When part of you has left the church and you find yourself still here.

Today in Sunday school we were dancing around the topic of people who “leave the fold” and what to do about and for them. The standard, “never give up on

one019them” answers floated on the air and then a girl wearing pants and Birkenstocks at the back of the room raised her hand and talked about how important it is to recognize that most people don’t leave the church on a casual whim. She talked about how, (and it seemed from personal experience) leaving the church is like a really difficult break up, how it isn’t just not going to church on Sunday anymore. She talked about how no longer being mormon means leaving behind or changing an entire life. Nothing of what she said felt like a surprise to me. Most of my closest friends have left the church for different reasons. I’ve been on the front lines of heartbreak for well over a decade.

The thing then, that stuck out to me about the comment the women made in class, was this distinct and clear realization that I was who she was talking about, and yet, I was still sitting there in a Sunday School class, wrestling a baby who is not quite old enough for nursery, but too old to sit still for a full minute. My other children in primary. My husband next to me. I had chosen to come of my own volition.

I get it if leaving completely is the best way to heal. I empathize with what it is to break up with something you once loved and feel it no longer loves you back. I also empathize with what it is to still love and see as perfect a structure that is making your life better. I want to reach out in solidarity to a group who maybe is not as talked about: a group that is likely quiet and maybe unsure about their place, a group that has experienced huge, changing shifts in the landscape of their spirituality and still call themselves Mormon. A category I think I fall under. The people who have experienced true heart break and turmoil within the structure of Mormonism and are somehow still here. I felt today that it was okay to be in that group.

I’ve been the girlfriend of gay men who realized that as things fell apart between us, that they would leave the church and make a new life. I sat with them in cars in my driveway, overlooking the city, in my college art studio, in the mountains, and cried with them as their world dissolved, a part of mine along with it. I’ve seen these men, and so many of my friends and family enter that bleak place of grief where all the familiarities are rooted out from you and for a time, you are left hollow. Sure, leaving the church may have been the best and healthiest decision for many of these people I know, but still, happiness cannot negate that thick forest one must move through in order to come out on the other side. (From what I know the men I dated are happy now outside of the church.) For better or worse, Mormonism does not leave someone unmarked.

My more recent years of dissonance came on like a 7-year famine. I could not have known my innocent, ripe years of feast through high school, a mission, college, would be almost immediately followed by such a plunge. How could anyone prepare for such a thing when the relationship seemed so comfortable, so happy?

During my roughly seven years of internal struggle with doctrine, church policy, and institutional walls I could not pray myself over or through, I started to wonder why God would be so quiet about it all. Whether it was out of fear, loyalty, hope, love, a longing for familiarity in an increasingly complex world, or maybe a blend of all of them, I continued for the most part, to attend church while my heart and mind experienced change and loss. I don’t think I am unique in this experience. I learned to be kind to myself, though perhaps that came last of all. I don’t think I simply lack courage for continuing to go even when I disagreed with so much happening on the larger scale of the church. There was something pulling me to what this community, at its most basic, intuitive level is attempting—learning to be Christ-like.

Today in Sunday school though, I had the distinct realization that I knew exactly what the woman was talking about when she talked about leaving the church feeling like a hard break up. I have been there, even recently, and even sometimes still.  But I also felt something else. I had this sense that I had somehow made it to the other side. Not that I have made peace with the church’s stance on LGBT policies, or inequalities in the roles and voices of women, or any myriad of things, I haven’t. But I am also on the other side of grief in losing something I thought would always be perfect. It is true that time heals and in my case, I think time is the only thing that could have healed the sorrow I felt for many years in my spiritual life.

I realized as she spoke that there is a peace now in sticking around that I haven’t felt in so long. It is a confidence that I am okay, even if I never, and likely won’t return to the belief I once had. I’ve also let myself take things a week or a month at a time, rather than making decisions for a lifetime. I know this might counter what many people consider a main tenet of Mormonism, but this has also enabled me to stick around.  I’ve developed a new confidence that God speaks to me in ways They had not before, and maybe now, it is not even God, but my foremothers reaching out in faith that I might notice them and ask to know more.

