I grew up mostly outside of the Mormon bubble, in Phoenix’s West Valley and then in Columbus. Because of this, I had more friends who weren’t Mormon than who were. In middle school, I ate lunch with a Catholic, a Christian (of some sort), a Muslim, a Jew, and a handful of kids who weren’t really anything at all, religiously-speaking. When I moved to Phoenix’s East Valley, which is a lot more homogeneous than the West Valley, people split up into two groups: Mormons and people who liked Mormons and everyone else. I had friends from both groups. Because I hadn’t grown up in the same school district as everyone else, lots of the people who weren’t Mormon didn’t know I was. When a Baptist friend figured it out, she invited me to church with her, and quickly. I went once, but was put off by how casual the whole thing was. I guess I thought church should be a sacrifice.
I told Robert I was Mormon right away. The first day we met. I was defensive about it. I didn’t want him to think I was brainwashed or blind or just raised to accept everything without questioning. “I tried other religions,” I said. I hadn’t really, unless you count going to a Catholic church and a Baptist church one time each, lighting the menorah and eating delicious latkes with a friend’s family for Hanukkah, and eating lunch regularly with a Catholic, a Christian (of some sort), a Muslim, and a Jew. “I also tried not being Mormon,” I said. I hadn’t really done that either, unless you count sleeping in a bunch of Sundays during my first few years of college. “It’s Mormonism or nothing.” I meant that last part. I always figured if I was going to follow rules and pray to a God, I might as well follow the Mormon rules and pray to a Mormon God. If the Mormon church wasn’t true, why bother with any of it?
I used to tell people I was grateful I was born into this life, because would never sign up voluntarily, not with its recent history of intolerance. As I grew older, I realized that there are very few institutions I would sign up for voluntarily, especially if I made historical and even current discrimination a deal-breaker. I mean, the school that gave me my law degree was established in 1917 and didn’t graduate a woman until 1871. The difference between the Mormon church and my law school is that the school was the first public law school to admit a woman and by 1890 had graduated more women than any other law school. The Mormon church isn’t that progressive. But how many churches really are? Again, if I’m going to follow rules and pray to a God, I might as well follow the Mormon rules and pray to a Mormon God, right? Otherwise, why bother?
As it turns out, that’s not a good reason to devote your life to a religion. Because there are lots of churches that are way more progressive than the Mormon church, and that people find very fulfilling. Here’s just one example, that I’ve recently discovered. In Chicago, there’s the LaSalle Street Church. One of my former co-workers and also one of my new co-workers are members of this congregation. They preach about how God is a man and a woman. Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother, too, but we aren’t allowed to talk about her. They partner with the Cabrini Green Legal Aid to serve low-income communities in Chicago. Mormons are all about service, but sometimes we focus too closely on our own congregations. When I read the invitation on the website, “Are you looking for a worshiping community committed to social justice?” I want to shout, “Yes! Here I come!” I wonder why I’m devoting my life to the religion that plods along so slowly when there are people doing such good things in the name of everything I also believe. But that’s not really what I’m wondering. What I’m really wondering is why the Mormon church can’t just be more like the LaSalle Street Church. And how can I change things?
I don’t know if I can articulate an answer to that question today. Luckily, Joanna Brooks formulated the beginnings of an answer for me, in a recent Ask Mormon Girl column. I’m going to excerpt her words here, although I recommend clicking over to read the whole post, which is an answer to a pleading 19-year-old progressive Mormon woman, who asks “How can I continue to pursue what I consider to be ‘the good fight’: searching for truth and healing wherever I see hurt, without throwing my hands up and ceding my soul to either thoughtless submission or despairing nihilism?” Brooks says:
No, it’s not easy to be a young progressive Mormon woman. And it would be a mistake for you to spend these precious years in your early twenties trying to solve Mormon cultural and religious problems that have been more than a century in the making.
This is your time to make your life, and dear one, your life is going to be awesome. My advice to you is this: go away, and go big. Not from your faith, not from your family, but do go away from the most familiar haunts of cultural Mormonism. . . . I want you to . . . find the remote corner on this earth where you are the only Mormon, and when you get there, you plant your feet, work hard, develop a sense of your authority, and proudly project what you love about this faith. As you do, you will help define the future of the Mormonism.
My suspicion is that for Mormons like you and me it may be easier to represent as proud unorthodox Mormons in the outside world than it is to stay inside fighting old battles. (In any event, they’ll be waiting for you when you come back.)
Plus, this world needs Mormon women like you—with brains, education, opportunity, guts, compassion, a pioneer work ethic, and the burning-in-your-heart conviction that this life is really about spiritual growth.
Church is not the only place to practice your religion. There is a lot of territory in this big old world. And there’s a lot of need. Hold onto the basics of your faith. Travel light. And go kick some *#$. As a proud twenty-first century Mormon girl.
And this will be my last post about religion for a while, I think.