This article is an interview with a woman who goes by the online alias “Prairie Chuck.” Prairie Chuck is the leader of a support group called FacesEast.org. This post is a lot longer than my usual ones, but it was a great conversation we had together. I want to take some space here at MormonMatters to shine the internet spotlight on the important work Prairie Chuck does. She is an inspirational woman, who rolled up her sleeves and got down into the trenches of life to provide service, help, love and support to others.
Valoel: Hello Prairie Chuck. Thank you for spending some time to talk about your online support group. What does the name “FacesEast” mean?
Prairie Chuck: The name invokes symbolism of looking to the east: the rising sun, new hope, the dawn of a new day, our belief that Christ will come again from the east. Marriage with a differently-believing spouse may be difficult. In facing east, we are looking for new hope, inspiration and strength in Christ.
Valoel: What is the mission of the support group? .
Prairie Chuck: FacesEast.org exists as an online forum to support LDS members whose spouses are inactive, disaffected or non-LDS. Our primary goal is to sustain and strengthen these marriages. Under ideal circumstances, marriage can be stressful. Faith and religious beliefs are a fundamental part of life shared between spouses. The goal of the forum is to help each other navigate the day to day challenges of marriage, active LDS faith and family.
Valoel: Why do you spend the time and effort you do with FacesEast.org?
Prairie Chuck: Because I made so many mistakes and went so many years with no support. I saw too many marriages fall apart over church disaffection. I want to help others see it doesn’t have to be that way.
Valoel: How does being a part of the group help you personally?
Prairie Chuck: It gives me a safe place to express my doubt and frustrations, as well as be inspired and encouraged by others facing similar issues. I like to think we are all good for each other.
Valoel: Tell me about yourself. Who is Prairie Chuck, and how did she get here? What was your journey through life that brought you to being the leader of the FacesEast.org online support group?
Prairie Chuck: I’m a returned missionary, and I married a returned missionary in the temple in 1985. Within 2 months of our marriage, my husband began expressing doubts about the Church. By 1989, he had completely left. Those first 4 years were horrible! I didn’t handle it well. There was no one to help me. His family panicked and overreacted as much as I did. Bishops and Relief Society Presidents were not very encouraging, and sometimes they were down right detrimental.
So I floundered around for a good solid 2 years, not knowing really what to do. In spite of set backs, I started coping better with our situation over time. I accepted the path he was on, but then needed to work on healing our damaged relationship. There have been lots of challenging points over the years: when our first child was born, blessed then baptized, and also the death of his brother. He took gradual steps that distanced himself from the Church. He stopped attending services, stopped paying tithing, and stopped wearing garments. Those were difficult adjustments to watch. Each one started me on the grieving process again. They were not issues I expected to deal with, having married another returned missionary in the temple.
And then there were my own doubts. At times I despaired of ever finding peace or understanding. Each event meant a lot of soul searching, readjusting, many of them started the whole “5 steps of grieving” process all over again.
But there were also good turning points. One was a good friend of mine, my former Seminary teacher (who helped me survive the trauma and angst of teenager-hood). I called him a couple times and poured out my woes. Finally he asked me “[Prairie Chuck], why do you stay married to him?” Well, because I love him. I want an eternal marriage. I made covenants. He’s a good man. “No, WHY do you stay married to him?” He wouldn’t accept any of the pat, easy answers, nothing that came from any Young Women or Relief Society lessons.
For the first time, I took a hard look at what makes a good relationship without falling back on any of the church definitions or paradigms. By the way, ironically, this friend left the church about 10 yrs later. He is Ken Clark, who appeared on the PBS show “The Mormons.”
I needed a spiritual anchor to hold on to. About one year into my husband’s disaffection, I went to the temple fasting. While there, I prayed about what I should do. Should I stay in this marriage or should I leave? There was no “stay” or “go” answer. The Lord told me that He had blessed our marriage. It was up to me to honor that or not. He also made it clear to me that the endowment gave me all I needed to be happy in this life and the next. From that point on I began drawing on the powers of the endowment in my life, making it my anchor when I felt I was lost. It was my personal relationship with the Lord that mattered, not what someone else did or didn’t do. I had to measure up to what the Lord wanted of me, not what the church said was expected. It was the beginning of my very personal walk with the Lord.
I went through periods of doubting the church and trying to reconcile what I’d learned about the church through my husband’s studies. About 6-7 yrs ago, I was pointed in the direction of the internet and the New Order Mormon forums.
I became friends with several people online, and was heartbroken to hear of the troubles they were having in their marriages. I kind of sympathized with the believing spouses because I had acted the same way in the past. I felt bad for the pain this put all of them through. I thank God that my husband had the patience to let me work through it all, so we could learn to make our marriage work. After seeing the 3rd or 4th divorce at New Order Mormon being discussed, I decided it was time to start a support board.
My hope was to help some of the believing spouses of NOMs avoid the mistakes I had made, and find peace and happiness in their new type of marriage situation. There were a handful of NOMs who gave huge support. I would really like to thank Dathon, Jeffrett, Captain Jack, Peggy (rip), Nanna and Solistics. It is largely because of them that FacesEast.org went from a good idea to reality.
Valoel: Tell me about a moment of sorrow you had after you found out your husband no longer believed.
Prairie Chuck: The worst incident I can remember was when my husband’s father stood in front of his whole family (including our oldest son) and said “You are an apostate. There can never be any understanding between us, you will never be the son to me you could have been because you have rejected God.” There were so many other hurtful words said that day. It made me sad to see how little they understood their son, how they had let the church separate them from their child.
Valoel: Wow… that’s really tough to hear. Those kind of situations make it tough to keep your faith positive in the Church while not feeling like you betray loyalty to your husband you love so much.
