Escape from Zion: My experience with leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Tree of life

*The names of the individuals mentioned and the Church have been changed for privacy reasons.

Having been a former Mormon for over fifteen years, I’ve tried to remember just what it was — what little piece of doctrine — swayed me to believe everything else that had come with it, and it came to me the other night during a conversation with my husband, in which I was adamant that unbaptized babies and young children who didn’t have believing parents went straight to Heaven; my rugged half wasn’t so sure because the Bible said you must be baptized to be reunited with God. (The Bible says a lot of things.) As with my husband, I found myself at odds with every Christian denomination in some way, but it was that belief alone — that children were not punished for their parents’ deeds (or lack thereof), for dying young, or even not being born — that showed me the kind of God Mormons believed in. 

It was the same kind I did.

However, I would come to learn that they believed in a great many things I did not. I could never believe that God was limited to a body of flesh and bones and could not be everywhere at once (though, according to them, His influence was) — for the God I believed in couldn’t be explained away by theories but was Awe and Wonder not quite personified — that when He spoke of His image, He wasn’t referring to the physical sense but a cognitive one.

Though I could have remained a cultural Mormon, I had to be true to myself, and so I walked out, burning that bridge behind me. Though there were times I missed the Church, I have no desire to ever go back, even though I still read LDS fiction every once in a while, even though I sometimes catch myself singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in the car, and even though I find myself drawn to shows like Big Love.

I had prayed for God to tell me whether or not the Church was true (an admonition from the missionaries), as their Prophet Joseph Smith had quoted from the Bible in James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” They’d told me I would feel a burning in the bosom, which would be the Spirit telling me that the Church was true. I should have known not to expect a manifestation, for faith was believing in something absent a manifestation.

My time in the Church was rife with internal conflict, for my feelings often conflicted with what I was being taught; I was told that the Prophets spoke for God, and who was I to question Him?

I try to think back to the first time something didn’t seem quite right, which would be when I got my patriarchal blessing — a personal blessing inspired by the Lord to help guide LDS members in their lives, modeled after the blessing given by Jacob to each of his sons prior to his death. I don’t even remember the man’s name or face — it’s all a blur to me now — but I do remember, in hindsight, it was like the time I went to an LDS hypnotherapist to help me deal with my Utah Mormon life.

The patriarch interviewed me prior to, and I’d felt, even then, that he was fishing for information to help him give a better reading, and so my blessing sounded like a positive rewording of the personal feelings I had just divulged. My eyes were closed the entire time his hands were feather-light on my hair, his wife transcribing it all. 

It was one of the strangest days I had ever spent. 

I remember leaving, feeling as it had all been a farce, but it was a feeling I would bury. I was told I belonged to the tribe of Ephraim. (It was generally either that or Manasseh.) I remember one of the sister missionaries who had given me the discussions had shown me hers, but I wasn’t supposed to read it or compare mine to anyone else’s, which sounded like the admonition from bosses to their employees never to discuss their salaries.

I eventually destroyed that patriarchal blessing, even as I would give away everything that had anything to do with the Church. When I removed the Church from my life, I removed a source of conflict from it, as well, as a desire for my family to join me (my mom did, briefly) sometimes caused friction, but then, did not Jesus say He would divide families?

I learned through my experience beyond the Mormon curtain that sometimes you just have to lose yourself before you can find yourself. 

~

Had it not been for the Mormon Church in Montana, where I was a live-in nanny in 2004, I would’ve been terribly homesick. That’s the thing with the LDS Church — wherever there were fellow Mormons, there was always an instant camaraderie. Perhaps that was why tithing had come so easy for me, for I felt I always got back far more than I ever gave. Perhaps that was why I’d never felt the Spirit in any other Church, but now, looking back, I think that spirit I felt was of fellowship and friendship, which can feel an awful lot like the love of God.

I’d joined the Church right out of high school, after ordering a copy of the Book of Mormon. I can still remember the television commercial advertising it — a lady with a soft voice and hair that blew in the wind, walking on a beach past a lighthouse. It had touched me, and so I’d requested a copy be delivered to me personally by the missionaries, as I was curious about what Mormons looked like.

