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Opinion: The untold stories of Latter-day Saint ‘reconversion’

We’re inundated with loss-of-faith narratives, but what about the ones where people find their faith again?

Many of us are familiar with stories about the loss of faith, but we’re less familiar with stories about faith-based reconciliation and renewal: A young man who stays on his knees all night because he can’t stop thinking about the love he felt in his childhood home. The woman whose cancer diagnosis helps her take shaky steps to the back of the chapel. The online troll heckling those in his former faith community for 20 years until he received a blessing from two missionaries who knocked on his door. The returned missionary who took a break from the faith she felt had betrayed her, but then rekindled her personal relationship with deity. The agnostic who writes an email to his former religion professor to understand his perspective on difficult church history.

These are the stories of Christian, Letitia, Dusty, Allyson and Leo. They are the real stories from real people who have gone through a reawakening of faith. We’ve been collecting and analyzing reconversion stories like these and we want to share what we’ve learned with you.

As a married couple, we tend to see the world through surprisingly similar lenses even though our childhoods were drastically different. One of us was raised in a mixed-faith home on the East Coast, and the other one was raised in a home in Utah with a childhood packed full of siblings, Family Home Evenings and Jell-O (placed with care on a lettuce leaf for Sunday dinner).

Despite our contrasting backgrounds, both of us have experienced the emotion that comes when another family member or close friend chooses to leave a shared faith tradition. And as English professors, both of us have wondered how we can use our teaching experience and love for stories in constructive ways that might benefit both those who have left and those who have chosen to stay.

As people who teach how to interpret stories for a living, we’ve listened to and analyzed many popular deconversion narratives online and we have felt like there is something missing. They often imply that anyone who has questions or is intellectually engaged has no option other than to leave and never return. In these stories, departure is often framed as an inevitable, foregone conclusion rather than a choice.

These stories of departure have received enormous attention over the years, with details parsed and analyzed publicly. Comparable attention has not gone to stories of reconversion. We started our project to help fill in some of the gaps in the complex spectrum of religious experiences and stories of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In a recent interview for our Faith Is Not Blind Podcast, our friend JaNae shared a moment of panic when she felt like her religious doubts and uncertainty had led her to the plank of the “Ship Zion” and her only choice was to jump off. She said, “The pattern that I had seen was that you believe, then you have doubts, then you leave the church.

She simply wasn’t aware of stories about people who had grappled with doubts and who had chosen to stay in the church, and she definitely wasn’t aware of stories about people who had experienced reconversion. Shedding greater light on the rich, complex stories that exist within our faith community can allow us to see beyond such stark, black-and-white choices and to cope in heathy ways with the type of uncertainty JaNae described.

Deep in the throes of her own faith journey, another woman described to us how she scoured the internet looking for just one story about someone who had returned to faith after a deconversion. She couldn’t find any. Hoping she would discover a single fellow traveler on the road back to religion, she actually googled the term “Ex-Mormon returns to church.” But she couldn’t find any published reconversion narratives. “It would just pull up more anti-Mormon literature,” she said. Happily, this woman’s story eventually became the reconversion story she was looking for. And there are more stories like hers that we’ve been gathering.

We’ve not only found a heartening collection of reconversion portraits, but we’ve also analyzed them to discover how much they can teach us. We’ve felt like gatherers of an underreported brand of hope as we’ve collected these inspiring stories.

While there is emerging research on deconversion narratives, especially with the rise of the “nones” over the past 10 years in America, there’s next to nothing about reconversion. Yet these narratives of returning to faith offer compelling and unique insights into the fluid mobility of religious experience in 21st-century America.

Our analysis of this growing collection of reconversion narratives has taught us about both the difficulties and the joys of the winding path that returns to faith. In addition, because our narrators have lived on both sides of this difficult and widening divide, they offer unique insights about deconversion as well as reconversion. The more we listen to these stories, the more we want to amplify the voices of the people who have felt the grief of deconversion and departure, but we also want to celebrate the hope and renewal that comes with the rediscovery of faith.

In his seminal work “Versions of Deconversion,” David Barbour references what we’re calling “reconversion narratives” and includes the stories of Dorothy Day and C.S. Lewis, arguing that these stories “reenact ... the insights and experiences that led to the repudiation of Christianity and demonstrate the process of reflection and reinterpretation by which faith can be recovered in good conscience.” In other words, these voices teach us not only about rediscovering faith, but also about how introspection and analysis can nurture belief and help it evolve.

While each individual story in our collection is rich in depth and complexity, the combination of all the accounts has helped us to see startling connections, patterns and themes. So far, we’ve gathered and carefully analyzed more than 50 of these narratives.

In addition to providing helpful insights for those who sit all along the spectrum of belief, we hope there might be some helpful lessons for those completely estranged from faith but who may be open to the possibility of reconversion. Here are a few of the insights we’ve gleaned from our preliminary analysis of these narratives (see links to longer articles about each topic).

