Losing My Religion

Confessions of a Guatemalan Mormon Who Grew Up in the Hood

In Apostasies, Zócalo presents stories or ideas from people who find themselves at odds with the fold.

by Brenda Yancor

If I hadn’t grown up Mormon, I wouldn’t have gone camping every summer for seven years. I wouldn’t have had any place to throw my 16th birthday party or any guests to invite. I wouldn’t have known what it was like to have a father figure I could look up to and depend on. And I definitely wouldn’t have known what it felt like to belong.

My family moved around a lot-pretty much every couple of years, and always within a three-mile radius, never leaving the cities of Cudahy, Bell or Maywood. No matter how many times I had to get used to a new neighborhood, I never had to get used to a new church. The church never forgot to pay the rent, never got foreclosed on, and never got kicked out. It was the closest thing I had to a place to call home. At least it was until this past June, when I finally wrote a letter of resignation to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Usually, when I tell someone I grew up Mormon, they either joke about multiple mothers or ask how someone like me – a Guatemalan woman from the hood – could fit in. I explain that my mother (and I have only one) converted to the Mormon Church from Catholicism when she was still living in Guatemala, and the congregation I belonged to while growing up in Southern California was almost entirely non-white. Sunday services were in Spanish. So were the scriptures I read every night.

The Mormon Church found my mother at a lonely time. Her husband had gone to the U.S. to find work, leaving her in Guatemala with an infant daughter and son. One day my mom went to the store to buy five cents worth of vanilla to make incaparina – a porridge-like drink that helps prevent protein deficiency – but the storekeeper was only selling the whole jar. With only five cents in hand, my mother was about to go home empty-handed, but a lady in line overheard the exchange and invited my mother over to her house to get some vanilla. Then she invited my mom to a class on turning old clothes into new baby clothes. This woman was Mormon, and when my mom showed up for the class, Mormon missionaries were also there. Not long after that, my mother was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

My family’s finances were always shaky, especially because my dad had trouble holding onto a job. But when things got especially rough, the church was there for us. One of the first jobs my mom had in the United States was at Deseret Industries, an LDS-sponsored vocational rehabilitation program and thrift store. Not only was it a source of income; it was also where I got a lot of my clothes. We benefited a lot from the Bishop’s Storehouse, a pantry where Mormons in need can get bags of bread, canned food, soap, shampoo and other basic necessities. A few times, the church even helped us with the rent.

Being a Mormon isn’t just about believing. It’s about being taken care of – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. You don’t just go to church for three hours on Sunday. You do something almost every day that defines you as a Mormon. There are weekly activities, monthly dances, and constant responsibilities.

When I was a teenager, my friends and I would take trips to the Los Angeles temple to perform baptisms for the dead – the ceremony of getting baptized in the name of someone else. (That way, if that person chooses to accept the Mormon Church in the afterlife, they’re ready to go.) A group of six or seven of us would pile into a van and get driven over to the Westside to the grand temple on Santa Monica Boulevard. I loved going to that temple – its lawn so neatly trimmed, its golden statue a signal of the wealth and stability so lacking in my own life.

We’d change into white jumpsuits and line up to be used as vessels for those who have died. A Brother at the baptismal font would recite a prayer for each person on the list and then dunk one of us into the water. Afterward, we’d pile back into the van and head over to Tommy’s Burgers for some chili cheese fries and soda.

These were happy times. No matter where you are, or what you’re doing, you’re connected to a sense of purpose when you’re LDS. You’re in a worldwide club. As long as you’re a member in good standing, it’s home.

Seven years ago, I started to lose that good standing.

I was in high school when I had my first – and, to date, only – love relationship with another woman. She was my best friend, and when I finally admitted to her how I felt about her, she admitted she felt the same way about me.

I tried to fight it. I wanted to maintain my good standing within the church. I met with my church bishop. He told me-as I knew he would-to break it off and repent. I started going to free therapy offered by a church friend. I’ve blocked out the details of those sessions, but the entries in my diary are a reminder. When I was first able to admit to myself how I felt about my friend, I wrote about how happy I was and how I knew God still loved me, even if I was doing the wrong thing. After I started the therapy sessions, my entries became a record of guilt. I started to keep a daily list of the things I did to deserve God’s love or not. On the days when the not-deserving list was longer, my writing would deteriorate into tortured illegibility.

