The Nation; COLUMN ONE; Losing Faith and Lots More;

Some Mormons who quit the church find themselves ostracized by friends, co-workers and families. Annual gathering offers support, shared experiences.

The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Dec 1, 2001; WILLIAM LOBDELL

Caption: PHOTO: Former high school classmates in Bountiful, Utah, Kelly Blanpied, left, and Christene Carol reunite for the first time since 1976 during a conference of former Mormons in Salt Lake City.; PHOTOGRAPHER: GEORGE FREY

"This is the second year I've had brown shoulders," said Lindy Parsons, a 34-year-old mother of three from Harrisville, Utah, showing off her tan. The first thing she did when she quit the church? "I went down to Victoria's Secret and bought some real underwear."

Humor masked much bitterness. All participants said they'd lost major pieces of their lives after they walked away from the church.

Parsons says her Mormon neighbors--nearly her entire community-- shunned her. When her husband had a grand mal seizure, she said, a church official passing by warned a neighbor, "Don't enter that house. The man is possessed by the devil."

Then she stumbled upon the Web site, an online gathering spot for former Mormons created in 1995 to fill the social vacuum left after exiting the church. "It's a halfway house for many of us," said cartoonist Benson of the site that now gets 3,000 hits per day and has more than 600 e-mail subscribers.

The group started holding annual get-togethers a few years ago in Las Vegas--"because it was the anti-Salt Lake City," one organizer said--but decided to get serious this year with a formal conference in the Utah capital.

Because of family ties, jobs, familiarity or just plain stubbornness, many of the former Mormons have decided to stay in hostile territory and try to make friends--or at least live a peaceful life in a parallel universe alongside the church.

"I want to be me and still be respected," said Maxine Hanks, who was excommunicated from the church in 1993 after publishing her book, "Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism." "I'm tired of being seen as an outsider."

Hanks said the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City next year has spurred Mormon officials to rethink their outreach to other faiths, which included the Doctrine of Inclusion.

Critics acknowledge that Mormon leaders have been doing a better job in recent years of promoting inclusiveness. But nearly all of the ex-Mormons at the conference said they'd seen no evidence of it. They said their former ties to the church have put them, in the eyes of Mormons, in a different category than people of other faiths or even atheists. They suspect hurt feelings and a fear of associating with apostates contributed to the shunning.

Santa Clarita resident Gaylon Harrison, 42, said that when she left the church four years ago, her congregation scratched her name from the directory, listing only her husband and three children. She said her Mormon friends passed her in the supermarket without a word.

"They would literally turn their heads," said Harrison, who has since moved to Maryland with her family. "I was ready to say 'Hi.' All they had to do is look."

Harrison said she also had problems within her marriage. She eventually told her Mormon husband that she would no longer share a bed with him unless he stopped wearing his sacred Mormon undergarments, worn day and night by the devout. She wanted a respite from symbolism.

"That church was right there in the bed with us," she complained. He stopped wearing the underwear, and she quit wearing her "Have You Hugged an Apostate Today?" T-shirt.

Though public rhetoric has softened in recent years, Mormons believe that stepping away from the church will have eternal consequences. Ex-Mormons are also excluded from major earthly events such as temple baptisms and weddings, where only members in good standing can set foot.

"My sister couldn't attend some events [at the temple], and it hurts," said Joni Bown, a Salt Lake City Mormon whose sister quit the church. "Yes, I pray for her to come back to something that's so special to us."

Rob Shiveley, 42, thought becoming an ex-Mormon would hurt his career in Utah's computer software industry.

"The conversations on campus and at lunch at my company were all about the Mormon church," said Shiveley, who left the church after landing a new job in Portland, Ore. "The handful of non-Mormons were very much on the outside in the company."

Because business is often conducted informally around church social activity, much the way other cultures conduct it on the golf course, many nonbelieving Mormons haven't come out to their family, friends or co-workers.

Those who keep quiet "don't risk alienation if there isn't an explicit rejection of the religion," said Tim B. Heaton, sociology professor at Brigham Young University.

Many of the apostates still enjoy parts of the Mormon culture, especially the emphasis on family and moral values. "I want to be a Mormon like Woody Allen is a Jew," said one conference participant. "I don't want to be robbed of my Mormonism."

But the all-or-nothing nature of the church leaves many struggling for a new identity.

Because of the strict Mormon lifestyle, many ex-Mormons often experience a kind of delayed adolescence once they leave the church, experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sex.

Christene Carol, 43 and mother of five, said she attempted suicide in 1999 after living "an insanely perfect life" as a Mormon.

She said she has spent the past two years learning to live responsibly without the guidance of the church, though it's been a difficult road at times. She said she overdosed on Ecstasy one night.

"I don't expect the people in the church to understand, and I don't blame anyone," said Carol, a resident of Bountiful, Utah. "I've learned to live an independent life rather than a life of needing or seeking the approval of others."

Maxine Hanks says she and others put up with the "scathing but subtle disapproval" from Mormons in Utah and elsewhere because it's important to "learn how to stay."

"I make a difference here," she says. "I have a social responsibility to stay in the conversation. And we need to create diversity. Without people like us, there is no diversity."