Beyond Belief Interviews Stephanie Durden Edwards

Stephanie is a small town journalist, freelance writer, and aspiring novella author. She shares her home in west-central Missouri with her husband, three growing children, a stubborn horse, and a loud beagle. She spent the majority of her adulthood as a devout and active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, until her faith was shaken in late 2006 and her beliefs came full circle, beginning a paradigm shift that changed her life forever.stephDE

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? Beyond Belief was a matter of timing.  I was at the point in my faith journey where anger was not working for me. I wanted to move forward rather than continue to exist in my stagnation.  My friend Ingrid Ricks, who is the author of several books, including Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story, a memoir about her life in the LDS Church, brought the anthology to my attention. I began thinking about the most pivotal and poignant moments of my life in the Church, and I realized that it was time to deal with them constructively.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? It was cathartic and heart wrenching in the same breath. Reliving that part of my life brought me back to an uncomfortable place. To be honest, I am not very friendly with the young woman I wrote about. Going back was difficult. I had to wade through thoughts and ideas of my early adulthood that caused me a great deal of pain. When I left, the trajectory of my life shifted almost overnight. Looking back at those experiences reminded me how vastly different my life has turned out to be.

Writing the piece for the anthology revealed just how little time I had spent reflecting on the hardest days of my faith crisis. Part of my survival involved leaving some stones unturned.  I had to live in the momentum of the journey and leave the self-reflection for another day. Beyond Belief gave me the chance to think through those experiences.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? This is a hard question to answer. Losing my religion was so unlike anything else I had ever done in my life. It was more complicated than simply choosing a new place to worship. Being a member of the Church defined everything. Everyday decisions came down to the fact that I was an active and devout LDS woman.

There were the big things, of course. Resigning my membership effectively separated me from important religious rituals with my extended family. This cast a long shadow over many relationships. Some friendships did not survive it.

But, then there were the small changes. The first time I ordered a cup of coffee in a restaurant I waited for the world to stop. It didn’t. All around me there were perfectly normal people sipping on cups of coffee, too. There were many firsts. The first time I wore clothing discouraged by the modesty standards of the Church, the first time I drank a glass of wine, the first time the General Conference came and went and I hardly stopped to take notice.

Each new experience took me further and further away from the comfort and familiarity of the life I had lived.

Knowing when it was finally time to leave was hard enough. Knowing what to do with myself after I left was equally difficult. What were my values? Did I still have integrity? Who would I become?

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? For many women, it is a matter of being born into the religion. From a very early age, all I knew was life as a Latter-day Saint. For all women, there is a great deal of pressure to make things right, to make everything okay. Society still expects women to be the angels at the hearth.  Civilization lives or dies by wives and mothers.

Religious tradition dictates a woman’s role, her worth, and her limits. When the world seems out of control we are driven back to those traditions. We want to make sense of life, to make it right. Religious traditions can bury women yet at the same time blame them for creating a broken society. Still women seek God’s forgiveness and approval. Instead of looking outside of our faith traditions, we seek our value between the pages of the scriptures and within the walls of the churches.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Life has a way of coming full circle. In the early days of my disaffection, I eschewed anything that bore resemblance to the life I lived as a Mormon. I wanted to purge everything about it from my existence. I sought out information that would show the Church in a bad light. With time, my perspective has changed. I have found peace in the fact that being LDS made a permanent imprint on me. I see much good in the Church. Believing that the Church is the one and only true church of Jesus Christ left me a long time ago, but I respect that its members love and live their religion from a place of sincerity.

Mormons are phenomenal when it comes to serving their fellow man. Of course, there are parts of the faith that cause me a great deal of grief. When it comes to the status of women, gays, and those who doubt and question the core doctrines of the Church there is still much work to be done. I hang on to the hope that the Church will evolve. It is already happening.

Much of who I am was and is defined by the fact that some part of me will always belong to the LDS tribe. My early religious training taught me that worship and time with the divine should be a reverent affair. Quiet time alone in nature is how I choose to connect with the spiritual, and that can be traced back directly to the emphasis on reverence.

What advise do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? I had to come to the realization that any religion can be extreme. Fundamentalism exists under the roof of every church, mosque, or synagogue. For women who find that their religion is causing harm; it is okay to find a way out. It is okay to survive. To women who are beaten down by someone using the religion as a club, I would say seek immediate help.

