Leslie Schwartz-Leeper’s parents divorced when she was very young. Her mother raised her six children by herself, and taught them that the bottom line of the gospel is love. Leslie always had a testimony, but drifted in and out of the Church through her teen and young adult years. In her early thirties, she married Ian, a non-believer of Jewish/Episcopalian heritage, at the same time as she returned to the Church. Leslie talks about her positive experience undergoing a Church disciplinary council, about the ways Ian supports her and their children in Church activity, about some of the challenges of a mixed-faith marriage, and about the peace she has in her partnership with a man she chose for his intelligence, kindness, and love.
Tell me about your upbringing.
I was born in Idaho but we moved to Utah when I was around five or six. I have only known a single parent home. My mom and dad got divorced when I was almost three, so I don’t even remember my dad being in the house, except for when he’d come to visit or come to pick us up, which wasn’t that frequent and became less frequent through the years. My mom’s brother was more like a dad to me. He’s the one who baptized me.
I’m the youngest of six and I love being the youngest. It was nice because, as a writer, I love observing people and I feel like being the youngest I had to do that a lot. My oldest sibling is only eight years older than me, so my mom had six kids within eight years.
Religion was a part of our family for sure, and I knew it was important for my mom and my grandmother who was a convert. My mom, being a single mom, was working all the time, so making me go wasn’t always a thing that happened. But she did the best she could. She would pray with us over the phone while she was at work. My mom set an example of having faith and trying to go to church even though she had just worked three 12s in a row, sometimes falling asleep in the front row—this is what we do. I loved being raised by my mom because she taught me to be independent and think for myself. Education was always important to her, especially for her girls, because she didn’t want us ever be in a rough spot. I was the first one to get my graduate degree.
I should point out that we have an interview with your mom, Kay Conder, on The Mormon Women Project.
After my mom and dad got divorced, both my parents were excommunicated. The only reason my mom kept going, at first, was that she knew she wanted her kids raised that way. She got re-baptized a month before I turned eight. I remember asking, “Well why are you getting baptized? You’re supposed to get baptized when you’re eight.” And she said, “Oh, I think they lost my records when we moved.” And then as you get older things start coming out, and she would be really honest with it. I think that’s part of what made my mom such a great mom. She was never judgmental; she just wanted to help you. One of my sisters came home pregnant and my mom didn’t go off screaming and crying. She just said, “Ok, so what are we going to do about it? How do you want to move forward with this?” I think that’s helped me to love people for who they are, not what they do.
Ironically enough I had my own Church disciplinary council. But I think because of her story, it wasn’t scary for me to have a Church council. I had never felt more at peace. You know how they talk about how the Savior has been-there-done-that, but there’s not much in the scriptures. So you have a hard time imagining this perfect person feeling all the feelings. But with my mom, it was like, “Oh, she has been there. She knows what I’m talking about.”
Since you were raised by a single mother and didn’t have a marriage in your home, what did you hope for and what did you believe about marriage growing up?
I always knew I wanted to get married and be a mother. My mom got married when she was 23, and she had finished college. I thought that was the perfect age. And then I started getting into my 20s and I was dating great people, but I was not ready for marriage. There was so much I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to travel, and I got a job with the airlines so I could fly places for free, and I loved it. Then I decided to get my graduate degree. That’s actually when I met my husband, when I was in grad school.
My brother Cody is the closest to me in age and we’ve always done everything together. We got our wisdom teeth taken out together, we were baptized by the same uncle, and we decided to get our patriarchal blessings together when I was 16 and he was 18. After we got our patriarchal blessings, my brother came up to me—he denies it to this day, but I remember because at the time I was so sad about his comment. He said, “You’re not going to marry a Mormon.” And I was like, “How dare you? I’m so going to marry a Mormon! I’m going to marry a returned missionary, and I’m going to have the priesthood in my house.” I appreciated our home teachers so much and being able to call them and get priesthood blessings that way. But I wanted to have a solid priesthood holder in the house. It was crushing when I would have to go on daddy-daughter dates at church and borrow my friend’s dad to go with me. So when my brother said that I was really hurt. Little did I know that he was very in tune with something I didn’t hear and still don’t read in my patriarchal blessing, but that’s the way that it turned out.
Were you active in the Church when you met your husband?