For the most part, my spiritual heart beats wildly in the moments I am compelled to be better. Not better than, just a deep desire to be better because I have been loved. Like when the 88-year old woman in our ward reached back, grabbed my hand and squeezed almost imperceptibly during the sacrament while my three kids rolled around on the floor between our pews. A lesson given in Relief Society about loving deeply and without judgment when for weeks I had not even realized how badly I needed an hour to simply contemplate explicitly the commandment to love. It is standing next to a shy, older man at a linger longer and while we have nothing in common there is only kindness exchanged between us. It is a woman who I know disagrees with me on so much thanking me for a comment I made and hugging me, my baby squished happily between us. It is singing the words: I would be my brother’s (I would add sister’s) keeper; I would learn the healer’s art. To the wounded and the weary I would show a gentle heart. I would be my brother’s keeper—when I’ve spent a week thinking too much about myself.

I felt today that although I don’t believe that organized religion will save our society, there is something holy and sacred about a group of people attempting, however imperfectly, to place what Christ represents at the center of our lives. Many former Mormons I know now find this same attempt elsewhere, and I’ve come to love the work they do too.

There is much about Mormon doctrine I hope to be true and some I simply sidestep for now.  Maybe my faith is simply dogged and stubborn, or maybe I do still fear what it would be to leave fully. Maybe I stay for my kids. Maybe I am too tired to go looking elsewhere. Maybe I am just comfortable. I don’t know.  I do know though that today I left feeling more full than I came. I know that for a brief moment a deep, internal switch was turned on that started me down a path of thinking less selfishly for this coming week.

I’ve learned that my experience is flawed, sometimes because of myself, sometimes because of Mormon culture and sometimes because of the structure itself, but I also felt today that it was okay for me to be there regardless. I felt that it is imperative that I make space and make space and make space for anyone who might quietly be trying to find their place too. It is imperative I not forget or dismiss the experiences of those who have left. I don’t want other people to do their speaking for them. I do not know the many pathways to God. I do not know the way the God I want to know holds each of us in Their palm. I do not even recognize when I am there myself, but I want to believe I am held with people who are different than me in vast and various ways.

 

 

   

Comments

  1. Very beautiful. I will never hold staying against anyone. There is great good in the deep truths of The Gospel. My faith in such remains firmly intact even though I feel I can no longer engage with The Church. At least not at this time and in this place. Thank you for reaching out to others. Probably one of my heavier failings (of which I admit to many) is that I don’t ever take the time to actively think of others and their spiritual welfare. Thank you for the humbling of a gentle nudge of chastisement.

  2. Thank you for this. I live in Utah County. Associations that don’t have the church woven into them are almost impossible to find. So, I am staying, for the time being. Most doctrines are difficult for me to listen to. I seldom attend, because of this. I recently told the bishop of my disaffection and he has told the ward. I’m fine with that. It’s what I prefer. However, I attended SS, yesterday. I felt real resentment and anger at my presence from some of my neighbors. The lesson was essentially about how to prevent your children from turning out like me.

    So, lessons on apastasy or staying on the straight and narrow–lessons and talks that will be increasing in frequency– will be something I now skip. I am a divorced solo mom. My life is very challenging. I didn’t abuse my children, abandon them, was not deadbeat, did not commit fraud. I am a good person who makes being kind my standard and boundary. When I go to church, it’s to have my spirit renewed to take on the challenges of my life. I don’t need to hear how I’m wicked.

    I’m considering drafting a letter to the editor of one of the major newspapers that says I’m an apostate that is still connected to the church. I feel very unwelcome there. I may have gone through that bad breakup, but I am still a good person–in fact, I think I’m a better person for it.

    Just appreciate your post.

  3. I feel so seen.

    It’s amazing what a gift that is–we all need to be seen, and by extension, feel love, in being who and where we are. It’s the very thing that helps us be better, and it’s like an O Henry story.

    Ashmae, you are fine-quilled pen.

  4. Carolyn says:

    There’s something incredibly powerful about shedding the Church’s illusion of perfection, and choosing to love it anyway.

