One of the reasons that I decided to go with Barry on his ‘Journey to Enlightenment’ was because of the situation I found myself in when my grandparents left the church 30 years ago. They had joined a new church because of the new doctrine they had discovered about Mormon history. They were converted to a new church that had given them testimony destroying information about the Mormon Church that they had been converted to 15 years earlier.
Once they were converted to this new church, they began to share their newly discovered doctrine with other family members. When my grandparents and then my brother-in-law began to share this new information with me I took in their new doctrine and revised history of the church. After looking at it carefully, I decided that their new church was not for me. I preferred the doctrine of the Mormon Church and therefore decided to stay in it.
So as I shared my recommitment to the Mormon Church with my family members that were reviewing the information my grandparents had given them. In the process of doing that I realized that my grandparents and I had become combatants. We were in a war over ideas and each of us was equally convinced that our church was right. For the next 10 years, until my grandmother died, every time I visited her we argued about who was right.
Today, I regret my decision to go to war with her over our differences in what we believed about God and religion. Because we were always arguing about religion, I missed the opportunity to get to know her. My grandmother and I had a great relationship when I was a child. Then in my 20’s, my grandparents moved to Salt Lake where they went on a mission and became temple workers. I was in the military and then lived in Oregon and Arizona, so I didn’t see them for about 10 years. When we started to visit each other again, I was almost 30 years old.
As a child, we had a lot in common. Grandma’s house was always a great place to visit. Now that we were in different churches and both believed we were in the only true church, our relationship became hostile. Instead of enjoying my grandmother and getting to know her as an adult, I dreaded our visits and she felt like she had to tell me what she had learned about the negative aspects of the Mormon Church and I felt like I had to defend my religion.
At that time, I thought my only mission to my family was to defend my churches doctrine and stop family members from becoming converted by my grandmother to her new church. In effect, I had to make a choice between my religion or a positive relationship with my grandmother. I chose my religion. In hindsight, that was a bad decision. Because of that decision, I did not give myself the opportunity to get to know my grandmother as an adult. She was an outstanding person. She had lived a rich live with many experiences that I could have learned from. She had much to teach me. I can see now that I missed out on a very unique and valuable experience.
Now I realize that I did not have to make a decision between defending my testimony of the Mormon Church and having a positive relationship with my grandmother. I could have had both of them. I could have defended my religion and had a great relationship with my grandmother. But at the time I didn’t know how to do that. I can honestly say that I was strong in my convictions, but weak in my understanding of family relationships. What I have learned since then is that if my religious convictions are extremely important to me then my family member’s religious convictions, whatever they might be, are equally important to them.
It is April and the LDS General Conference is on TV. I just listened to a General Authority give a talk on his perspective of how to continue to love a family member who leaves the church. In his talk, he was describing his method of how to love a lost family member back into the church. All of his ideas were good ones. There were a few things that he didn’t address in his talk that I would like to comment on.
As the General Authority was listing the things a family can do to encourage a lost family member to come back to the church, one of the things that he referred to but didn’t discuss was the active family’s expectation that the family member would eventually come back to the church. We all know that the active family hopes that their loved one will return to the church some day. If they don’t, then they will lose their eternal salvation and their place in the eternal family unit. This is the hope and expectation of the active family.
But, it is not the hope or expectation of the lost family member. They have severed all ties with the church and have no intention of ever returning, regardless of how detrimental this may be to their eternal salvation. The fact that their active family members expect them to return is offensive to them. Even being viewed as “Lost” is offensive.
To this family member, the fact that all the love their family is showering on them is simply designed to motivate them to come back to the church is abhorrent to them. It seems that active family members do not see their how odd their actions are from the perspective of the person that has left the church.
This is the problem I had with my grandmother and that I was going to have with Barry when he left the church.
Here is how the person who left Mormonism feels about his family’s extreme expressions of love.
- Leaving the church was a very traumatic experience for them. It was life changing. If it was recent, then they are still going through the grieving process. This means they are in denial, angry, frustrated, … What everyone needs when they are grieving is support from their loved ones. I don’t know of anyone who wants to be left alone during this fragile period of time in their lives. Those who are closest to us are our best source of comfort during these tragic times. So, why is it that our family members leave us alone while we are grieving? What the General Authority explained in his talk was that the family members of a lost member need to keep in touch with them. Invite them to family activities and let them know they are welcome. I agree with this approach. But, is that enough? Is that all the lost family member wants from their family?
My experience is that they want much more than just to be kept in the loop of family activities. I believe they want to be talked to, comforted, understood, validated, etc. If a family member that I was close to died, what would I expect my other family members to do for me? Would I want them to ignore me, except to notify me of family activities that they want me to attend? Would I want to attend the family activities they are inviting me to if they have ignored my pain and my loss between those activities? If I did show up for the activities, would they then console me and share in my grieving, or would they act as if nothing had happened so they would not offend me?
There is a standard protocol for comforting a grieving person. We all know what it is. So why don’t we apply that protocol to a family member who has left the church and is grieving because they have lost a lifestyle that had previously been very important to them.
My experience is that a family member who leaves the church wants the other family members to grieve with them and comfort them, just as if someone close to them had died. This means the other family members need to talk to them about what they have lost. Not with the intent of making them take back what they had just given up, but with love, understanding for what they are going through, empathy for what they have lost, and sympathy for their pain of losing something that was important to them.
If the only reason I am reaching out to this family member is to get them to take back what they have just given up, how sincere am I about how they really feel? Am I more concerned about how I feel, or how they feel? Am I reaching out to them so I will have them back in my comfortable family environment, or am I reaching out to them to comfort their pain and help them through the grieving process?
In other words, am I keeping my family member in the family loop because they need me or because I need them? My intentions are admirable either way, but which way shows unconditional love or which way shows that I love my family member only if they return to the families church? In most cases, if my family member does not return to the church, then I will have a very limited relationship with them, regardless of the relationship I had with them before they left the church.
My experience is that the attitude I have just described is more prevalent in the church than we would like to acknowledge. Why is that? The reason is pain.
As an active member of the church, I will feel pain if I have to:
- Listen to negative things about my church that may affect my testimony.
- Listen to and feel the pain of my family members grieving.
- Open up my mind to new concepts that I will not understand and cannot refute.
- See another person’s point of view that will make me cry.
- Defend what I believe, even though I can’t.
The second thing that was missing was that the family members never talked to the person about why they left the church in the first place. Everything the GA said in his talk was how the family created the environment of love and acceptance for the lost family member and her children. According to the talk the family had always made it known to the lost member that she was welcome at family events and they continued to care about her. He did not say that she ever attended those family events or acknowledged their efforts at showing her their love. What he did not say was that the family members discussed with the child or sibling why she left the church in the first place. If they had done this, then I believe the family member would have attended those family events, felt their love and the relationship would improve, creating the very thing everyone wants… Family Unity.
That experience was one of the reasons why I had to keep my communication open with Barry. Barry is as strong in his convictions about life as I am. If I created a division between him and the other family members in an effort to protect them from what Barry was trying to teach them, I would be destroying the family unity I had spent years trying to create.