AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When Lee Hale moved back to Salt Lake City to report on his church from member station KUER, he figured he would confront some uncomfortable truths about his Mormon faith. But what happened was it brought on what he calls a personal crisis of faith. So he started a podcast to talk to other people who are also struggling. It's called "Preach." And even after a bunch of these conversations, Hale says talking about his own faith is still really hard.
LEE HALE: I was thinking about this on my way in today 'cause I said a prayer in my car before the interview. And I haven't - I guess I haven't been praying very much. But now, for some reason, this podcast is, like, making me feel like - and now it's the time to ask for heaven's help.
CHANG: What made you want to pray when you were in the car right before you talked to me?
HALE: It's an instinct I was raised with. If you are nervous or you just hope to say what you want to say and you're worried you might not, then ask for a little bit of help from heaven or help from beyond your own capacity.
CHANG: I asked Hale what made him uncomfortable about the Mormon Church.
HALE: Mormonism, in a lot of ways - especially being a member of the LDS church - you're kind of expected to align with a certain set of values, and I don't feel like I can represent this institution like I used to. I feel like I have disagreements, whether it's how we treat people in the LGBT community or how we view women. And also, to be frank, I experienced a lot of guilt and shame just by being what I think is a healthy and normal teenager and 20-something.
CHANG: What do you mean?
HALE: Well, I know this is public radio, but, like, the way my church talks about things like pornography, the way that it talks about sexual purity. That felt like I was creating this really unrealistic expectation of a way I should live and think and be. And every time I would fall short of that, I would beat myself up and feel - and experience some self-loathing.
And so I just reached a certain point a few years ago where I was like, you know what? Maybe I can go through life and not feel angry at myself like that anymore. And maybe I can take my theology seriously - 'cause Mormon theology is actually very kind - and believe that if there is a God, God knows I'm human and loves me not despite that but because of it.
CHANG: This feeling that you had to adhere to a certain set of values, a certain set of beliefs - do you think that's unique to the Mormon religion, or it's something that applies to lots of different religions, lots of different faiths?
HALE: I don't think it's unique, but I think it's condensed, especially when you live in Utah, because Mormonism is such a tight-knit culture. And so I think every person I interview - I think they have felt some measure of that expectation - that you should believe a certain way, think a certain way, act a certain way. But with Mormonism, there's still this expectation that we can kind of keep it all together. And people are starting to add a little bit of gray space to that, and I'm one of them.
CHANG: So when you were making this podcast, was it, in a way, an avenue for you to process this crisis that you're going through, to add this gray space, as you put it?
HALE: Totally. It's, like, a completely selfish pursuit.
HALE: I feel less crazy when I know other people are - have messiness in their faith, too.
HALE: And I love talking to people who are honest about the mess because I feel like they're not trying to preach to me, which is kind of ironic 'cause the name of the podcast is "Preach."
HALE: They're not trying to sell me something. And I want to feel less crazy and less alone and less scared. And when I talk to people who share my existential anxiety and my curiosity, I feel better. Like, I just feel happier. It's - that's my happy place - is being around people who are messy like me.
CHANG: I want to talk about this episode where you interviewed Glynn Washington...
CHANG: ...About how he grew up in a cult. That's actually a word he uses quite freely. You guys talk a lot about being a weirdo - how no one wants to be a weirdo, but at the same time, it sort of validates the intensity of your faith when you do feel like a weirdo, when you stand out, because it means you feel special.
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GLYNN WASHINGTON: You're not here to make it easy for everybody else. You're not here to make it easy on yourself. You're here to represent the will of God, and you going to stick out. I don't think that it's the best thing always to just go along to get along. I emphasize to my kids, sometimes, you got to stand up. Sometimes, you have to take the hard road. Sometimes, you know, it's true that you just can't hide in the back.
CHANG: How do you balance feeling like a chosen one who sees the real truth that your faith is the right answer? How do you balance that feeling with empathy for other people and their other faiths?
HALE: Yeah. I think that's a great way to phrase it because I think there's a beauty in what Glynn talked about, which is, be willing to stand out and not have to fit in. But also, like, occasionally you feel outside pressure because people are hurting outside of you, right?
HALE: Like, for instance, like, if people don't feel accepted in your community, you can either say, well, you have to fit in because this is God's standard, or you can take a mental note and be like, why don't you fit in? And why is this hard for you?
And so I think for me, like, empathy is the way through. Feeling special is nice because it feels like you're - you feel picked. But being empathic is the whole purpose of being religious.
HALE: It's to connect with your fellow man. And so if your specialness is keeping you disconnected, then I would wonder what it's bringing you.
CHANG: I love the way you put this - whether your specialness connects or disconnects you from others. I feel like this is a thread that runs through a lot of your podcasts. It reminds me of another episode with a man named Simran Jeet Singh. He's Sikh, or seek (ph), as some people pronounce it. He pronounces it Sikh. And both of you talk about standing out - again, about being weird. And Singh talks about how, you know, he wears a turban. He's been wearing a turban his whole life. And he had to learn how to make his turban relatable.
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SIMRAN JEET SINGH: I would say that people in my culture have worn this turban as a sign of equality, independence, justice, all these things that are so core to who I am as a Sikh and what my beliefs are. And then when I personalize it in that way and connect it to ideas that they understand as being valuable, I think then they sort of understand that this is something that has deep personal meaning.
CHANG: What I loved about what Singh says is he found a way to create empathy. He took it upon himself to do that.
HALE: Right. Something I love about Simran and all Sikhs is that they stick out. They just do. Like, you see the turban on their head. You see the way they dress. And it's like, I, as a Mormon, can slip away into the crowd if I want to. But, like, he just - he realized as a young kid growing up in San Antonio, where it was not convenient to be sticking out for your religion - I just have to own it. Like, he has this measure of peace and calm, and I think it's because of that.
CHANG: He mentioned that he was so much more connected to his spirituality when he was younger. And I want to turn that question on you. I mean, do you worry that you will never quite return to the gleaming, full-hearted, non-questioning faith you experienced as a child? - because you say you're more jaded now, that there's so much more cultural friction. That was your phrase. Do you think it's possible to go back to the faith you had when you were a kid?
HALE: I wonder. I also think about when I was a young missionary 10 years ago. I was one of those missionaries with the black nametags and the tie and white shirt, you know?
CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.
HALE: And it's all about conviction when you're out preaching the word. I don't think I'll ever be that person again. I mean, there's a very good chance that I'll be church-attending in the future or that I'll be a, you know, kind of active participant of my faith or someone else's faith.
CHANG: Do you want to be that person again, if you could choose?
HALE: Old Lee would've tried to commit myself for future circumstances, and I just realized I can't do that anymore. Maybe that's a non-answer, but I feel like I have no idea what I'm going to do in the future. And I want to be kind to my future self...
HALE: ...By not boxing myself in spiritually.
CHANG: That was Lee Hale. His podcast is called "Preach." This interview originally aired in December.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.