LA Times Cover Story, 12/1: Mormons who quit church ostracized

December 1, 2001

Losing Faith and Lots More

Mormons who quit the church find themselves ostracized by friends, co-workers and even families. Annual gathering offers support, shared experiences.

By WILLIAM LOBDELL, Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- It took 16 months for Suzy Colver and her husband to work up the courage to officially quit the Mormon church, worried about what would befall them once word of their defection spread through their Mormon-dominated town of Ogden, Utah.

They didn't have to wait long. Instantly, Colver said, her family became the neighborhood pariah. She lost every one of her Mormon friends, even though she'd been a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' prestigious Relief Society. She wasn't asked to volunteer at her kids' elementary school anymore. Her decision was so unspeakable, she said, that when her brother-in-law visited he was afraid to even acknowledge it, despite the coffee maker on the counter and bottle of chardonnay in the refrigerator--both Mormon taboos.

"If Mormons associate with you, they think they will somehow become contaminated and lose their faith too," Colver said. "It's almost as if people who leave the church don't exist." Colver, a 33-year-old mother of three, was among a group of ex-Mormons who gathered here recently to wrestle with problems that plague some who leave the church but remain in Utah and other communities heavily dominated by Mormons: rejection from Mormon spouses, children and relatives; the disappearance of Mormon friends; the end of a social life; a sidetracked career.

How, they asked each other at the inaugural Ex-Mormon General Conference, can you carve out a regular life within the immense shadow of the clannish Mormon church, which claims roughly 70% of Utah residents as members?

"In Utah, the church has created an almost impossible box to climb out of," said Sue Emmett, the 60-year-old great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young. She left the church in 1999.

Tales of ostracism are familiar in other close-knit, conservative religious communities. In some circles of Orthodox Judaism, for example, families will consider a relative who marries outside the faith dead, even observing the Jewish mourning process. Some Latino mothers weep for their sons who turn their back on the Catholic church. And the Amish banish anyone who leaves their faith from their community.

But only in Utah and pockets of neighboring states does a single religion have such a dominant hold over nearly every aspect of society. Which was why Colver, Emmett and about 60 other heretics held their gathering at a symbolic place and time: a block from Salt Lake City's Temple Square, where 21,000 faithful Mormons had flocked to the church's 171st semiannual General Conference. They told stories, often tearfully, of the prejudice they encountered upon leaving.

One recalled volunteering to say grace at a Thanksgiving dinner, only to be stopped by her mother, who said, "You can't. I don't know what you'd say."

Another expressed relief after moving out of state to a non-Mormon neighborhood: "It was so nice to go to the grocery store and know no one's going to look down on you."

A third told of the pain she felt from her grown children, who believe she's been influenced by the devil: "They see me as an enemy, as a heretic and as a threat to their children," she said.

In Mormon country--a strip of states from Montana and Idaho in the north to Arizona in the south--Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members make up huge majorities in many communities.

The 11-million-member church is one of the fastest growing religious organizations in the world, adding 40% to its membership each decade since 1960, church officials say. The church says it doesn't release the number of Mormons who drop from the rolls.

Church Elder Tad R. Callister said the church recognized its shortcoming when it recently released its "Doctrine of Inclusion," which implores members to better embrace nonmembers--whether people of other religions or former Mormons.

"We're imperfect people . . . [but] we want it to be said that we're the best neighbors in the world," Callister said.

The author of the inclusion doctrine, Elder M. Russell Ballard, acknowledges that he occasionally hears "of members offending those of other faiths by overlooking them and leaving them out. This can occur especially in communities where our members are the majority."

Ballard, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said he's also heard about "narrow-minded parents" who won't let their children play with children who aren't in the church.

"I cannot comprehend why any member of our church would allow these kinds of things to happen," he said.

Most at the conference of ex-Mormons said serious doubts about the faith's authenticity drove them away.

Mormons believe "the one and only true church" of Jesus Christ was restored to the Earth by the prophet Joseph Smith in the 1820s.

A primary source of attack by critics is the Book of Mormon, a sacred text for the church called "Another Testament of Jesus Christ." Mormon tradition holds that the angel Moroni--a resurrected ancient American prophet and warrior--led Smith to gold plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York.

Engraved on the plates, Mormons believe, were holy writings by ancient Americans in "reformed Egyptian," a combination of ancient Hebrew and Egyptian hieroglyphics used by Americans who had first emigrated here from Jerusalem about 600 years before Christ. Viewing the plates through special stones and devices, Smith is said to have deciphered the writings.

"It has no factual basis," said Steve Benson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist with the Arizona Republic and grandson of Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson. "Once a crack of truth in the dam emerged, it wasn't long before the whole superstructure broke loose. Soon I was swimming in the intellectual ocean of freedom."

Others, like Colver, say the church's relentless push for volunteer duty drove them away.

Colver, a breast cancer survivor, said the pressure reached a breaking point one Sunday as she lay in bed after another a round of chemotherapy, unable to do much of anything. Even when she needed to vomit, her husband had to sit her up and hold the pan.

She then got three consecutive calls from leaders of her church. They asked her if she was absolutely sure she wanted to give up her post in the Relief Society.

