“You’re really a nice person,” my visiting teacher for the past three years told me last month. “Of course I am,” I agreed. “No, I really mean it. You bring out toys and books for Jenny’s (her partner) kids while we visit. You do volunteer work. You’re a good person.”
I found Ella’s comment rather strange since making guests comfortable and volunteering in the community are not unusual things for anyone to do. It occurred to me later that Ella finds my degree of humanity puzzling because I no longer attend Mormon services. Devout Mormons know that people leave the church because they have been lured into the paths of sin. Good people occupy the chapel seats every Sunday.
The idea that people attend church because it meets their needs and stop attending when it does not fails to play into Mormon beliefs—and probably those of some other denominations.
My Mormon ward met my needs when, as newlyweds, George and I moved from Utah to Casper, Wyoming—a tremendous step for someone who had barely been outside Utah. Besides the comforting familiarity of the meetinghouse and rituals, the warm welcome by members in our small ward provided instant friends. One Sunday morning I was surprised to realize I was looking forward to attending church rather than going because I “should.”
For several years church met my social and spiritual needs as we moved to other states and started our family. Studying church doctrine expanded my knowledge; fulfilling callings expanded talents and abilities. My life centered on family and church.
When our older kids reached their teens, I returned to teaching. Church callings became challenging, even burdensome, with my family and work responsibilities, but I felt a need to give back some of what I had received from the institutional church. About 25 years ago, church lessons became simplified with the “milk before meat” philosophy and were limited to a few dozen topics recycled year after year. “So-called intellectuals” were condemned from the pulpit and in classes in our ward.
I began leaving the three-hour block after two hours, then after one. George caught me sneaking home and joined me. I started using my church time for reading on my own, then began visiting other churches—looking for a place where I could achieve spiritual growth. Liberating ourselves from meeting attendance freed George and me from the frustration and hostility engendered when we forced ourselves to sit through what we found tedious and trite.
The current Church meets the needs of many members, but those who have outgrown the organization do not deserve censure from believing family and friends. Moving on should not be painful. We keep the good from our previous faith and add to it from new sources. Even my devout visiting teacher recognizes that I’m a still nice person.