  5. This is beautiful.

  6. Ashmae, I think you speak for a growing number who look and feel somewhere other than in or out. Also as one of a growing number who own it, who are not trying to pass or pretend or rationalize. Thank you.

    By my collection of friends (Momma warned me!) I tend to hear more “how can you stay?” than “why did you leave?” Of course there are long answers to both, but most of the time I’m happy with the somewhat cryptic “some years I don’t, and when I do sometimes it’s just a familiar hymnal.” And, “from my point of view I never left and don’t expect I ever will.”

  7. Ashmae,

    I had this sense that I had somehow made it to the other side.

    This resonates with me; it’s a good place to be, though it may take a long time to get there.

    Carolyn,

    There’s something incredibly powerful about shedding the Church’s illusion of perfection, and choosing to love it anyway

    Or maybe just feeling at peace with it, with one’s own inherited-yet-still-chosen attachment to it? Maybe loving the church would be a more powerful feeling, but acceptance has a power all its own as well.

  8. Thank you for sharing this. Your words come at the right time for me.

  9. Thanks for this, Ashmae. I’ve been feeling a similar gentle pivot lately, and your words “find me out,” as George Herbert said. Above all, I’m glad to have a good soul like you as a friend for the journey.

  10. I am right there, standing next to you. Thank you for putting into words the feeling that keeps me up at night.
    Solidarity, sister.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Well articulated; thank you for this.

  12. Lily C Darais says:

    Beautifully written, and your words deeply resonate with me. Thank you so much for this post.

  13. Erik L. says:

    While on my mission, I witnessed social ills that soon became the “questions of my soul” although they were all mortal questions: why is there still poverty in developed countries, why have we not solved racism, why are categories of people systematically excluded, etc. etc. The Church wasn’t answering my questions and instead seemed to exacerbate them.

    I went to university seeking those answers and temporarily found solace in academia which did seek to answer them. And initially gave some answers (systemic racism, colonialism, etc. etc.). However, I’ve come to realize, 4 years into a PhD, that I mistakenly have put the same amount of faith in academia to solve the questions of the soul as I did in the Church to solve the questions of human suffering. And for a while, it felt incredibly depressing to consider that Jeremiah’s question, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” might be simply answered, “No.” At least “no” by one single institution or religious creed.

    As I’ve come to recognize the imperfections of every institution, I’ve become more comfortable resettling myself back with the saints of the LDS Church. As you so astutely noted, “shedding the Church’s illusion of perfection” required that I also shed any organization’s “illusion of perfection” or at least the illusion that they have all the answers. I only hope that we can develop a Church that breaks the illusion, for I think that would begin the pathway to being a shelter and refuge for people like us: a place where we recognize the brokenness of the world, but are bolstered by a hope in Christ that we can work for something greater.

  14. Capozaino says:

    AMEN

  15. Beautifully said, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. This perfectly describes my current experience, and it’s validating to know I’m not alone. My experience is a little different in that I have chosen to stop attending church, though I don’t think I want to leave the religion entirely. I would love to find people who are in my same position and help them know they’re not alone.

  16. ErinAnn says:

    Mary: I see you. I know that feeling.

  17. Brokenphoenix says:

    Get back to me when your LGTBQ kid is suicidal and you’re hiding all the sharp objects in the house.

  18. There are so many things I relate to here.
    “no longer being mormon means leaving behind or changing an entire life.”
    “For better or worse, Mormonism does not leave someone unmarked.”
    “I could not have known my innocent, ripe years of feast through high school, a mission, college, would be almost immediately followed by such a plunge. How could anyone prepare for such a thing when the relationship seemed so comfortable, so happy?” (The pain this abrupt shift has caused for my very active, very orthodox family has only added to my own)

    I find myself on the other side in a different way, but I relate to so much of what you say. I broke with God more than I broke with the church, and while I see deep flaws in the Church, many of them seem a peculiar variation on the brutal, dissonant song of Creation, rather than an evil particular to Mormonism (and therefore an evil which can be escaped by leaving the Church). Leave I did, but I still feel great affection for the people, for the attempting to be what Christ represents, for the striving to be deeply kind. I love the hymns, I feel at home in the chapel, I enjoy the connection with the people. Thank you for writing this, it feels a bit like a chiral replica of my experiences.

