Why do I stay in a church?

Why do I stay? Why do I continue to attend Sunday service, weekly activities, and serve in callings in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? The answer is decades-long, decades of redefining, discoveries, and experiences. And even now my faith is evolving and moving. But I will try to capture it into words for a moment. 

For me, one of the most helpful discoveries concerning faith is the book Stages of Faith by James Fowler. He defines faith as a human phenomenon, a search for meaning that has nothing to do with religion. However, religion is one of the ancient designs humans have developed to create meaning. The book also breaks faith development down into six stages that correlate with human development. According to Fowler, stage three is a vital and important stage in the process of development; just like being a child, stage three has dichotomous thinking where scripture is literal and rules define what is good and what is bad: LDS garments are literal protectors and magical fabrics that separate the righteous from the sinners.

For some reason, many adults in this religion never progress past Fowler’s stage three ideas. I think it is because Mormonism is a fundamental religion that caters to and promotes stage three thinking; a lot of the curriculum, scripture, leaders, decisions, etc. use fear as a motivator and read scripture literally. This is frustrating; however, I have witnessed people’s movement from stage to stage and find that the process is fluid and beautiful in every stage.

I particularly love discussing life and discoveries with people described by Fowler as stage five. In stage five, LDS garments are just fabrics made in a factory; they are not magic. Meaning comes from within. Rituals are reminders of meaning. Stage five is full of paradox, ambiguity, curiosity, and acceptance. There are no bounds or rules or restrictions. People in stage four often leave their religion betrayed and disillusioned, and if they enter stage five, sometimes they return to their childhood religion in a new way. Most of the time, they don’t. Religion is not for everyone, but I like it. I stay because I have spent my life finding meaning in this theology. Not just finding deep and profound meaning through sacred conversations, study, and connections, but through unlearning, pushing back, tearing down, and creating space for my ideas. 

Like all history, the history of the LDS church is messy and full of human behavior. Racism, sexism, elitism, and selfism have caused incredible suffering in this church. I do not condone or support this behavior and I will never justify it or excuse it. It has hurt me and the people I love deeply. I have had to untangle myself from the cruelty, hate, fear, and division other humans have promoted through the pulpits of this church. However, this is not the church I stay in.

I read Sister Saints, a book about Mormon women since the end of polygamy, and in it Sonia Johnson, a spokeswoman for Mormon feminism, who “when asked why she belonged to a church whose rules she did not want to obey, she raised a larger issue of who constituted the church. ‘Well, I think they think it is their church,’ she observed. ‘But I felt as if it was my church too, you know.'” There is this assumption that men in history and men today are capable and able to tell me what God thinks, that they stand between The Divine and me; however, this has never worked for me. Like Johnson, I define faith and God and goodness for myself.

The Mormon church is not just the chaotic oppositional presbyterian church it started out as, or the politically deviant and violently persecuted church of polygamy, or the anti-democrat and anti-feminist regime, or the anti-gay and anti-historically accurate policies and ideas propagated by a few members who write history. It is me. This church is filled with people who choose to love and serve and listen and learn. People who have differing experiences and disparate backgrounds, people from all around the world who create their church with love, listening, and curiosity. A place where people heal. I don’t stay despite the horrors, I stay because it is my church too, you know.

I’m reading Fast Girls, a novel about the 1936 women’s Olympic team, and there is a story about a man who served in the military with his friends in WWI. None of his friends made it back alive. Years later, this man gets all dressed up in his uniform and excitedly takes his niece to a Fourth of July celebration in the town where a plaque is uncovered honoring the fallen men of the town who died for their country. As the names are read, the uncle wilts realizing that his comrades’ and dear friends’ names are not on this plaque. They are African Americans and the government did not see it “fit” to honor them in this way. The injustice is sickening, the ingratitude, ignorance, and dehumanization are appalling. That same African American veteran wears his uniform to the parade every year and waves the American flag from his porch. Not to support the plaque or racism, but to celebrate his country and his friends who died for that country.

The sickening ingratitude and ignorance of others are not his country, his friends died for his country. His country is black, free, and proud. There are two countries simultaneously existing side by side in the same town. Both are real. This story is heartbreaking and I hate it, I want to change it. I want to re-write history so that African American’s names are on that plaque, I want their lives to matter and be honored, celebrated, and valued. I don’t want this history. I don’t want the ramifications of it that are lasting and pervading. But they are real, and in a less dramatic and less horrible way, I see my story, too. 

The story that I see is a church that historically and currently excludes women from authority, leadership, speaking, decisions, design, finances, and creation. The ramifications of this on me personally have been devastating. It has taken me years to love myself, trust myself, and find value in being a woman without permission. I hold the wounds of my mothers and grandmothers. This church also excludes LGBTQ people from marriage and acceptance; the wounds fester for generations. Curiously, this church only excludes and oppresses everyone the leadership is not (female, colored, and queer) while honoring and celebrating everything the leadership is and understands.

We are all limited by our experiences and the doctrine of this church is clearly limited by its white, straight, male experience. This is real, it exists. But, simultaneously, another church exists with the same name. A church where women do not wait for permission, where no one defines God for another person or discredits another’s experience; where everyone belongs, especially the marginalized, the queer, the feminist, the questioning, and the confused. A church where there are no limits to faith, God, and Self. Where rituals are fluid and changing with the personal experiences of the people. I find this church in everyone, even the leaders who I believe are good. I will never trust them over myself, or let them stand between me and God again, but I recognize that they too are on journeys to find meaning.

I also recognize that the structure of this church changes and is influenced by people who leave and people who stay. I stay because my church is beautiful. It teaches me to find the divine in every person that I meet. To find and trust the divine within me. It reminds me how much I don’t know and to look for the beauty in the world. Like the history of America, I wish I could change the history of the church so that we don’t have to witness the wounds of racism, sexism, and exclusion. But they exist. No matter where I go it exists. And it is how I react to it now that matters.

Honestly, I don’t know why I stay. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can’t. But sometimes I need it and love it. I choose to stay, sometimes, in my way, in my church, but I appreciate people who leave. People who turn away from a history that hurts, and a current culture that promotes it. Their leaving helps the church learn, helps it change so all of the babies that are born into it now are raised with more information, more power, more courage. I feel like the veteran who dresses in his uniform on the Fourth of July. The uniform represents racism and a history of horrors but it also represents something else. Something beautiful that not everyone sees or understands. For him, that uniform does not represent their country, it represents his. The country where he lives and loves and learns. His country is just as real as theirs. And even if he can’t bear to wear the uniform anymore, his beautiful country still exists.