Prairie Chuck: Yes. It is sometimes. It creates moments when you are almost in a no-win situation.
Valoel: Can you think of common concerns of people in the FacesEast.org support group? What are the regular topics that pop up over and over? What do members need help with and support?
Prairie Chuck: The most common concerns people have are finding compromises with their spouse regarding doctrinal practices and beliefs. How will the couple pay tithing when one spouse no longer believes in doing so? What aspects of the Word of Wisdom are negotiable in the relationship? How will they handle religious ordinances like infant blessings and baptisms? Can the believing spouse have family prayer and scripture study in the home without negative comments or ill feelings being generated? How do we also handle our own doubts, and especially questions about problems in the Church our spouse might want to discuss? These are common topics. You can’t just tell someone to pray harder until the problems disappear. People want help and solutions.
Most importantly, the believing spouses need someone to talk to – not to feel totally alone. These are topics we can’t seem to normally and openly discuss in our local congregations.
Prairie Chuck: I would love to hear them talk about eternal marriage not being formulaic, as some might believe. “In my Father’s House are many mansions.” Let’s talk about the redemptive power of love. Marriage is more important than non-marriage. Let’s not have 2nd class marriages — like marriages with non-members or disbelieving LDS. Let’s honor and support ALL marriage relationships!
Valoel: How can local Church leaders support members with mixed-faith marriages? What common mistakes or misunderstanding happen between members and local leaders?
Prairie Chuck: I think the single biggest help is to acknowledge the disbelieving spouse. Don’t pretend s/he doesn’t exist or doesn’t care what happens with the family. This means the leaders have to be willing to talk to the disaffected spouse and understand their boundaries and expectations. This is especially important when the Church intrudes into family space with callings, home teaching/visiting teaching, ordinances, etc. Try to be comfortable with the member’s disbelieving spouse.
Please communicate, communicate, communicate! Don’t assume anything. Don’t act on old, second-hand information. There can be inaccurate gossip circulating sometimes. People make wrong assumptions, and that can be painful.
These are the three most common (and hurtful) things I hear from people’s experiences with local leaders:
1. “I could never stay in the marriage if my husband/wife left the church. I love God too much.”
This implies that anyone married to a disaffected member must not love God very much, or that the two loves are mutually exclusive. It implies that the disaffected member is so evil that having any understanding or love for that person is to hate God. My father-in-law said something similar to me “I could never talk to R. about this because I love God too much. He’d say something bad about Christ and I’d just end up decking R.” Wow! That was not helpful.
2. “S/He’s going to lead your children away from the church.”
This demeans the believing spouse and assumes family dysfunction. It implies that the spouses are working against each other, and the children will somehow have to choose one or the other. In a healthy marriage the two spouses will be working together on how to raise the children. When the child is old enough, the choice of what to believe will be based on the child’s experience with God, not which parent they love more or want to hurt less.
3. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. Live righteously and you’ll get a better husband/wife in the next life.”
This implies that the spouse’s disaffection is somehow the result of the believer’s unrighteousness. There’s an intense pressure to re-convert our spouse. That may never happen. If the disaffected spouse doesn’t return to the Church, it must be because the believer was not valiant and righteous enough? And just what does “everything will be fine” mean? The worst of all implications is that you will be “given” to a better husband in the next life (Men don’t have this issue to deal with—lucky you!).
Valoel: What would you like to say to disaffected members who are married to a spouse that still believes and wants to continue participation in the LDS Church? What advice would you give?
Prairie Chuck: Please be respectful. Follow the Golden Rule. If you want your spouse’s support in your new-found disbelief, you need to support him/her in their belief. Please be gentle and slow in how you express the reasons for your disaffection in the beginning. There really is no good way to break the news, it’ll be hard no matter how you do it, but there are lots of bad ways to go about it.
Please be patient as your spouse finds his/her footing with your change in belief. There will be anger, frustration, desperation, pleading, bargaining and sadness. Let him/her work through it. Then work to find compromises you can both live with. Don’t frame any questions of belief as “my way or your way”, especially when it comes to the children. When the children choose what to believe or not believe, you don’t want them to feel like they are choosing between mom or dad, that it will alter their relationship with either parent. (This advice applies equally to the believing spouse too!)
Valoel: What could other members of the Church learn from your experience in this support group?
Prairie Chuck: I would say, first learn to separate church problems from marriage problems. Every marriage has issues of respect or differing expectations. Do not blame things that are normal human difficulties on the spouse’s disbelief.
Be aware that the believing spouse in some ways is like a widow or widower — they lack the support that comes when both spouses believe. They grieve for the loss of the “ideal LDS marriage.” They often have to be both mom and dad when it comes to teaching the gospel and managing church involvement for their children.
Unlike the widow/er who gets a funeral and everyone is aware of their loss, most people at Church seem to assume everything is fine. After all, they’re coming to church, aren’t they? They hold callings, don’t they? Too few understand the cost of coming to Church, and the impact that callings and church involvement have on the family and marriage with a disaffected (and sometimes angry) spouse.
Valoel: Tell me about a moment of joy in your marriage after your husband no longer believed. Let’s end the interview on a positive note. Tell me what has been really great for you and your family.
Prairie Chuck: There’ve been so many experiences that have drawn us closer—the births of our children, sharing our hopes and fears. Most of all is seeing how much my husband loves and supports me. It’s not because I am a good Mormon, but because I’m me. He tells our sons what a good mom I am, praises the things I do at home, at church, and in the community. He really is my support and the motivation for much of the good that I do. He thanks me for being his sounding board as he worked out his feelings about the church. I’m glad I’ve been there with him. Without the church being a shared common interest, we’ve found our happiness in other things. In some ways I feel like my horizons are broader because of it.
Valoel: Thank you Prairie Chuck for taking the time to do this interview with me.