Updated: Jul 29, 2021
By Jill Mortensen
Late one evening, after putting the kids to bed, my husband and I were winding down in our room after a long day. After the casual recap of our day, there was an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. I looked at my husband’s face and I saw him fighting back anguished emotion. It frightened me. It was not a look I recognized. I asked him what was wrong. And after a few more moments of painful silence, through tears, his voice quivering, he confessed to me that he no longer believed in our church.
The room began to spin. Terror, dread, panic and fear washed over me like a giant, angry, all-consuming wave. I struggled to find my breath, let alone words. I just stared at the ceiling in stunned silence. We were lifelong members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. Our Mormon pioneer ancestors immigrated to the United States from their home countries of England, Denmark, Ireland, and Wales. They sacrificed all that they had for their beliefs and crossed the harsh plains of middle America to settle in Utah. Both of our families are proud descendants and, to this day, we honor their faithful legacy.
Growing up Mormon meant dedicating all your time and talents to the church. It’s not just a religion. It’s a culture, a lifestyle. You eat, drink, and sleep it. It’s in your blood. It’s part of your DNA, literally. So, the heart-stopping revelation of my husband’s disbelief of all that I’ve ever known was like a bomb had just gone off, and all I could hear was my own heartbeat and a ringing in my ears.
For months, I walked around in a fog of sadness, confusion, and grief. Seemingly out of nowhere, I would just burst into tears, mourning the loss of the familiar. It all felt so heavy. I continued attending church with my kids, feeling like the burden of their eternal salvation now rested squarely on my shoulders, and my shoulders alone. Although I was surrounded by people who loved me, I felt utterly alone in my sorrow.
Out of pure desperation, I fell to my knees one afternoon and knelt at the ottoman in my family room. The room was quiet, the only sound was a soft rain falling outside my window. All at once, months of built up fear and pain spilled out of my eyes and onto the sleeves of my sweater where my face was buried. I cried out to God for comfort. I didn’t even know what to ask for, but I just told Him I couldn’t continue living like this. It was simply too much. Through my muffled pleas and sobs, I was able to very clearly ask for one thing. I asked Him to take away my fear. Just take it, I begged.
I had never experienced anything like what happened next. I’m not even sure there are words to accurately describe it. It was as if I was allowed, for just a moment, to feel God’s love for my husband. His perfect, complete, unconditional love. The crippling fear was gone. I felt calm. I felt safe. And for the first time in months, I was able to exhale. All the uncertainty and worry was replaced with a peaceful awareness that we were going to be okay.
Naturally, my husband’s departure from our faith caused me to more carefully examine my beliefs. I had just turned 41 and was earnestly seeking deeper meaning and purpose in my life. I’m a lover of the outdoors and firmly believe God is found more abundantly in nature than anywhere else on Earth. I was out for a run one morning and listening to a podcast about a woman who founded a non-profit organization focused on providing housing and resources for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. As she shared a story about a teenage girl who bravely came out to her parents and was subsequently kicked out onto the street, I began to weep. And by weep, I mean full-blown ugly cry. The profound sorrow I felt in that moment penetrated my heart. Even now, all these years later, my eyes fill with tears as I recall the incredible sadness I felt as she spoke about this young woman’s pain. The interviewer asked how she knew this particular cause was her “calling.” And she replied simply by saying, “If it breaks your heart, that’s where you need to be.”
That sentence stopped me in my tracks, literally. I had to sit down on the curb. Tears rolled down my face and onto my knees. Those words were meant for me. I felt it in my soul. “If it breaks your heart, that’s where you need to be.” My heart was broken and I knew where I needed to be. I felt an overwhelming and undeniable confirmation that my “calling” was to offer unconditional love and acceptance to all LGBTQ+ youth and their families. Later that evening, as we were driving home from a weekend dinner date, I emotionally recounted the entire experience to my husband. He listened, smiled, and lovingly confirmed that indeed, I was being nudged toward something very important.
I couldn’t possibly have known just how important it would be for me to follow that impression. Getting involved with the LGBTQ community here in Southern Utah has changed me in ways I never could have anticipated. Admittedly, I entered the space with some trepidation. It was new and unfamiliar territory. It’s human nature to fear that which we do not know. But here’s the honest truth, never in all my life have I felt closer to God and love and all things good, than I do with my LGBTQ friends and family. Ever.
You will not meet a more inspiring, intelligent, kind, creative, resilient group of fellow humans. They are precious, perfect souls with a deep desire for love and belonging. What a gift their influence has been in my life. I naively began this journey thinking I would be the helper and instead have come away with more than I ever could have given. More empathy. More compassion. More unconditional love.
When our oldest daughter Sydney came out as gay last fall, I cried. But not for reasons you might assume. I cried because I was overcome with gratitude and joy that she trusted me enough to share her truth. I cried because I knew she felt safe. And I thought of the many other LGBTQ kids who have not. I cried because our love for her is and always will be unconditional. And my heart broke for all the precious LGBTQ kids who suffered unspeakable anguish as they felt that parental love withdrawn. I cried because in that moment, I so clearly recognized the hand of God in my life. Through all the heartache, loss, and sorrow of the past few years, I realized He was simply preparing me to fulfill a higher purpose. To be able to fully embrace and celebrate my daughter, without fear.
It’s true, I am not the same person I once was. I am a better version. My worldview has widened. My capacity to love has expanded. And now that I can finally see all the beauty and pain in the world, I can show up with my whole heart.
I love you to the moon and back, my sweet Syd. You are whole. You are perfect. You are loved. Always and forever, just as you are.
“Go and love someone exactly as they are. Then watch how they transform into the greatest, truest version of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered.” —Wes Angelozzi