One of the biggest struggles I faced in the depths of my faith remodel that still resurfaces, especially when I find myself in an unfamiliar or new congregation, is feeling like I belonged at Church. I have felt this in other settings as well, but Church was the predominant place that I felt like I needed to fit in, giving up aspects of my identity, which I couldn’t do without huge cost. After years of feeling alienated and unwelcome, I began to claim space for myself, to stop trying to be who I thought I needed to be and to just be me. Finally I belonged. Cec pointed me towards Sister Brene Brown early in our relationship to explain what she saw happening in my Church attendance. Today I want to delve a bit into what shaking off the need to “fit in” means for me and how I feel, most days, like I belong. (I’ll be quoting a bit from Brown’s 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life throughout.)
I was reminded how different our experiences can be with the Church this past week in conversations with some of my wife’s extended family. Mormonism is multi-faceted and means many different things to different people. One common pressure throughout the Church is to fit in, to be a certain sort of person that can feel stifling. Obviously, some of what the Church does depends on some level of adherence to standards, but I think there’s frequently a feeling (derived from explicit and implicit messages from Church leadership at local and more general levels) that we need to fit a mold or we’re somehow failing.
I felt this most strongly after I returned from my mission—I didn’t want to go to my local YSA ward, choosing to attend with my family before returning to BYU, I had little to no interest in dating (for reasons I would discover years later), I was having a major remodel of my faith—diving into Church history, doctrine, the bloggernacle, podcasts, and loads of other fringe-y Mormon stuff, I had finally fully embraced my own liberal political beliefs, and I continued to not really find social satisfaction from my YSA ward—feeling overwhelmed by and anxious about the never-ending activities. Not to mention when I grew my mustache and thus visually marked myself as an outsider.
I thought if I could just fit in, if I could be like everyone else (or more accurately if they could all be like me), Church would cease to be frustrating and painful and I would finally have the spiritual experiences I desperately was yearning for. Sister Brene has some insight on this point, worth considering for ourselves and our expectations for others:
“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” (25)
I was trying to belong at Church by fitting in. I was keeping quiet because I thought my views were too liberal or apostate or heretical or intellectual or whatever for my ward. I refused to be who I was because I didn’t think my ward would accept me. I was miserable. One Sunday, I felt prompted to bear my testimony—I confession of doubt and a lack of knowledge but heartfelt belief in God and Their/His/Her love for me.
I felt incredible. A handful of people approached me after and thanked me for saying what I did and that they really identified with what I had said, including several surprising people. I tried from then on (and continue to strive to do this) to comment once or twice during Sunday School and Elders Quorum and to bear my testimony every month. I was also blogging at this time and carving out space online for myself. I refused to be silent, to fit in, but I belonged. I made close friends and was able to advocate for others. Church was still sometimes boring and frustrating, but more often than not, I was filled. Were the discussions instantly better? No, they’re still pretty awful sometimes and people still say things I find problematic or dangerous or wrong. But I feel like those beliefs exist alongside my own and that mine are just as Mormon as theirs.
No one can tell me that what I believe or think isn’t Mormon, because I am Mormon and I have claimed the space to believe and think what I do within Mormonism. Mormonism is me and you and my uncle and your neighbor down the street and our grandma and those obnoxious Vivint bros at the Village. Mormonism is so much more than what happens in Salt Lake twice a year—it’s what happens every Sunday in the pews in Provo and Vilnius and Kendall, UK and the Crystal Palace Ward in London and in Manhattan and San Francisco and Evanston, WY.
No one else’s beliefs are forced upon me. And my beliefs aren’t forced upon them. Along with claiming my own space in the pews, I’ve felt a growing charity towards those that I worship with. If I want my brothers, sisters, and all my siblings in Christ to embrace me with all my quirkiness (quoting movies and literary theory over the pulpit peppered with scripture, brushing my long hair out of my eyes and stroking my beard) I must embrace them with theirs (reliance on Mormon Doctrine, conservative politics wedded to their theology, etc.). If I want to belong, I must be myself and I must let others do the same.
Sister Brene has some words of wisdom that are relevant here:
“Betrayal is an important word with this guidepost. When we value being cool and in control over granting ourselves the freedom to unleash the passionate, goofy, heartfelt, and soulful expressions of who we are, we betray oursleves. When we consistently betray ourselves, we can expect to do the same to the people we love.
When we don’t give ourselves permission to be free, we rarely tolerate that freedom in others. We put them down, make fun of them, ridicule their behaviors, and sometimes shame them. We can do this intentionally or unconsciously. Either way the message is, ‘Geez man. Don’t be so uncool.’” (123)
To create the congregation that I want to be a part of, the small corner of Zion that I am called to tend, I must allow others the same freedom to be themselves, to live authentically that I claim for myself. “Being cool” is probably not quite the accurate descriptor for how this plays out in Mormonism in this context—we’re probably valuing “being righteous” or “being spiritual” or something like that instead that prevents us from truly being ourselves and letting others do the same.
I’m under no illusion that this is easy. It’s hard hard hard work. It’s so much easier for me to go to Church, sit back, and mock everything that people say, taking my shiny pin of skepticism (to borrow a phrase from Bruce C. Hafen) and pop pop popping everything I hear (and honestly, I still do some of this because snarky commentary is definitely an outlet of mine). But I’ve found that being that disengaged and cynical only makes me more and more frustrated and results in a twisted and uncharitable view of my fellow siblings in the Gospel.
When I show up and claim my own space, I feel more charity for those around me. No longer does their particular brand of Mormonism feel like a personal affront to mine. We can coexist and work together to build Zion. When I express myself as an alternative perspective, sharing my experiences and feelings and appropriate support from other authorities, I am largely met positively. Not every one has this experience and I honestly don’t know what to do for those that haven’t, but I have found kindness and love and support (and validation and genuine thanks) for my authenticity in wards all over south Provo, in London and the Lake District, in Washington, D.C., in Idaho Falls, and somewhat in Lithuania.
Striving to belong and to claim my own space in Mormonism has been incredibly powerful and spiritual for me and I hope for everyone to have that experience. Our LGBTQ+ siblings are institutionally restricted in how they can claim this space without facing excommunication and that’s something that should be made right. I’m not saying that everyone must claim their own space or that this is a superior alternative to feeling pushed out—everyone’s faith is theirs and they must do what they feel is right. There’s more than one way to Mormon and more than one way to be good.
As for me, I choose to practice authenticity within Mormonism and to claim my space there, after all as I sang in Primary, “I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…”