I was not. I had this thing that started when I was 14 or 15 where I would go to church for a while and then stop going to church, and then go to church for a while. I used to think it was because I didn’t have a testimony, or at least that’s what I would tell people. When I look back at things, it wasn’t that my testimony wasn’t strong enough, it’s that the natural woman was more powerful. I remember when I was 16 I asked my mom if she thought that some people were just born to be bad, because it seemed impossible for me not to do things that were against the Church’s teachings.
I used to read Jack Weyland books all the time and the thing that I loved most about them was that you could—this is going to sound horrible, because I am sure this is not what he intended—but I thought, “You can leave the Church and then come back! Isn’t that so great? You can have this wonderful life afterwards.”
When I got into my late-teens, early-twenties, I took more than just a little bit of time. It was a couple years away from church, then I would come back for a year or two, then a couple years away, and then finally I came back to the Church in my late-twenties. I think being the youngest, I have always wanted to reach the next level so I could feel like an adult and so I could be an adult in the eyes of my siblings. All of my siblings had gone through the temple, so I decided that was my next step. I was applying to grad school and went through the temple in December.
Around that time there was a guy that I’d always known but never was interested in. He kissed me on New Year’s Eve and it all went downhill from there. He applied for grad school, so we both ended up going to Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a good relationship for many reasons. I knew I shouldn’t date him and even told my bishop about him. I remember telling my bishop a few weeks after I went through the temple that I probably should stay away from the guy I was dating because I felt it was Satan’s biggest temptation for me. The bishop was kind and offered great advice. I didn’t take it and quickly after that conversation began being intimate with my boyfriend. After our first time together, I sobbed on his bathroom floor. I decided that I was done with the Church, “because if the temple couldn’t keep me from doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to, then I guess I’m just not supposed to be Mormon.” I wrote a lot about my rocky relationship with Mormonism for my graduate degree.
I met Ian through a mutual friend that I was going to school with my last year. I went home with her for Thanksgiving to Boston, where he lived, and she was trying to set him up with another friend. He asked, “What about Leslie?” And she said, “Oh, you’re not her type. She doesn’t like well-adjusted, emotionally stable guys. She only goes for unmotivated people who are losers!”
I thought Ian was a nice guy—we were friends, we kept in touch. I finally broke up with the guy I had been seeing for two years when I was almost 31. I saw Ian online one night after I got home from Vietnam and he was in Hawaii doing Navy stuff. We just talked and talked—and have talked quite literally every day since.
What’s Ian’s background? Did he grow up religious?
His mom is Jewish, so technically he’s Jewish by blood, but he would say that he’s culturally Jewish and I would agree. We celebrate Hanukkah and Passover and Rosh Hashanah together with his family but that’s about it. I feel like I know more about Judaism than he does in a lot of ways. It’s definitely deep within him and I love that, and I love that we have Judaism as a big part of our home. I’m getting history and context I didn’t have before, and I’m so excited to give my kids this deeper history to the religion they’re being brought up in.
His dad was Episcopalian, so he grew up going to church a little bit, but at some point his dad gave him and his siblings the option of going to church or going sailing, and they were like, “Well yeah, sailing.” And he never went back.
He and his parents and siblings are all agnostic at most, but most likely atheist. Ian and I have had several conversations about it and he can’t say there is a god, but it wouldn’t surprise him if there was one.
Did you have conversations early on about your beliefs and your religious background?
We did. When I met him, I still had to finish up grad school, so it was a long-distance relationship for the first couple months which was great because then we just had to have long conversations. I’m four years older than Ian and I was turning 31 that year, and I wanted to be married before 35. I asked him a lot of questions that normally you don’t ask until you’re a good six months to a year in. I said, “I am not religious, I don’t go to church, but I’ve always known that I want to raise my kids Mormon. Are you ok with that?” And he said, “Yeah. I believe they have good values and that’s fine.” And I said, “Ok, well here’s my next question. I loved having a single mom except for certain aspects in church because you just felt like an outcast sometimes. I don’t want our kids to feel that way. So if there’s a daddy-daughter dance, or Scouts, or Young Women activities, or they’re giving talks in primary or whatever, I need you to promise that you’ll be there.” And he said he would.
