I realize, fully and finally, that I am an outsider while I am standing in the doorway of my daughters’ room watching my youngest lay her bed.
“Hello, Hello! Hello, Hello! We welcome,” she sings, her voice sweet, but the tune not quite right and some of the words missing, “today, HELLO!“.
“I like that song, “she chirps, “we sing it to visitors in primary. If you came to church, we would sing it to you!”
Suddenly it feels like someone is kneeling on my chest. I wonder if a well-meaning teacher or primary leader has planted that seed in her head, “If your mommy wanted to come and visit us…” I want to tell her that I do know that song, remind her that I was leading the call and response of that song just a year and a half ago, in my third stint as Primary Chorister. I was making posters with pictures and words to represent the lyrics I was teaching the children for the primary program. I was making up games, leading wiggle songs, kneeling in my skirt for 15 minutes singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” while the nursery children cried or tried to escape the carpet laid on the floor for singing time.
It was my last calling, the one I took hoping that I could stem the tide of my disbelief, or, at least, be of service in a place that was less painful. A place where I wouldn’t be required to teach what I didn’t believe or sit on my hands during lessons, filled with a forlorn sadness or seething with impotent rage. Primary seemed like it could be a refuge after being in the Relief Society presidency where I felt constantly reminded of the things I did not believe – that our church was the only true church, that the prophet was infallible and would never lead the church astray, that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters were inherently damaged, doomed to a life of loneliness or sin, that gender was my most essential and basic characteristic, motherhood the determining fact of my life. I hoped that primary would be a place to talk about basic goodness – kindness, honesty, helping others – the places where I had and still find the divine. It was and it wasn’t.
The sharing time theme that year was “I Know My Savior Lives,” and we did talk about Christ, but so many of the songs were about affirming the faith, about Joseph rather than Jesus. Even that space full of children, three of the 12 my own, felt wrong. I was filled with relief on Sunday nights, but found myself plagued by a creeping dread that grew as the next Sunday approached. By Friday, I would be panicked and tearful. And still I couldn’t stop going, to stop going would be treason.
I had been earnestly questioning my faith for more than seven years. I reread the Book of Mormon and prayed about it. I received answers that I didn’t want, felt the spirit nudging me down a path I wasn’t prepared to face. I tried to repent and return to the fold. I wore my husband and I out with arguments and questions. I sought comfort online, in the Middle Way. I kept stepping back, hoping that each step away would let me breathe. Finally, in frustration, my husband asked me not to go. It was one part desperation, genuine concern for my obvious distress, and part bluff, a hope that setting me free would allow me to come back on my own terms. I grabbed onto his permission like a drowning woman and emailed the bishop asking to be released. I still attend from time to time, I am always there when my children or husband give a talk. I went on Mother’s Day because my son asked me to come, but, otherwise, I spend most Sundays at home while my husband goes to church with the children. They attend most of the time, but not every Sunday.
I have, by this time, been in countless arguments with my husband and spent months worrying that our marriage could not survive. I’ve seen old friends fall away and made my mother cry. Bishops have called me to repentance. Ward members have gone from being extremely friendly to bewildered and suspicious, some give me hugs that are just a touch too long, as though they fear I’ve come down with a terminal illness or I’ll disappear before their eyes. But I have never felt as much like an outsider as I do in this moment, standing in the doorway. I look at my daughter’s face. Her bright eyes are soft, so wholly without judgment or disappointment that I soften as well. We are not divided.
“I like that song too and I would love to hear it when I visit,” I tell her.
I do not regret my decision to stop going to church. I believe that there is something tremendous, something healing and transcendent, about accepting life as it is. I did not believe and the church was not the right place for me, despite its towering presence in my family history and formative years and even with the goodness and truth that I did and do find there. This realization didn’t come to me with the blinding clarity of Joseph in the Sacred Grove. It was far more confusing, less elegant and sure. Going inactive has solved some problems and created others. My husband and I have come a long way in the last year and a half, but we will never stop bumping up against these questions. We will never be able to stop growing in compassion and tolerance to cover the distance between us.
For a time, the work of my spiritual life was about separating and letting go of the things I didn’t believe. Now, I face a different work. Some people who leave the church find comfort in Exmo or liberal Mormon communities. Some become atheists or join other churches. Others find themselves happily unchurched. I have tried all of these on for size, but I wouldn’t say that I have found my place in the world. Maybe I never will.
This post is the first in a series exploring the pitfalls and joys of life after activity.