Last Sunday, I went back to Church for the first time in fifteen years.
Yes, to Mormon church.
I’ve been talking about doing this for awhile now, ever since the North Seattle Stake sent a letter inviting LGBT members back to a supposedly open and affirming atmosphere.
I didn’t leave the Church because I am gay. But that is certainly a factor that has kept me from going back. I am bisexual, a bit genderqueer, and polyamorous (meaning I have multiple lovers). I find deep personal meaning, even spiritual meaning, in recognizing these identities in myself and in practicing them in ways that official LDS doctrine deems sinful.
So the letter was significant: a branch of God’s kingdom recognizes that exclusion and judgment are not loving and that the Church has caused many of us pain. Their welcome revealed a promise of unconditional love that I hoped could extend to one such as me, a wandering sheep who has transformed into an autonomous, thinking being, who has no interest in being a bleating, following sheep again.
For a couple of years, I’ve publicly stated that if the Church would have me back, accept me just as I am, without changing me, I’d go back to Church and even get rebaptized. I’ve dreamed of a Mormonism devoid of the controlling, harsh, manipulative, top-down group-think tactics that I describe in my book, Recovering Agency. There’s plenty about Mormonism to set it apart from other Christian sects that it could retain its unique identity without all the shaming, toxic perfectionism, demand for purity, and other artifacts of unrighteous dominion. I imagined a future sort of Unitarian version of Mormonism, where some members were devout, others believed only parts of the gospel, others took the scripture stories as metaphorical instead of literal fact, and still others were complete atheists but who attended only for the sense of family and community.
Now here was a ward – no, a whole stake! – displaying at least a few of these traits. In their words, “Our ward includes members from diverse backgrounds and experiences. We would love for you to add your personal experience to ours… Your faith and your fellows need your strength, your testimony and your unique perspective on our gospel. You will be valued and welcomed as a part of our ward family.”
While the thought of attending my local suburban ward filled me with dread, the idea of going to this new kind of ward interested me. Could it be true? Did they really want my diverse background and perspective?
I have a little bit more of a diverse background than I think they were expecting, so I held off, mostly out of fear. Until I met someone from one of these wards, Elliott Bay Ward, and he assured me. Many openly gay people, trans people, people with tattoos, and even atheists attend his ward and are welcomed.
So I gave it a shot.
It was scary but also exciting. My nerves calmed as soon as I pulled into the parking lot and saw a sister wearing pants, and another sister whose shoulders showed. (I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt which revealed my shoulders through slits in the fabric. My large arm tattoo was on full display. I did this intentionally – I did not want to misrepresent myself by dressing more conservatively than I normally do.)
I was greeted at the chapel by a missionary and a woman who likely had a calling as a greeter or ward missionary. She glanced briefly at my tattoo, but I couldn’t sense whether this was judgmental or if she simply noticed it or admired it. I am pleased to report that this was the closest hint of a negative reaction I got during the entire three-hours of meetings.
To my delight, the opening song and sacrament hymn were familiar to me (as are most of the songs in the hymn book), and this set me at ease right away. I do belong here. I do know the ropes. But oddly, from another time and place, a half a lifetime ago.
I knew what to do when they passed me the Sacrament. I am no longer a member, no longer under the covenant that requires or allows me to partake of the symbolic bread and water. As a member, I’ve passed the tray before without partaking because I wasn’t worthy, but for the first time in my life, I felt no shame in doing so. I will never let Mormonism cause me shame again. I am confident in myself, in my choices, and I know I have nothing to repent of, so being excluded from this ritual or thought of as “unworthy” no longer has power to harm me.
To my chagrin, I realized it was Fast Sunday, and therefore, testimony meeting. I was a little worried at first about having to listen to an endless stream of repetitious “I know this Church is trues,” especially now that I know about the influence technique of “public commitment” – speaking in public can bring about strong belief, even if the person previously had none.
