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Saturday, April 18, 2020

22. Chrystal’s Story - Struggling in Silence

             Another long stretch between these posts, as I had left it open for people to share their stories but wasn’t sure there was interest.  It’s been five months since the last post, and the world has seen some major changes. We are currently in the grip of a global pandemic, which is perhaps why people have a bit more time to think about writing. I was excited when two of my closest friends in the world approached me and said that they were ready to write their faith transition experiences for my blog. They are a couple, who went through their faith transitions within the last year. There are several things that make their individual stories special. One is because they had very different experiences but ended up, as a thriving couple even stronger than they were before, at a very similar end point. Another reason is because when I told them about my change in belief, they were members of the church that reached out to me to try to answer my difficult questions and to help me return to belief. They showed love and an absence of judgement but were, initially, trying to help me regain my faith in the church. By being open to even the remote possibility that I wasn’t completely deceived or misinformed, as well as being true to their own feelings and engaging in their own research, they made the decision that the church’s truth claims did not meet the criteria for continued belief.

I don’t say this to imply that it is wrong or stupid to continue in belief in the church. All I ask, all I have ever asked, is for individuals to do their own research. Look at both sides of the argument as completely as possible and decide for themselves what makes the most sense. For some, even knowing all the difficult information about the church, it makes the most sense to continue in belief; however, that belief is almost always much different than the typical mainstream believer. For others, like my friends and myself, the thing that made the most sense was that the church was not what we initially believed it was.

This post was written by my close friend Chrystal Johnston. Her husband has written the next post and I will publish it soon. My wife and I have been best friends with Chrystal and her husband for eight years. When I moved away from Raymond for work in 2011, they invited me into their home for several weeks. I stayed with them while I found a home for my family before my family moved to Edson with me. Even though we only lived close to them for less than two years, we have continued a very close relationship even after moving away. We visit them and they visit us regularly. We have gone on vacations and yearly camping trips together. When I opened up to them about my change in belief, they were two of the main people I was most worried about losing because of the change. Chrystal is a driven individual, a great mom, and an amazing friend. I hope her story of struggling in silence over numerous months and years will give whomever chooses to read a new perspective. Her journey out of the church is different than some but just as legitimate. Now, on to her post.


A few months back, Dason had asked my husband and I to write a post for his blog to share our experience with our own faith transitions. I think it was in order to show how different and personal everyone’s faith transitions can be as well as to show that when someone decides to leave their religion, it’s not an easy choice. The reasons for making this huge life decision are different for everyone. My husband and I were going to write our story together, but we quickly realized that our experiences were quite different from each other. This article will be about my journey and my husband will write about his. We officially decided to leave the church in September 2019, but before diving into the how and why I’d like to give a backstory of how I know Dason as well as my personal experience with the church.

I have known Dason for just over 8 years. I met him when he traveled to Edson to check out a possible job opening. His wife and I have known each other our whole lives as our moms are first cousins. When she and Dason moved up to Edson, we started a friendship that has turned into a relationship I would say is as strong as family. So not only are the Harkers our best friends, they are our family!

I’m going start off by saying that going through a faith transition is NOT easy, no matter how a person goes through it or what their experiences are. You not only have to think about how it will affect you but also those around you, such as family, friends, your kids, etc. It makes you go through so many different emotions including, anger, shock, confusion, paranoia, fear, sadness and resentment. So, if you think someone just makes the decision to leave the church on a whim, you are wrong.

My husband’s experience in the church was a bit different than my own, mostly because we started out differently. I grew up in an LDS home, but not your typical LDS home. My dad was born into a family that was LDS but was frequently inactive. My mom did not start off LDS. She converted to the religion when I was 5. I remember her taking the missionary discussions; I remember her baptism; and I remember when our family was sealed in the Idaho Falls Temple when I was 6. We were what you would call “Sunday Mormons.” We would go to church as much as possible, but I don’t recall having regular FHE or scripture study or even family prayer, just when it was convenient or when my parents remembered. I knew enough to cruise through primary and Young Women’s class and had what I thought was a testimony that the church was true. I gave talks in sacrament meeting, went to youth camps and activities, went to seminary, memorized scriptures…but I did it because it was what I was expected to do, because all my friends were LDS and doing it, so why not. Even though I grew up in a predominantly LDS community, I was never pressured by my parents to do anything I didn’t want to do regarding church. I just did it because it made me happy at the time and because it was what my friends did. I loved my childhood and I’m grateful that my parents didn’t force me to be a perfect member of the church.  They hoped I would be, but I feel like they still let me choose and didn’t judge me for whatever choices I made. That being said, I’m not suggesting that I didn’t follow the church standards. I did choose to follow the standards and teachings the church expected of its members, and I don’t regret that. It helped me to become who I am today.