1. The language we use to describe our religious experiences influences our perceived choices. In many of these reconversion narratives there is a fascinating correlation between people’s use of language and their perception about the church, their faith and themselves. Often the language the narrators use to describe their experience seems to determine their perceived possibilities and choices, especially those choices they are able to see about their faith and their current and future religious activity.

The language they use frames not only their experience, but their ability to understand their experience. Analyzing this language helps us to understand at a deeper level why significant shifts in perspective may happen during both deconversion and later reconversion.

In addition, the language used by the narrators indicates that overwhelming doubts are frequently connected to a larger certainty crisis. That is, when someone experiences a shift in belief, it isn’t always only their faith that is transforming — their whole worldview might be changing.

2. People acknowledge a sense of alienation and banishment in their time away from the church. A sense of profound distance shows up in many of these narratives — with descriptions of time apart from faith often emphasizing how acute the separation felt when they were “distanced” from their former faith. One woman describes how she “wandered lost in the dark.” The emotional impact of stepping away from formerly valued connections and convictions, along with a lingering anxiety about the possibility of ever returning, is a major theme of these return narratives.

Overcoming this anxiety and narrowing this distance were central experiences in the unfolding of accounts. As one woman remembers, “You have no idea how terrifying it is to come back to church. I almost threw up the first time. I’m not kidding. I had such sweaty palms that I was grateful for a hug rather than a handshake.”

Being aware of the full scope of people’s experiences in returning to the church can potentially help us provide better support to those still grappling over whether to come back.

By appreciating some of what influences the decision to step away, those who are within the fold can hopefully better support and possibly prevent someone from reaching a crisis point and experiencing the pain of a departure from a faith community. We anticipate that a deeper understanding of these kinds of narratives will also generate more empathy among members who have never felt the grief associated with stepping away from faith or community, also revealing specific, practical ways to reach out to and welcome back those who are struggling.

3. Others play a critical role in both the loss and return to faith. Family members, loved ones, friends and church leaders play a significant role in helping people come back to faith, but these same people also sometimes play a role in contributing to people’s choices to leave. Without suggesting another person was the only cause of someone’s leaving or returning, it was clear that others’ actions or comments often acted as tipping points for significant decisions about their faith.

On one hand, insensitive words at an inopportune moment appear to push someone further away, like pushing an already teetering person off an edge. On the other hand, other accounts clearly demonstrate how the right word or action at a timely moment provided just enough support for someone to take steps to return to faith in God and participation in their congregation. In these narratives, the personal impact we each have on those around us in their journey of faith is abundantly clear. Our analysis might offer some guidance to parents and teachers, encouraging open conversations about challenging questions and listening with greater compassion.

4. Those who return to faith often experience a moment that disrupts the previous narrative they held when estranged from the church. In different and often surprising ways, these stories describe a variety of momentum-shifting moments that disrupt previous assumptions and that puncture strongly held views. These narrative-disrupting moments are diverse, including significant tragedies, miracles, fresh insights and transformative examples, along with a sense of growing hunger for deeper spiritual connection and love from others.

While widely different, these experiences appear to similarly open up new possibilities about a return to faith not openly considered before. Although there are many other important moments that follow in their stories, these disruptive moments hold special significance for our narrators.

5. There is a remarkably consistent awareness and increase of divine influence throughout virtually every account of return. It’s striking to see how consistently our narrators express a growing awareness of their own relationship with God. While there are a wide variety of influences on the unfolding reconversion, this is one overarching similarity in virtually every story of reconversion: an increasing recognition of God and their relationship to him. Almost without exception, connecting with God in a deeper way is a vital and driving part of the reconversion process in these stories.

It has been heartening for us to study this preliminary collection of narratives from a remarkable group of people. As one newly returned woman summarized, “changes of heart, miraculous changes of heart, are still possible in this day and age. Your past does not define your here, your now, or your future.”

Analyzing these narratives has inspired us in our own efforts to become more compassionate to those struggling and to see faith as a work in progress. Our analysis has also confirmed to us how unique and diverse faith journeys often are, and we’ve learned to appreciate and celebrate the nuance and the complexity of stories about faith. They are each different, and they shouldn’t be confined to stereotypes or easy formulas because they represent unique personal journeys and individual relationships with God.

Studying these genuine narratives and discovering new ones has also left us with the sense that there are many more people out there with such stories to share. We encourage you to share your story with us on our Faith Is Not Blind website and to join us in learning from the intricacies of faith stories and the way that we tell them.

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée teaches at BYU-Idaho and specializes in Women’s Studies and 20th-century American literature.

Eric d’Evegnée has been a professor in BYU-Idaho’s English Department for 18 years. He teaches advanced composition, literary criticism and 20th-century American literature.

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