Here I lived in Pensacola, Florida — the buckle of the Bible belt (also known as Lower Alabama). I’d attended many churches, yet I’d never felt as welcome as I had when I chose to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I’d felt a belonging, fulfilling a longing I hadn’t realized was there. I’d never been a partier, I didn’t use profanity, I didn’t drink or smoke — my idea of fun was their idea of fun.

However, I fell away not long after I was baptized. I’d stopped attending services after the sister missionaries mentioned tithing, for my parents had always taught me to beware of churches that asked for money. Nine months passed during which I joined the College Republicans at the University of West Florida, where I met my first boyfriend, “Tony,” who happened to be in the same ward (what Mormons call their meetinghouses) I had been in. (He was a returned missionary, and RMs were considered the cream of the crop, the salt of the earth.) He dated me back into the Church, so I guess you could say I’d have never gone back had it not been for him; this time around, I gained a testimony of the truthfulness of the everlasting gospel, the restoration of Christ’s Church on Earth, or rather, I wanted to believe in it so much, I thought I did. It seemed too wonderful not to be true, with all their talk about families being together forever. Anything I didn’t like, I accepted. After all, there were parts of the Bible I didn’t necessarily like, but I was still a Christian.

The sister missionaries had planted the seed, but with Tony’s friendship, it grew. I had more reason than ever then to want to be an active Mormon.

My best friend at the time was a girl named “Dasha” (one of the few black members of Pine Hollow Ward). I became part of a church family for the first time in my life. I attended every Sunday, every meeting, every social I could, and after Tony and I broke up (we had chemistry but nothing else), my family and I often had the missionaries over for dinner. The elder missionaries (the young men people often see in white shirts and ties, wheeling around town on their bicycles) were the first fruits — the extra virgin olive oil. They were the best of what the Church had to offer, or so I thought, in terms of husband material. I had crushes on a few of them, though they had been admonished to lock their hearts before their mission — to live as Catholic priests — so that they would not stray from their real purpose for being there.

So, no matter how they might have felt about me, it would’ve been unseemly for them to give me any encouragement.

It is fair to say that the Church became my whole life. I stopped drinking sweet tea, and I never was much of a coffee drinker. (This was before I discovered the iced gingerbread latte at Starbucks, which, much to my chagrin, has been discontinued.) I dressed even more modestly, I didn’t shop (or eat out) on Sunday, I marked up my Book of Mormon — finally becoming worthy enough to enter the temple. I even gave a few talks, all of which I wrote myself and helped me overcome my paralyzing shyness. I accepted every calling given me by my Bishop, which included working with young children — something I’d never been crazy about. I knew many of the hymns by heart, memorizing them during the passing of the Sacrament. It was my world in a mustard seed, for so immersed in the culture had I become. All my friends were Mormon, and I found, at times, unable to identify with those who weren’t. I’d never been strong in any other church, and the concept of “once saved, always saved” had always seemed flawed. 

I was a true believer.

So, I guess you could say meeting Tony wasn’t so much a turning point in my life, but rather, it led to a boiling point.

With every bearing of my testimony and with every good work, my faith strengthened. I was at the height of my faith in Montana, like the golden angel Moroni that’s on all the Mormon temples — closest to God and His Church.

And then I went to Utah.

I’d always been somewhat of a perfectionist, and this was stressed in the Church. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as I am.” Jesus’s words. The women struggled with this counsel, I believe, far more than the men did. They were supposed to stay attractive for their husbands while having lots of children and preparing wonderful meals and keeping a clean house, while being told that the desire not to have children was rooted in selfishness and vanity. I even remember our Institute teacher (who most churches would call a youth pastor) told our class that his family fell apart when his mom worked outside the home.

If only I could’ve taken these words in stride, but I took them to heart.

When my time in Montana was up, I was ready for a new adventure. I was ready to meet someone, though now I know I wasn’t anywhere near ready. I hadn’t become who I was going to be for the rest of my life. I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids anymore, for I wasn’t sure I was unselfish enough to have them. I wanted to be a rich and famous writer, but that was long before my daughter was a blue-eyed gleam in her daddy’s green eye.

