The Church and It's People
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
"Why can't those who leave just leave us alone?"
**I wrote this when I was hurt and emotional a few days ago. I did a few quick readings to check for typos at the time. I have chosen not to go back and edit or check for typos again. I know in doing so I will edit out the emotion and censor myself. I choose to leave this piece as raw as possible.
Up until a few years ago I was one of those LDS folks (Mormons) who could not fathom why people who chose to leave the LDS church would ever talk about it. "You left, now leave us alone." Seems simple. You don't like raisins, for instance. Fine. No reason to trash raisins, right? Life decided to show me, in very painful ways, that's it's not that simple. It is rarely, if ever, that simple.
The first, and really only, thing that should be pointed out is that anyone, anywhere, is allowed to have an opinion on the LDS church. On any religion/non religion for that matter. They just are. They are also allowed to voice that opinion. (At least here in the U.S.) What baffles me is that every single LDS person who I've heard say that their "sacred" religion should not be discussed, joked about, defamed, etc. has voiced some intense opinions about other religions. Why would the LDS religion be off limits but Islam, for example, can be picked apart and ridiculed? Why do the things in Christianity's past, the history of the LDS church, etc. get a pass but other religions are evil? I'm not sure where this idea developed in some religious communities, including the LDS church, that their religion is off limits for discussion. Nonsense. It's a topic just like any other that anyone, anywhere, is allowed to discuss.
Getting specific to the LDS religion. Growing up I was taught, both at church and home, that people left the church either because they sinned, got caught, and were kicked out (excommunicated); left because they loved sinning more than God; or they were offended. The last one, from the tone of the conversations, was the most shameful. How sad that someone couldn't forgive their Brother or Sister in God and threw away their eternal salvation. "Tsk Tsk. You can't judge the church by it's people. People are imperfect. The gospel/church is perfect." "Pride goeth before the fall." I cannot even begin to estimate the amount of times I heard comments like that said about someone who no longer came to church. Being who I am, I internalized this. Making sure that I never became offended (for long) by something someone did or said. I didn't want to do anything that jeopardized my standing with God.
Knowing that I was gender fluid and sexually fluid from a young age I knew I needed God's salvation more than the normal church goer. Though I didn't have "labels" for my queerness until recently, I knew I was bad and wrong. I wanted to kiss and be with girls as much as I wanted to kiss and be with boys. The thought of being with a transgender individual was just as appealing. That, and more, would be the sexual fluidity. The gender fluidity is harder to describe and, quite frankly, I just don't feel like delving into it at the moment. Suffice it to say, my body was not all that I needed it to be. I wrote, and painted, a little about it. You can read that here. Bottom line is, I tried to be as pious as possible so that God would see all the good I had done and overlook the bad that I just couldn't seem to get rid of. That He had placed inside of me without offering an escape. There is no way I would throw away my eternal salvation because I was silly enough to get offended.
Then, about five years ago, I moved to Davis County, Utah. I had heard some weird stories about the LDS culture in Utah while growing up and assumed they were exaggerations and nonsense. I have a lot of friends who love their Wards (congregations) and their Bishops/Stake Presidents here in Utah. In fact, the first Ward we moved in to was loving and, taking out culture and skin tone, was relatively diverse and accepting of variations in worship levels. Diversity in Utah is very different from diversity in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up. I felt very welcomed and loved. I got to know some non-members (as the LDS refer to those who do not belong to the church) in the neighborhood and was surprised by the stories they told me. They even had a term for the initial getting to know them process which turned to being outright ignored. "Casseroleing." They were welcomed and invited to "neighborhood" (that means local Ward) activities. After they declined to go to church on Sunday/be baptized/talk to the missionaries, etc. they were ignored and no longer invited. They even said their children weren't allowed in some LDS families houses. I apologized for the ignorance of the few bad eggs and assured them they were always welcome in my home. At that point, I was becoming aware of the "us" vs "them" mentality that can exist in Utah but was still in denial about how prevalent and harmful it was since I was lucky enough to land in a welcoming and loving Ward.
We ended up moving about a mile away so we were in a different Ward. (In the LDS church you are expected, sometimes required depending on the Bishop in charge, to attend the Ward that coincides with your address. Attending another Ward is possible, your church records may or may not be transferred, allowing for total church involvement.) The new Ward was not as welcoming. Nothing terrible, just not quite as nice a fit for me. Remember, though, I wasn't going to let something like that get to me. I would joke with my friends about the people/ways things were done and keep going.
During that time the domestic violence in my home was escalating. I was getting more and more desperate to fix what was happening in my marriage. I spent several hours studying scripture, praying, reading conference talks (a worldwide meeting where the Prophet and other church leaders addressed the people of the church) and writing in a journal/workbook daily. I went to the temple as often as I possibly could. I needed God, then more than ever, to help and protect me. My best friends at the time convinced me to talk to both my Bishop and my therapist about what was going on. I will be forever grateful that I talked to both, otherwise I would not be where I am today.
