Prayer and Protest
Mormon women join the Trump resistance.
One day early this spring, Silvia Avelar-Flores was shopping for birthday party supplies with her 8-year-old daughter in Salt Lake City when agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested her. They loaded her into a car and drove her two hours to a holding facility to await deportation. Avelar-Flores and her husband have three children, the youngest still a toddler, and her family was despondent. A relative called a friend. The friend called another friend from church. The calls and messages extended across Salt Lake until they stopped at the desk of Sharlee Mullins Glenn. Although Mullins Glenn has neither a law degree nor political office, and at the time had no experience with ICE, she is the woman you call at moments like these.
Mullins Glenn, who is 56 years old, is a children’s book author, a mother of five, a grandmother of three, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By way of introduction, let’s just say that once, while walking through a Renaissance fair, she saw a teenager beating up a smaller kid, and she marched over and spanked him. “I spanked his bottom! I did!” she told me. “And I lectured him. I said, ‘You are bigger than this kid, and you are being a bully.’”
Mullins Glenn has inadvertently become the face of an unprecedented political movement among Mormon women. It started the week after Trump’s inauguration, when she and a group of writer friends were trading dispirited messages about the president’s first days in office. Mullins Glenn was among the sizable proportion of Mormons in Utah (nearly 55 percent) who hadn’t voted for Trump. For decades, the Republican Party, which has long dominated state politics, could count on overwhelming Mormon support, but large numbers of Mormon women, in particular, disdained Trump because they saw him as an affront to the values of the church.
After a few days of commiserating, Mullins Glenn decided to organize. She stayed up until 2 in the morning constructing a secret Facebook group where women she knew could gather their conversations. She invited 25 friends to join what she’d eventually call Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG) and went to bed. Within three days, more than 300 women had joined the group. By two weeks, the group had ballooned to more than 4,000. It was chaos. Some were lifelong Republicans; others were democratic socialists. Some disliked Trump because of his stance on environmental protection but were happy to have an anti-gay agenda in the White House. Others felt the opposite. Mullins Glenn hastily crafted a brief statement of purpose that would permit all the contrary political beliefs to coexist as long as everyone was polite: “We are a nonpartisan group dedicated to the ideals of decency, honor, accountability, transparency, and justice in governing.”
An early project of the group was to lobby Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz. Days before the election, he had reversed his promise to not vote for Trump. Now, as the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he was refraining from looking into the president’s potential ethical violations. Incensed, MWEG authored an op-ed in the Deseret News, the more conservative of Salt Lake’s two papers, and blasted his office with dozens of calls a day. Embarking on what it dubbed Operation Purple Rain, MWEG sent letters in purple envelopes to Chaffetz’s office, wishing him a swift recovery from minor foot surgery so that he could go do his job and investigate the president. Members were instructed to “make sure the tone of your messages is in the sweet spot between a) a bunch of Mormon ladies writing him love notes and b) a bunch of ‘paid protestors’ rudely invading his privacy to push their own political agendas.” Chaffetz resigned a few weeks later.
After Mullins Glenn heard about the deportation case, she called Avelar-Flores’s husband to see how MWEG could help. Because of the Mormon church’s own history — fleeing Illinois and Missouri in the mid-1800s, migrating west, being ostracized — in recent years it has urged its members to advocate for immigrants and religious minorities. Before Mullins Glenn heard about Avelar-Flores’s arrest, MWEG had reached out to Salt Lake’s Muslim community and cohosted events with local mosques.
Avelar-Flores’s husband put Mullins Glenn in touch with the family’s immigration attorney, who confirmed that her application for a green card was already in process. Mullins Glenn connected the family with the Mexican Consulate, which agreed to help pay her legal fees. Other MWEG members talked to the ACLU and the local chapter of Indivisible, the nationwide resistance network that sprang up after the election, about organizing a rally. Mullins Glenn tracked down the number for Senator Orrin Hatch’s director of constituent services, who she’d heard could persuade the senator to request a stay of deportation. Mullins Glenn put the director on her speed-dial, phoning her dozens of times a day. “You are the only person in this state who can save this family,” Mullins Glenn told her. “We are calling on you to save this family. Five thousand Mormon women are praying right now for you to do what you need to do.”
Although Mormon women are often stereotyped as “subservient doormats,” as one MWEG member put it, they are also afforded great deference in Utah precisely because they are associated with wholesomeness and motherhood. They can protest at the airport, as members have, without fear of violence — knowing they will attract outsize media attention. “There is a privilege that we have not earned but that we have,” Mullins Glenn said. “No one is going to billy club us. No one is going to hit us or gas us.” They are also not a constituency that Orrin Hatch wants to cross.
Mormon women haven’t allied themselves with an activist movement since suffrage; public life and representation have long been the prerogatives of husbands and fathers. In some parts of Utah, it’s still taboo for women to talk about pursuing a career outside the home. But when Trump was elected, one MWEG member told me, “a lot of women realized that they’d thought, Politics is not for me. And then they realized what happens when we allow other people to make decisions for us.”
“Do you mean men?” I asked.
“Engaged people,” she said. “Yes, men, honestly.”
Like many MWEG members, Mullins Glenn had not been an activist, aside from referring to herself as a feminist in front of neighbors. The turning point came after her youngest child left home in 2016, and she went to the temple to commit to using the next chapter of her life to serve God’s will. During one of her many prayers for guidance, according to Mullins Glenn, God said to her, I am schooling my daughters. “And I think he meant all his daughters. The time has come for women to step forward and show the way. If women are going to lead the way to a new beloved community, to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s terminology — Zion is the word Mormons would use — we have to learn how to do that.”
Three days after Mullins Glenn received word about Avelar-Flores, MWEG and the leaders of Salt Lake Indivisible called a rally outside the ICE offices, where Mormon women with babies in tow sang hymns. Addressing the crowd through a bullhorn, Mullins Glenn said, “We will mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who need comfort, and bear the burdens of our fellow men and women.” Two days later, Hatch’s director of constituent services called Mullins Glenn: If MWEG could make sure that Avelar-Flores’s lawyer filed forms that day, Hatch would arrange a stay of deportation. Mullins Glenn stood over the lawyer while he did it.