It’s my church too

I was lucky enough to grow up with unorthodox Mormon parents, who patiently listened to and sympathized with my teenage and college-age complaints about going to church: how boring it was, how my YW leaders could never answer my questions, how I often felt like I just didn’t fit in. And every conversation, at least in my memory, ended with a gentle reminder: “Remember,” they’d say, “it’s your church too.”

For years, this has been my Mormon mantra and rock of sanity. I may feel unwelcome sometimes, I may have the wrong opinions or habits or style, I may not agree with everything being taught in my ward or in General Conference, but in the end, if I want it, I have just as much claim to Mormonism as the person next to me in the pews. I’ve used this attitude to shrug off the small insults that tell me I’m out of place—being chastised for my style of teaching Relief Society, for instance, because someone was so offended by a small joke I made in my lesson outline email that they didn’t come to what was a very uplifting lesson, or having a BYU stake high counselor speak after me and begin his talk with, no joke, “I disagree.”   It’s their church, yes, but it’s also mine, and even though I may not ever be in a visible leadership position, I can stake out a small corner of the Mormon tent and say: here I am.

I still believe this, but lately the mantra has come to mean even more to me. A few years ago, stuck in an unhappy work situation, I realized that I was walking around angry all the time, a low-lying simmer of irritation that had me snapping at people who didn’t deserve it. With Lent coming up, I decided to give up anger: I started interviewing for new jobs, studied the scriptures focused on anger and peace, and, on evaluation, realized that church consistently provoked anger in me, my attachments to both Mormonism and feminism generating constant frustration and dissonance. I gave up going to Mormon services for Lent, and almost immediately felt increased peace as I explored other churches in the area on Sunday mornings instead. When Lent was over I still wasn’t ready to return, and for about a  year I was entirely inactive, though I still prayed regularly, read my scriptures, wore my garments, and paid my tithing.

At some point, I started feeling a pull to attend church again, and when I did I found that my anger had mostly faded: when I attend, I feel disappointed sometimes, and hurt at other times, but never that strong surge of rage I had gotten practiced at controlling in sacrament. My ward hadn’t even noticed I was inactive, which hurt my feelings a little bit—my husband and I had been in the ward for almost five years, and when we went almost a full year without attending we got no proactive contact from anyone in the ward—but part of “it’s my church too” means that I can’t be driven out simply by hurt, disappointment, or the all-too-human actions of a community.

The other part, though, is something I only full internalized through this experience: “it’s my church too” also means I get to define my relationship to that community, and to the church as a whole. While the last few years have brought some pain, they’ve also brought me a much stronger sense of empowerment in my relationship to Mormonism, as I get to carefully evaluate what practices I find valuable and how I want to practice them. I don’t have to attend church every Sunday to be Mormon, and nor do I have to read my scriptures daily or pay a full tithe or attend the temple regularly or do my family history or anything else a Sunday School answer can name. Sure, the church can set up boundaries of what those practices mean, but it’s up to me whether I care about those boundaries and how much I want to comply. I had questioned lots of Mormon practices before the last few years—I’ve never been good about family history, for instance—but I hadn’t fully internalized how much I could own my own religious experience.

A few years ago, upset at something said in sacrament meeting, I excused myself from the room so as not to burst into tears in public, and found a seat in the foyer to breathe deeply for a few minutes. While I was sitting there, debating whether to return to the meeting, the door opened and a woman walked in, accompanied by a teenage girl, both dressed in jeans and looking around uncertainly. I asked if I could help, and the woman asked, in some evident relief, if I knew where the service was. I got up and showed her down the hall to the meeting, and, when we noticed there weren’t any empty chairs, helped them find and set up folding chairs to sit in for the remainder of sacrament meeting.

Sometimes real life is just perfectly metaphroical, and that experience has stuck with me: my sitting outside helped that woman and girl find the inside, and I forgot about my own distress in helping them get settled. These days, my church experience is fluid, not fixed—I teach Relief Society monthly, and go to sacrament meeting a few times a month, when I feel the pull of the sacrament—but I’m much happier overall, making choices based on “it’s my church” too rather than what others expect. My observances may not be orthodox, but they’re mine, and in defining my own ownership I can both aim for healing, giving myself the time and space to catch my breath, and for holding space: if I’m a Mormon and I do X, or don’t do Y, the Mormon tent has to stretch over my little corner, and can be that much more welcoming for someone in jeans wandering in from outside, wondering where the service is. It’s their church, yes, but it’s also mine, and if it can be mine, it could be anyone’s.

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. We sometimes think it’s just the Church of Jesus Christ. We forget that it is also the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Joseph called it a theodemocracy. We often neglect the democracy part. Of course, so did Joseph, but he wasn’t perfect either.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I’ve just started reestablishing some links with the church after a months-long mental health break, and it’s so helpful to hear that someone else is also creating a custom relationship with the church that isn’t on the traditional terms.

  3. I really love this, Petra. Even as my path has gone in a different direction, I can relate to some of what you say here—I feel like the realization that I could take ownership of my religious life has been a major thing for me. For years my therapist would observe that I often expected authorities of some kind to tell me what to do, and I would feel annoyed and tell him that wasn’t the case, that I resisted authority. And of course there were situations where that was definitely true. But I didn’t appreciate the extent to which even as I’d challenged patriarchy, for example, I’d internalized the idea that I didn’t get to be the ultimate authority about whether certain religious practices were beneficial for me. I found it incredibly difficult to take my own experience seriously, and to let it be a factor in making decisions. Anyway, it makes me happy to read about your claiming your corner of the Mormon tent.

  4. I love this so much, Petra. I love in particular your point about how the Church can decide what boundaries to set up connected to what practices, but that it’s up to you to decide how much you care about them or whether or how much you want to comply. I’ve kind of come to a similar place, although I don’t know that I’ve ever quite articulated it this clearly. I engage where I want to, and try to ignore the parts that irritate or don’t connect with me.


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