Losing one’s faith is not the result of wickedness, disobedience, sin, or the desire to sin. It is not laziness, rebellion, or selfishness. It is often the pursuit of authenticity, truth, and joy. I would challenge the notion that you must have it all figured out in order to have a reason to go, the fact that something doesn’t feel right or that a teaching or aspect of doctrine rings untrue is enough. But I would also add that it is not necessary to throw everything away. It is okay to hang on to the good.

What are your current writing projects? I work as a staff writer for a small town newspaper and have for nearly three years. I am passionate about fighting the good fight for small town journalism, though many of the great minds have already called it a day for small market print publications. As long as the doors stay open and my publisher will have me, I will continue. I also publish as a freelance magazine writer.

I have been working on a handful of short fiction stories some of which I have submitted to various places. As I wrap up work on the short stories, my next project is a mystery/suspense novel entitled What Goes Around. Finishing the novel for publication will take me to the end of the year.

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To our authors and others who have shared their stories with us:

First: Just a note to say thanks to our author Nikki Smith, who always notices before anyone else when Beyond Belief gets an accolade. This week, she saw that our book was in the low numbers on the Amazon 100 list. As of this writing we’re at #5!

When I (Cami) saw the link to Amazon on facebook (on Donna Johnson’s page, actually), I was reminded once again of what a privilege it is to be in the company of so many courageous and creative women.

I think about all of you as we turn the corner into a season of holidays. Holidays are the mainstay of many religions and what to do with them now is a question for many of us who have left communities that celebrated together. For some, nothing has changed in the way the days are marked, but the meanings have shifted. Whatever connection you have to your winter holidays, may this be a season of peace. Thank you for being in my life (and I know Susan feels the same) and for sharing your collective wisdom with one another and with the world.

Beyond Belief Interviews Huda Al-Marashi

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on her memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from her memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, and In Her Place. 

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? I heard about Beyond Belief through another anthology I had participated in. I had written a chapter in my memoir that I thought would work. I edited it into a stand-alone piece and now I’ve decided it works better on its own.Al-Marashi Headshot

What was it like to revisit an experience of living with extreme religion? In my piece, I discuss a lamentation ritual that has been practiced in my family since the early 1990’s. The Gulf War brought a new wave of immigrants from Iraq to California, and with them came many customs that had been forgotten by the earlier arrivals. This ritual is not common to all Shia Muslim-American communities, and ever since I moved away from my family’s community in California, I haven’t been a part of a congregation that upholds this tradition in the same way.

As an adult, it was interesting to me how much I longed to experience the ritual again. There was something about it that gripped me. I’d watch the women around me and wonder what brought them to this circle, what meaning they assigned to the practice. I have always been fascinated by the power of the spiritual impulse, what it drives people to do and how it manifests in day-to-day life. Writing about that time in my childhood as an adult was profoundly gratifying. Here was this moment that had so bewildered and intrigued me, and writing about it gave me a way to organize the experience and give it meaning.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I don’t see myself as having left religious life. I see being a member of a faith community as a process of finding one’s place along a continuum of belief and practice, and I understand that my place on this spectrum is constantly shifting. As a child, I prayed and fasted because I was told it was obligatory. As an adult, I uphold the same practices but for the discipline and for the connection to a community that is such an important part of my identity.

Why do you think modern women are drawn to the practice of extreme religion? I don’t know that modern women are drawn to the practice of extreme religion any more than any person in a faith community. Whenever people start to think that they have some kind of license on the truth, that there are absolutes, or when we fail to contextualize our faiths and see them as dynamic human constructs, we are in danger of slipping into extremism.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith? Having a religious identity is like any relationship. You have to grow and mature within it, and it requires study—not just of the particulars of your faith but of religion itself and how it operates in the world. All members of religious communities need to be aware of how their society, culture, and history influence the way their faith is practiced in the modern day. Sometimes we try to justify things in our faiths that don’t make sense to us. We tell ourselves this has to be right because this is what my religion says. Those are the moments for which we must be alert. Instead of justifying things that don’t make sense, we have to research those points of tension. We have to ask ourselves, what society produced this thought and do I really need to carry this into the present?

What are your current projects? I am currently seeking representation for a memoir that explores the different ways my dual-identity as an Iraqi-American affected the early years of my marriage. My husband and I shared the same background, but both world’s conflicting attitudes toward courtship and marriage was an unexpected source of tension, one that I think may be the case for a lot of couples who share hybrid-identities. In between work on the memoir, I write essays and short stories on themes related to immigration and the experience of exile.