Before I dive into this week’s query, I want to offer a big thank you to the American Public Media show On Being hosted by the marvelous Krista Tippet who invited me on last week to share my Mormon story. If you don’t know this wonderful program, please check it out. And, now, onto our question:
I lost my faith when I was 20 years old, home on summer vacation from BYU. I quit going to church, broke my parents’ hearts, traveled a bit, transferred to another university, married a non-member, and tried to fill the Mormonism-shaped hole in my life, which wasn’t particularly large until recently.
In the past year or so, I’ve developed a desire to return to church, to don a dress every Sunday and maybe even have a calling. I miss my community. I miss my people. This is sort of baffling to me, seeing as how I was “less active” (at BYU, no less!) for a long time before losing my faith, mostly because I found church depressing and boring. It sounds funny, but I have a much greater love and appreciation for the Mormon tradition now that I’m something of an outsider than I ever did while I was in it.
I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be an adult Mormon. I don’t know how to start in a new ward, especially since I have no inclination to apologize for or be ashamed of the past seven years of my life. I’m married to a non-member and childless– not exactly a great way to fit in. I don’t know if going back is possible. I don’t even really have any religious beliefs, beyond a vague belief in “something more” and an appreciation for the Christ-story. All I know is that I’d really like to come home.
Am I crazy? Is going back possible? How?
Outside Looking In
I remember it like it was yesterday. A springtime Sunday morning. Walking the dog. Pushing two small kids in a double-jogger around the block. Steeling myself to go back to church for the first time in six or seven years. My heart pounding out of my chest with terror. Absolute terror.
And just as my unorthodox-Mormon-feminist luck would have it, three months after that first Sunday back, the Church went all in on the Proposition 8 campaign in my home state of California. So I took another few months off. To shake my fist at God—okay, I’m not much of a fist-shaker, really. Just a crier. So that’s what I did until the vote was over. And then I went back. Again.
So, I’ve walked the road you are on, sister outsider. I know what it means to be away and choose to go back. It can be daunting because you know you will never be the kind of Mormon you were as an 18 year-old BYU student. Then again, it can be freeing to come back on your own terms, as an adult, because (as you say) you missed your people. No answers. No excuses. Just because that’s where your heart is leading.
And that’s how you’ve got to walk back into this tradition: as an adult who knows her heart and is willing to see where the next steps on her spiritual journey will take her. Be shameless. Don’t let anyone—including yourself—make you feel like you don’t deserve to belong. Use all that you’ve learned on the outside to build friendships one day at a time. Recognize Mormon cultural eccentricities for what they are—every faith community has some. Lower your expectations of yourself and others. And set your boundaries. Try not to get pulled into old patterns of trying to please others by explaining too much, or volunteering too much, or agreeing too quickly, or pressuring yourself to believe it all. Take it slow. Give your heart and soul the privacy they need as you sort out how to make Mormonism work for you, if it can, once again. And try to find parallel Mormon communities that can help nurture your sense of identity belonging even if and when your local ward can’t. Of course, feministmormonhousewives.com is a great on-line community. Mormonstories.org has podcasts, on-line networks, and regional support groups that also might help
One of my great teachers was the late Laguna Pueblo poet, feminist, and scholar Paula Gunn Allen. Paula was a riot—half down-to-earth homegirl, half head-in-the-sky mystic. In the traditions of her tribe are many stories about Yellow Woman, an unconventional soul who is always running away or being lured away from her people, but whose adventures and wanderings end up bringing nourishing things home to the community. A similar story is told in the Caldecott-winning children’s book The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.
Sister Outsider, in every community, there are women (and men) who have wild horses at heart. And oftentimes those wild horses lead us home. Come sit by me next Sunday. I’m usually late. I sit in the back row. I’m not the Mormon I was at 18. Neither are you. Let’s give our tradition the best gift we can: the stories of imperfect women who claim home in all its imperfection.
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