I don’t remember where I was when I first heard about the September Six. However, I do know that I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I read about it obsessively, trying to make sense of what was happening with my church. But there was only so much to read. There was no internet, no friends posting on Facebook, no storm of blog posts. I was just starting my freshman year at BYU, and leaving the church didn’t feel like a viable option. I don’t think I even really wanted to leave. But I felt like I had nowhere to go to process the anger and disillusionment I was feeling.
When I read the first NYT article about Mormons facing church discipline, by contrast, I immediately starting texting and emailing friends, who shared the shock and outrage that I was feeling. I’m finding it impossible to keep up with even a fraction of the online discussion. At church on Sunday, I skipped Sunday School with a couple of friends to discuss the situation.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about communities.
I love my local church community, where there are stake and ward leaders who take seriously concerns about things like the place of women. I love that when I moved into the ward and was open about being less orthodox, far from being shut down, I was called to teach Relief Society. I love that as an openly gay person, I feel accepted. I love that so many people in my ward read this blog and are not horrified by me. I love that while you will still hear the conventional answers to the conventional questions, there are other voices as well—and that when I am frustrated by things, I will not be alone. I may struggle with church attendance, but church is not a source of dread and anxiety, as it at has at times been in my life.
This is not to say that we do not have our problems and challenges. But I feel like my ward serves as a buffer. I hear the anti-gay rhetoric coming from Salt Lake, for example, but I know that many of the people in my ward see things differently. I don’t worry about my church membership being called into question.
But I can’t escape from the realities of a general church which is less sympathetic. And I think I’ve felt more and more distant from the church community as a whole over the years. When I find out that people are Mormon, far from feeling a common bond, I am often wary of them—worried that they will assume all kinds of things about me, that they will take for granted that the particulars of my beliefs match theirs. I listen to General Conference with trepidation rather than excitement. I avoid church magazines, because I usually encounter something that makes me want to tear them up. I think the distinction between culture and doctrine is often greatly overstated (“culture” is what you don’t like; “doctrine” is what you do). But regardless, when it comes to the broader church, I frequently find myself alienated from both.
As a friend in my stake recently put it, we are caught between a local community which wants us, and a church that doesn’t. Another friend frequently asks, is that enough? I do not have a good answer to that question. Because no matter how much I like my ward, we are still part of a church which subordinates women, a church which is utterly unfriendly to gay people, a church which valorizes obedience. A church which is currently threatening people who have publicly raised questions with excommunication.
And I don’t want to just hide out in my bubble and say, well at least it’s okay here. Because that’s not enough. Because so many of my fellow church members are not in spaces that feel welcoming or safe. Because the bubble is far from airtight: we might have our quirks, but we are still bound (and sometimes stifled) by the policies of the church. And what does it mean, I have to ask, to continue being a member of a church in which a ward like mine is not typical, but is an outlier?
Several people have recently asked me why I stay. It is certainly a question that I have asked myself in the past week. I have a profound belief in God, but I also have pluralist tendencies—I do not think God is to be found exclusively in the LDS church. I have a deep belief in and commitment to the basic doctrines of Christianity—but again, I could find those elsewhere. And there is so much in the church that is so hard.
Right now, though, I can see a couple of reasons why I’m not going anywhere. When it all comes down, I’m a believer—I find God in a particular way here that I do not elsewhere. And juxtaposed with the doctrines that make me crazy are doctrines that I love. I also feel stubborn: when I am told that I am not wanted in this church, a part of me bristles and responds: oh, yeah? I’m not leaving. But I think I say that all from a perspective of privilege. Because I might be in a very different place in the absence of a positive local community.