Before I converted to the LDS Church, I was a member of the church of Christ. I was raised in the Bible Belt. I attended church on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights. I went to Wednesday night Bible study and weekly teen devotionals on Tuesdays. Most weekends were spent with my church’s youth group. I went to youth rallies in the Midwest the spring and church camp in Western Kentucky in the summer. My senior year of high school, I chose to attend a church of Christ university in Nashville the following fall, because I wanted to receive an education in an uplifting and Christ-like atmosphere with others who shared my values. I had been taught from a young age that I was saved when I made the choice to follow Christ and become baptized.
But as I progressed through my senior year of high school, I began to have some doubts about my faith. Why were all my friends and family who weren’t members of the church of Christ going to hell? Shouldn’t Mother Teresa’s fate differ from Hitler’s? If the father shall not bear the iniquity of the son, nor the son of the father, how can we condemn those who never heard of the Gospel because their ancestors did not share the good news? These were the questions that I wrestled with until one day I was so angry at God, that I decided not believing and going to hell made me morally superior to a God that would create souls, knowing the vast majority would rot for failure to comply with rules.
And then I found the LDS Church. I learned that salvation is given liberally to all good people and even some not-so-good ones. I learned that it is my duty to follow in Christ’s footsteps by serving others. I learned that my friends and loved ones of different faiths and those without faith are safe. With all of our differences, we are all children of God, and that spiritual kinship is divine. In the eyes of my family and church of Christ community, choosing to be baptized in the LDS Church, was the same as choosing to go to hell.
I don’t want to talk about specific events that ensued between me and my family and my previous faith community. I don’t want to talk about the intimidating phone calls, emails, and letters I received. But the news of John Dehlin’s excommunication and the joy, or worse, logical acceptance, that so many are reacting with is triggering beyond belief and I do not feel safe at church. And so, I feel it necessary to share my experience.
When I told my parents I was converting, they travelled around Southern Indiana gathering books on the LDS Church. They found a lot of Mormon and anti-Mormon literature. When I would come home to visit that first semester of college, I was met with 3-hour-long interrogations about LDS doctrine and history. My siblings were sent out of the house or to the basement during these times when I’d be alone with my parents and their books. I wasn’t allowed to leave. I was so scared and intimidated by the way they spoke to me that I was always afraid to go home. They made me sit with my preacher and youth minister for 3 hours. I think that was the worst experience of them all. As I sat alone with two older men who had preached to me over the pulpit for 19 years, I could feel their disgust masked behind their questions about my understanding of scripture. They were doing this because they “loved and cared” about me. What I learned, though, is that interrogations aren’t governed by love. They are governed by strategy. In my case, the ends would justify the means of keeping me from leaving on my own terms.
When I was home for Christmas, my parents informed me two days before my second semester was supposed to start that I would be transferring to a new, more conservative church of Christ university in Arkansas. They had actually given me the option of transferring to another church of Christ university in Tennessee. At the university in Tennessee, though, were many of my friends from my youth group and my sister. I knew everyone thought I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or worse, brainwashed, so I didn’t want to be around anyone who knew me or who knew what was going on. I “chose” the Arkansas school. If I did not go, I wouldn’t have money for school, and I wouldn’t be allowed to come home. There was little choice in the matter.
I let my parents pick up my things from my dorm room in Nashville while I rode down to Arkansas with a friend. My parents had decided to take the car away from me and give it to my sister. I sent an email to the director of a play that I had been given a role in for the spring to let her know that I would not be returning. She said she was disappointed in me for not telling her sooner. When I arrived in Arkansas and my parents moved my items into my room, they told me they had set up a meeting for me the next morning with an advisor who would help me register for classes. They were angry when I wouldn’t give them a hug as they left. I understand that they were doing what they thought was best. They couldn’t bear the thought of their daughter going to hell. I felt that I had no control in my life.
The next day, I took on a full credit load, got a job working 20 hours a week on campus, and applied to BYU. I needed as many credits as I could get to transfer, I needed to save as much money as possible because my future looked uncertain, and most of all, I needed to get to a safe place where I did not need to justify my faith to anyone who could use it against me. BYU accepted me and blessed me with financial security. I knew that I had to go. When I came home for the summer, I told my parents I didn’t need their financial support and that I was transferring to BYU. To be honest, I do not remember much about the conversation that immediately ensued. I remember warning my little brothers to stay in the basement until the conversation was over. I remember that I was scared. I remember being up against a wall in the hall outside my parents’ bedroom. I remember my mother sobbing and my father’s face red with rage and his stature imposing over me while I tried to keep an arm’s length from him. I knew the embarrassment that I would be brining them would be intense. I knew the cared about my soul. But I knew I had to get out.
