My Journey to Find True Belonging
“People just get too offended these days. That’s why they leave the church or go inactive. Your testimony is pretty weak if a little offense causes you to give everything up. If only inactives knew what they were losing.”
It was a Sunday in December 2014, and the Relief Society lesson was on a downward spiral. My tears were already flowing. I had struggled through Sunday school, knowing that people tolerated me but didn’t really care for my uncomfortable presence. I had just had an unpleasant conversation with the Relief Society President in which a simple request of mine to advertise a book exchange I was doing at my house was met with hostility. My book exchange was one last attempt to open myself up and connect with fellow ward members.
“I don’t know how anyone would choose the unhappiness of being outside of the church just because they were offended. I’ve been offended plenty and I’m sure I’ve offended other people too. You have to realize that people might not be perfect, but the church is perfect.”
I thought about my husband who hadn’t been to church in over a year and wasn’t exactly suffering at home. I couldn’t say the same for myself as I listened to this better-than-thou rant about inactive members of the church and how ignorant they are. I thought about my own feelings lately that it was time to walk away from my Mormon home. Usually at times like this I would open up my “church book,” This is My Doctrine, by Charles R. Harrell. That way I could immerse myself in deep critical examinations of Church Doctrine instead of letting my blood boil with rage because of the thoughtless commentary on people who can’t find belonging within the Mormon mold. But I was deeply saddened by the fact that my book had been missing for weeks and I couldn’t find it anywhere.
The word offense didn’t seem like quite the right word to describe what I had experienced in the last few years. Two years prior I had had a major breakthrough with a lot of questions I was trying to find answers to. I had a spiritual awakening that changed the core of my being. I was the same, but I was different. For the first time in a long time, I was actually fully engaged and excited about church, religion, and my faith community. I had discovered the feminine divine and felt a completeness where I didn’t even know there was a hole in my life. I had deeper love for people, a better understanding of struggles, and a huge desire for deep authentic connections with people.
I understood perfectly well how all of this would feel to people around me as I advocated for marginalized groups within the church such as women and the LGBT community. I had struggled for a very long time to come to the place I was at with everything. So I worked hard to find a balance at church. More than anything I wanted to continue to belong to the faith community that was my home. I knew the rules, I knew what I could and could not say, I knew how to fit in. But integrity also required that I put forth my authentic self. I saw examples of other people who were able to beautifully achieve this balance, and I hoped that I could as well.
But it didn’t take very long before I was being tattled on to the bishop for saying “Heavenly Parents” in primary. I was criticized and belittled by leaders, neighbors, people I thought were my friends. The day I was released from the primary presidency with public shame was the day that I lost any belongingness I had once had. I continued to sit through sacrament meetings by myself with four crazy kids long after my husband quit going. Every week was a series of increasing amounts of anxiety leading up to Sunday. Then I would plunge into despair every Sunday as I sobbed my way through church.
The winter of 2013 was a dark and depressing time for me. I could barely get out of bed, I cried constantly, had more frequent migraines, and became sick more often than I usually do. It might seem silly to experience so much psychological trauma over church. Brene Brown explains what I was experiencing beautifully in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.”
“We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbing, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.” The Gifts of imperfection, by Brene Brown, Pg. 26
Now I sat trying to hide my tears, surrounded by other women, feeling very alone. I prayed silently for some sort of acknowledgement that I was valued and understood. I just needed to know that someone cared, really cared about me and what was important to me. At that moment I looked up through my tears and saw the book I had lost on the piano. I knew then that I was okay just as I was. I was valued and understood. My sense of belonging came from a source that can’t be confined within the walls of a church. Sure, I knew the rules to fit in at church, but I would not find belonging there, at least not at that time, in that place. So I made my grand exit from church, tears streaming down my face, only stopping to grab my book off the piano as I walked out.
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our true selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown, Pg. 26
It’s been over a year now since I tried to find belonging in church. I am healthy, happy, and whole. Since that day I have found a belonging beyond anything I experienced by following the rules and trying to fit in. My belonging began with my own self-acceptance. When I let go of what other people would think of me, let go of the perfect Mormon girl that I was supposed to be, I was able to accept who I am and where my life has taken me. Not everyone will accept me as I am, and I’m okay with that. I can love them better as a whole and complete person who doesn’t need their approval.
Flash forward to this last Sunday. My ward has had a major overhaul, combining with three other wards. The leadership has completely changed. Over the last few weeks I have been asked many times whether I will come back to church now. On Sunday I went to church in my home ward for the first time in over a year. As I sat in the chapel on Sunday, curious about the changes, scrutinizing the new bishop, and wondering who the new Relief Society President would be, I fixed my mind on that question. Would I go back? No, definitely not back. I would go forward, whether that took me through the doors of church on Sunday or not.
Then the Relief Society President was called. As I looked across the aisle from where I sat, I was shocked to see a lady stand whom I know and love from another context besides church. She is in a yoga class that I teach, and part of community that I have worked to build over the year since I left my faith community. It was like the merging of two different worlds for me, one that had broken me with despair and heartache, and another that had healed me. I still don’t know what to make of it, but when I saw her stand, I felt a sense of belonging that I attribute to the same source that spoke to me when I saw my book on the piano. Someone understands and values me, and knows how to speak to my heart to tell me I belong.
Will I go to church again? Will I put effort into being part of this new community? I don’t know. Can I be my authentic self without being the target of hostility? Can I love my LGBT sisters and brothers and expect more from the church for them without being called a servant of Satan? Can I advocate for more equality for women and work with leaders to promote change without being belittled and publicly shamed? Will my presence at church help someone else to feel a greater sense of belonging? It’s a tall order, but I know that my mental health requires that I find belonging as I am without playing games to fit in. These are all questions I’m taking with me as I move forward in my quest to create space for more belonging in the church and in the world. For now, maybe I’ll take a cautious step forward, armed with a potluck dish for the meet and greet this Sunday. Maybe.