When I first accepted this gig to be a relationship “specialist”, one of the pieces I wanted to write the most was about maintaining healthy, happy relationships with those who don’t belong to my faith, and more specifically those I know who have left the church. I started sharing my writing on this website over eight months ago, and I have not yet been able to write about this topic. I feel like since we’ve known each other for a while now, I can be honest with you guys and admit that I’ve been struggling with writing this piece. I always intended to write it, but I kept pushing it back a month, and then back another month. Here we are in August and I still don’t know how to say what I want to say. It’s something that affects people I love and care for very deeply, and I think that’s why I’ve shied away from it for so long. I don’t want to upset or misrepresent anyone. I don’t want to say anything wrong or unhelpful. And ultimately, I still have those junior high feelings where I just want everyone to like me. I try not to shy away from topics that are uncomfortable because I feel like, who am I if I’m not sharing my personal uncomfortable/scary/sad experiences? If I don’t share, then I went through all the heartache and pain for no reason, and I can’t accept that.
My voice is the one thing I have on this earth that is truly my own, and I feel like I need to use it to try to help other people, or at least to connect with them. As a result, I tend to be an over-sharer. I’ve tried to curb that a little as I’ve gotten older, but I can’t. I truly don’t know another way to be. It’s kind of annoying to be honest! I’ve come to accept that this is who I am, and I try to use my over-sharing for good. So I am writing this piece the only way I know how- honestly. This may not be my most eloquent or well written thing that I’ve ever written, but I promise you it comes from a place of love. I’m speaking to you as if you are my friend, as if you know me personally, although I know that many of you don’t. I think this is the best way for me to talk about this subject, as if we are friends discussing it over lunch. I always say the hardest topics are best discussed with food close by. So grab a snack, and get ready.
All my life, I have been eager to be friends with people. Not a specific type of people. All people. I love people. The color of their skin, religion, location, weight, etc. has never mattered to me. Because of this eagerness, I think I came on a little too strong for most, which meant that I didn’t have many friends growing up. I was bullied pretty heavily in sixth grade, causing me to beg my mom daily to homeschool me so I wouldn’t ever have to go to junior high (she said no, by the way). Junior high wasn’t very easy for me either. I wanted so badly to fit in with the girls from my ward, but try as I might, I just didn’t. I wasn’t like them, and being aware that I was different than the popular kids was really hard for me. Even though I liked some of the things about myself that made me different, I wasn’t cool with being excluded. As I got older, I realized that it’s okay to not fit in, and eventually I grew to really like the things about myself that separated me from the “norm”. It just took me a while to get to that place of acceptance.
I entered high school the same way I had entered junior high- lonely and afraid, but something in me shifted. I didn’t want to play games with people anymore. I really wanted to be free from any friend drama or mean girls, and even though those things don’t ever really go away, I did cut back on it significantly. I stopped being shy around people and started opening up more. I found people who were lonely and maybe a little odd like myself, and asked them to hang out on the weekends or eat lunch with me at school. I made it my life’s goal to be a good friend to everyone. I did still come across some mean people, and experience some drama, because life will never ever be free of those two things, but I built a pretty solid network of people around me. For the first time in my life I had genuinely good friends, and lots of them. You’re probably wondering why I am boring you with my origins story. I’m giving you this background info so that you have an idea of how important real friends are to me. Some of my friends belong to the same religion I do, but many do not, and some of my friends that once belonged to the same religion I do, are no longer a part of it. This will always be one of the greater sorrows in my life.
I don’t really understand why it hits me so hard, but it does. I think it’s just hard for me to accept that something that has helped me so much in my life hasn’t been helpful for others. The first time I experienced this, I was pretty young, and I don’t think I handled it very well initially. I was sad, and my initial reaction was to shame my friend because of her decision. I knew that wasn’t the right thing to do, but because I was young I didn’t really know how to behave in a situation like that. I soon realized that the best thing to do for my friend was to treat her the same way I had always treated her. Just because her life had changed doesn’t mean our friendship had to. Even though I was sad about the situation, I made efforts to make sure our friendship stayed the same. It didn’t matter to me what my non-member friends believed, why should it matter to me what my former-member friends believed? Back then, I thought if someone left it meant they were choosing to do bad things, but I’ve learned that isn’t always the case. I have seen some incredible, good people leave the church, and go on to live good lives. Everyone’s path in life is different, and choosing another way to go doesn’t make someone stupid, weak, or evil. Not everyone has a testimony of the same things that I do.
