Shunned Ex-Mormons Form Own Communities

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who leave the faith are often shunned by tight-knit, family-focused Mormon communities. But these defectors don't always remain isolated — many are joining together to form their own communities.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Mormons, Latter Day Saints--you may know them vaguely because of their connection to the state of Utah or because of the occasional missionary that comes to your door. But with more than 12 million members, the church is now one of the fastest-growing religions in the country. At the same time, another related religious community is also increasing: ex-Mormons. As the ex-Mormons prepare for their annual conference--it's this weekend in Salt Lake City--reporter Chana Joffe-Walt visited an ex-Mormon potluck in Seattle.

(Soundbite of voices)

Unidentified Woman #1: Sorry.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT reporting:

About 40 guests are spilling out of this small kitchen. John's in the back yard, chatting with a few folks around a picnic table.

JOHN (Ex-Mormon): Oh, what is that I did that--in the pre-existence that caused this?

JOFFE-WALT: He's telling his leaving story, something ex-Mormons love to share with one another. John's beliefs started to erode when he discovered his faithful father had been using Valium for 40 years.

JOHN: He could be stoned on Valium, and I thought, `Well, what's wrong with me drinking a beer once in a while? Or why can't I drink coffee, but I can go buy me a Big Gulp of Coke and take it to the priestly meeting in the morning on Sunday?' I just didn't understand that. Yeah, it didn't make any sense.

JOFFE-WALT: Scott Jensen is standing in a cluster nearby on the patio. He says he started doubting his faith because he felt he couldn't ask questions about church teaching.

Mr. SCOTT JENSEN (Ex-Mormon): And the problem is the Mormons have said, `Our church is the only church. Our church is the true church.' So if you don't fit with it, there's something wrong with you. You--because there can't be anything wrong with the church. For a long time, it's like I thought, well, there was something wrong with me. And then I got tired of feeling bad about it and I learned a bunch of other people that were in the same position.

Unidentified Woman #2: I said, `What about Jesus'...

JOFFE-WALT: Like most everyone else here, Jensen found others who had left the church through the Exmormon.org Web site. The site's popularity has grown from 2,000 hits over two months in 1995 to 160,000 hits a day. For these folks, their rejection of church teachings is a bond, alongside anger, resentment and common experience.

Unidentified Woman #3: They understand the culture and the language.

Unidentified Woman #4: They understand the terms.

Unidentified Woman #5: Yeah, and they understand what it's like to actually remove yourself. Like, my husband was raised Lutheran. It was like, `Well, just don't go back.'

Unidentified Woman #6: Mine was too.

Unidentified Woman #7: ...pretty well.

Unidentified Woman #8: Yeah, that's right.

Unidentified Woman #5: It's like, `You don't get it. You don't just...'

Unidentified Man: You don't get it.

Unidentified Woman #5: `...don't go back.'

(Soundbite of clink, voices)

JOFFE-WALT: In the kitchen, Susie Wind(ph) announces she finally sent her letter to the church officially revoking membership.

Ms. SUSIE WIND (Ex-Mormon): He said to me, `I need to let you know that your baptism is going to be revoked, so when you die you'll never be able to see your family ever again.'

JOFFE-WALT: Mormons believe that God has a path for each one of us and that turning your back on that path can have eternal consequences. To ex-Mormons like Wind, who want to get off the church rolls, these calls are harassment. But the church believes they're trying to protect members who may be deviating from God's plan. That makes it hard for believers to understand why someone would voluntarily leave.

Allison Hayes(ph) says the rift between her and her Mormon kids is most evident at family events. LDS weddings take place in a church temple, a sacred space restricted to practicing members. That meant ex-Mormon Hayes couldn't see her daughter get married last year.

Ms. ALLISON HAYES (Ex-Mormon): I knew that that's what was going to happen, and I was, you know, frustrated with that because I really wanted to be there, and at the same time I didn't want to go there. Well, we had worked out something with each other. I had this really beautiful amethyst rock, and I gave it to her and I said, `Keep this in your pocket. Keep your hand in your pocket, and when you feel this rock you'll know I'm with you,' so that I could be there with her.

(Soundbite of voices)

JOFFE-WALT: The evening is part friendly neighborhood potluck, part support group. After Hayes tells her story, others share similar tales of exclusion. Sue Emmett, chair of the annual Ex-Mormon Conference this weekend, says it's important that people get to build community with one another. But she emphasizes that talking is only part of a larger process.

Ms. SUE EMMETT (Chair, Ex-Mormon Conference): It's like a grieving process because it's so all-encompassing. It is like a death. It's a death of a whole paradigm that you built your life around. There're just thousands of people who've come on the e-mail list and they're on it for three or four years, maybe--maybe two years--and they eventually send an e-mail and say, `You guys, I love you. I--this has helped me so much. I've decided I'm done with this. I'm moving on.' And really that's the goal.

JOFFE-WALT: Some here say they have reached that goal: They've moved on. But still they may stick around online or stop by a potluck every once in a while. They say they want to contribute to ex-Mormon visibility. That way those on the inside of the church will know there's life, and even community, on the outside.

For NPR News. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Seattle.

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