Earlier today, somewhere between Elk Mountain and Laramie, we stopped at a gas station. Out front sat a well-loved mobile home surrounded by nothing but caramel-colored earth stretching for miles and miles in all directions.
As the wind ushered me through the front door, I noticed a handful of mounted elk heads on the back wall and a cashier dressed in clashing camo. He looked my way as I quietly debated the candy aisle:
“So… where you from?”
He looked shocked.
“What are you doing all the way out here?”
“We had a show in Vegas.”
“Well, how was it?”
“It was Vegas,” I responded as he nodded in agreement. “But at least we spent a few days in Salt Lake on the way there.”
“Are you LDS then?”
“I am.” Kind of.
“Did you go to the Temple?”
Then I saw a smile stretch across his sunburned face.
“Wow! You’re so lucky!”
I wasn’t prepared for his last comment. And almost didn’t give it the attention it deserved.
Later at the counter, with Twizzlers in hand, I noticed a familiar scene on his television screen. It was from The Passion of the Christ.
“My missionaries told me I should watch this,” he said.
Those words struck a chord.
I’d used those same words about 17 years ago. And I’d said them with the same tenderness and reverence that this man did.
My religious background is interesting. Mom was Catholic, Dad was Agnostic, and Kat and I floated in between. We were “Catholic” with a flicker of faith, but little belief in rote practices and memorized speech. In truth, we were more interested in the dried gum art on the underside of our pew, than the homilies and the weight of the Apostles’ Creed.
We knew of God, but had no relationship with God. We didn’t go to Him. Not in joy. Not in hardship. Not ever. For all intents and purposes, He was a whisper of a thought, a being just out of reach.
Looking back, I think we were waiting to be…
But that didn’t happen. Not there.
I liked Father Shields and Father Jack, the latter of which was charismatic and accessible, two adjectives I never associated with priests or church hierarchy. Be even he, with all his passion, couldn’t imprint my heart with things seen and heard on Sundays too few and far between. So, I wore pretty dresses, tried not to giggle during mass (which is harder than you think), and looked past odd CCD teachers, especially the one who scraped her nails across the chalkboard every week. But I never felt what you’re “supposed” to feel at church. That lightening of heart and spirit. That sense that you’re not alone. That feeling that God…
Really. Is. God.
I never felt any of that. Not until I attended the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Their teachings were different. Their scriptures were too. They had another book, called The Book of Mormon.
And believed in modern-day prophets and apostles, continuing revelation, and eternal families.
It was all a lot to take in, especially considering it all began with a fourteen year old boy, a grove of trees, and a vision.
But I believed.
Despite my parents and friends’ objections.
Despite having mainly poor examples of what an LDS family looked like.
And despite my own fears of my future as an LDS convert.
And so, on November 30, 1997, in the absence of my blood family and the presence of my Church family, I was baptized.
It was beautiful. Bittersweet. And beyond words.
Fast-forward 17 years. I’m at the Salt Lake City Temple. And it’s lovely. Lovelier than I remember.
But my heart is heavy.
And I finally let it say the words that my lips won’t:
I am inactive.
I have been inactive for longer than I can remember.
I remember reaching out to people like me. People who fell through the cracks. People who were offended by church members or disappointed by church culture. People who were wronged by church leaders or folded under the weight of expectations. Who couldn’t be that good. That kind. That selfless. That obedient.
I remember what I’d tell them and that look they’d get. That look that said, you don’t understand. And honestly, I didn’t. I was 18 years old telling people, who’d lived and loved longer and harder than I, that I understood. But I didn’t. I didn’t understand losing a spouse, a home or a child. I didn’t understand rape or same-sex attraction, incest or depression. I didn’t understand the struggle to stay faithful. Because I was faithful. And it was a pleasure and privilege to be so.
I didn’t understand until I moved to Atlanta and left my friends, my ward and my comfort zone behind. In the beginning, I attended church regularly and even worked at the church bookstore, but I didn’t quite fit like I had in Illinois. There was no draw. I was no longer the golden investigator worthy of attention and praise. I was simply a member (which should have been enough, but wasn’t).
And slowly doubt started creeping in.
I moved to Utah thinking that would help, but I hated it. The place was not what I thought it would be. The people weren’t either. So, I blamed my unhappiness on that. But in reality I was different.
I had changed.
Over the following years, I waxed and waned.
Bad things happened. Good things happened. I was strong. I was weak.
And God continued to chase me.
To charm me.
To convince me.
And He still does.
Despite identifying as LDS, I don’t attend the LDS church.
I’m the one the missionaries seek out and check up on. I’m the one who receives visiting teaching messages by mail which almost always end with, “I’d love to meet you.” I’m the one who fell (or jumped) through the cracks.
I still love the church.
I really do.
I just don’t know if I fit there.
And that is bittersweet.