  19. This is beautifully expressed ashmae.

  20. Marty U says:

    Thanks for the post. I continue to attend church because of family, but am slowly on the way out. I still hold a calling (librarian) but have told the bishopric that I will no longer renew my temple recommend, attend tithing settlement, or accept anymore callings. My wife is probably more like you, not prone to attend, but goes anyway. I do not attend class. Most of what is taught and said in the classes makes my brain hurt. I have a lot to say during the classes but know that about anything I said from my heart would be seen as threatening and harmful. I feel like church activity for many, like me, is not an option. That no longer keeping up with appearances will come at a cost to relationships. At some point, I will have to tell my parents and parents-in-law that I am no longer active (when my oldest approaches the age of 8). I am not looking forward to that day.

  21. Ashmae,

    This was beautiful in so many ways. Your gift this morning was necessary and gives me hope.

  22. Kristine says:

    I really love this, Ashmae. You get at the mysteriousness of how two people with the same questions, similar life experiences, maybe even similar temperaments, can end up on different paths. I always get squirmy when people talk about “choosing to believe,” or some other willed, conscious process as the explanation for why they are still in the Church while others are gone. We should collectively stop making that attribution error.

    I also strongly suspect that almost everyone in the pews leaves in one way or another at some point in their lives, and returns on different terms. We are all prodigals, sooner or later. Even if we stay, like the eldest son in the parable, and miss the Father’s abundance because of a narrow focus on our own righteousness… which makes us prodigal, too.

  23. 7YearFamine says:

    My more recent years of dissonance came on like a 7-year famine. I could not have known my innocent, ripe years of feast through high school, a mission, college, would be almost immediately followed by such a plunge. How could anyone prepare for such a thing when the relationship seemed so comfortable, so happy?

    Previously I believed that my experience with the gospel would only build upon itself—line upon line and precept upon precept. But as I’ve struggled through years of quietness, I’ve discovered that the tools and methods I always relied on to feel the Spirit or to feel close to God no longer work. My bow lost its spring and I can’t pierce through the veil to where God is. No one told me that could happen. The scriptures don’t tell you what to do when prayer no longer brings you to God’s arena.

    The seven year famine has indeed been seven years (so far). I feel like I’m barely starting to feel at home at church again, although I’m not yet to where you are. I am not done grieving what I’ve lost. But I stay because I still have a little bit of hope and that’s enough for now.

    Thanks for helping me feel less alone.

  24. For me, there is still much of the Church that is still bedrock-firm for me, but other parts that I struggle with. I have mostly come to terms with the imperfections of the church, just as I also am trying to come to terms with my own imperfections. I am learning to be more tolerant and accepting of others who feel and think differently than I do, and worry about becoming too secular and losing my spiritual edge. There is always a balancing act going on, and I take comfort from what you have shared here today. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Thank you Ashmae.

  26. Well done, thank you. This article expresses many of my feelings. I have many ex-mo friends and many TBM friends and several of us right in the middle. Some days I find myself jealous of those who have left because they seem to have much more freedom than I do. Yet I find comfort in the basic doctrines of the Gospel.

    I have a nagging feeling that there is no answer for me and that I will struggle with fitting in for the rest of my life. For me faith feels a lot like hope and a little like unrequited love.

    This line resonated with me: “I’ve also let myself take things a week or a month at a time, rather than making decisions for a lifetime.” One of the decisions I’ve made for myself is that I decide what’s best for me in the present, not some undefined afterlife. This change in framework helped a lot.

  27. jaxjensen says:

    Good post. My personal one would be entitled “When you’re still all-in on the church, but your SP has you on permanent probation because of your mental illness, thus leading you to give it up because it hurts too much to want to be a part of something that has decided it doesn’t want you.”

  28. D Christian Harrison says:

    Oh JaxJensen. I am so sorry. I hope you find a way forward and in. The Body of Christ is richer when it is filled with the variety of God’s universe.

