Where to begin…I was born of goodly parents. Wait, I think that one has already been done. For the first few years of my life I was raised in a small town in southern Alberta called Raymond. For a bit of history on the area, it was in 1887 that the third president of the LDS church, John Taylor, sent a group of church members to create a colony that was outside the reach of the United State’s condemnation of polygamy (as per Wikipedia’s article on the LDS church in Canada). This group settled Cardston and many other small towns in southern Alberta, including Raymond. Many of those small towns continue to be populated by an LDS majority to this day. The first stake (group of several congregations or wards) as well as the first temple outside of the United States was created in this area. So, there is a long history of LDS settlers in this part of Alberta. As per Wikipedia, in 2011 there were reported more than 182,000 LDS members in Canada, with the vast majority being in Alberta.
While I began my childhood in Raymond, I was not a member of the LDS church. I vividly remember wondering why the stores were closed and the streets were empty on Sundays. The church teaches members to not spend money on Sunday, so as to not make anyone work. It also teaches that Sunday is a day of rest to renew your faith. So, I was largely alone on Sundays. I don’t remember feeling out of place at all due to not being a member of the church. I would just ride my bike all over town not being bothered by traffic, as riding your bike alone as a very young child all over town was the norm back then.
My family didn’t have a lot but we had enough. My father was technically a member of the church but had not attended throughout my young life. At that time, I don’t think I realized that he had been part of the church at all. My mother was not religious per se but taught us about Jesus and the importance of prayer. At this point of my life I did not have much experience in the way of religion.
My parents separated when I was around 7 or 8 and I, along with my mother and two younger brothers, moved to Lethbridge. I’m not sure of the population of LDS members in Lethbridge, but it was and is a relatively sizeable percentage. Not the majority by any means but a good proportion. It was here that I spent the remainder of my childhood and teen years. My father was remarried to a lady that was a member of the LDS church and he began attending church again. My brothers and I would go to church with them on occasion. I remember the first significant event in my life regarding the church was attending stake dances. These were for youth between the ages of 14-17 and happened every two weeks or so. As these were good wholesome fun (and who isn’t down for good wholesome fun), I went often and many of the friends I made were members of the church. No one would push me, but I’m sure I was invited to church and activities at times.
When I was 16 or so I was dating a girl who was a member of the church. Because I was trying to spend as much time with her as possible, which is what you do as a teenage boy when you have a girlfriend, I accepted her invitation to a church fireside. Firesides are activities that happen outside of the weekly scheduled church meetings and are meant to teach gospel principles and to be spiritually uplifting. This one was about the life of Jesus. It was only pictures and music but I remember becoming emotional as I was watching.
Before I continue the story, I want to acknowledge that yes, I did have an emotional/spiritual experience. I won’t deny this. I have also had many other experiences similar to this one since that time. While I will not try to persuade anyone that their spiritual experiences are invalid (they are definitely not!) I have since re-evaluated what spiritual experiences are and what they can and do signify to us. I plan on writing more about this in future, but I digress…
To return to the story, as I was a teenage boy hanging out with my friends and girlfriend, I attempted to hide the fact that I was crying. But I wasn’t fooling anyone. For members of the church, a “non-member” crying at a church activity is like chumming the water for sharks. I don’t mean this to be derogatory in any way! But members of the church are taught that this is the Holy Ghost (or the Spirit), testifying to the person of the truthfulness of what was taught. And in the church, we are taught that our specific church is the one and only true church on the earth. So, I was introduced to the missionaries.
You may be familiar with the Elders/missionaries of the LDS church. They are young men (although some young women also serve a mission) who wear suits or white shirts and ties (or dresses as the case may be) with a black name tag. They travel in pairs or sometimes in threes. You may have had them knock on your door on occasion. They are typically very nice individuals who are doing what they believe is right, so please be nice to them if your paths ever cross!
To make a long story short, I was taught the discussions and was asked to read and pray about whether the Book of Mormon was true. The missionaries taught me that the Book of Mormon was an ancient record of the Native American people who Christ visited after his crucifixion. I did pray about it and received another emotional/spiritual feeling. So, the missionaries asked me to be baptized and I accepted. After this event I had many spiritual experiences within the church. I spoke in many church meetings about how I knew the church was true (or I bore my testimony as it’s called in the church), so much so that I was asked to speak at a Stake Conference, which is a meeting of several congregations of members that occurs once per year. Not too many people got to have this experience, especially as a teenager, so I considered myself both lucky and blessed.
I had my own ups and downs after I was baptized but decided to serve a mission myself. Less than three years after converting, at age 19, I was sent to the California Ventura Mission to teach people about the church for the next two years of my life. I was an extremely hard working and obedient missionary. I woke at 6:30am, studied the scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants) for two hours every morning, and was out the door by 9:30. Between 9:30am until 9:00pm six days per week for two years I was out teaching, knocking doors, visiting with members, providing service and otherwise engaging in activities to teach people about the church and hopefully help them to be baptized. During this time, missionaries were not allowed to date, read material not produced by the church, listen to music that was not classical or hymns, swim, watch TV or movies, etc. At the time we were only allowed to call home twice per year with the only other contact with family being weekly letters. Anything else was considered a distraction and would reduce the ability of the Spirit to lead and guide us in our work. I followed these rules as closely as I could.
