I grew up Catholic, attending CCD and going to mass every Sunday morning. I loved the stories, particularly those of female saints and their courageous lives and violent deaths. At times I loved being amongst the pews and stained glass windows, while at other times my dad had to come find me hiding in the basement and drag me to church. By 16 years old I knew I couldn’t reconcile my love and respect for my priest and CCD teachers with the homophobia and misogyny of the Catholic church. So I chose not to be confirmed. And it really wasn’t that big of a deal. My parents, my grandmother, even my aunt who is a nun all accepted that I had to make that decision for myself.
I can only begin to imagine what it would mean to live and leave a life that revolves around your religious faith. What it would be like to know your parents are sure you won’t join them in the afterlife because you are gay. What it would be to leave your church and have your marriage end at the same time because it was always a relationship that had more to do with God than one another. What it would be like to contact your church and tell them to remove your name. You are no longer a believer, and in turn no longer a part of that community.
This past week I met a number of people who, as former Mormons who grew up in and around Salt Lake City, have had exactly these experiences. And not surprisingly, it’s complicated. Under the mantle of religious freedom, many of us are quick to judge and pick apart any religious faith, especially one that is so new and insular. My secular skepticism has kept me from thinking deeply about what it means to empathize with those in the Mormon church, and those who have broken away from it.
Playing shows for former Mormons and their loved ones in Salt Lake City gave me a chance to think a bit harder about what it is to leave behind the community you grew up in, knowing that the people you love will never be shaken in their beliefs that you can’t join them in the Celestial Kingdom; To reckon with how sad that makes them; To reckon with how sad that makes you.
I don’t believe in God, at least not as Christian faiths conceive of God, and I have no interest in returning to the Catholic church, but I do miss what it felt like to say Hail Mary in the closet with my glow-in-the-dark rosary beads when I was eight years old. I haven’t been religious for more than 13 years, and I’m still trying to figure out how to fill the emptiness that exists in the absence of prayer.
And all of that exists within me without having to completely re-conceive of my family and community. I had met few Mormons in my life before my week in Salt Lake City. I am filled with respect and gratitude for those who shared their stories with us while we were in Utah. It takes a lot of bravery to leave the life and place you grew up in. And a whole other level of bravery to leave the religion, but not the place: the bowl that is Salt Lake City, surrounded by mountains and deserts. Like another planet, one that could make you entertain the thought of a divine being.