winter and summer: why I’m staying in the church
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.
14 Responses to “winter and summer: why I’m staying in the church”
Why are you bothering to tell us?
So that people like me who are wrestling with whether or not they want to stay in the church can gain some extra insight and understanding from someone who’s been in the same kind of place.
Why are you bothering to comment if you’re not interested? I thought it was wonderful that she shared part of her experience.
Thanks for sharing your heart with us. While I don’t agree or disagree with everything in your post I do really appreciate the feelings expressed. 🙂
[…] By Erin 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… …read more […]
Is it biological nature that women (in general) like to pamper and preen themselves? Comment on the makeup night with the mia maids. I do wonder how much of this particular activity is nurture over nature. My has always loved makeup, shoes, and other types of stereotypical “female” activities. I just don’t know the answer.
You know, before I officially left the church, while I was trying to decide what I could and could not believe, I also wanted to stick around for others who may have been struggling and needing acceptance and love within our church walls. But, as I found after I left, there are always those people who need love, compassion and acceptance, no matter where I find myself. But I really respect that particular reason for staying in the church, perhaps more so than any other reason I’ve heard. Thanks for the post! And good luck 😉
Thanks for sharing this, Erin!
Your story is interesting, as I’ve often thought about doing the same. I left the church 10 years ago, but I’ve always felt a pull to go and help those who are still there. However, I believe it is hypocritical. On one hand, you pride yourself on being a support for a gay teen or a young feminist. On the other hand, you help foster and encourage a church that has basic discriminatory principals against gays and feminists. I know that’s harsh and I know you are trying to sort through a lot of feelings. Boiling it down to those simple terms probably doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t easy, but I believe it’s better to not support an organization that does those things in the first place. In my opinion, it’s better to be an example of someone who leaves and finds incredible happiness. Many young Mormons don’t know a happy ex-Mormon, and of course the image the church paints of ex-Mormons is grim, at best.
I think it’s not helpful to criticize how the author has come to a decision that is both personal and complex. It sends the message that your perspective as an ex-Mormon is more valid than Erin’s perspective as a gray-area-Mormon. You have promoted your path without recognizing or validating the ideas that feel true to her. I don’t doubt that the path you chose has brought you great happiness, but your recommendations are based on your experiences, not hers. Staying in a church with which one disagrees can also be incredibly rewarding, depending on the people involved and their various reasons for staying.
I think the world, and the Church, are not always this black and white. Depending on your spiritual outlook, I suppose if you felt that the foundations of Mormonism were false to the core and there was nothing redeeming in its origins, theology, or teachings, you might not want to stay and give it any support. But if you believed that it has a lot of good to offer, but that people (being human) managed to screw it up a lot of the time, then you might stick around to help ease the pain of those who get screwed. It’s all in how you look at it.
this was the sort of reasoning that pushed me to leave the church for a time, and i honor it- at the same time, i’ve found that the church doesn’t have to be discriminatory. the church is riddled with problematic elements in its past and present, but it’s a living breathing entity, much like a family that has sexist, racist, classist potholes in its past. it’s a very long term view of engagement, but in a few decades very different people will be at the helm of the church, and its history has demonstrated than an utter reversal of past policy (called doctrine at the time) is possible. for an outlook so focused on rationality/practicality, i don’t think it’s practical to try to starve the church into non-shittiness by just withdrawing support. it’s going to stick around and the more people leave who see the shittiness, the worse it’s going to get. still, i reject the idea that mormonism is so irreparably bad at its core.
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What you say ” thrive in life’s gray areas” Christ called being lukewarm. (revelation 3:16)
I get it’s a phase, but at some point you need to decide. Did God actually give this Commandment? Establish this covenant or call this prophet.
If He did, than you should be in, lest you find yourself fighting against God.
If He did not, than you should get out, lest you find yourself fighting against God.