Few can understand what it’s like to leave the Mormon church, what it means to be a former Mormon, an ExMo, as we frequently refer to ourselves. To begin with, outside the United States Intermountain West, most people don’t know much about Mormons, and most of what they think they know isn’t true or at least not completely true. However, there are two basically accurate things that most associate with Mormons: they are nice, and they are weird. The South Park episode about Mormons, although it is exaggerated for satirical effect, portrays both of these aspects of Mormons quite well. If you’ve never seen it and you have any interest in Mormons, I suggest watching it. If you do, you’ll have a more accurate view of Mormons than most of the people on the planet.
I will address the weird part in future posts, but today I want to discuss Mormon’s stereotypical niceness. Some ExMos will disagree with this assessment. They’ll say that Mormons are only superficially nice in their effort to convert you and will stop being nice if you show no interest in joining them or especially if you leave the church. I don’t discount the stories I’ve heard from other ExMos about how they have been treated by Mormons, even Mormon family members when they left the church, but this has not been my personal experience.
When anyone criticizes the Mormon church, Mormons like to say that the church or the gospel is perfect, but the members aren’t. They will say that all legitimate problems with the church are the fault of imperfect members, not the church itself. I don’t accept this. The reasons I left had everything to do with the church or the “gospel,” and not with the members themselves. Both when I was a Mormon and since I’ve left, Mormons, with few exceptions, have treated me with kindness. When I criticize the Mormon church, it is nearly never because of the actions of individual Mormons.
I grew up in Bountiful, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. When I lived there at least, Bountiful was close to 90% Mormon. Nearly everyone one I knew as a child—my neighbors, my friends, my teachers—were all Mormon. My family has been Mormon nearly since the beginning of Mormonism. All of my great-great grandparents were Mormons, and today nearly all of my extended family are still Mormons. Not that there aren’t exceptions, but the vast majority of Mormons I have known are good people. During any period of difficulty in life, they have been there for me.
Although I have yet to remove my name from the church, I have been mostly inactive for 20 years. My husband stayed Mormon far long than I did, but he stopped attended about 5 years ago. Because of the stories I’d heard from other ExMos, I feared for years letting my family know that I no longer believe. Until October 2020, I had said so little about my lack of belief to any member of my family that I wasn’t even sure all of my family knew I was no longer a believer. I was wrong to be afraid and did my family a disservice with that fear.
On October 12, 2020, my 24-year-old son and only child was murdered. There is no tragedy in the world I wouldn’t have preferred over Jesse’s death. I would have a million times rather died myself. But that wasn’t a choice I was given. Jesse was the child that I adored from the first second of his life, but he was more than that. As he’d grown into an adult, he had become my best friend. We were a lot alike, and we’d talk for hours on the phone at least once, usually more, a week. It has now been 1 ½ years since his death, and the pain remains raw and brutal. I don’t think anyone heals completely after losing a child. Jesse was also the one who helped me finally let go of any belief in the Mormon church. I now, like most ExMos, consider myself an atheist. (The same tools that work to deconstruct a belief in the Mormon god work just as well for every other god that human beings have believed in.) Jesse called himself a Deist because he didn’t think the Big Bang had sufficient evidence as a cause of the beginning of our universe.
Jesse was killed about 1 am on a Monday. We found out about his death later than mourning. I don’t know how I would have gotten through that week without the overwhelming kindness of Mormons. When the medical examiner confirmed that the body he had was indeed my son, I shut down. I talked to no one and left my husband to inform everyone, even my family, that Jesse had died. Family and friends started calling and texting me as soon as they heard. I responded to none of them. I just couldn’t. But the Mormons came anyway. I live in Alabama, but my seven brothers and sisters are spread out across the country. By Tuesday afternoon, two of my sisters had arrived—my youngest sister Wendie from Colorado and Julie from Arizona. They both booked flights nearly as soon as they’d heard. Remember October 2020 was at the height of Covid, and there wasn’t a vaccine yet available. Still, they came. My sister Sue in Idaho has heart problems, making her particularly vulnerable to Covid. I told her not to come. She came anyway. Her doctor told her it was safer to drive than to fly. Because she didn’t want to drive all that way (2000 miles) alone, she recruited by brother Roy who lives in Utah to drive with her. According to google, it is a 30-hour drive. But they came. My sister Jalane was in the hospital because infection in her knee had gone septic after surgery. She checked herself out and came with IV antibiotics in tow. All seven of them came, and many of my nieces and nephews, as well.
I wanted them, needed them, but since I wasn’t going to have anything religious at my son’s funeral, I needed to tell them I no longer believed. When I talked to Wendie about it shortly after she arrived, she shrugged, “Yeah, we all know.” This was a relief, but I still feared that they would use my extreme grief over losing Jesse to try to reconvert me. But no one of them did. They loved me, supported me, and did everything they could to help me through it. The most religious anyone got was my oldest brother asking me if I wanted Jesse’s grave dedicated, a Mormon custom. When I told him I didn’t, he said nothing more. I can’t emphasis enough how much I appreciated it.
The kindness shown me by Mormons wasn’t limited to my family either. The Mormons in the local area overwhelmed me with their support and kindness. Food started arriving nearly immediately. The bishop (leader of a Mormon local unit) and stake president (leader of an area roughly equivalent to a Catholic archdiocese), both of whom are friends of ours, were there for us. When asked, the bishop agreed to preside over a completely non-religious ceremony. Since it was Covid, we planned to hold the funeral at an outside pavilion in the cemetery. The Mormons arranged to bring and set up chairs, provide the sound equipment and someone to run it, and provide a lunch after the funeral. I was completely non-functional, and Tim wasn’t doing well at all. But because of the kindness of others, mostly Mormons, we made it through the first horrible week, and their kindness continues to this day.
No, my problem with the Mormon church has never been with the members, who have never been anything other than kind to me. So, yes, Mormons are nice.