But when the officiating member of the bishopric began, he used words like “I believe” rather than “I know.” I relaxed a little more, because he didn’t seem to be walking in lockstep with Salt Lake City, which prefers that you know these sorts of things.
And even though there were children there, no parents dragged their little five-year-olds up to the podium to echo whispered snippets of testimony using words they barely understand, let alone believe or know.
I remembered a belief of my own that helped me enjoy the experience, as Mormon after Mormon stood up and said things I didn’t, myself, believe. You see, I am in awe of the human capacity to have spiritual experiences and interpret the world thru the lens of individual perspective, even if that lens might be, to one degree or another, dictated, manipulated, or directed from the top. Instead of being annoyed, I felt moved.
One woman told a particularly touching story of a hike she’d been on the previous day, about how God visited her three times, in the form of a deer, in the form of the majestic surroundings, and in the form of one person helping another up a rugged patch of trail. I could relate to her story, since I am more likely to feel uplifted in the woods than just about anywhere else. I could have been cynical about how confirmation bias can prove just about anything, but instead, I sat in wonder at the human mind’s ability to find meaning everywhere. And the meaning she found was of wonder and love and helping our fellow man along our respective journeys. I can’t argue with that.
This is the form my spirituality takes. If we find fulfillment in a symbol, it doesn’t matter whether that symbol is fictional or not objectively real. Only the purpose we find there matters. I heard many purposes in those testimonies worth celebrating.
This ward seemed a little less formal than I’m used to. I noted that a few people called each other, or introduced themselves, by first name, rather than “Brother and Sister Lastname.” This created a more personal, friendly, and intimate atmosphere, less distant and hung up on rigid protocols.
After Sacrament meeting, I chatted with some ladies in the hall. I was open about it being my first time back in 15 years, and that I was back because of the LGBT letter. They didn’t even blink, and kept talking to me and inviting me to events. Love bombing? Possibly. Time will tell how genuine the welcome was, and whether they’ll expect me to change in order to continue being accepted, but it felt sincere.
I accidentally or on purpose got directed to the Gospel Principles class, in spite of asking for the Gospel Doctrine class. The lesson manual dictated a super basic (and therefore super boring) talk on fasting. I felt like I was in Beehives again.
It worked out for the best, though, because the class took place in the Relief Society room where I would be staying for the next class, and one of the other sisters remaining behind greeted me and had me sit by her. I shall call her Sister D.
As with everyone else, I was honest in presenting myself and answering her questions. When I mentioned the LGBT letter, she said she was an ally. She didn’t seem bothered when I told her I didn’t believe in God, and that I came back because Mormonism is my homeland. She seemed surprised but not bothered to learn I’d written a book critical of Mormonism. Like the others, she wanted me to know that there are other events I could attend, and she said I really need to meet someone named Celeste when she gets back from vacation with her girlfriend. I told her I’d read a blog post about a Celeste in Seattle who planned to marry her girlfriend as an active Mormon. It’s likely the same person, and I’m excited to meet her, especially since her story helped me feel like I might have a place in a Seattle ward.
When Relief Society was over and we parted ways, Sister D called me courageous. The level of acceptance she showed me is exactly what I’d hoped for, and it’s hope, more than courage, that brought me back to Church, and that will bring me back to Church again next week. Hope that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be a source of light, freedom, peace, and belonging for everyone, even for square pegs, doubters, freethinkers, and those of us who walk a slightly different path than what the LDS Correlation Committee has correlated.
I drove home feeling accepted, uplifted, and inspired. I thought through the topics covered in the lessons and testimonies. I discovered that with my distance away from the Church, and my many new experiences and perspectives, I could see some of the old doctrines through a brand new frame. I felt what Mormons mean when they say they’ve felt the Spirit, or have received revelation or answer to prayer. I will describe these thoughts in my next blog post.
