She was always full of wisdom, able to pick out a meaning that struck her heart strings. I was super eager to send Ashley reading assignments and texted her to read from the Book of Mormon: 1 Nephi chapters 22, 23, 24 over three days. After those three days, to my shock and embarrassment, I realized that 1 Nephi ended at chapter 22. When we visited Ashley later that evening, she laid out a feast of sweet and sour chicken (a very Ashley dish) and then proceeded to mime a big flick on my head for being the ignorant missionary I was. This was followed by a huge Mama Ashley hug, merciless teasing and laughter. Ashley never let me forget it.
But apart from my overall lack of scriptural knowledge sub-par for a Mormon missionary, there was something about Ashley that made me realize she knew Jesus a lot better than I did.
Ashley taught me what repentance was. And forgiveness. And she knew it was possible through Jesus Christ. She told me that she was a changed woman. She wouldn’t necessarily go back and undo what she had done, because through her mistakes she was able to gain wisdom and understanding that she otherwise wouldn’t have gained.
She told me, “Sister Huh, God will always find you. He will never leave you. He has always found me, again and again. But its only through Jesus, that you can go back to Him.“
On December 12, 2015, Ashley was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I still remember her muttering under her breath that the water was way too fetchin’ hot as she got into the font (an error on my behalf, sorry Ashley) but coming out from the water beautiful and fresh, like the purest person I had ever seen. Her embrace, drenched and saturated and everything, was the sweetest moment of my mission.
Ashley asked my companion and I to wear hot pink because that was what she was planning to wear to her baptism. We turned up in our hot pink outfits, and we should have guessed, but Ashley turned up in purple. This was the kind of person Ashley was, and I loved her to bits.
Sunday morning of December 13, 2015, Ashley took of the Sacrament as a baptized member of the church. Symbolic of the body and blood that Christ sacrificed so that we could be forgiven of our sins and return to God, I contemplated on how eternal, unconditional and ever reaching that love really was.
Sunday morning of October 5, 2014, Elder Hamula gave a talk in General Conference about the Sacrament. He said:
Through mortality, every one of us becomes soiled with sin and transgression. We will have had thoughts, words, and works that will have been less than virtuous…
By the shedding of His innocent blood, Jesus Christ satisfied the demands of justice for every sin and transgression. He then offers to make us clean…
Indeed, the ordinance of the sacrament helps us faithfully endure to the end and receive the fulness of the Father in the same way Jesus did, grace for grace.”
I stand by what Elder Hamula says. Every one of us becomes soiled with sin and transgression. We all make mistakes, some with consequences more costly than others, more publicly ridiculed, judged and misunderstood.
But it is by the grace of Christ, that we are made clean. And everyone is given that opportunity. Let’s refrain from the shock and augmenting the scandal that comes with excommunication, whether or not they are high-profile. Instead, let’s love and celebrate the Atonement of Christ, the ability and gift that we have to repent and to change.
–This post is my assignment for my BYU writing class. The name Ashley has been changed for the privacy of my lovely friend. It was tailored mainly for my Facebook friends, which is largely Mormon. All views are my own personal opinions, and not representative of the Church.