ATHENA: I recently realized that I never heard either of my parents utter that familiar testimony-bearing expression, “I know the Church is true.” They were both raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the children of Mormon pioneers. They raised me and my siblings in the Church. They never said they didn’t think the church was true, but they never said they did, either.
My parents committed – together – early in their relationship, to raise their family in the Church. They quietly did all the checklist things: family home evening, family prayer, scripture study, tithing, temple attendance, genealogy work, etc. Competent and conscientious, they were also shy people and avoided notoriety. They could lead, but they preferred behind-the-scenes roles: ward clerk, organist, visiting and home teaching.
My mother, a gifted musician, enjoyed performing, but when it came to church music she preferred accompanying over solo work. She taught, coached, and playing in the background, receiving little credit for her efforts. My father, introverted and shy, attended Toastmasters to learn to speak publicly. Once local Church leadership discovered his oratory skills, they made him a stake high councilor and sent him on guest speaker assignments to the local wards. He labored over his talks, writing down exactly what he wanted to say. He enjoyed writing; the speech-delivering, not so much.
Maybe I didn’t hear them say it because they tended to live their faith rather than share their testimonies. When they did talk, they said things like “faith can sustain you in dark times,” and “the Savior’s sacrifice is a gift intended for everyone,” and “if we love one another, everything else will take care of itself.”
Now, though, it looks to me like their seemingly compliant approach allowed them to live their faith in a way that made sense to them.
They had a lot to make sense of. As Depression Era children, just growing up was perilous. Born fourteen-hundred miles and fourteen months apart, they still had much in common: alcoholic fathers, disenfranchised mothers, large and unruly families, suffocating poverty, and no hope for change. Somehow they broke free, forged new paths, and found each other at BYU. The Church brought them together and provided a safe haven within which they could function, so of course they committed to lives of Church service. They felt they owed the Church a debt.
Why, then, did they not say they believed the Church was true? The only possible answer is that they didn’t believe it – at least not in the way you might think. Their exacting natures precluded them from declaring fealty to something that rang hollow, so they drew a distinction between the truthfulness of the gospel and the truthfulness of the Church.
The Church offered social and cultural safety, but they still wanted to maintain ties with their broken and wildly diverse families – people they loved, warts and all. Keeping those relationships alive meant holding space for those who did not share their beliefs. They learned to look past individual differences. And again, their actions spoke for them: If you’re family, you’re welcome. If we can help you, we will. If you’re hurting, we’ll comfort you. They did not draw lines of exclusion; they erased them.
The Church retention rate for my siblings hovers around 40%. My parents fought to keep their family together through various explorations of adolescence, gender identity and sexual expression, and evolving spirituality. They kept loving us individually, collectively, and unconditionally. They struggled, they were uncertain, they worried, but they never flinched.
This determination to practice unconditional love cost them social and political standing at Church. I saw the side-eye. I heard the whispering: Do you know what their daughter did? Did you hear about their son’s latest? Did you see that they let so-and-so move back home after what they did? I saw someone standing in their front yard, doing…you know….
No matter. The god they believed in required them to love everyone fully and without judgment. They weren’t perfect, but they tried, and this is why I am sure they are spinning in their double-decker grave as the Church triples down on teachings that require members to choose between loving as Jesus loves or following the brethren.
Messages like Russell M. Nelson’s recent BYU talk or this week’s talk by Dallin H. Oaks at General Conference Leadership meeting would make my mother weep at the threat of separation from her beloved children in the heaven she had been taught to aspire to. My father would pace the room, and possibly excuse himself to tend to an urgent need (which would then morph into spontaneous phone calls to check on his kids).
Late in their lives, they each told me that they believed in a loving God who would not force them to give up their children for any reason. They believed this despite the brethren relentlessly telling LDS followers that they have no hope of spending eternity in God’s presence unless they cut off their relationships with the wayward family members the Church purports to save.
They knew the real truth: you can either choose the covenant path, or you can follow Jesus. My folks chose to love as Jesus loved. They knew they could not satisfy both sets of expectations: They had become nuanced, “cafeteria” Mormons so they could stay in the Church and still keep their faith in the gospel.
Although they chose to stay in the church, they did so to exert their positive influence and neutralize hurtful practices whenever possible, and they refused to isolate themselves from those who made different choices. I can’t speak for anybody else, but there’s no doubt that I, my siblings, all our kin, and Jesus himself will always be welcome in my parents’ eternal dwelling, regardless of where it might be located. That sounds pretty much like heaven to me.
President Nelson, Elder Oaks, and their cohort should be so lucky.
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3 Replies to “My Parents were Closeted, Nuanced Mormons (and you can be one, too)”
Thank you for this kind and compassionate article. Many of the things you wrote about were also true in my family.
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Thank you for sharing this. I realized recently that I’ve been skipping meetings (including Gen Conf) where I have to sustain the leaders because I’ve been struggling with how they are running their church. I couldn’t even get through Pres. Nelson’s talk in the Women’s Meeting because he started saying that no woman should feel abused or badgered by a priesthood leader… and all I can think about is McKenna Denson and that other victim and just the other things he’s done that diminish women. I stay because I believe the Gospel is true, but not necessarily the church.
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