Paul Hahn stopped taking part in the bustling activities of his Mormon ward in Queen Creek about 2 1/2 years ago, and it wasn't until January that he formally resigned his membership after 20 years, a tenure that included a two-year missionary assignment in South Dakota.
"I stayed in that church for quite a few years not believing it," said Hahn, 32, who has donated money for a billboard that went up last week on the southwest corner of Gilbert Road and Chandler Boulevard on the border of Chandler and Gilbert.
The sign is paid for by Post-Mormons, a Logan, Utah, organization. It features a generic smiling family of eight, a Post-It note that reads "You are not alone!" and the Web site address: www.PostMormon.org.
"Mormonism, itself, is a culture," said Hahn, a one-time ward Sunday school superintendent. "When you leave it, most of your friends are generally not going to be interested in continuing their friendships with you, so it is very important to find new people to hang out with."
Post-Mormons founder Jeff Ricks said it is the group's first billboard in Arizona, and the south East Valley site was chosen because of the high concentration of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - as well as former church members. "We got a really good deal on it - $3,000 for 30 days, and that is our most expensive billboard to date," Ricks said.
It is the eighth billboard put up by the group, with previous ones in Logan, Idaho Falls and Pocatello, Idaho, along with two in Salt Lake City (the church's headquarters), plus Provo and St. George, Utah.
Ricks met the biggest fight in Idaho Falls, when the billboard company put the vinyl sign on property owned by a Mormon, who ordered it removed. (Another site was found.)
Gifts of $1,000 and $5,000 in recent months helped the effort, he said, but donations average $30.
Don Evans, spokesman for the Mormon church in Arizona and president of the Mesa Mountain View Stake, said he did not know about the billboard until he was contacted by the Tribune.
"I think it is another instance of people who have decided to leave the church," he said. "Generally, what we find is that oftentimes people who leave the church don't leave quietly." They sometimes "leave bitterly and want to make some sort of a statement," he said.
Scott Trotter, church spokesman in Salt Lake City, said his office "respectfully declined comment" on the Post-Mormons' work.
Ricks, 53, founded Post-Mormon in 2002 just after he formally asked to have his name removed from church rolls, almost a decade after he stopped being active. He is the great-great-grandson of Thomas E. Ricks, for whom Ricks College (now Brigham Young University - Idaho, in Rexburg, Idaho) was named.
Ricks said he had always fully tithed, giving 10 percent of his income to the church, and was repeatedly told by his bishops that "if you pay the tithing, you'll be blessed financially." But when his business failed, it became the "trigger point" for him questioning other teachings and issues of the church.
"The blessings that I was taught are supposed to be there, absolutely were not there," he said. "I wondered what else is not quite right."
When Ricks stopped being involved in 1993, he said, "I lived for eight years thinking I was the only person in the Cache Valley that had left the church - an active good person who left willingly." He described himself as lonely and "kind of deserted" by his church friends because he stopped attending.
"I didn't know how to meet non-Mormon people," so it prompted him eventually to start a support group and then create a Web site in 2004, whose primary features are the posted stories and testimonies of former Mormons and why they left the church. He said it gets 7 million to 8 million site visits monthly.
Today, Post-Mormon has 46 chapters scattered around the world, including Europe, New Zealand and South America.
Ricks said about 30 percent of former Mormons associated with the site join other faiths while "70 percent find that they don't need another religion."
"Why does something have to be replaced?" he asked. "That is a misconception. There is that hole or void for a while. A lot of other people like me have filled the void not with another religion, but basically an appreciation of life in general."
Those ex-Mormons should be better helped spiritually, said Jim Robertson of Mesa, who launched an outreach ministry to Mormons in 1973 called Concerned Christians (www.concernedchristians.org). He and his wife, Judy, author of several books, including "Out of Mormonism" and "Understanding My Mormons' Friends Faith and Mine," hold Thursday night support group meetings several blocks from the Mesa Arizona Temple where their emphasis has been to contrast Mormon teachings with Christian doctrine.
Jim Robertson, who said he had never heard of the Post-Mormon group, said after reviewing its Web site, "It's good that they are having meetings to support them, but that doesn't give them anything to take in place of what they have left behind." Concerned Christians, he said, seeks to help former Mormons "understand who Christ is and to come into a relationship with him and have a peace and joy about it."
"The thing that hurts is to see them leaving them out dangling in nowhere," he said. "I can understand why they could be hurting."
'UNDER THE RUG'
Hahn said he was pleased the billboard has gone up in the area. "Most people when they are considering leaving the church don't know there is anyone else who has gone through the same thing they have," he said.
He said his choice to leave centered on church history. "Generally they have some problems telling the truth about the history of the church and the origins that they have been putting under the rug," he said. "And when you find those truths out, it is kind of hard to continue to believe what they have to say.
"I am sure there are a lot of people who go there every Sunday because that is their culture, what they grew up in, but they don't believe it."
But Evans said he was "personally perplexed" that Post-Mormons "would even bother to have a billboard or even have a Web site. If they choose to leave, they choose to leave. That is their prerogative."