I need not say much… I already wrote a letter myself. All I’ll say is our mixed-faith/belief families (which we are all a part of at one level or another) need healing balms… not spiritual abuse. “Amen” Sister Harris. Amen.
* Due to the personal nature of this story and how I know “comments” tend to go… I will not allow any comments that attack or dismiss the pain of this family through uninformed comments about mental health, mixed-faith families, etc. Please remember that the “but, the talk didn’t affect me this way” is not a good argument… nor does it resonate with our call to bear each other’s burdens.
Shandra Harris and her military family are currently stationed in San Antonio, Texas. She’s majoring in clinical mental health as a graduate student and excited to start her internship in a few months. She enjoys warm weather, soft blankets, and can get stuck talking one-on-one for hours.
Dear President Nelson,
Allow me to introduce myself and my sweet family. My husband and I were married and sealed 20 years ago. We have taught our children from the time they were small to know of Jesus Christ’s love and to listen to the prophet’s voice. We taught our toddlers to memorize, “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38).
My sweet husband took his name off church membership records a year ago after spending years of agonizing study, grief, and work to come to the conclusion that although he loved Jesus, he didn’t feel the church leaders reflected the Jesus he knew.
I continued our long-held tradition of watching General Conference with my children. My husband even sat down next to me at the time of your “Come Follow Me” talk just to show emotional support. We both continue to believe in Jesus’ teachings despite our different religious beliefs but we still struggle in learning how to navigate it while raising five children.
During such transitions, children are usually the ones to suffer most as they feel their world crumbling with no sense of control. Such was the case for our teenage daughter a year ago.
At the time dad left the church, she fell into a depression. The discouraging messages she was receiving after this sense of loss wasn’t coming from her immediate family. No- the harmful “words of advice” were coming from her own extended family members, ward members, and tribe as they innocently repeated what they had been taught to say from the pulpit.
My daughter turned to prophets’ and apostles’ quotes to draw strength from, just as she’d been taught. She came up empty-handed. Her depression deepened. We spent the entire last year getting her the professional help she needed. After hours and months of hard work, she has improved leaps and bounds.
As your talk progressed with our whole family eagerly watching, I anticipated the ending culmination of a “Come Follow Me” talk to naturally be about Jesus Christ. For this is the name which our church stands for and what thousands of tithing dollars have recently gone towards to ensure. It never came.
With my 2 teenage girls in tears and 2 teenage boys’ faces distorted, they looked to me for safety. I didn’t know what to do other than turn off the TV and turn to the One that understands all. I gathered my little hurting family in a circle and we held hands. I sobbed out my plea to the One on High, “Is this true?”
There wasn’t a dry eye as we were reassured with the sweet feeling only Christ can give with our own revelation: “Only I save and exalt families. No building, man, or blessing can do what I can. Do not put your trust in the arm of flesh but trust in Me.”
As I took their daddy out of the line of fire, discounted your fear-based words, and practiced faith in His name, I felt sustained, lifted, and my burdens made light. I will be with my loved ones in the next life. This was the familiar feeling I knew.
I have come to the conclusion that you forgot to read the second half of your “Come Follow Me” talk. The front side of your paper may have spoken truth in the face of justice, but you forgot to flip the page over and read the second half on mercy. No worries, all are fallible and that is why we are commanded to sustain you. To lift when you fall short. To support when you are tired. I will continue your talk starting where you left off with what I know you must have prepared, but forgot to say:
“…My dear brothers and sisters,
Seeking for our family members and living under meager roofs would be the end of this story if it wasn’t for Jesus Christ. But this is not the rock the church stands on.
Generations ago, the majority of religions taught “death do you part” and there were no family units in heaven. Joseph Smith questioned this long-standing tradition and the Restoration began.
The belief that we will be divided in the afterlife is the attack on families. The adversary may get you to believe putting in the work and effort with difficult family members isn’t worth it. He wants you to believe it is your checkboxes and individual strength that will bring you back to God even if it’s at the cost of leaving beloved family members behind.
This prideful belief results in a sad heaven which contradicts the greatest commandment of love. “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away” (1 Corinthians 13:8).
All families are imperfect but that is what makes them complete and sacred. We believe in families of all kinds, shapes, and sizes because the greatest lessons we can learn in life is within families.
Defend your family when the adversary tells you your relationships are substandard. Choose people over dogma, ideas, and different opinions. Put your focus on making your home a heaven here on earth now, for “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2).
My dear brothers and sisters, the One who has risen on the third day has already made all things whole and complete. He has taken upon himself all that is confusing or unsure. Weaponizing religious beliefs to divide and contend with family members, will just bring to pass harmful consequences religion is trying to avoid in the first place. Meet your family members where they are at, the same way Jesus meets us where we are at. This is what He meant by “Come Follow Me”.
Let us not create limits on Jesus Christ’s mercy, grace, love and power this Easter season. May we listen to his “Come Follow Me” invitation by reflecting upon Christ-like characteristics as “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:19). This is why gospel is defined as “good news”. This is the season of hope and gives us all a reason to rejoice. I say this in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
I wake up. I’m living in a fantasy land. Your talk did not reassure my children they could find safety and peace abiding within the walls of the Church or in Christ’s arms. You told our sick daughter she would be crying out, “Where is my family?!” when she dies. This spiritual abuse has come at a high cost and also confirms one of the many reasons my dear husband left the church in the first place.
President Nelson, my own relationship with God is stronger than it has ever been before as I’ve been practicing what unconditional love looks like in my mixed-faith marriage. I am in no way having a faith-crisis but I can say for certain I am having a trust-crisis when truth and personal revelation continually contradict the mouthpiece of God.
After our family prayer, my daughter went to her room and could not get out of bed for the next three days. It has been an exhausting week for us all mourning in our own way. I can only describe my own personal experience as feeling incredibly violated after I had graciously invited you into our home. That week, I did not have to wait until my death to experience the kind of hell you described. Please help me understand how you can believe my sweet sacred family, and millions of other beautiful families, will not be with each other after we die? It is not the God or Savior I know.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org and runs an online practice, Symmetry Solutions, which focuses on helping families and individuals with faith concerns, sexuality and mental health. She hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, is the current past-president of the Mormon Mental Health Association and runs a sex education program, Sex Talk with Natasha. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.