After high school I attended church while going to university. There was a big Young Adult ward in Edmonton (a couple of them, actually) and all my roommates were LDS, so I just rolled with the punches. That is when I met my husband. When we started dating, we would have conversations about the gospel, and I opened up to him for the first time that I honestly didn’t know that much about the church. I told him that I just went because I liked the people and didn’t really understand all of it. I didn’t even know why I took the sacrament each Sunday. He was shocked but was willing to teach me. Through the year we dated before he left on his mission, as well as writing letters to him while on his mission, I learned a lot from him about the church. I would say I had experiences that made me believe in the church for the first time. I read the Book of Mormon all the way through for the first time too. I began preparing for a temple marriage.

               I wrote my husband all through his mission and when he returned, we were married in the Cardston temple. I went through the temple for my own endowments a month before we were married. I know most people talk about how amazing and spiritual of an experience it was for them, but that wasn’t the case for me. Even though numerous people were telling me it was going to be an uplifting and spiritual event, I thought it was the weirdest thing I had ever experienced in my life! I hated wearing the required undergarments from the first moment I put them on. I felt ugly in them and they continued to make me feel that way throughout the years. That never did change. I thought I was broken because I didn’t feel the same thing as everyone else did. The only thing that I loved about going through the temple was believing I was going to be with the love of my life for eternity. Also, the fact that my dad was able to be there too, considering he was an inactive member for a while, was very special for me. That meant the world to me as I have always been really close with my dad.

               Years went on and I did my part being a believing member of the church. I attended the temple with my husband, albeit not regularly, but enough. I went to church almost every Sunday, even on vacation, (the Harkers can attest to that as we went to church together when we went to Hawaii in 2014). I paid my tithing consistently when I worked or had any increase. I held callings and filled them to my full potential. We had fairly consistent FHE, scripture study, and family prayers with our own little growing family. We baptized all of our kids and even participated in missionary work. We surrounded ourselves with friends that were strong members of the church. All the while there was this something in the back of my mind, deep in my soul. It was an unhappiness and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Something just wasn’t right.

               After all of our kids were in school full-time and we had our business up and running successfully, that feeling of unhappiness just got worse. This didn’t make sense to me as I was doing all of the things the church taught would bring me joy. I knew it had nothing to do with my family or my marriage, those were the things I was most happy about. I thought maybe it was because I wasn’t working or didn’t have a career to call my own, so after discussing it with my husband we both agreed it would be good for me to go back to school. I started back at school to become a Registered Massage Therapist, which meant being away from my family and also missing church one weekend a month for 2 years. I loved every minute of my schooling. I missed my family when I had to go away, but I also craved that one weekend a month. I would not wear my garments that one weekend a month because for class we would massage each other, and I just didn’t want to have to answer questions about my special underwear. I started to wonder if, just maybe, I was happier on my weekends away because I didn’t have go to church and I didn’t wear my garments. I was nervous to talk to my husband about this, but I finally did. He was very understanding and supported me, and I decided to stop wearing them, except for Sundays.

It was over those next two years that I started to really ponder the possibility that my unhappiness had to do with the church. But that couldn’t be! The church is the reason for happiness, right? This was about the same time that Dason was going through his faith transition. I remember we were visiting the Harkers, and he started a discussion about some issues he had found about the church. He didn’t go into detail as he respected us and our beliefs, but he just wanted to confide in us that he no longer believed. Some of the things he said to us really resonated with me, mostly when he expressed how he felt lighter and happier. I was envious of him. How could he feel better leaving the church? Shouldn’t it have been the opposite? My husband wanted to help him with his questions, so Dason emailed him with a specific question and David tried his hardest to find answers for him. This went on for a while as this issue is a major problem for the church. After a while, Dason suggested they stop going into his concerns. He didn’t want to damage their friendship and it was becoming apparent that there were no faith promoting answers to this specific problem.

Then Dason wrote his blog. I chose to not read his posts as I felt my belief in the church was not strong enough to withstand what Dason had discovered, but my husband did read them. He wanted to be able to help his friend out by truly understanding what he was going through. I don’t want to go too far into his story but my husband didn’t read all of the articles. He specifically stayed away from the posts about Dason’s specific problems with the truth claims of the church, but he was aware there were issues. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were several events and conversations my husband had with a few people that had similar concerns as Dason that built up for him over several months.