We moved in together pretty quickly, and then we moved to Germany because he got a job there. He had to be deployed to Afghanistan right after we moved. It was the first time in my life I think that I’ve ever seen God’s hand, because we both felt we were supposed to move to Germany and we didn’t know why, except that it would be an adventure. But then Ian had to move there a month before I did. He was working and getting to know his coworkers, and one of them happened to be Mormon. Ian said, “Oh, my girlfriend used to be Mormon, and at some point she might go back, but she’s not planning on it.” Just making conversation. And the guy said, “Oh, well if she ever wants to here’s our church program and it has all the church’s information on the back.” So when I got there and Ian was being deployed I was like, “I don’t know anybody! Where’s that program?” So I emailed the bishop and was pretty blunt and just said, “I have not been to church in years, and have no plans of going back right now, but my boyfriend is deployed and I need friends.” And he said, “We can do that. Why don’t you come this Sunday and I can introduce you to people.” I’ve been going to church ever since.
In your mind at that time, why did you not want to go back?
I think, for one, I was drinking. Drinking was very hard for me to give up because I’m a very social person and I was a very social drinker. Ian has been the reason for a lot of good things that happened in my life actually. My social drinking was becoming not-so-social, and at one point Ian said, “Um. I’m not saying you have a problem, but what if you just didn’t drink as much?” And then I was like, “No, I have a problem.” I think that was part of it. Part of it was I was living with my boyfriend. We weren’t even engaged until right before he left for Afghanistan.
Coming from Utah, I always felt pulled between my Mormon life and my non-Mormon life. Most of my friends in Utah are gay, and a lot of them are ex-Mormons. It’s like we had this understanding, so when I would go back to church, I would feel like a hypocrite. I understood their side of things, and I still understand, I just always felt this pull back to the Church. Being in Germany I felt like I could explore if the Church is actually something that I truly believe, or if it’s something that I wanted to believe because I grew up in it.
It was the first time I had read the Book of Mormon the entire way through and I finished it on my 33rd birthday. I thought, “Oh. That’s why they tell you to read the Book of Mormon when you’re younger!” Even if I have questions or concerns about certain doctrine or beliefs in the Church, I can’t deny this book.
Then I had to have a Church disciplinary council.
What was that experience like for you?
It was actually really good. I think part of it was because I knew a strong woman who had gone through it before and who had turned out, in her eyes and in my eyes, better than before. I felt good because every time in my life before this, when I’d do something wrong, I would feel really guilty about it and finally work up the courage to tell my bishop. And then I would feel so good that I told my bishop that I didn’t do what you’re supposed to do, which is ask the right person for forgiveness. The bishop can’t give you forgiveness, and you shouldn’t rely on the bishop to give you forgiveness. I was looking forward to really repenting about some things and receiving an actual peace.
It was good that my bishop was my friend, he was Ian’s friend, and he is still our friend to this day. Super non-judgmental. Just a genuine, loving guy. I told him, “My only worry about having a Church council is that if I’m excommunicated—which is totally fine and fair and I’m at peace with that—I’m just worried that it might give Ian a bad taste in his mouth because he won’t understand why it had to happen.”
I had my first interview by everyone, then they had to talk about it. We met again a week or two later for them to tell me what they had decided. I asked Ian to come with me, and the bishop came out and explained the process to him before taking me back. They gave me their verdict, which was not an excommunication but was a punishment, and then came back out and explained things to Ian. I think that helped Ian not to have a bitter taste, and it was something that made it even better for me because I don’t think a bishop has to do that. I don’t think a lot of people would.
We got married New Year’s Eve in Utah; I bought garments while I was there. We came home to Germany and Ian was working in his office and I put on the pair of garments—I think most guys are wanting to have this sexy lingerie moment—and I said, “So this is my new underwear.” And he was like, “Uhhh huh. Yeah, it’s totally fine. Cool.” And I said, “Ian, you can say it’s weird because you didn’t grow up seeing stuff like this.” And he said, “Ok, good, because it’s a little weird.” But he has slowly gotten used to them.
It sounds like Ian really was supportive of you going back to church and being a part of that community. Am I getting that right?
