I’m a young, Mormon feminist who’s decided to remain a part of the church, and I’d like to share with you some of the thoughts which have led me to this decision. It’s an extremely personal one, and I would never impose my logic or conclusions on others who have decided to leave. Nor do I expect stalwart members to be empathetic or wrestle with the same doubts that I do. If you are interested, can relate, or are curious, that’s great. Read on. If you’re not any of those things, that’s fine too. You do you.
I’ve never liked to pick sides. I’m a registered Independent. I’ve attended both BYU and the U. I like all kinds of food, all kinds of music, and all kinds of people. My favorite characters in books and movies are those who can’t be classified as either good or evil. In short, I thrive in life’s gray areas. Maybe this is the reason I feel no need to be all in or all out of the church.
What does it mean to be neither in nor out of the church? A brilliant and feisty friend of mine named Lesa recently summed up her current spirituality in this way: “I’m not in Nauvoo. I’m not in the Promised Land. I’m just camping out at Winter Quarters.”
I can definitely relate. I don’t know exactly where I am, spiritually, but it’s somewhere in the middle. As I said before, the middle is a place I often feel comfortable. But there is always an undercurrent, an unspoken pressure to choose. People who are strong members of the church want to know I’m fully committed, that I’m definitely on their team and will never leave them. People who have left think me foolish and wonder how much longer I’ll let myself be deceived.
Recently, my own inner dialogue sounds something like this:
Alright, Erin, so you won’t decide if you’re all in or all out of the church. Fine. But as you struggle internally, is the choice to outwardly continue participating a betrayal of yourself, or worse, an act of submission? Are you simultaneously acknowledging the church’s shortcomings and allowing them to dictate your life? Are you weak, Erin? Are you?
Before moving to Salt Lake for grad school, I lived in LA and served in my home ward as a Mia Maid adviser. Young Women’s can be a rough place for a feminist, adult or youth. The first mutual activity I ever attended, the girls were putting make-up on their moms. I love moms. And I actually like make-up. But I had to stifle my gag reflex the whole night. I’m all for fostering stronger mommy-daughter relationships, but couldn’t we do that in the context of something substantive? Yuck.
The rest of the year was a mixed bag. Sometimes I felt like I was truly being a mentor, helping the girls become strong and independent. Other times I felt like a cog in the marginalization machine. I saw in our small piece of this organization both great potential and great futility. And in the back of my mind, I wondered how much longer I was going to stick around.
In the summer, shortly before I moved, I was wrangled into attending Girls’ Camp. (For now, let’s not walk down the wooded path to explore the gendered nonsense that goes on at that yearly ritual. But oh the campfire stories we feminists could tell on the subject.) At the end of camp, we had the old cliché Commitment Hike, where the girls walk through the woods in small groups, hear tear-jerking stories from leaders and YCLs, and then funnel into a testimony meeting for the spiritual climax of the trip. My job was to be a guide of sorts in the middle, and as I waited for different groups to come, I had a lot of time to sit quietly and reflect. The setting was pristine. It was dusk in the mountains, cool, a pearly blue moon coming up. Still on the brink of leaving altogether, I gave it one final shot. I asked, God, I’m out here with you. I’m here with the girls. I’m here in your mountains. Should I stay here? What do you want me to do?
Of course I wasn’t asking if I should literally stay in the mountains, though I’m not sure I would have declined if I felt that was my answer. But never in my life will I forget the impression that came to mind, the only moment of spiritual clarity I’d had in months, maybe years:
You’re all they get.
Such bare-boned words tell you something about how my mind works, because cold though that answer may sound, I’ve never felt so comforted. To me, it meant something like this: I am who I am, and I am where I am, and that’s good. And more importantly, there is no one else who is me where I am.
What does that mean? To you, perhaps nothing. But for me, it’s a nudge to embrace where I am, who I am, and what can be done with the combination of the two. The “they” in my answer was, in that context, the girls at camp. But I think it could also be other people in my life and in the church who may be affected by my presence or absence. It could be a secretly gay kid in a lesson I taught that remembers me as someone who didn’t make him feel ashamed. It could be another woman on the fringe who realizes it’s ok to have doubts. It could be anyone.
A friend recently sent me a remarkable talk by Neal A. Maxwell. It’s from the April 1985 Conference address, and it’s called “Willing to Submit.” My favorite quote is this:
“Spiritual submissiveness means…community and communion as the mind and the heart become settled. We…spend much less time deciding, and much more time serving…”
There are so many things to dissect in this quote, but what I love about it is the idea that spiritual submission brings peace, communion of the mind and heart. How often I have wished those two parts of me would sit down together and be friends. My decision to continue participating in the LDS church is, in a strange sense, an attempt to set the table and invite both my mind and my heart for dinner. Because I’m lying to you and myself if I say I haven’t felt some of that peace because of the church—feelings of being settled, supported, understood, and even happy, like you feel when you share a good meal with friends. Have I also felt anger? Isolation? Confusion? Absolutely. It’s all there. It’s all inside me, and I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect one side or the other to eventually win me over.
As someone who considers myself well-suited for and sometimes even comfortable in uncertainty, I think I may serve a purpose for others on the edge. While I continue to struggle with my own questions about the church—its historical validity, its future direction, and the complex social consequences of its present—I desperately want to be someone who provides some sort of refuge for others, a place of peace and warmth and companionship and acceptance. I know I’m not the only one in Winter Quarters, and damn is it cold out there.
Erin is originally from Simi Valley, California and is currently studying international affairs and Arabic at the University of Utah. She loves any combination of writing, movies, politics, friends, and food.