College took me to UCLA on the west side of Los Angeles – a change I wasn’t really prepared for. Where I grew up, a weekly allowance was something that only existed on TV shows, half of the people in our families were born in another country, and we could switch between English and Spanish in our conversations without hesitation. That wasn’t the experience of most of my classmates at UCLA. Going to church on the west side didn’t make things any better, as the difference in social class between myself and the rest of the congregation became clear. My parents weren’t paying for my college education, while the parents of most of my fellow Mormon classmates were. I wore thrift-store clothes. Everyone else looked like they shopped at J.Crew. Nobody was ever unkind or dismissive, but I felt out of place.

All of this took place at a time when I was frustrated by the idea that I’d never get to be sealed with my family in the temple. Being sealed means you will be together in the afterlife, but a woman can’t perform this ceremony with her children on her own, and my parents had divorced when I was a teenager. For a family to be sealed, both parents must be Mormons in good standing. I couldn’t reconcile the idea of a loving god with the thought of being deprived of my family in the afterlife just because my parents’ relationship didn’t work out.

It didn’t help that I was starting to think about what it means to be a “Lamanite.” Mormons believe that an ancient man named Nephi, who was godly and faithful, produced a line of descendants called the Nephites, who were likewise godly and faithful. Among Nephi’s brothers was a bad one named Laman who left behind a tribe of descendants called the Lamanites. These people were wicked and mocked God. So God cursed them-with dark skin. “I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people,” says God in the Book of Mormon. The skin of anyone who was non-white-my skin-was downright “loathsome.”

In the early days of finding myself at odds with the church, I Googled “gay Mormons” and found an organization called Affirmation that provides a support network for gay Mormons and gay former Mormons. Browsing through Affirmation’s online bulletin boards, I learned that it was possible to resign from the church. At the time, Mormonism was still so intertwined with my identity that I couldn’t bring myself to take that step, but the idea had been planted.

All of these internal conflicts eventually forced me to make a choice-or, rather, many small choices that added up to one big choice. On Friday, May 27, 2011, almost seven years after unintentionally embarking upon my apostasy, I sat in my living room with my computer on my lap and poured myself shot after shot of José Cuervo. “I have chosen to terminate my membership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” I wrote to the Member Records Division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City. “I’ve fallen in love with the world. I love people, in their raw humanity and endless flaws. I love sin, with its ability to teach you things you would never know otherwise.” I headed over to the nearest notary public in order to assure the Member Records Division that it was I, Brenda Yancor, who wrote that letter. I paid 18 bucks to send it overnight.

A week and a half later, the Records Division acknowledged my letter but asked me to reconsider in view of “the eternal consequences of such an action.” They also wrote that they’d forwarded my letter to my local bishop. They enclosed a pamphlet titled “An Invitation” asking me “to return and partake of the happiness you once knew.”

The ex-Mormon forums warn that if you live with Mormon family members, they will be informed of your resignation. Sure enough, on Sunday, June 26th my mother called me to share her anguish. She blamed my friends, she blamed my college education, and she blamed my pride. I had to explain to her that my decision was the culmination of years of thought, not some impulse. Where Mormonism so often saw sin and called for repentance, I saw humanity and called for acceptance. My mother might not have fully understood or agreed with me, but at least she didn’t disown me.

On July 5th I got a letter from my local bishop lamenting my decision but agreeing to take the necessary steps to process my request. Soon after, I got a letter from Confidential Records. It was two paragraphs, each one sentence long. As of July 8, 2011, my name had been removed from the membership records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I’d waited a long time for this moment, but it still wasn’t easy. It was really over. They’d yanked my name out of their records. It’s like I was never there.

When I was Mormon, I thought I knew everything – where I came from, where I was going, and what I needed to do. It was hard to let go of that. Today, I’m okay with having beliefs based on observation and common sense and changing them when I feel it’s necessary. I’m happy and excited about figuring things out as I go along, about plunging into the unknown at the start of every day and coming back with new experiences and ideas. Above all, I’m okay with not knowing.

Of course, although I’m no longer a Latter-Day Saint, I will forever be a Guatemalan Mormon who grew up in the hood. I doubt I’ll ever be entirely free of twinges of Mormon guilt. Having a coffee or beer still causes me a moment’s hesitation. I’ll always understand the sense of bliss from surrendering to a higher power. Whether I like it or not, the church will always be a part of me, even if I’m never again part of the church.

Brenda Yancor is an intern at Zócalo Public Square, and takes her coffee with two sugars, lots of milk, and a small portion of guilt.

*Photo courtesy of Altus Photo Design.