10/01/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

36 Days Till Minnesota Votes on My Family

I'm on the road this week, out east, not in Minnesota. Not doing anything about the fast-approaching election. I've had a little time to reflect from a different angle.

I was remembering years ago, when my now-16-year-old kid was about 5, and I went to the neighborhood potluck back in Washington DC, where we used to live. I knew I'd see Ruth, my Mormon neighbor, there, because I always did. Ruth was perpetually happy, friendly, and positive. As always, I prepared myself to be a little bit kinder and more positive around her than I really felt--figuring that I served as her sole representative to lesbianism and Unitarian Universalism. We never said much beyond hello to each other.

But that evening Ruth said something astonishing. She came up to me and said, "I wanted to tell you that I've left the Mormon Church. I just couldn't be there anymore." I gasped back, "Could I hear the long version of that story?"

In a quiet corner with our plates full of 7 variations on Mac and Cheese, she asked me what I would like to know. I searched for someplace to start. "How is it for you, since you've left?" I settled on. "What do you miss the most?"

"Mostly," she replied, "I am feeling the fantastic absence of endless guilt, shame, and terror. I have lived the past fifteen years terrified that I and everyone I love might be going to hell."

That wasn't the answer I'd expected. "Why?" I asked. "Why would you go to hell? What did you feel ashamed about?"

"It was the questioning," she replied. "My husband, especially, was always questioning the Mormon teaching. He's a journalist and he's taught to question. I lived in terror of eternal damnation for him, and by extension for the children, about his questions. Then on yet another sleepless night, I thought, what if the church is wrong? What if his questions are a gift from God? That question that I asked myself became my lifeboat to hold onto in the big stormy sea. I clung to it day and night, and I began to see glimpses of freedom way at the edges of my terror. As I moved the question from the edge to the center of my mind, I began to see another way of being in the world, and to see that if I followed it, I could be much happier!"

I was stunned to learn how this young wife and mother, who had always seemed so happy and secure, had been feeling inside. We sat quietly for a minute and then I asked, "Is there anything I could have said that could have reached you, could have supported you, during your time of terror and shame?"

She looked horrified. "Oh, NO! Anything YOU would have said would have been coming from such a place of contamination that I wouldn't have listened to it for a minute!" We sat in the truth of her words in a long moment of silence.

Then she went on, "But I watched you carefully. I listened to you talk with Jews and Buddhists and Muslims in the neighborhood with such interest and knowledge about their faith, and I thought, how is it that she could be a minister and seem so happy to listen to those people who have chosen a different faith, like she doesn't need to convert them? I watched you and your partner and I thought, how is it that they could be lesbians and engaged in conversation about schools and recycling, just like everyone else?

"When I began to wonder, 'What if the church is wrong?' your face was one of those that rose up from the edges to say that they might be. So I think your life said something to me, that you were living it and you appeared to be normal and happy."

I thanked her for her words, which changed me profoundly. Ever since then, when I hear of people of faith spending millions of dollars to exclude gay and lesbian couples from marriage, I wonder how many of the people chipping in that money are living in their own private hells of shame and terror about not being obedient enough, not being guaranteed a place in Heaven. I pray for them, that they may find freedom from this hell.

I've been in enough hells of my own making to know that, when I'm inside them, I have no perspective on how my words or my actions impact other people. My own and other people's words, actions, and feelings are seen through funhouse mirrors.

Whether or not it's true, it helps me to believe that this kind of distortion is operating when religious people choose to worship the Idol of heterosexism. It gives me a way to keep them human, and to be more human and real myself. I don't know a simple way to get to know one another, and to talk in human terms about these deep beliefs, but my conversation with Ruth would tell me that people do change. And that we can't always have a clue at all about what is going on underneath the surface of our neighbors' smiling faces.