What they left
A glimpse into the complicated lives of those who have left the Mormon church

May 2, 2017

Jessica Darney is a contagious disease. So is Zachary Lien. Bret Colt. Falin Wilson. Kirsie Lundholm.

Don’t worry, they only infect a specific group of people — the Latter Day Saints.

Darney’s father infected multiple people. After raising a family of Mormons for years, he decided they would leave the church when Darney was 14. Darney said he disagreed with the faith’s foundation and their views on women and people of different sexual orientations. 

When Darney’s family left, members of her extended family soon followed suit. She said her father was the spark that ignited the chain reaction. Talking to him made the others realize what they didn’t like about the church as well.

And so the disease spread.

Zachary  Lien said intellectuals are one of the three main enemies of the Latter Day Saints, along with queers and feminists. He said during Mormon services, words that typically have positive connotations — like “science” and “evidence” — are spoken with venom.

But perhaps it makes sense that intellectuals are seen as a threat to the church. In Lien’s case, the knowledge he gained by going to school was a primary reason he abandoned his faith at such a young age.

Before his junior year of high school, Lien said he was the perfect Mormon boy. He took seminary classes. He thought the theory of evolution was full of crap. He called a gay student an abomination during class.

Then one day his science teacher explained evolutionary theory to him, and he was surprised to find out how much it made sense. He was exposed to more of the LGBT community and saw they weren’t all terrible people. He met strong, independent women who wanted jobs.

Kirsie Lundholm said from a young age, children are taught not to ask any questions. If you inquired about something like why black men couldn’t be bishops at one point in the church’s history, other members would look down on you.

Lien asked questions. He conducted research into the formation of the Latter Day Saints, and found out about some things about the founder, Joseph Smith, he never knew before.

“I realized my church didn’t exist,” Lien said.

While he researched, his older brother was away on a mission to the Philippines. He had a tougher time than Jodi Lewis, a Latter Day Saint who also completed her mission in the Philippines.

Although she said it was challenging to learn a new language and culture, Lewis said meeting people who had nothing and showing them the power of her faith was fulfilling.

Lien’s older brother did not get the same fulfillment. Lien said he endured several hurricanes and the time there was rough on his body. When his brother returned home, it took him years to fully recover. He still has to wear ear muffs at night when a storm brews outside.

But at the time of his mission, Lien’s family members were the only people who even had a hint of his brother’s misery. The private letters his brother sent home had a different tone than the letters the public received, which waxed poetic about what an amazing time he was having, Lien said.

After finishing his mission, their bishop pressured Lien’s older brother to lie to the congregation about his experience and say that the majority of it was positive. Though Lien asked his brother not to lie about his experience in the Philippines, he did it anyway.

“If they can get my brother to lie, what could they make me do?” Lien said.

Lien’s mother was the real devout Mormon of his family compared to his father, Lien said, and it was to her and his brother that he first revealed he would leave the church.

They were playing a board game when it happened. In the weeks beforehand, Lien dropped hints about the doubts he was having about the church, which created tension in the household. When Lien and his mother were teasing his brother about his poor academic record, his brother couldn’t help but let a comment slip out.

“At least I’m not the one who believes evolution is real.”

This led to yet another debate between Lien and his brother. Finally, his mother had to ask, “What future do you see for yourself in the church?”

When Lien responded honestly with, “I don’t,” there was silence. Lien broke through the quiet to explain his reasoning behind it, and his brother and mother just sat and listened — they didn’t argue.

It wasn’t until later that the true consequences of Lien’s decision were realized. The bonds he had with his family were weakened overnight. At Capital High School, 95 percent of his friends turned their backs on him, he said.

Lundholm and Darney received similar treatment from their “friends” after leaving the church. Ironically, the reason they were even a part of the church was based in social needs.

Lewis said it makes her sad when she hears of people who leave the church, because she gets so much joy out of it herself. She knows the people who leave the church will be incapable of feeling that joy.

Bret  Colt said that expression of sadness is a common response from the church, and he laughs at it. It’s a contradiction in itself. How can you be sad about something that supposedly makes you so happy?

Not every person who leaves the church comes out in such a straight-forward manner, Lien said. There are three alternatives for people who wish to leave the faith — committing suicide, faking it or coming out. Lien feared if he tried to fake it, he would ultimately end up killing himself. Many people who try to fake it have a hard time repressing their true feelings, Lien said.

Falin Wilson is faking it right now.

His parents still don’t know he doesn’t consider himself a Mormon anymore, or that he’s been trying to leave the church for the past 18 years. Before he came to the University of Idaho, he said his parents asked him to try to attend a service at least once a month.

Wilson went to church once for about 30 minutes in Moscow. It was mostly to get names of people to contact if he ever thought about becoming active again. He forgot those names and never returned.

Keeping the secret from his parents is easy with Wilson away at college. He said he strategizes his visits home to Twin Falls to avoid staying on days where he would be required to attend church. So far, his plan has worked.

Wilson said it wasn’t the principles of the church that drove him away, like it did for Lien. In fact, he doesn’t think the religion itself is that bad — it was the people. He said he thought they were too stuck up, judgmental, controlling.

Sometimes, when Wilson talks about his background to someone in Moscow, they will ask, “What’s a Mormon?”

“It’s nothing,” he’ll respond. But internally, Wilson will think about how cool it is that some people have never even heard of his parents’ faith.

Though Lundholm became a pariah among her old friends in Terreton, Idaho, she said she has multiple Mormon friends in Moscow who are more forward-thinking. They respect her history with the church and don’t try to pull her back in.

Her high school’s student population was about 80 percent Mormon, and she said she thinks the higher saturation there is of Latter Day Saints in one area, the more judgmental they become.

“In the Book of Mormon, Mormons are said to be the ‘salt of the earth,’ and salt is good for crops, it helps them grow,” Lundholm said. “But if you get too much salt in one place it kind of poisons the ground.”

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