Exiles in Zion

Salt Lake Tribune/August 16, 2003
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

It has been 10 years since six Mormon intellectuals were rebuked and tossed out of the LDS Church in a single month for challenging its teachings on feminism, authority and history.

The punitive actions, likely orchestrated by leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, forever melded the scholars and writers into a club they never intended to join. They even had a common name -- "the September Six" -- whispered by intellectuals and trumpeted by the news media.

Since that moment, however, they have taken divergent paths.

Avraham Gileadi, an Old Testament scholar who has spent his life researching and writing about the biblical prophet Isaiah's prophecies about our time, kept the lowest profile. He was rebaptized into the LDS Church in 1996 and continues to write for a Mormon audience. His most recent book, Isaiah Decoded, is on sale at church-owned Deseret Book.

The other five agreed to share their post-excommunication struggles at this week's Sunstone Symposium, which ends tonight at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City.

The speeches were filled with allusions to death and rebirth.

"It's like attending your own funeral," said D. Michael Quinn of his excommunication for writing about disturbing elements of Mormon history.

Or like "taking off a really tight shoe," said feminist Lynn Kanavel Whitesides.

"I lost my faith. I didn't renounce it," said lawyer Paul Toscano. "I just lost it -- like losing one's eyesight after an accident, and not just religious faith, but faith in the power of my words to make a difference."

Lavina Fielding Anderson, excommunicated for publishing a list of attacks on intellectuals by LDS leaders, has compared herself to a coin perched precariously on its edge, vulnerable to toppling one way or the other.

"That's the space I've claimed for myself," said Anderson, a writer and researcher who once worked for the church's official magazines. "I'm not in, but I won't be out, either. It's a balancing act every day."

Quinn, Anderson and Maxine Hanks, also excommunicated for her feminist writings, were lifelong Mormons. They still treasure that heritage and hold onto much that they once believed. Toscano and Whitesides were converts to the LDS faith and thus more disappointed by what they came to see as the church's failures.

Here are their stories, in the order in which they were disciplined in September 1993.

Lynn Kanavel Whitesides seemed the epitome of success. She was married in the temple, her husband was a doctor and they had three children. Whitesides was working for Sunstone and had a lot of friends.

But she was miserable, she said. "My life, the way it had been proscribed, was killing me."

Whiteside was disfellowshipped (a kind of probation before excommunication) by her bishop for comments she made on television about how the LDS Church treated women.

"I exploded out of the church and my marriage and onto a very different path, looking for God and for myself," she said. "I was angry. I was in a rage. The church was not delivering what I believed it had promised."

The church seemed so masculine, without soft places to find comfort.

"The absence of the feminine not only makes a home lonely," she said. "It's damaging to everybody in the house."

Whitesides started on an inward journey toward God, with the help of a therapist and American Indian ceremonies. She stopped blaming her ex-husband, friends, the church and God, for what was wrong with her life.

She found a new God -- not the God she imagined as a Mormon, "who was looking a me through the barrel of a shotgun, but a loving presence who felt infinitely personal," she said. She read the New Testament with new eyes and found forgiveness and acceptance from a loving Jesus.

About two years ago, Whitesides had a kind of vision in the west desert.

"It was a glimpse, and only a glimpse, of how amazingly beautiful God is. And that I was part of that incredible beauty," she said. "Now I'm glad I was a Mormon and really glad I got kicked out."

Paul James Toscano's only regret about being excommunicated for criticizing LDS general authorities was that his anger gave the church "an excuse to disregard criticism and tighten further the grip of oppression that manacles the church."

To him, Mormonism has become "an archconservative culture built on the sand of family and tribal values with respectability as its chief cornerstone. Its adherents are less like living stones in the mystical temple of God and more like living stiffs in a morgue of quiet conformity."

LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was flawed, lied and acted in self-serving ways, Toscano said. "He may not have been divinely inspired, but I believe he believed he was. It is not fraudulent to be mistaken or selfish. He had a powerful, expansive and prolific mind and genuine spiritual yearnings."

He appreciates The Book of Mormon as an extraordinary epic of conflict among brothers that escalates into tribal hostilities culminating in the violent eradication of the white-skinned and the Balkanization of the dark-skinned races.

"Who cannot see reflected in this story the conflicts that plague the world?" Toscano asked. "If it is not a history, then it is at least a complex story, strangely prescient and strangely apt."

He said he loves Jesus even though he may be a fictional character. "Even as a fiction, he is the best of all possible deities."

Toscano's wife, Margaret, was the original target of the disciplinary actions, he said. But she was not excommunicated until Nov. 30, 2000.

"Margaret and I are the only couple among the Sept. 6 or 7, and represent the leaders' rejection of gender equality, of the fullness of the priesthood conferred on the man and woman jointly, and of the equal divinity and dignity of the Heavenly Father and Mother," he said.

Toscano meant no harm or impiety in his 1993 critiques of the church, he said. "There was no malice in my anger, which frankly still lingers."

Maxine Hanks, who was excommunicated for her work on an anthology about the LDS Church, Women and Authority, said she doesn't regret the church's actions against her, despite what she describes as the "endless cost to my life, my family and my livelihood."

"Given who I was, there was no place to go but out," Hanks said. "Mormonism was limiting to me, so I needed to test the limits -- to see who I and the church really might be. I discovered that I was more than Mormonism; and that God is far bigger than one church. Excommunication opened the door to a larger cosmos, inside and outside myself."

She has spent the intervening years writing, healing, suffering and learning.

"My mystical bent led me to explore other faith traditions from Catholic to Methodist to Episcopalian to pagan to shamanic to kabbalist to gnostic," Hanks said.