Speaking to my bishop was quite frustrating. Unlike clergy in other churches, LDS clergy have very little training. They are just regular folk like you and I, with professions that rarely coincide with counseling people. The actions my Bishop took actually put me and my children in more danger than we were already in. He poked the bear and the bear charged. After my ex was arrested, I tried to speak to him and my Stake President about available training in the area so that actions like that were not made again with other families. They declined the training. They also made it clear that they were there for my spiritual support, nothing more.
Besides literally being put in harms way, which culminated in waking up zip tied one morning, they felt it was their duty as Priesthood Holders to advise me to stay with my ex and forgive him. They even held a special Sacrament Meeting (Sunday church meeting) in which they told stories of abusers who repented and never abused again (that is statistically almost unheard of, btw), the horrors of divorce, the sinful nature of those who get divorced, etc. all on the day my oldest son was set to receive the Priesthood for the first time and my family and my exes family were present. Priesthood leaders came to my home to try to convince me that I was breaking up my family and needed to give my ex a second chance. Even when I told them that this might have been the most recent offense but was certainly not the first. When I told them that our couples therapist, my therapist, the police officers that arrested my ex, and the domestic violence advocates that I had been referred to, all expressed grave concern for me and my kids, they told me to ignore those experts and remember that I had made a covenant in the temple to be married for eternity. They wanted me to put myself, and my children, in danger. Ignoring every expert, including the judge who signed a Protective Order and temporarily removed custody of our children from my ex, because I would be violating my temple covenants. I asked for different people to come visit me. That request was honored.
My ex was not investigated by the church. He moved to a different Stake (larger area made up of many Wards) so my Stake President said there was nothing he could do to ensure my ex was appropriately disciplined. In fact, in my exes new Ward, he was made the teacher for one of the youth groups. While a criminal investigation was going on, a Protective Order in place, and allegations severe enough that a judge would remove his own children from his care, he was placed in charge of children. To this day, he continues to be in positions where he is the teacher/leader of children. When I was sobbing in my Stake President's office, asking him why God would allow someone who broke every covenant he had made to work with children I was told that, "God has a plan that we don't always understand, and until (my ex) confessed of his sins there was nothing anyone could do about it. People lie all the time. We just have to trust that God knows what's best." (I do not speak about my children and their experiences with my ex. I provided a small amount of details to the judge that signed the PO. He felt the information provided warranted a suspension of custody. That's all you need to know about my horror with his assigned church positions.)
During this time I was scared and dumbfounded. One of my best friends at the time (one of the one's who had initially expressed concern and asked me to seek help) was a huge part of my life. We would talk on the phone for hours. About everything. When these harmful things started happening with my Priesthood leaders I would go to her with my concerns. One day I asked something along the lines of, "I don't understand how someone who claims to receive revelation from God for my family could put me in harms way. How can he call (assign) me to different church positions but not be able to know that he was harming me? How can he know someone's worthiness in a Temple Recommend Interview but not know if someone's lying?" These were genuine questions. I was distraught. I didn't understand and I needed to. My entire life was coming apart at the seams. How can a loving Heavenly Father allow his Bishop, who He called and gave special powers (mantle) of discernment to, to send me further into danger and then, do nothing to keep others from danger when I told him what was happening in our home? I believe I said something like, "How can he claim to know what's best for my family, and the other families in the Ward, if he can't even tell if someone is lying to him?" That's when my best friend told me I was personally attacking my bishop and the Priesthood and she couldn't talk to me anymore about those subjects. Well, guess what. That was kind of a big thing for me at the moment so as our conversations became less open and sincere, we grew apart and I haven't spoken to her, or my other best friend who followed her lead and told me the same thing, in years.
I wasn't offended. I was knocked completely on my ass. I was floundering and drowning in questions and concerns that I had never had before. I was too scared to talk to most people. I thought by keeping silent and pretending we were involved in a "normal" divorce, I wouldn't anger my ex and we could part ways quickly. Oh boy, was I wrong. By isolating myself and relying on my then support system, I watched as one by one, I was left behind as I had more and more questions about God, how revelation worked, the Priesthood, etc. My questions made them uncomfortable. The moment I allowed myself to start questioning though, I couldn't stop. More and more questions came. More and more surprising, and sometimes disturbing, answers came. Any time I tried to talk about what I'd found I was shut down. Any time I tried to find solace that someone would explain to me why _(insert any number of issues)_ had happened, and give me a reason to stay, I was turned away. No discussion. No empathy for my pain. No standing with me when I was in the absolute most need of comfort. So, I kept reading on my own. I talked to people who would talk to me and we shared what we had found and tried to make sense out of it all.