I went on hiatus back home (I was ready for some real seafood) between Montana and Utah. I’ll never forget the night that Tony’s mother and father came over for a Family Home Evening (or FHE, which is one night a week that is designated for LDS families to fellowship together) at my parents’ house. Though Tony and I were no longer together, I still kept in touch with his parents. I told Tony’s father I was going to Utah, and how excited I was. I knew most of the members there had been members all their lives, whereas most of the members in Pensacola were converts. I’d heard Utah Mormons were different, and I figured that was why; they knew nothing else. I can’t recall his exact words, but he admonished me not to go — that all would not be as wonderful as I imagined, that it wasn’t Zion. He’d looked so grave, as if my eyes were little crystal balls. 

How naïve I was then.

I can’t say I wish I’d listened to him, for I’m glad I went, even though it led to my leaving the Church in a blaze of glorious anger.

I went to Provo. The couple I was going to nanny for turned out to be a nightmare, so I ended up calling a friend — an elder missionary my family and I had often had over for dinner appointments — who came and got me. I was a true damsel in distress. He got me set up with some girl friends of his in an apartment close to the BYU campus. They were all kind and sympathetic to my plight, opening their temporary home to me; we became good friends, at least during the time I was there.

However, I felt my life begin to unravel. I was living amongst people who were going to college, who seemed to have it all together and knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives while I worked jobs that didn’t require any skills. Though I’d worked the same kinds of jobs back home, it had always felt like enough. I still had my writing — I always had my writing (though I found that my trying to stay true to the Church stifled it, for I tried so hard not to offend) — but the depression that came about because I was losing my faith held me back. It had gotten to where I didn’t want to do anything, because it never felt good enough.

And then all the uncertainties began to trickle like water through cracks in a vase. I remembered reading Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, who was a general authority (a member of the Church hierarchy); there was one entry that struck me, especially in light of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping that was still big news: “Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of one’s life — better dead clean, than alive unclean. Many is the faithful the Latter-day Saint parent who has sent a son or a daughter on a mission or otherwise out into the world with the direction: ‘I would rather have you come back in a pine box with your virtue than return alive without it.’” (124). I knew if I ever had a daughter (now I do), I would never want her to believe that if she ever made a mistake, it would render her worthless. I would teach her that her worth was inherent, and that nothing or no one could ever take that away, whether it was by choice or circumstance.

After my time (but not my welcome) had run out in the other apartment, I moved into a different complex, where I would come home from work to an apartment full of people, when I’d just want to decompress. Because I chose the privacy of my room, I was considered anti-social. I felt like I had nothing that belonged to me anymore.

I bounced around from job to job until I couldn’t deal with the pressure I know that I, not God, had placed upon myself.

I was floundering.

My Bishop at home was a kind and good man, never judgmental, but the Bishop there was offended that I preferred to attend the ward where my white knight attended, for he reminded me of the good times I used to have; he reminded me of home. A bad experience with a bishop had driven one of my friends away from the Church back home, and it was happening to me now. “The Church is perfect, but the people aren’t” didn’t cut it anymore.

One of my friends from Pensacola, who’d hastily married into the Church (and divorced after ten months) had lived there at the time, was a godsend. Though we are no longer friends, I realize she was there for me, at that time and place, when I needed her. We were both having doubts about the Church — she understood me when no one else did. It was different being a Mormon in Utah, and it was almost impossible to make lasting friendships. I didn’t fit in there like I had in the wards in Florida and Montana.

I asked my roommates questions I already knew the answers to, and though everyone pretended to understand, they really didn’t; I don’t think they could. I began to understand why they called it Happy Valley.

There was a big misunderstanding, and the Bishop there called my parents, alarming them unnecessarily. He seemed to think I either came from a broken home (not true) or broken the law of chastity (also not true), because I should be happy if I was keeping the commandments. He even told my parents after he came over the next day that I must be feeling a lot better, because I was wearing make-up, which my mother took as a sexist comment. 