Yeah. I think he was because he knew that it was always in the back of my mind. My graduate thesis, which he read, was all about my growing up in the Church and feelings about that, so I think he always knew. Just like my best friend Brandon, who is gay and who officiated our wedding, has always told me, “You just seem happier when you’re in the Church.” And I know that’s not the case for everybody, but for me I just am. I think Ian was supportive because I wasn’t drinking anymore. I was at peace. There wasn’t this internal struggle anymore.
It’s interesting that at this point when you decide to return to the Church, you also marry Ian, What were your thoughts and feelings at the time about marrying outside the faith?
I knew that if I was going to find a Mormon to marry it would have to be a very different kind of Mormon. I had dated what I felt like was any kind and every kind.
Ian is the smartest person I know and he’s also the kindest person I know, and—this is going to sound ridiculous—but I love how he loves me. When I walk into the room, it’s all about me. That makes me feel really special. Also I knew it would work because when he said, “Yeah, of course we can raise our kids Mormon and I’ll be there for that.” I was like, “Well then, I don’t need a Mormon. Because I’m going to have this.” Having said that, I do wish I had somebody at church to help wrangle the kid, soon to be two kids.
Have there been any challenges being married to him as a non-member? Moments where you felt like there was conflict over your different faiths?
Different conflicts. Some of them are not religious, like learning how to communicate, because growing up without a marriage example, I didn’t know how to communicate. I literally had to learn how to communicate with him so that we both felt heard and understood. I’m still working on that, but at least I’ve always felt I can talk to Ian about anything. With Ian, if any issue comes up, we’ve always been able to talk about it and work it out, like the garments. Or sometimes when I was giving a talk in church and I asked him if he would go and he said he would. And then I practiced the talk in front of him a couple of times so then he said, “Do I have to go now? Because I’ve heard it.” I’d be hurt, and then remind him of his promise to be there to support me. The thing that’s really important in a mixed-faith relationship is constantly checking in on where the other person is at.
I would say our extended families have sometimes been the harder challenge. We both married into good respective families. His family is very liberal, and I am too. However, I feel like liberals are super PC about everything except when it comes to religion, and religions are ok to either make fun of or joke about. Sometimes there are comments or jokes and I have to remind them that I’m religious. It’s not a hardship, but it does happen every once in a while. Then there are tears and Ian has to reassure me that everybody loves me.
At the same time, it’s been hard for Ian. When we decided to get married I asked him to call my mom to get her blessing. She told him that she had always had always pictured me getting married in the temple, but that she would have to let that go. I was angry and mortified and had a lengthy follow-up conversation with her. My family loves Ian, but I think it took some of them time to adjust to the new picture. Later, my mom was on a mission for the Church doing Church history, and she called one night and was asking a lot of questions about Ian’s family and names and birth dates and I said, “Wait, why are you asking for all this?” She said she was putting it on the family tree, and I was like, “No, no. Nope. Number one, if and when Ian joins the Church, he can do it. Two, Ian’s family definitely would not be ok with this, and they’re Jewish and still alive. So you can’t do it! You just gotta stop.” Ian is pretty good at not showing when he’s upset, but I could tell that it bothered him.
We’ve had missionaries over that I’ve felt have crossed the line. I’ve always let the missionaries in any ward we’ve ever belonged to know that my husband is not a member, he has no plans of being a member, he’s not a ward project. If you would like to have a genuine relationship with him feel free to talk to him and find some common ground, but religion ain’t it. There was a pair of missionaries who were just not getting it, and I was so close to asking them to leave. Ian was just patiently re-answering the same question of, “I’m just not interested,” over and over for an hour. Ian felt rude for not giving them the answer they wanted, but I said, “That’s fine! That’s what you believe.”
I truly believe that I’m going to be with Ian forever. I don’t know how it’s going to work because we’ve been together for six years and married for four and he is still just not interested as the day I met him. But I know that God is a God of love and He knows that Ian is the best husband for me and the best father to our children, so why would he divide us? There are bad days where you’re like, “But how is this going to work because we haven’t been in the temple?” And you can get in your own way.
He told me at the beginning, “I could get baptized tomorrow, but it’d be for you. So if you’re okay knowing that I would just be doing it for you, not because I believe it or would ever want to take part of it, then let’s get baptized tomorrow.” He loved me and respected my religion too much to ever really get baptized for that reason and I never would want that. Never in a million years.