I decided that I would take a break from the church. Nothing major. I'd done it before when I was young and made my way back so I wasn't concerned. I decided that I was going to find out who I was without any exceptions. Without trying to make sure I fit into what the LDS church deems to be worthy of God's Celestial glory. (When you actually live with God and your family. Otherwise you don't get to be a family unit or live with God for eternity.) I laugh at myself now, because I was so silly. I'd wear a tank top and non-knee length shorts and have a story on hand about how I was going swimming in case someone from church or my family saw me. A week before my divorce finalized I went on my first date post marriage and panicked that someone would see me. Mind you, the divorce took over a year and a half so keep that perspective when you think of that. I didn't post any pictures of me in clothing that wasn't garment appropriate. (White clothing that is worn under your every day clothing reminding you of the covenants made with God in the Temple. Covered like a t-shirt and a pair of shorts that hit the knee.) Even going to far as to modify/crop photos from vacations. I was terrified for anyone to know that I wasn't going to church anymore. That's weird. What a weird, yet extremely common, thing to be scared of.
I found myself having to talk to my children's teachers and leaders about inappropriate comments being made to them. Such as, telling my then twelve year old, who is a child going through a contentious divorce, that he was the man of the house and needed to take care of me and his brothers. Placing unnecessary responsibility on the shoulders of my children merely because I am a woman. Pulling my son into a worthiness interview and asking him about his masturbation habits without even a hint to me that something so personal would be discussed. I would have dealt with these things divorce or not. The timing was not helpful to my already ongoing faith crisis. It's bad enough that I was being treated as less than, they did not need to pull my children into the mix.
Little by little, disputed line upon line, debunked precept upon precept, I began to find myself. I read everything I could get my hands on about religion, sexuality, gender, domestic violence, PTSD, healing, and so much more. I realized that all the shame I felt since childhood was unnecessary. It took a lot of hard work and healing on my part but I accepted my queerness. I even, quietly, embraced and celebrated it. At the same time I was unraveling the lies and deception from the abuse, I was unraveling what I thought and felt from what my church education had taught me I was supposed to think and feel. I allowed myself to just be. That simple. Just be. While, I certainly wish the journey had been less painful and traumatic, I'm grateful to be able to stand today firm in the love I have for myself.
I am still frustrated that the LDS church does not better train their clergy. I will continue to do everything I can to help bring awareness to that and to change that so that other families do not have to go through what I've gone through. Offended? No. That's laughable. Concerned for those in abusive relationships who attempt to go to their Priesthood leaders for help? Most certainly. That concern grows to disgust when I speak with Utah law enforcement who share stories of Priesthood leaders who involve themselves in cases, where they are the arresting officers, and convince the victims in the case to drop charges and go back to their abusers. When, while working as an advocate for both sexual and domestic abuse, people share story after story of coverup and denial by Priesthood Leaders. When more and more people share their stories of sexual assault by Priesthood leaders that went unchecked. When I read the statistics that Utah has higher than national averages for both domestic violence and sexual assault I was floored. We truly do have a health crisis here in Utah. This has nothing to do with offense and everything to do with keeping myself and my family safe. I'm not safe in the organization as it currently stands. I do not feel my children are safe either.
I was happy to work on education and, for the most part, just let things be. I still researched, and as I worked though my Religious Trauma Syndrome, or Post Traumatic Church Syndrome, I shared what I found. I expressed myself. I had decided not to hide my concerns or questions but I certainly didn't wage war on the church. I definitely did not consider myself anti-Mormon. I had thirty seven or so years of feeling like I wasn't good enough to work through. Almost four decades of listening to church leaders, Prophets, family, friends, etc. talk about how people like me were not worthy of the blessings they were worthy of just by being themselves. Having God and his judgement thrown in my face for wrong choices. Having my ex use attendance and worship as a weapon against me. I've got a lot to work through. So, guess what? I'm going to share my experiences. My intention is not to dismantle the church, my intention is to bring awareness and support to those who may be suffering the way I suffered because the church as a whole does not offer that support. So those who are struggling know there is help and better days ahead. I choose to stand with those who stand in need of comfort.
*More after photo.
When the new exclusion policy came into play last year, my live and let live stance was pushed to it's limits. I was happy to be on a break and casually discuss church topics as they pertained to me and my life/past struggles with the church. After thirty seven or so years I earned the right to talk about the church as much as I want, and in any way that I want. Period. Then the church decided my children needed protection from me simply because I am queer (gay). The church decided to keep it's special blessings from my children (who still attend with their father) because of me. It was personal before. Now they directly involved my children.