One night my husband turned to me and said “I think I found some things that I just can’t overlook with the church’s history. I don’t think I believe the church to be true anymore.” After he said that to me, I almost started crying, not because I was upset, but because I was relieved! At that moment it was confirmed to me why I felt those negative feelings my whole life. I realized that I had always known that there were indefensible problems within the church and in the past I had just put them aside. After my husband opened up to me, I just let it all come out to him. I told him that the expectations that the church puts on its members, especially on women, I felt were unrealistic and overwhelming. They give a general feeling of constantly falling short because the expectation is perfection. I realized then that those feelings were feelings of inadequacy!

I felt inadequate because I didn’t fully believe all the doctrines and teachings but couldn’t say anything. I felt inadequate because I was supposed to want to always put the church first, but I didn’t always want to. I felt judged by others because my parents weren’t the perfect members. I hated how when we were together with other church members or family members all they would do was judge others within the church and all the things they weren’t doing right. I let out other issues I had with the church such as treatment of the LGBTQ community, if there was a God why would he be so selective with answering prayers, the one true church claims…I just let everything I felt out, and these were things I just felt or observed. I hadn’t done any research at that point. Why couldn’t I tell him all of this before? I was afraid of being judged or not being understood by the one person that meant the most to me.  Now knowing that he didn’t think the church was true anymore, I felt safe to finally tell him how I felt. He was surprised by my reaction. I think he thought I was going to be upset, not relieved. We had a really long conversation that night and for the first time in our marriage we were able to be entirely open with one another.

After that I started to do my own research to either confirm my feelings or build a stronger testimony for myself. I was still open to either side; I just wanted to determine the truth. I started with the Church essays, as that was what my husband suggested as it was a church approved resource. The first ones I read were about the multiple accounts of the first vision and the different story of the translation of the Book of Mormon. I was shocked! Here the church had taught one thing to me my whole life and right there on the church website was an entirely different story that the church fully admitted to being true. Things the church fully denied and even called “Anti-Mormon” several years ago were now being professed as actually true right there on the church website! I felt the essays were written with a “yes this is true or actually happened but…” approach, which actually gave me more anger than resolution.  After reading the other church essay topics, I then decided to read Dason’s blog. It was quite overwhelming.  There was so much information and so much feeling, and I didn’t realize he went through this for so long! A lot of time, energy and research went into those blog entries. Then I read the CES letter. I was done after that. Honestly it did not take me long to make up my mind. What I discovered matched my feelings; it gave me answers. This new information confirmed that the feelings I had were legitimate. I had lived my whole life in the church, and the information I read in those couple of months made more sense than all the information that was fed to me by the church my entire life to that point.

When someone goes through a faith transition, they often talk about having a metaphorical shelf. On this shelf they set things about the church that they come across through their life that they either want to forget, or will come back to later, or that they try to justify. Well, soon that shelf has so much sitting on it that it begins to crack, and you can’t help but try to fix that shelf. You fix it by trying to find answers to those things on that shelf. Eventually you either A) find a way to fix it that works for you and move on or B) discover that your shelf can not be fix and no amount of duct tape will work. The shelf eventually falls apart. The things I first set on my shelf were not so much doctrinal or historical; they were emotional. They were the feelings of inadequacy, the feelings of judgement, the feelings of fatigue and frustration, of feeling second to the church in my own home and marriage, the feelings of wasted time that could have been spent with family, then the feelings of feeling physically unattractive in a garment I was expected to wear. I know this may sound trivial or superficial, but this was one issue that I really struggled with. All of that was enough to crack my shelf. Then finding out the lies of Joseph Smith and the teachings and behavior of Brigham Young (don’t even get me started on those disgusting men), the church’s discrimination of the LGBTQ community, the ban of black people having the priesthood, the incorrect translation of the Book of Abraham, numerous issues with the Book of Mormon, the CONSTANT changing of policies, doctrine, and “eternal truth” (even today). The nail in the coffin for me was tithing or money and the church, how much the church has and the discrepancy with how much they give to help people. Even writing this I’m getting heated.

               I went through so many different feelings over those couple months of research, and honestly sometimes I still go through them, mostly anger. Those who know me know that the absolute worst thing you can do to me is lie to me. I absolutely loathe liars, and here I had been lied to my whole life by the one thing that dictated the morals of how my life should be lived! I was angry for a while. Then I decided to let it go because it was really starting to control my life. I gave myself the permission to live the way I wanted to live, without expectations of perfection, without judgement, just living with love, living knowing the truth.