You talked about how when you were growing up you really hoped to have a priesthood holder in your home when you were married. How have you reconciled that childhood wish with your marriage to a man who’s not a member of the Church?
When I had just turned 21 I really wanted to go on a mission. I had messed up, but I had repented, had been going to church, and I really wanted to go on a mission. I was going to a singles ward with my brothers, and I was just not sure what I was supposed to do. Every lesson that day was a lesson about getting a father’s blessing. My dad happened to be at our home at that time. In the last lesson of the day somebody quoted a general authority telling a story about an inactive man who still gave a father’s blessing because it was his parental right. I went home and I told my dad that I wanted him to give me a blessing, even though he wasn’t worthy (because I was a very tactful 21 year old, very loving). So he did.
I would love it if Ian had the priesthood, but I believe that it is his God-given right as a father to bless our children. I believe as their mother, I also have that God-given right to bless my children and to utilize the priesthood that I hold, as limited as people think it might be. There are times when I’m with my son and I’m praying but I feel in my heart that I’m turning it into a blessing. I feel really good about it, and I feel empowered by it, and I feel that God hears it and is okay with that, because it’s coming from a mother’s love. I think our Heavenly Mother and our Heavenly Father understand that. Do I still call on my bishop for priesthood blessings or my home teachers? Yes. My husband has been there for those. But I think we can still give those parental blessings, that, in some way I think are stronger because you know your children and you love your children.
What do you wish people knew about your mixed-faith marriage? The people in a new ward you go to, or just people in general who have assumptions about what it must be like?
Being married to Ian has strengthened my faith because I feel that I want to be a good example of what the gospel is in my opinion. So I try to be the best version of myself, to be a good example for my son and soon-to-be daughter. It strengthens my testimony that way, but it also strengthens it because sometimes he’ll have questions or he’ll see something in the paper and ask me about it, and I think, “Oh, what do we believe? I need to brush up on this.”
I think the bottom line of the gospel is what my mom has always taught me and what I’ve always believed to be true: it’s just to love everyone and to look at people the way Christ would, which is with love. I’m just loving my husband for who he truly is and he’s loving me for who I truly am. We have many similarities, but many differences including religion. For our relationship, that makes us stronger.
The thing a lot of people who are in interfaith relationships struggle with is getting in their own way. They start getting into doctrine, which is great, and learning it, but then you start asking how your marriage is going to work. You’re just getting in your own way of loving that person. Just step out of the way. It will all work out. Obviously pray about it—maybe there are other reasons why you shouldn’t be with that person. But I have a friend who served a mission, and her husband served a mission, and now he’s inactive and is questioning the Church. That’s hard because you thought you were marrying someone a certain way, but then you have to question, “Well did I marry this person just because they believe the same things as I did? Or did I marry them for other reasons?” Honestly, mixed-faith marriages are only going to become more common.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I think the thing that people should know is, yes, I can talk about it being positive because Ian and I do check in. But it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. That’s just any marriage. There are going to be things that are hard and things that are good. But I think you always have to come back to the question of why do we want to be together?
I don’t know what they say in the temple because I haven’t been to a temple sealing, but I’m assuming it has something to do with forever. I wouldn’t let Brandon, my best friend who married us, say, “’Til death do us part,” because I just don’t believe that. I believe I’m going to be with this person forever. Even though I wasn’t married in the temple, I look at Ian as my forever spouse. Even though it’s not an “eternal marriage” I view it through the lens of an eternal marriage. I ask does this argument matter in the long run? How can I change the way I’m saying things? It’s a give-and-take with any marriage.
At A Glance
Name: Leslie Schwartz-Leeper
Location: Annapolis, Maryland
Marital History: Married
Children: 2 kids. 1 boy who is almost 3 and I'm 6 months pregnant with a little girl.
Occupation: Stay-at-home mom/wife/writer
Convert to Church?: I was born in the covenant, but I feel like my conversion date is September 8th, 2014 (my 33rd bday). That was the day I finished reading the BOM from cover to cover for the very first time and knew without a doubt it was the word of God and I could never deny it.
Schools Attended: Salt Lake Community College, University of Utah, Chatham University
Languages Spoken at Home: English with splashes of American Sign Language, Spanish, and Sailor
Interview Produced by Meredith Marshall Nelson