I knew I wouldn’t get well while I was a member of the Church, where people either seemed perfect or were striving for perfection, and it took time, but I gradually turned my troubles over to the God I had known as a Protestant. It took months back home to get to that point; I had to detox (but not deprogram, for it had never gotten that far). I didn’t even bother to contact my friends from the Church at home during that time. As far as they knew, I was still in Utah. I didn’t want anyone to know I had fallen away.

I did some Internet research and found a website called Concerned Christians (who are just as dogmatic about their beliefs as the Mormons) and used their resignation letter template to have my name removed from the Church records in Salt Lake City.

I couldn’t believe how much my relationship with the Church had changed. My friend, who rescued me from that crazy new family I was supposed to nanny for, became defensive when I tried to make him see why I could no longer believe, and so I simply let him go. 

I went back to Pine Hollow Ward a few years later, but my heart (and soul) just wasn’t in it. I think perhaps I just had to be convinced that I had made the right decision in leaving. I attended a ward social a few years later (by invitation from a member who happened to see me working in Albertson’s). Tony’s father had come up to me, looking so sad, and said, “We lost you.”

I had simply nodded.

My faith had been shattered — like a mirror thrown against a wall. I was fragmented, and it took months before I became whole again. Those fragments were never mended, but rather I was made anew.

There has never been another church that had ever brought me into its folds like that, so I just live by faith without boundaries. I’m pretty much a “Creaster,” and it works for me, but more importantly, I try to live a goodly life (I would say godly, but I think God might shake His head at some of the stuff I write). I am a Christian who respects not only His name but the sanctity of innocent life, and I am the best wife, mother, daughter, and friend I know how to be.

The Church did help me become a more spiritual person, and it built me up, even as it tore me down. I am who I am today because of it, and in spite of it.

My kinship with Mary Ann (Tony’s wife, who I always liked more than Tony) was briefly rekindled, but a couple of years or so ago, I ran into her and a couple other Pine Hollow girls on a Girl’s Night Out when my husband and I were on a date. I hadn’t been invited. At first, I was hurt, but then I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t a part of their world anymore, but neither were they a part of mine (and I liked mine better).

From my experience, Mormons had friends and they had “non-member friends.”

When Mary Ann moved to another part of town, we became acquaintances, then strangers. She even admitted (via instant message) that she hadn’t been a very good friend, she, who had been with me during two of the best times of my life (when I married and had my daughter), but I had moved on and made lots of new friends — friends with whom I connected on a deeper level, who had been there for me through two of the worst times of my life (when my family and I became homeless, and I lost my mom). 

It’s those worst of times friends that matter.

And do you know something wild? My life is far more perfect now that I don’t try to be perfect; I’m also a lot happier. I live by the spirit of the law and not the letter. I can write what I want, drink what I want, and wear what I want, and I thank God every day that I went to Utah and lost my religion, only to find a new spirituality with an old friend, who had waited patiently for my return.

#Fiction Friday: #Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

It was always chess over checkers with us,
Clue & Scrabble over Life & Monopoly,
& I could see how our game choices
showed me what our life was—
a puzzle.

In Religion, righteousness trumped kindness;
in Spirituality, kindness trumped righteousness.
But in the world, they were granted Equality.

I chose the Church as I would some day
have to choose a mate.
I grabbed hold of the attributes I loved,
tolerating the ones I did not.
But how perfect could the Church be,
being made up of many men?

I trusted David with my heart & life & body
as surely as I trusted God,
whoever He was,
with my soul.

She had prayed every night
that God would give Caitlin
as long as she needed on this Earth
to accept the truth.
I knew in my heart that Caitlin
would never accept the Church as true,
& so, if God answered such prayers,
Caitlin would live forever.

#Fiction Friday: #Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

Because Jesus had paid for my sins,
I could not short the Lord–
I had to pay Him back through tithing,
through prayer & scripture study,
through keeping His commandments,
& through good works that surpassed any good
that had ever been done to me.
There was no question that I would pay;
the only question was: Gross or net?

If my answer was different than theirs,
I wasn’t praying in the right spirit,
so I let them believe my conversion was to their Church
& not to their version of the God they claimed to serve.

