Melanny Cowley cleaning headstones for the Mormon Stories service project.
In my master’s program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State, we students were continually encouraged by our mentors to reconsider the term “environment.” What does an environment encompass? To some, it might automatically mean nature or the depletion of natural resources, but I think “environment” refers to anything outside our sense of self that influences or shapes our present experience. My emphasis in the program was focused on religion as environment, and never have the reflections of those studies been more heightened than during the San Diego Mormon Stories Conference erected by local Open Mormons this past weekend.
To dabble in unorthodoxy is to unwittingly alter your religious environment, even if you never say or do a thing differently. As I found myself challenging authoritarianism within my religion, I found myself in new environments with like-minded individuals: Sunstone, online communities, NOM meet ups, and recently, a Post Mormon dinner, each of these communities embracing, edifying and supportive as I processed the greatest spiritual shift of my life.
But what is most compelling to me about my faith journey is that I don’t feel that I left my orthodox LDS environment. I feel that my environment left me. It is true that I changed, but it is also true that others encouraged me to simply go rather than voice concerns. It is true that many people who love and (perhaps) respect me, chose to ignore me the way you would ignore a distressed homeless person on a bus. And I received the message more than once, “Please leave. We have nothing to offer you.” I no longer believe the LDS church is the one true church on the earth, but if it is, I can’t help but consider how many individuals and leaders have failed to make a place for me, however misguided I may be. I found my Mormon environment pushing away from me like a boat from a dock. Since I have worked diligently to seek truth and better myself, I cannot help or change who I have become. I am simply hoping for the next ship to sail through.
The personal interaction you have with others within a particular environment is most influential in your assessing the value of that environment. For example, if you went to Hawaii but was mugged the day you arrived, you may not have good feelings about Hawaii, even though it is often considered a universally beautiful setting. As I sat in a honey colored chapel in blissfully temperate San Diego, and listened to Laura Compton testify of Christ, and Dave Reveley present on disengaging from an authoritarian culture as an ex evangelical, and Shari Crall describe how she raised her gay son Mormon, (including giving him the Especially for Youth pamphlet with a few red pen edits) I asked myself, what environment is this?
Community is the most powerful environmental factor for an individual experience. Is it any wonder that we cry and hurt as we feel a familiar community slip away from us? In a small church in San Diego, we laughed, we cried, but most of all, we listened, and we held each other in those moments. The members of Mormon Stories have forged a community of peace, acceptance and unconditional love. I sat among Ex Mormons and temple recommend holders and closet doubters and proud atheists. Are we more similar than we are different? I like to think so. I never felt more at home, being able to claim them all, to proudly look around the room and say, yes it’s all of us. And this is my tribe.