Dear Elder Ballard,
This past Sunday you asked the 15 million members of the LDS church where they will go and what they will do if they leave the church. I’ve been trying to answer those questions myself for the past ten years so I thought I would respond.
It would be easier – and more satisfying – to simply say it’s better on the other side of orthodoxy, but that hasn’t always been my experience. The truth is that there is a tremendous amount of loss in leaving. Yes, I’ve been able to see the world with different eyes. Yes, I’m grateful for the freedom of ideas that has expanded my view on a number of important issues. I wouldn’t change that.
But before being able to have gratitude for a new perspective, I had to figure out how to deal with the loss. Questions about the origins of the Book of Mormon and the implementation of polygamy and other queries surrounding Joseph’s account of the founding of our faith soon led to much larger questions: Is the Priesthood real? Is there such a thing as modern day revelation? Will I see my loved ones again after they die? Does God even exist?
Those questions left me with a pit of existential despair unlike anything I’d known. They were all I could think about. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I read and read and read. I prayed even though I wasn’t sure anyone was listening. It took all I had just to get out of bed every morning; to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I had no idea where to go or who to talk to. I had friends who had left the church who wanted – perhaps needed – me to be happy on the other side of belief. And the people of faith in my life either didn’t want to discuss it or admonished me to give up my doubts and come back to what I’d previously known. But I couldn’t find a way to un-know what I’d learned about the history of the church, which was miles and miles apart from what I’d been taught in seminary or on my mission or at BYU.
What I was going through was not just depression, but grief. Stomach-dropping, soul-crushing, I-don’t-think-I-can-do-this grief. What I needed was for someone to sit with me in that grief and hold the space open for me to question all I’d known without any part of our relationship being in jeopardy.
One of the things Mormons are usually best at is taking care of each other in times of loss: they bring casseroles and tend to the yard and take care of your little ones and remember to check in on you and reassure you that you haven’t been forgotten. But the thing that I’d always relied on from my Mormon community was nowhere to be found in the wake of my faith crisis. I was desperately trying to plant my feet as I looked up at an oncoming tidal wave of grief, and I was standing to face it alone.
Fortunately, I found tree branches to hold onto along the way – keeping my head above water for just long enough to catch my breath before being pulled back under. But I know far too many who were swallowed up entirely, whose branches broke or who couldn’t find their own life-saving branches to begin with. What if someone had been willing to sit with them and just listen, as many times as it took, until the pain of doubt and betrayal could subside and make way for the beautiful possibilities that rise up from an acceptance of not knowing?
The questions “where will you go?” and “what will you do?” add shame to grief. They are questions that produce hopelessness and despair. They are questions that lead, inexorably, to casualties.
What if the questions instead were: How can we make room for you here? How can our tent be big enough for those with doubt and disbelief, with disagreement and difference, to feel included within our broad Mormon family?
What if the things we most wanted to know were: How can we welcome you back? How can we keep you safe when the waves come? How can we show you that – no matter what – you are loved and wanted here?
I believe those are the questions the One whose name this church bears has been asking all along. They are the questions I hope we will start asking each other. What we need in the wake of a tsunami of loss is not a rebuke. What we need is for someone to reach out and extend an olive branch.