               After making the decision together that we were ready to leave, we decided that our kids would be who we told first. Again, we decided together that if they still wanted to go to church then we would support them. We wanted to give them the choice what to believe, something I believe neither of us really had. That was a very hard conversation as our kids are between 11 and 15 years of age. Our oldest probably took it the hardest. He was just as confused as we were when we discovered these things. We were honest and upfront about everything and our reasons behind why we were choosing not to go to church anymore. I was more shocked to find out that two of our kids were extremely unhappy in the church as well! I also found out that none of our boys wanted to serve missions and they dreaded that expectation on their lives. They felt they couldn’t talk to us either for fear they would get in trouble or chastised, which they were probably right about. Not living the way the church expects you to live is frowned upon and parents have a responsibility to rear their children to be righteous followers of the church’s teachings. They knew this, and we knew it.  I have never felt more sadness in my life than in that moment. Finding out that my own children couldn’t confide in us was awful and heartbreaking. It was, however, an amazing and eye-opening family conversation, one I will cherish forever. Since then we have weekly family meetings to see how everyone is doing and we talk openly about any issues they may have. Anything goes!! We have had more meaningful conversations with our kids in the last few months than we have had in years, because now they can talk about anything and they know there is no judgement. Our relationships feel more real and meaningful and that alone is incredible.

After our kids, we told our branch president next. We asked to be released from our callings and that was it. The next thing we did was tell our families. We didn’t want to hide who we were to anyone, especially those close to us. I told my family first. My sister was the first one because she is not a member of the church and I knew she would be very understanding, and she was. She was happy for me in fact. Then I told my brother, who is also not a member and he was happy for me too. Then I told my parents. I was so nervous! I was worried about how my mom would react, as she still diligently goes to church and does all the church things including working in the temple. They were both a little shocked at first but very understanding and expressed their love for me and my family. They did exactly what every family should do, support and love your family member no matter what. I have felt nothing but love from them since, and I don’t feel weird or different around them. They even asked for some of the information we came across that changed our minds about the church. I sent it to them and, yes, they actually read it. My dad said he understood why we decided to leave, and he agreed with a lot of the information I shared with him but still believes in God and will continue to live his life the way he sees fit to live it. That’s what I’ve always loved about my dad! My mom also read it but didn’t find any issues with any of the information. I was just happy that they not only were open to what I had to tell them and supported me, but they were also willing to read the issues I had found with the church. That showed true love and support in my eyes. My husband’s family reacted a little differently...but I will leave that up to him to share.

               Overall, we are doing amazing, never been happier. I feel like me for the first time in as long as I can remember. My marriage is stronger than ever; my relationship with my kids is better than ever; and we are more open and honest with each other than we ever have been.

If I had any advice to give, it would be that if someone has issues or doubts with the church, put your feelings of fear and judgement aside and truly listen to them. Research for yourself what they have found, and try to understand them. When someone goes to court, the court doesn’t only hear evidence supporting one side of the argument, they show both sides and then make a decision based on the best evidence. Why should religious beliefs be any different? Before you become the judge and jury, truly try to understand what that friend or family member is going through. My husband did that for his friend. The Harkers were that important to us that we made an effort to understand, and I’m glad we did. My parents did that for me, and even though I may not believe the same as them anymore, it doesn’t mean they love me any less nor treat me any different than before.

Don’t dismiss your thoughts or feelings! Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions and do some research. If someone gets upset or defensive when you ask a question, maybe that means you need to ask about it some more! Didn’t a certain 14-year-old boy ask questions? So why can’t you? The church preaches free agency, so use that free agency! Decide what’s best for you. Although, I had those feelings for so long, I don’t regret anything in my life. I had a lot of great experiences in the church. It’s how I met my husband. It gave me a starting point on how to teach my kids to be decent human beings. But does the LDS church have the only rights to true happiness or lasting joy? No, it does not. I don’t regret how things turned out or that I didn’t search for truth sooner. Had I decided to search on my own earlier things may have turned out differently. I needed to be patient and wait for my husband to be ready. He needed to discover those things first, and I’m glad he did. I’m glad Dason was brave enough to ask those hard questions and be open enough to share them.

Where am I now? I’m still working on discovering what I believe. Am I sure there is a God? No. Do I believe in being a kind person? Absolutely. Do I have all the answers? No. But that is the point. I focus on trying to not worry about what comes next, because no one knows. Every religion has its theories or beliefs, and some people need those beliefs to feel comfort and happiness. I have discovered that I don’t. I will believe what I want to believe, what I think is the closest to truth, not what a church tells me to believe. I believe it’s important to live and enjoy all the experiences available in life with the ones you love right now, not wait for some future, better time. That is what is most important to me.

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