I am sure I will meet people in Elliott Bay Ward who will judge me either silently or openly. I may be asked to speak with the missionaries or take the discussions. I may be pressured to do things I don’t want to do, or to profess convictions I do not believe, or guilt-tripped for not doing this or that. There are manipulations embedded deeply within the policies and doctrines of the Church, so I’d be surprised if I don’t feel some of these pressures at some point. Hopefully, with all I’ve learned, I will recognize those pressures so that whatever I choose, I do so with the full knowledge required for true free will.
Nevertheless, I will be uncompromising in my integrity. I am forty years old with many life experiences. I know who I am, what makes me happy, what uplifts me, and what I find meaning in. I have many unshakable experiences that tell me it was right for me to leave the Church 15 years ago, and that I should trust myself, not organizations and leaders, for knowing my own truth. What good is going on a long journey if I reject all the things I’ve learned and ways I’ve changed? What good is it if the prodigal daughter returns as a child instead of as a grown woman? The same Bible chapter that tells us love is patient, love is kind, love does not dishonor others, and keeps no record of wrongs, is the same that tells us when we grow up, we should put away our childish things.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:11-12 (NIV)
I have seen a fuller picture than I saw as a younger Mormon. I know the world more fully, and I know myself more fully. I will not return to being a child.
I left the flock vowing never to be a sheep again. So I return to the flock, not as a sheep, but as a woman, with my own mind, determined to keep it. I am unwilling to sacrifice myself. I may be (and hope to be!) influenced by the members of Elliott Bay Ward, but I will not allow them to manipulate or shame me to compromise my hard-won values, even when some of those values inevitably conflict with the LDS party line.
And if I am pressured too much, or I’m feeling generally unwelcome, I will stop attending. For now, paraphrasing Alma (32:21), I have hope, even faith, in things which are not seen, which I hope are true. What I hope is true, is that Elliott Bay Ward lives up to the entire description of love as outlaid by Paul in Corinthians. And I will show them the same love in return.
UPDATE 6-11-15: I think I failed to fully express my reasons for doing this. I’ve been talking about this via Twitter for awhile now, so I took it for granted that I’ve already stated them, so only glossed over them here.
Note also that I do not think this is the right thing for anyone else but me. We are all on our own separate journeys. This feels like the right thing for me to do, at this place in my life, for as long as it continues to feel right. I don’t recommend that any other exmormon do this unless you also feel it’s the right thing to do, for your own reasons. I definitely don’t think I’m more evolved or better than anyone else for doing this. I’m just doing my own thing here.
It should also be noted that I don’t fully understand all of my own reasons, and I’m discovering more as I go.
Here are some of the reasons that I know They are difficult to articulate, so I’ll do my best to summarize.
- See what new things I might have to learn from Mormonism given my new perspectives.
- Support a ward that seems to be changing in a positive direction, so that other wards, or possibly even the institution itself, might see its success and emulate it.
- The Church is undergoing some pretty dramatic pressures right now, like never before in my lifetime. I want to witness these events up close.
- On some level, I think I want to prove to myself that the harmful elements of the LDS Church really do no longer affect me. It’s freeing to participate only so far as I am willing, and then stop. For instance, passing on the sacrament trays, or not saying amen to everything. The Church told us: You can either participate fully, or not at all. I’m there to participate partially, which is an ultimate expression of free will, agency, and even defiance.
- I want Mormons to think. I want everyone to think. One of the best ways to get people to think is by doing something a little differently. Right now, lots of freethinkers are being excommunicated from the Church. These are people saying, “We want to be here!” and the Church is saying, “No, we don’t want you!” By going in the opposite direction – i.e. someone who willingly left, and now is coming back on invitation – I’m giving them the chance to accept or reject me. I’m calling their bluff. No matter what happens, this will make people think. If they accept me, then the question is, why not accept John Dehlin or Rock Waterman? If they reject me, then it disproves that their welcome was genuine. Either way, a few people, both inside and outside the Church, are going to have more things to think about. And more thinking leads to more agency. It always does.