I expressed my pain, which included anger, with these paintings. Not only for my own personal pain. For all who have suffered because of harm inflicted by members and/or harm inflicted by church doctrine and policy. All of our blood and tears. All of our pain and suffering.
In those moments when I once again needed my LDS friends and family to stand with me as I needed comfort and was mourning for myself and my children, I received the opposite from a chunk of them. I had comments, private messages, texts, etc. in which they "lovingly" supported the decision of the church and even attempted to explain to ME why my children needed to be protected from me. I was met with, "You don't even go anymore. What do you care?" "You and your children deserve anything that happens to you. You should have thought about that before coming out publicly." "I had same sex attraction once in my life. I got over it." "This really is beneficial for your boys." "Your paintings hurt me. It's as if you're stomping on an American Flag." That's just a few of them. I think you get the gist.
I was devastated. My children, who still attend the LDS church, were going to be treated differently than all the other kids because I am queer. My heart was breaking for them. I believe in this whole agency thing. As in, it's their life, they get to choose if they want to be LDS and participate or not. That choice was stripped from them because of something I cannot change, nor do I want to change, about myself. You had better believe Mama Bear came out. I will not apologize for my anger. I know for a fact that every single person who spewed their "love" and "concern" for me would react similarly if their children were publicly singled out by a worldwide organization and punished for something they as a parent could not control. Like, all children of red heads, or brunettes. My queerness is as organic and as much a part of me as my natural hair color. It just is. If your child were singled out because of something you could not change about yourself, you wouldn't sit down quietly either. Yet, the response I received was not love and comfort for my concerns about myself and my children. It was more of the same old message. "Just shut up. You're not a part of us. But, if you'd like to go back to hating yourself and being miserable, we'll gladly welcome you back. Just don't ever say anything that disagrees with church policy."
As all of this was going on, I decided it was time that I started to become involved with local politics. That's when I learned that the LDS church has lobbyists that influence state law and policy. I cannot believe how naive I was. I was told the church doesn't involve itself in politics. And, like everything else, I blindly believed it. So, whether you are a member of the church or not, the church wants the laws of the state, country, world to reflect it's doctrines and policies. When I learned that, I remembered Prop 8 in California. (Oh, that was a doozy for me and up until recently I carried massive guilt about it.) The church sent letters to be read in Wards strongly encouraging it's members to make sure homosexuals could not marry. They're doing the same in Mexico, right now. They send missionaries to knock on people's doors to spread their gospel. They are actively attempting to spread their message both at people's homes and through their government. That's a big deal, and that alone, even if you don't have any personal experience with being a member of the church gives every citizen of the US, and any country the church has people in the very real responsibility and right to express their opinion about the church and it's policies. When the church, as an entity, involves itself in politics, it is absolutely okay for anyone and everyone those politics touch to express any and all opinions they have. Asking someone to leave your church alone when your church is actively attempting to put policies in place that effect their lives is ridiculous. You wouldn't stand for that for yourself so don't ask someone else to do that.
As if all of this wasn't bad enough, Utah's already higher than national average LGBTQ+ teen suicide rates went up. We lost four more this week. We have above average LGBTQ+ teen homelessness. A lot of this is due to families teaching their LGBTQ+ children that they're less than. That something is wrong with them. Kicking them out so they don't poison the rest of the family. I know. Even if I wasn't "out" I was taught those lessons. I hated myself. As an adult, I read the lesson manuals that I was asked to teach the youth. (I left certain passages out as I taught.) These teens need our help. These teens and the adults affected by the teachings and policies of the church need our help. They need the church's help. These teachings will continue unless the church chooses a different path. This is another health crisis Utah has. So, anyone who looks at these kids and wants to help them also has every right to speak out about harmful church policies.
Even with all of this, and this is just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to my personal experiences and the money/lobbying the church puts into government policies, I still have a mostly live and let live attitude toward the church. Why? With all the harmful things that have been said to me, with the harm that my leaders led me in to, with everything that has personally impacted my and my children's lives, I know too many good people who are LDS, or another religion, for me to hate religion altogether. It means too much to them. It supports and sustains them. It works for them. It is comfort and light for them and I would never dream of taking that away from them. They need it. That doesn't mean I'm going to suppress my own thoughts and words because it makes them uncomfortable. That's ridiculous. I have just as much right to share my opinions/testimony about the church as they do. Everyone does. Remember, the first point?
In closing, I'd like to bear my testimony in a meme. (hee hee) This is for everyone. Religious or not. This is what I believe. This is my motivation to be good. Love you. You will find links for resources at the bottom of this page. If you are struggling, there are people who can and will help. It does get better. There is good in this world. xoxo Alisa
The Trevor Project (A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth.)
Utah Domestic Violence Hotline