Because of my relationship with my Savior and my feelings about the gospel, I had a hard time understanding how members could ever leave. Eventually I’ve come to understand that my experience with the church isn’t everyone’s experience with the church. However, I can relate to many of the negative experiences that people have had with some members of the church. In the end I’ve chosen to stay. Some of my friends, for perhaps different reasons, have chosen to leave. Everyone is on this earth to choose their own path. What is good for me isn’t always good for another, and though it took me a while to realize that, having that understanding has been helpful.
After my grandma died, I gained a testimony of how little we understand about what happens after we die. I’ve had experiences that have left me certain that even those who made many bad choices during their lives are happy on the other side. I am aware that probably makes me sound like a crazy person. I’m okay with that. We can’t see everything now, and we don’t have a complete understanding of why things happen the way they do. We have to trust that there’s more to our experiences than what we know now. If you’re a believer, then you believe that there’s a whole lot of stuff that happened before this life and there’s a whole lot of stuff that will happen after this life too. How can we judge a situation based on the limited view we have?
I’ve asked some friends who have left the church what they want me and others like me to know, and the answer overwhelmingly was that they are hurting too. We are sad that they have left, but oftentimes they are sad to leave. People don’t take this decision lightly, and we shouldn’t assume they’re taking the easy way out by doing it. Most often it’s a decision that took years to make, and a lot of courage to actually go through with. It’s hard to change something that has been a part of you for so long, and it’s hard to do it when so many people that you love are still a part of it. It’s not as easy as just quitting church. We need to understand that this is a decision that most have wrestled with for months if not years before leaving.
As I’ve been thinking about this topic over the past months, I’ve had an overwhelming feeling of love for my friends and family members who are no longer members of my faith. Even the ones I don’t really talk to much. I’ve wondered why that is. Why do I feel so much for people I don’t really see or interact with? Why for these people specifically? The other night I was struggling to write, so I asked my husband to give me a blessing. During the blessing, a calm feeling washed over me, and in my head I heard the clearest voice say to me, “The answer is love.” How do we maintain relationships with those friends or family members who have left the church? We love them, same as we always have. We love them harder, bigger, louder than ever. They need it, and so do we. “As I have loved you, love one another” are words from Jesus that we quote so often that it sometimes becomes trite. But it really is at the core of our religion. Serve. Be kind. Don’t judge. Love. Love. Love.
Just the same way our friends or family members might struggle with their decision to leave, we may also struggle to accept their decision. I know there have been times in my life when I haven’t reacted perfectly to this situation initially. It’s a hard thing. One of the hardest things for me to understand was how the gospel didn’t make everyone as happy as it has made me, or that not everyone finds peace and strength in basic gospel principles. When I was younger, I just assumed that everyone got the same thing out of the gospel that I did, and that everyone gained their testimony the same way. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that isn’t true. This doesn’t mean that those principles or teachings aren’t actually true. It just means that some people’s paths are more complicated. We are individuals, with our own experiences and our own freedom to choose. Not everyone is going to feel the exact same way about things that I do, and that’s okay. We aren’t being asked to judge others on their reactions to life, we are only asked to love everyone, and to treat them the way we would want to be treated. It’s not our job to worry about what judgment people receive from Heavenly Father. We have to remember that Heavenly Father knows people individually, and He knows them better than we ever could. We have to trust in Him, and in the knowledge we have that he is a fair and loving God. He will not fail us, or our friends, children, or family.
With things being the way they are in the world right now, we could all use more love. If you look at the world as a whole, it can feel overwhelming. Start by looking in your small circle. What can you do to show kindness to a family member or friend? What can you do to show love for your enemy? How can you conduct yourself in your life so that you accurately represent the Savior and all he stood for? He has a perfect love for each and every one of us. With an example like that, why is it so hard for us to show love to each other? As you make these small changes in your everyday life, in your small circle, I know you will be changed. You will find peace and comfort. And your goodness will spread. There are so many opinions and feelings that can drive us further apart from each other, but all any of us wants really, is to be loved. Pop stars sing about it, rappers rap about it, country singers croon about it. I mean if love can transcend music genres, what can’t it do?