Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pioneer Day

Celebrating my roots by letting go

My Pioneer Day outfit, circa 1978
On July 24, 1847 (as every young Mormon child knows), Brigham Young and an advance party of brave pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in what would someday (once the Mormons officially renounced polygamy) become the state of Utah. “This is the right place,” the prophet declared, evidently unaware that the California coast was just a few mountain ranges away. The Mormons, my people, exiled from their homes in Nauvoo, would build a new Zion in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains and celebrate every Pioneer Day with picnics and parades.

This year on Pioneer Day, I sent a two-page letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, to my Mormon bishop, a man I have never met, requesting that he remove my name from the church records. Elaborating on a template I found here, I wrote:
I am taking this formal step as a direct result of your (not my) church’s decision to excommunicate Kate Kelly. A church that cannot allow good women to ask legitimate questions without fear is not the place for me. I am aware that according to church doctrine this cancels all blessings, baptisms, ordinations, promises, covenants, and my hope of exaltation in the Mormon celestial kingdom, and I have made my decision with that consideration well in mind. The Mormon version of heaven is not something I could ever look forward to as a woman. Please do not have anyone from the church contact me to try to change my mind.
Why now? For years, I lived comfortably in the ambiguous space of inactivity, accepting welcome plates of brownies, joking that I am now in a polygamous marriage to my remarried Mormon ex-husband while I have never been married in the eyes of my new Catholic faith (I had my Mormon marriage annulled). I never took the formal step of resigning from the church because I told myself it just didn’t matter that much to me.

The truth is that I left the church a long time ago, first mentally, as I had to face the growing cognitive dissonance that left me feeling broken and inadequate, then physically, as I drifted away to things that were more spiritually meaningful to me. As a practicing Mormon, I found that no matter how hard I worked or prayed, I simply did not feel a reassurance of a loving God. I did not have a testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet. And I really didn’t think being Mormon was much fun. “If this life is all we have,” I thought to myself in 2007, realizing that I really did believe that, “then I’m wasting it.”

Kate Kelly’s excommunication was the catalyst for me to finish what I started so many years ago, when I found myself sifting through the ashes of a refiner’s fire I had never expected—my longed-for temple marriage broken, my faith destroyed. The reason I stayed active for so many years before my divorce, judging people who drank coffee, telling myself that a testimony would be the reward for obedience to rules that made no sense to me, was because of fear, not love. That fear kept me in the church for several years.

In 1993, I was a junior at Brigham Young University. One of my favorite professors, Cecilia Konchar Farr, was fired that summer, in part for supporting a woman’s right to choose. In September of that same year, six prominent Mormon intellectuals were called before church disciplinary courts and excommunicated for speaking their minds, for talking about the possibility of a Heavenly Mother, or for telling the truth about Mormon history. Joanna Brooks has written in excruciating detail about this experience and how it affected young Mormon feminists in her must-read memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl 

I heard the message the LDS Church sent then to women with doubts like mine. Get with the program, or get out. I stopped writing anything other than ward newsletters. And I got with the program—marriage, babies, ward callings, temple service, staying home to raise the children—for 13 long years.

I don’t regret the babies (now growing into lovely, independent people). I do regret all the rest. Like many who have left the Church, formally or informally, I feel betrayed by my former religion. That sense of betrayal is likely something that I will struggle with for the rest of my life.

Still, it’s no easy thing to leave the faith of my fathers. Like most people born into the Mormon church, I will never really be able to leave everything about that faith: so much of who I am was shaped by its culture and customs. And there are some things—the focus on family, the self-reliance, the way Mormons take care of their own in times of need, and of course, the music—that I continue to admire.

I am also tremendously grateful for the few church members who have remained my friends through my faith transition, and for the Kate Kellys of the world who continue to fight from within for what they believe is right. “Do what is right, let the consequence follow” was one of my favorite hymns when I was a child. I tried then—and I try now—to follow that advice. It’s just that I no longer believe that there is one right path for everyone, or that the bright-line path of Mormonism was right for me. The easy answers the church provides are no substitute for the hard questions I now ask myself about meaning and happiness. 

That's why I am joining other Strangers in Zion this Pioneer Day to declare that the Mormon church is not the right place for us. But that doesn't mean it's not the right place for you. One of my frustrations with the faith is the "us vs. them" mentality born in the persecution of the church's beginnings, the desire to be separate that drove the pioneers to seek safety in the mountain West. But this separateness does not always support the goal of building the Kingdom into a worldwide church.

The response of many faithful Mormons to Kate Kelly's personal tragedy was not Christlike by any measure. She was not a money changer in the temple. She is a faithful wife and mother in Zion. As a Mormon who chose to leave, I still remember the excuses I told myself when I watched others slip away. "It must be sin." Or "S(he) is too proud." Or "It's a pity s(he) would give up eternal salvation just because someone offended him/her." Or in the case of someone like Kelly, "What a tragedy that Satan has influenced him/her."

Maybe it's none of those things. Maybe people have genuine spiritual experiences that cause them to question their faith. I think most of us have these experiences. Some stay, ultimately finding peace and fulfillment in the Gospel. Others leave, finding peace and fulfillment in something else. But denying the validity of a person's experiences, or whitewashing the truth about your religion's doctrines, is not a good template for sustaining long-term membership in the club.

On this day, I celebrate my pioneer ancestors--their courage and faith in giving up one life to seek a better one in the Kingdom of God, "far away in the West." And I celebrate the heritage that gave me the strength to take my own spiritual journey. In the words of that still-dear Mormon pioneer hymn, "Happy day! All is well."

2 comments:

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