Her first task was changing her identity from "the rejected one" and to a feeling of belonging. She liked the Unity faith, the Episcopalians, the Unitarians and Quakers. Mainly, though, she was looking for a place to be ordained, because she had long felt a personal call to the priesthood.

In 1996, Hanks found a spiritual home in the patterns and myths of gnosticism, an ancient Christian tradition. She began attending a Salt Lake City Gnostic Mass in 1997, was baptized in 1998 and ordained in 1999, and now serves with two male priests, both also former Mormons.

Yet Hanks has returned to some Mormon involvement. She likes the LDS Church's "Doctrine of Inclusion," penned in 2001 to explain its increasing involvement with the interfaith activities of the Olympics. Last week she participated in a feminist seminar at Brigham Young University.

"I'm happy, truly happy for the first time in my life," she said. "I feel healed and at peace, filled with love and compassion for others, especially orthodox Mormons. Some of my favorite people are conservative LDS men."

She now recognizes her own limits, her traumas, sorrow, anger and frustration.

"To be honest, a lot of it is gone," Hanks said. "I like who I'm becoming, seeing and trusting a higher wisdom and pattern to it all. I know that God is making something better of me."

D. Michael Quinn misses being part of the tight-knit yet diverse Mormon community.

"When you're excommunicated, these social relationships end for the most part -- not because of ill-will by former friends, but because of the awkwardness and sadness that active Mormons feel in your company," Quinn said. "They don't feel free to talk enthusiastically about the LDS Church."

He also misses the many opportunities to serve others that the church offered him from his adolescence until middle age as a missionary, branch president, elder's quorum president, temple ordinance worker, gospel doctrine teacher, counselor in two bishoprics and member of a stake high council.

"I do not deceive myself into thinking that academic contributions can substitute for giving care to the sick, the dying, the impoverished, the orphaned, the widowed and others needing human compassion," Quinn said.

He refuses to help evangelical Protestants who want him to endorse their polemics against the LDS Church and offers his faith and positive perspectives to newspaper reporters who expect only the negative. He mourns the deaths of missionaries and LDS general authorities, both of whom devote their full energy to serving God and humanity.

But if excommunication brought distance, it also brought some relief, Quinn said.

"With all its truth and authority, the LDS Church has promoted policies and ideologies that I could not support. Because it's no longer my church, I don't feel any obligation to make excuses for it or to remain silent about matters of disagreement," he said. "I'm not required to 'sustain' LDS teachings, policies, or prophets when I feel they are wrong."

And though his prayers are different now, they are no less powerful.

"I still feel the 'burning of the Spirit' within me from time to time. I still talk with God as my Heavenly Father, give thanks for his many blessings, seek his guidance, and ask his intervention for myself and others," Quinn said.

In the afterlife, he expects to be as close to God or as distant from his presence "as we are both comfortable to be," Quinn said. "If my eternal status is like a twinkling star, rather than the brilliant sun of those who are 'exalted,' then I will be happy to be in my proper place in companionship with others who are comfortable in my presence."

And he is not sorry for arguing that "a compassionate, clear-eyed view of Mormonism's fallible past is better than presenting it as a morality play."

"Any church that dismisses its non-conformists as expendable," Quinn said, "is a church that has forgotten the savior-shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek the one lost sheep."

Lavina Fielding Anderson knew a month before her excommunication that she would be punished for publicly exposing the church's harsh dealings with intellectuals over the years.

She wondered what it would this do to her 12-year-old son, Christian, her husband, Paul, and their parents, brothers and sisters, all of whom were active, temple-going members of the church. Were the issues really that important? Was she acting out of love or out of pride and pique?

Anderson felt then and continues to feel that it was the right thing to do. She also decided to live a completely Mormon lifestyle within the limitations imposed on her. She still attends church every Sunday.

"I wasn't sure I could live it out, week by week," Anderson said Thursday. "It's a blessing of a magnitude that I cannot even begin to express that I've been able to -- so far."

In the past decade, she has come to believe she has a distinct "calling" in the Mormon kingdom (not the church) to "do" church vicariously for all those who no longer feel safe or welcome in their own wards.

"Just showing up, Sunday after Sunday, means I'm bearing a testimony of presence, even when I can't bear any other kind of testimony," she said.

She has learned to partake of the sacrament spiritually while being forbidden to partake physically. She discovered in the LDS Handbook of Instructions that nonmembers can be asked to play the piano for Relief Society so she approached the bishop who gave permission to have her accompany the hymns as "an uncalled but permanent substitute."

Only two people in her ward have ever asked her about the excommunication and no bishop has brought it up.

When she wrote to her stake president asking what she needed to do to be rebaptized, he responded that she had "to stop thinking the General Authorities could do wrong."

She wrote a second letter, asking for clarification of "that quite remarkable statement," she said and hasn't heard from an LDS authority since. That was eight years ago.

Last summer, Anderson started embroidering a temple apron for Christian while visiting the newly built temple while it was open to the public. It was the first time she had been in a temple for 10 years and, given that she is barred from temple ceremonies, the last time "for heaven knows how long." Christian was married without her in the San Diego temple last fall.

It was clearly an example of living on the edge.

"Mormonism is my world. It's my language, my people, my music, my history, even my leaders," Anderson said to the hushed crowd of nearly 1,000. "My God is the Mormon God. I'm not rejecting Mormonism. I'm not trying to reform Mormonism. I am trying to remind Mormons of the truth and power and glory of its paradoxical assertion of absolute freedom and absolute love, a paradox that is reconciled in Jesus Christ."

The crowd jumped to its feet in unrestrained applause for the whole panel of speakers. A few wept.

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