  29. D Christian Harrison says:

    AshMae. Exquisite, per usual. <3

  30. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I find myself in a similar situation. I feel that I no longer “fit” within the church but it is a secret to everyone in the ward aside from my wife. There are so many attachments and roots of personality and being that surface when one’s simple faith breaks down. A large part of me wants to be able to walk out the doors and be done forever. Another part wishes I could just go back to that simpler time. Another part of me worries about the consequences of the decision to stay or to leave. I don’t want to make a hasty decision and have young kids to factor into the decision. The church is not a simple place when you no longer find yourself outside of the norm.

  31. Melinda Murphy says:

    This just spoke to my heart. “I felt today that although I don’t believe that organized religion will save our society, there is something holy and sacred about a group of people attempting, however imperfectly, to place what Christ represents at the center of our lives.“

  32. I too find beauty and holiness in a group of people together trying to put Christ in their homes and their community. I really think it is up to me, to us, to make the church stronger and better, to make us as a body more representative of Christ. I have slipped out of church a couple of 4 year periods of not going so I understand the myriad of reasons to not be a part, but I want to be there for those that I love and I am a true believer. I am very imperfect.

  33. The “7 year famine” is real. Now I’m learning how to feast again, but my tastes have changed and, in some ways, are more appreciative of nuance and new flavors. I’m hoping there will always be something filling for me to eat at Mormonism’s table.

  34. I needed this. Thank you.

  35. Thank you for explaining something that is so hard to describe. I’m going to save this as it is exactly my experience!!

  36. Jacob H. says:

    Visited a local Community of Christ the other day. It was strange to be among a community of people whose spiritual paths so much more closely match my own than the community I regularly worship with. I think I will give myself permission to be among them more often, when I need nourishment.

  37. Thank you for sharing this. The breakup comparison really resonates with me. Like V, “A large part of me wants to be able to walk out the doors and be done forever.” But I’ve tried that before and realized that, like divorce with kids, there is no complete escape to be had–that relationship follows you around the rest of your life because your children will always connect you to the relationship you’d rather be without. My husband and children are still (and may always be) completely active, and I participate minimally. I too have concluded that it’s okay to stay around just like it’s okay to leave, but I just don’t know what the hell I want to do.I feel like I’m hopping in and out of the boat or keeping one foot on two different boats and attempting to balance. I think I’m grasping for “the answer” that will bring me total peace about the whole thing and let me rest, but I think that’s an illusory hope. For a while, I thought what I really wanted\needed was assurance that I would be okay if I walked away–but I now that I have that, I don’t feel very relieved…just raw and lonely. The fact is, I not only don’t believe most of the foundation the church rests on, I don’t even want it. And yet, I desperately want to feel a part of a group again. I’m glad I can jump online to read posts like this, but I want actual tangible, face-to-face relationships with people and groups that relate to me, and I don’t know where to start in Southern Utah.

  38. This was really important for me to read, thank you. It is also very comforting to find that so many are feeling this way too.

  39. The Savior said that his doctrine, his teachings, his example would be divide families.

    49 ¶ I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?
    50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!
    51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
    52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
    53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

  40. Crying…beautiful. Thank you.

  41. Hannah Belnap says:

    It’s like you wrote this specifically about me. I mean, eerily spot on. Thank you. Oh, how helpful to have it in such articulate print form.

  42. So much of this resonates. Thank you for your perspective. Even though our concerns aren’t an exact match, it makes me feel less alone. From the outside I am diligent and righteous, but inside I am also often in turmoil. Yet, in a way, this means I am exercising faith in ways I never needed to before. I am living the gospel in a much more real sense.

  43. Ashmae, I love how you paint a picture of your feelings, I feel your soul when I read it, my heart is drawn to it, there is so much beauty. I wish to also say to you specifically, I know that Zion is coming, I can feel it in me, and I have seen it. Your children will be blessed in this path for your efforts.

  44. Thank you for writing this. You are not alone – 7 years here, too.

  45. Thank you for this! I struggle with needing to come to take the sacrament, but also not feeling a part of the church. It’s so good to not be alone.