(This is a guest post by Royleane Otteson)
Almost three years ago something happened in our family that changed our course and our lives. The Otteson family who used to be all there and very participatory in all areas of our LDS faith, has vanished. I haven’t said much, other than advocating via social media for some things I would like to see changed in our church. My personality is also a people pleaser and a peacemaker, and I don’t want to cause any ripples. Lately I have heard that people have expressed concern about me trying to lead people out of the LDS faith. This is not my intention at all. And it occurred to me my silence in all this has allowed other people to tell themselves a story about my story that is not accurate. As I have studied my church’s history in the past few years you have no idea how much I wish and long for a journal by Emma Smith. I so want to know her story of what really went on. So here is my story in a very short nutshell.
Back in January of 2015, upon returning from my cousin’s funeral in Utah, I told my husband at the airport that we needed to go give a sister in our ward a blessing. My husband got tears in his eyes and said he couldn’t, then he told me that while I was gone he felt prompted to look up some things online about our faith and he no longer believed. My heart felt like it fell out of my body. I was reliving my childhood (my mother left the church for a while and my parents divorced) how could this be happening? What should I do? As he rambled on in the car, tears streaming down his face and mine, as well me being in shock, all I could think to do was to pray in my head: “What do I do, what do I do?” And the voice was clear to me over and over “don’t judge, try to understand, love him.” I felt God inviting me to write a new story around a loved one leaving the church and the past three years has been a very different story than the one that lived out between my parents.
The first few months I cried a lot. I loved my spouse and I was hurt and I cried. I cried, and cried and cried. I knew I had to grieve the life we had planned because that was no longer the path we were on. I was worried for my children and what did this mean for their path? And I felt so alone. I tried to talk to some LDS friends but it was hard to get really down in the dirt and talk about all the hard stuff. Luckily, I had one friend who was willing to go there with me and I will never forget her kindness. I will be forever grateful for a listening ear and a kind heart during the hardest time of my life.
The kids and I continued to attend the LDS church and my spouse came with us to attend Sacrament Meeting, and then would leave. I appreciated his support in attending still and taking this family transition very slowly. I know that was very painful for him, and I felt his love for me and our trust started to be healed. I felt God prepare me for many other changes that would be coming—such as the day he told me he couldn’t go to Sacrament Meeting anymore, or the day he said he thought he needed to resign from the LDS church, or the day he came and told me he felt his path was leading him to join Community of Christ (our RLDS cousins). I knew these were all things my husband needed in order to heal even before he ever approached me about them. And so he had my support. I have been witness to God guiding my spouse to faith communities where he could heal and be accepted in his new beliefs. I am grateful he has found peace.
About 6 months into this family transition, I started studying church history, social issues, comparing doctrines to our life experiences etc., so that I could know what it was that had rocked my husband’s testimony of our faith. Interestingly the things that broke him didn’t break me. This was a good learning experience for both of us: not all people see it the way each of us do. Everyone’s perspective is different. This was a key turning point of respect for one another in our relationship that continues today.
Last year in the summertime my oldest went into the hospital for his third and final surgery after several years of horrible flare ups and failed battles with Ulcerative Colitis. This life experience along with everything else we had been through and all I had learned, is what broke me. There were complications with his surgery and we spent most of the summer in the hospital trying to figure out what was wrong. So many prayers, blessings, fasting, and nothing was working. It was when I finally threw up my hands and said: “Where are you God, you suck hurting my son and my family this way, I don’t hear you.” It was then that I realized I no longer believed in God the way I once had. I felt God’s comfort but didn’t think God was superman or that God would make everything okay. What I could do was to be there with my son and comfort him in his time of pain more than any prayer could help him. I could stand by his side and hold his hand while he had a tube shoved down his nose and into his stomach with utter panic and fear on his face, and I could not turn away, I could be there for him. And to me that is what God was…a presence that was there with us through it all that could bring peace even on the hardest days. It was also during this time that my son asked me for a blessing one evening, and I could do as my pioneer ancestors did and give my son a blessing of comfort and healing. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. I was able to give my son a few hours of peace and comfort and calm his soul to sleep. I was sad that within my faith tradition I had been denied this experience as that was no longer accepted in our faith tradition as it had been for the pioneers.