Luckily, they were going to meet some friends for dinner, and they left with my father saying, “We’ll continue this conversation when we get back and discuss what this means for you this summer.” I began to walk out of the house, and my father yelled after me, “Fine, go ahead. You don’t have a car.” I walked a couple blocks and hopped into my getaway car. My friends had been staking out, waiting for me for several hours to drive to a friend’s house where I had been quietly moving some of my things over the course of a couple weeks. I needed a place where I could lay low until my parents had cooled off and accepted the fact that I was going to be Mormon, that I was transferring to BYU, and that I was autonomous.
They didn’t come to that conclusion that summer, though. I cannot imagine what my parents went through believing their daughter had run away to join a cult and was now going to hell. And I know that this plan may seem extreme to many readers, but my parents had been able to talk admissions counselors at a conservative church of Christ university into admitting me last minute and effectively forced me to transfer. They had taken my car away from me and told me that if they found out I was “attending the wrong church” that they would know because they had friends “keeping an eye on” me for them. My parents had threatened to disown me, a 19-year-old freshman, if I did not do exactly what they wanted me to. If the ends justified the means (preventing me from converting and going to BYU), I was terrified what they would do now that the stakes were higher. I was terrified that they would hire someone to lock me up and “unbrainwash” me.
I lost my summer job as an instructor for my high school marching band. My father had contacted the director and told him what happened. My marching band instructor said that because they didn’t think I had a permanent address, they had to let me go. I gave them the address of where I was living and said that my address was fine, but they still wouldn’t let me work. My dad had them fire me. Some of my closest friends of other faiths stopped hanging out with me. And they stopped hanging out with some of my Mormon friends we were also close with. The father of one of my Lutheran friends sent me an email saying that they will miss me, my family will miss me, but most of all the triune of God will miss me. My parents’ congregation sent a newsletter to the house I was staying at with a note in pen on the top that said, “Temporary address.”
My parents kept asking me to come home, and I told them that I wanted to, but I first needed them to accept that I was transferring to BYU. They refused, so I never felt safe to return that summer. I was baptized that summer and none of my family were there, but my friend that I stayed with and her family were. My friend and her family were incredible. They are members of the local LDS ward. They provided me with love and support, food and housing, and transportation to Utah at the end of the summer. I can never repay them for the freedom that I have today because of the selfless love they showed me.
Being at BYU was an absolute dream. Nobody was going to threaten to expel me from school or kick me out of my apartment because of my religion. Nobody thought my influence would lead others to damnation. On the contrary, converts are treated like superstars in the LDS Church. My bishop referred to me as a modern-day pioneer. I settled into my daily routine at BYU with money to pay for tuition, housing, and food, and I felt secure. After several months of occasional flareups over religious issues with my parents, most of the anti-Mormon anger subsided, and over 5 years later, I can say our relationships are solid and healthy.
I know that my story isn’t factually analogous with Kate Kelly’s or John Dehlin’s. I know that a lot of what my parents did might have even been illegal. But I can’t help but see the parallels between two conservative religions attempting to weed out people they consider dangerous for the greater good of their flocks, and I can’t help but see the unwarranted psychological and spiritual trauma that results for people in communities so deeply steeped in the religious traditions they are being cut from. I sometimes have panic attacks when I meet someone who is a member of the church of Christ. In the faith I grew up in, there are few people considered more despicable than those who had the truth and later rejected it. Sound familiar? I am terrified every time I go my family’s home congregation when I am visiting Indiana. Lately, I have opted to pretend to be sleeping or have plans with friends when they have religious services. One thing is for certain: the announcement of my being disfellowshipped (comparable to excommunication in the LDS Church) and the subsequent events have prevented me from ever being able to return to my parents’ church without fear and anxiety.
Perhaps the LDS Church doesn’t like what John Dehlin has said about the LDS Church. Perhaps some of it is even objectively offensive (not my opinion). Maybe Kate Kelly’s hopes for women in the Church are not in line with statements from current General Authorities. Maybe that makes her a heretic (again, I don’t think so). But even if Kate and John can be found guilty of of rudeness or apostasy, is that any reason to take a knife to their membership in the Church? I testify that disfellowshipment and excommunication are, generally, ineffective means of inducing repentance and especially effective means for spreading hatred and eternal trauma. I am heartbroken to know that the Church that rescued me from the abuse of my previous church is committing the same abuse against my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I hesitated to write this post, because I was afraid that those who disagree with me will say that I can’t talk about this situation logically because my personal experience was so traumatic. To that I say that if we hope to prevent future injustices, ought we not listen to those who have been through similar experiences? Logic will not solve this problem, anyway. Only love and inclusivity. Does that sounds like excommunication to you?