"We just don't want to deprive you of the blessings," they told her.

"There I was, lying in bed--sick, bald, scarred from surgery, and I don't know if I'm going to live or die," Colver recalled. "I told them, 'Go ahead! Deprive away!' "

At turns, the three-day ex-Mormon event resembled a self-help recovery group, an academic seminar, a class reunion and an all-night college party.

The former Mormons, from young adults to seniors, drank coffee and Cokes in the morning and martinis and beer in the evening, and the women wore sleeveless blouses--all against church teaching.

"This is the second year I've had brown shoulders," said Lindy Parsons, a 34-year-old mother of three from Harrisville, Utah, showing off her tan. The first thing she did when she quit the church? "I went down to Victoria's Secret and bought some real underwear."

Humor masked much bitterness. All participants said they'd lost major pieces of their lives after they walked away from the church.

Parsons says her Mormon neighbors--nearly her entire community--shunned her. When her husband had a grand mal seizure, she said, a church official passing by warned a neighbor, "Don't enter that house. The man is possessed by the devil."

Then she stumbled upon the www.exmormon.org Web site, an online gathering spot for former Mormons created in 1995 to fill the social vacuum left after exiting the church. "It's a halfway house for many of us," said cartoonist Benson of the site that now gets 3,000 hits per day and has more than 600 e-mail subscribers.

The Exmormon.org group started holding annual get-togethers a few years ago in Las Vegas--"because it was the anti-Salt Lake City," one organizer said--but decided to get serious this year with a formal conference in the Utah capital.

Because of family ties, jobs, familiarity or just plain stubbornness, many of the former Mormons have decided to stay in hostile territory and try to make friends--or at least live a peaceful life in a parallel universe alongside the church.

"I want to be me and still be respected," said Maxine Hanks, who was excommunicated from the church in 1993 after publishing her book, "Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism." "I'm tired of being seen as an outsider."

Hanks said the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City next year has spurred Mormon officials to rethink their outreach to other faiths, which included the Doctrine of Inclusion.

Critics acknowledge that Mormon leaders have been doing a better job in recent years of promoting inclusiveness. But nearly all of the ex-Mormons at the conference said they'd seen no evidence of it. They said their former ties to the church have put them, in the eyes of Mormons, in a different category than people of other faiths or even atheists. They suspect hurt feelings and a fear of associating with apostates contributed to the shunning.

Santa Clarita resident Gaylon Harrison, 42, said that when she left the church four years ago, her congregation scratched her name from the directory, listing only her husband and three children. She said her Mormon friends passed her in the supermarket without a word.

"They would literally turn their heads," said Harrison, who has since moved to Maryland with her family. "I was ready to say 'Hi.' All they had to do is look."

Harrison said she also had problems within her marriage. She eventually told her Mormon husband that she would no longer share a bed with him unless he stopped wearing his sacred Mormon undergarments, worn day and night by the devout. She wanted a respite from symbolism.

"That church was right there in the bed with us," she complained. He stopped wearing the underwear, and she quit wearing her "Have You Hugged an Apostate Today?" T-shirt.

Though public rhetoric has softened in recent years, Mormons believe that stepping away from the church will have eternal consequences. Ex-Mormons are also excluded from major earthly events such as temple baptisms and weddings, where only members in good standing can set foot.

"My sister couldn't attend some events [at the temple], and it hurts," said Joni Bown, a Salt Lake City Mormon whose sister quit the church. "Yes, I pray for her to come back to something that's so special to us."

Rob Shiveley, 42, thought becoming an ex-Mormon would hurt his career in Utah's computer software industry.

"The conversations on campus and at lunch at my company were all about the Mormon church," said Shiveley, who left the church after landing a new job in Portland, Ore. "The handful of non-Mormons were very much on the outside in the company."

Because business is often conducted informally around church social activity, much the way other cultures conduct it on the golf course, many nonbelieving Mormons haven't come out to their family, friends or co-workers.

Those who keep quiet "don't risk alienation if there isn't an explicit rejection of the religion," said Tim B. Heaton, sociology professor at Brigham Young University.

Many of the apostates still enjoy parts of the Mormon culture, especially the emphasis on family and moral values. "I want to be a Mormon like Woody Allen is a Jew," said one conference participant. "I don't want to be robbed of my Mormonism."

But the all-or-nothing nature of the church leaves many struggling for a new identity.

Because of the strict Mormon lifestyle, many ex-Mormons often experience a kind of delayed adolescence once they leave the church, experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sex.

Christene Carol, 43 and mother of five, said she attempted suicide in 1999 after living "an insanely perfect life" as a Mormon.

She said she has spent the past two years learning to live responsibly without the guidance of the church, though it's been a difficult road at times. She said she overdosed on Ecstasy one night.

"I don't expect the people in the church to understand, and I don't blame anyone," said Carol, a resident of Bountiful, Utah. "I've learned to live an independent life rather than a life of needing or seeking the approval of others."

Maxine Hanks says she and others put up with the "scathing but subtle disapproval" from Mormons in Utah and elsewhere because it's important to "learn how to stay."

"I make a difference here," she says. "I have a social responsibility to stay in the conversation. And we need to create diversity. Without people like us, there is no diversity."


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