I progressed quickly through mission leadership. I was asked to train a new missionary after 4 months and a second shortly after. I was made a District Leader (over 3-8 other missionaries) at 6 months. I was made a junior Zone Leader (over 12-16 missionaries) before I had been serving for a year and a Senior Zone Leader by 14 months. I baptized a lot of people. I had more months that I had someone be baptized than months that I didn’t, which most likely made me one of the top baptizing missionaries in the area.
The reason I describe these things is to show that I believed with my whole heart that I was on a mission for God. I was doing His work. I didn’t slack off. I didn’t break rules. I didn’t take even one day off when I wasn’t permitted to. I remember watching TV twice during my entire two-year mission. Once was trying to fellowship an investigator (someone looking into the church and being taught) while watching the Olympics. And the second time was during the September 11th attacks. I didn’t go sight seeing during teaching hours. I worked extremely hard. I had a lot of great experiences during these two years and to this day I am grateful for many of the things I learned.
I returned home and was expected to get married quickly. I remember my Mission President telling me that this was my most important responsibility after returning home. In the church we are taught that any sexuality (thoughts, masturbation, sex or any other sexual contact) outside of marriage is a sin. So, getting married was priority number one to prevent these things from happening but also to begin a family, which is an important expectation within the church.
I did meet an amazing woman to whom I have now been married for close to 16 years and have four children with. I met her after having been home for four or five months. We dated for three months, got engaged and were married in the Temple three months later. We were 22. The brevity of our courtship and our young age when we were married is not uncommon in the church. I want to make clear that even with our short courtship I’m so glad that I found her as she is the love of my life and I thank the church for being the common thread that led us together. I do not regret my decision one single bit. I am extremely grateful for her patience and support through this past year.
After we were married, I went to school and worked hard. My wife also attended school and supported us for a time after she graduated and began working. Over the course of time I became a psychologist, as it was necessary for me to make an above average wage as the expectation in the church is that women stay home to raise the children. Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that my wife has been able to stay home with the kids.
I was given many callings, or volunteer assignments, within the church throughout these years. I have been in nursery caring for the children age 1.5-3. I have taught primary classes with children between 3-11. I have been a teacher and president in the Young Mens organization (ages 12-17). I have been the Ward Mission Leader 2-3 times, leading the wards efforts to teach and convert people. I have been the Sunday School President, organizing the classes taught on Sundays. I have been a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I have been the Elders Quorum President, the leader of the men between the ages of 18-50. I was part of the Priesthood Executive Committee and the Ward Council. In short, I had many leadership callings in the church. I was not perfect but I did try very hard.
I raised my family to believe. We prayed together numerous times per day. We read scriptures together and had Family Home Evening, where we spend one evening a week learning a scriptural lesson and spending time together. There were times when my scripture study and prayers became less frequent but I think this is generally normal within the church. My children were blessed as babies, were baptized, and attended activities at the church. My wife and I paid our tithing, which means to pay 10 percent of your income to the church in order to be considered a member in good standing. The belief is that we would be blessed if we did so. I never disobeyed the Word of Wisdom, which is a law of health to not drink black tea, coffee, alcohol, and to not smoke or do other harmful drugs. I did not watch R-rated movies or TV shows. I did not swear. I attended the Temple, which is a special building, different from regular church buildings, where special ordinances take place with the purpose being to bind families together. Only those that are deemed worthy are allowed to enter. As these ordinances are sacred to those within the church, I will not speak of those things in detail.
Again, the reason I list these things is to help you get an idea of how integrated I was. I was completely converted. I was a believer 100 percent. I was not just filling a seat. I was not a “Jack Mormon” or someone that attends but doesn’t follow everything that is taught. I took the church and its teachings very seriously. Which is why I feel like many members of the church saw me as an anomaly after I professed my disbelief.
Most people that leave the church do so in their teens or in young adulthood. Common beliefs about why people leave the church are that they wanted to sin (drink, smoke, have sex). That they were lazy or that staying in the church was too hard. That they were never really converted or didn’t have a testimony in the first place. That they were sinning, such as having an affair, which made them lose the spirit or stop feeling the Holy Ghost’s influence teaching them what is true. That they had been offended. But these were not my reasons for losing my faith, which, I believe, makes some members uncomfortable. I did not fit the common narrative about why people stop believing. In the end, any reason for leaving the church is deemed invalid. There are no good reasons, no reason at all really, to leave or stop believing in the church. Because members of the church believe it’s true. No, they know it’s true. It’s God’s church. There is no way that it could be wrong. To reiterate, I believed it. I lived it. I spent time, energy, and income on it.
This sets the stage for my next post where I will discuss what brought me to the beginnings of doubt. The analogy of a shelf is one that many in my situation use to describe their difficulties regarding the church. The analogy is that there are many questions about church history, doctrine, science, etc, that are difficult or impossible to answer in a way that makes sense if you believe in the church. So you put these items on your shelf. You store them away with the belief that one day, perhaps in this life or maybe the next, there will be answers. But there are no answers now. And the problem is a shelf can only hold so much before it begins to crack and eventually break. Once your shelf breaks, there is no room left for continued belief. This may be the crux of what people are interested in. Members of the church likely wonder, what went wrong? How did he lose his testimony after all those witnesses that the church was true? I plan on answering those questions over the next several posts.