God’s favor wavered–
the God who wasn’t always fair
but just,
as many Christians claimed.
It would take me many years to realize
that I was glad God that wasn’t fair,
for if He was,
then I would’ve had no place with Him
in the afterlife
for all the misdeeds I’d done.
It wasn’t fair that Jesus had to die,
but God had let Him know that it was the only way
so that Jesus had no choice,
for what was autonomy when you could only escape
the sting of death
by letting everyone else burn in hell forever?

The Word of Wisdom
was not the word of the wise.
It was an admonition to abstain from strong drink–
hot drinks & alcohol–
but fried food & all the chocolate cake you could eat
was just dandy.

I lived the law of chastity,
& that seemed the greatest law of all,
but it was through default
& not being devout
that I was still a virgin,
for just being with David
in a non-Biblical way
had always been enough;
he had kept me pure.

Truth is its own magic: A Mother’s Day message

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When you’re a mom, some of the things that come out of your mouth may sound strange:  “Don’t chew on Jesus,” “Will you just hurry up and poop?”, and “Stop putting chicken on your head!”, are some of my greatest hits.

As I was getting my daughter ready for bed the other night, thinking about what I wanted to read to her (praying she wouldn’t mention Minnie, as in The Mouse), the Beatitudes of Jesus came to mind.  I realized then that I’ve spent so much time reading and singing to her and teaching her the things she will need to know to get on here–like letters and numbers, saying “thank you” and not littering–that I hadn’t focused much on the religious part of her education.

Thinking back, that’s exactly how my parents raised me.  For them, church was something you needed if you were an ass.

When I was in high school in the nineties, a lot of kids were self-proclaimed “Jesus freaks,” wearing “True Love Waits” rings and WWJD bracelets.  There was a lot of talk about the rapture and born-again virginity.  Church was their social life, Praise and Worship music their vibe.  Some of them even carried their Bibles around at school.  

Just as Felicity (remember that WB show?) followed a boy to college, I, a freshman, followed a senior boy to his church.  One evening, after service had ended, we sat in a pew as he led me through the salvation prayer, and I was like, “That’s it?  Are you sure? It’s that easy?”

I had been expecting a feeling–a total transformation like Saul’s to Paul–and now I wonder when Jesus told Doubting Thomas that (and I paraphrase) blessed are they who don’t see but believe, that “see” could also apply to “feel.”

Four years later, I joined the Mormon Church.  All the good feelings I had expected to feel when I had gotten saved, I felt then, but who isn’t going to feel good when they’re around so many friendly people who open their hearts and homes?  Even though it’s been years since I sent my name to Salt Lake to be expunged (er, removed) from the records, I will admit that the Church made me a more spiritual person.

In the Church, I was taught that the glory of God is intelligence and yet, according to these same people, for those who had mental challenges, the devil could not touch them. 

To my understanding, a lack of mental capacity (e.g. intelligence) saved a soul.  It seems contradictory, and yet, it somehow makes sense to me.

As I gaze upon my child, I see that light and intelligence.  She knows so much more than she communicates, which can be frustrating, but I have learned to overcome the need to explain why she is the way she is to people who don’t know her–to explain why she doesn’t respond when people ask her her name–but then, I have had several people who’ve taken one look at her and ask if she’s autistic.

I may never know how much she understands, but I do know that I will teach her everything I know and believe, whether it’s that adverbs are the enemy of good writing or that respect doesn’t have to be earned but it can be lost.  (You don’t disrespect people until they “earn” your respect.)

I’ve striven so much to give her a magical childhood through imagination and storytelling.  (Children’s author, Nancy Tillman, is a master at this.)  Nearly every night, since my mom passed from this earth, I ask my daughter to tell Grandma “good-night” and “I love you” and to blow her a kiss.  And then I seemingly catch that kiss in midair, letting her open my hand and take it; sometimes I place my palm on the crown of her head–a blessing from Heaven.

Of course, I don’t really know how things work up there, but part of parenting, for me, has always been teaching truths with just a pinch of magic.

C.S. Lewis did that very thing with his Narnia series, just as I will someday do with mine.