Once my son got out of the hospital I went back to church with my youngest son in tow and tried to pick up where I had left off a few months before. But I had changed, my son had changed, and I was not getting filled with the spirit or what I needed. My perspective had changed, my experiences changed me and I knew I was going to have to try to fill my cup in other places for a while. It was obvious to me how “out of the box” our family was now. This tradition worked really well for me for 43 years as long as I was following the path. But what happens to that perspective when you feel God taking you on another path? You are told by leaders it’s the adversary and yet you see only love and spiritual experiences through it all, so how can that be the devil? Our last Sunday there together as regulars we heard a message about families who have someone in them who leaves the church, will all end up being influenced by this person and then they won’t be able to be in heaven together. This message which I had heard many times before took on a whole new meaning in our family’s situation and I felt hurt, and sad, and regret that I had not seen how damaging this message was before. I’m sure I have hurt feelings and not been compassionate or understanding to those who didn’t fit the mold and to any of you reading this I want to say I’m sorry.
So where does that leave me now? I consider myself a Universalist Mormon. I take with me the beautiful and best things of Mormonism, and still incorporate them into my life. I enjoy visiting teaching still, and special sacrament meetings at my ward. I am seeking and learning about many other spiritual practices and ideas and adding those to my life as well. I have learned so much from the Methodist, Universalist, Presbyterian, Buddhism, and Community of Christ churches in our local area. My husband and I have started a community to help those who are in situations like our family was. We don’t want anyone to have to go through what we did alone. Having someone who will listen and empathize and is not scared of you is vital to going through this. We encourage people in our community to be supportive of everyone’s paths. There are people in our group who still attend and find spiritual feeding in LDS faith, there are those who are seeking other spiritual homes, and there are those who find spiritual feeding just in their homes and in nature. I’m so grateful for these friends and the richness their perspective and stories add to my life. I have come to a place of peace about the things in my LDS faith that are hard to swallow. I know I have no control over changing them. I speak out occasionally about those policies and doctrines that I see marginalizing others because after studying our church’s history, I see that people on all sides, pushing and pulling and wrestling, can bring progress. When I post these things I am not trying to tell people to leave the LDS faith, but I am saying, hey this part right here, are we really okay with this? And some of you are, when maybe I’m not. And we can still be friends and love each other. I have many friends and family who are active LDS and although my path at the moment is not the same as theirs, I rejoice in their peace and joy they find in the LDS faith. I am there to support them in their kids’ mission farewells and homecomings, weddings and baby blessings. I am truly happy that they have something that helps them feel God’s love in their life. If the LDS faith is feeding your soul I am so happy for you, don’t leave it. Stay and find joy in the community. It’s a beautiful place when it works. By sharing my story, however, I hope you can see how I am not finding joy and peace there right now. And when I share with you something I learned or that filled my soul you too can rejoice in the peace I have found. I don’t know where my path is leading me and I leave it open for me to feel called back into my LDS faith someday. Who knows, I just know I’m trying my best to do as Joseph Smith did in the grove of trees. I’m talking to God and trying to do what I feel is right for me right now.
To end, I want to say to friends and family and my ward family, that everything I said in my testimonies or in my lessons, I meant every word of it. That was my perspective at the time and it came from my heart. I’m sorry if my family’s absence has hurt you or confused you or you felt betrayed by us. To those who I said something while in my leadership positions that marginalized you or hurt your feelings or made you feel misunderstood, I am so incredibly sorry. I didn’t know, and I couldn’t understand what you were going through. I hope you can give me grace as I give others grace. In my testimony I bore in church I always focused on God’s love for us and that has been my rock through all of this and has never changed. I feel immense connection to humanity and to life and feel God’s love for all of us in this messy life together. May we continue to find joy in our journeys together and if you ever want to stop by and see me you are always welcome at my house. Everyone is welcome at my table…this is my story.