Saturday, June 30, 2007

Choir Practice

For a very long time, I went to Church and almost nobody noticed. I say "almost nobody," because I found a couple of friends there almost immediately -- Brother Stainer, whom I mentioned in another post, and later an old friend of mine, Sister Johnson, whom I've known for more than twenty years, and whom I first met when she was a teacher at the MTC and when I was a missionary-in-training, preparing for my mission in the Swiss-Geneva Mission.

But many a Sunday I came, sat down on the back row all alone, unnoticed. I prayed to myself before the meeting. I sang the hymns. I prayed the sacrament prayers in my heart, "partaking," if I could not physically by eating the bread and drinking the water, spiritually by promising that I did want to take His name upon me and keep his commandments which he had given me. I was amazed, Sunday after Sunday, how these simple people bearing simple testimonies, the good people of this wonderful inner-city Minneapolis Ward, would get up and deliver talks that always moved me, inspired me, made me see things from a different angle, and not infrequently made me cry. And the hymns -- I could never get enough of the beautiful hymns, though it was not an infrequent occcurrence for me to get so choked up singing them that all I could do was stare at the pages of the hymnal through blurry eyes and listen to the others sing.

"Sister Smith" was the first one to notice my singing. "You have a lovely voice! You should sing in the choir!" she would say. I would just smile. Others sometimes noticed too. One sister took to complaining when I didn't sit behind her, because she liked to hear my singing.

One day last December, Sister Bruce, the ward choir director, cornered me in the hallway after Sacrament Meeting. "I hear you have a beautiful singing voice," she said, "How would you like to sing in the choir?"

"I would love to," I said.

"Maybe you could sing a solo some Sunday as well," she continued. I started getting worried. Was this legal? Did she know I was a gay, excommunicated man?

"Maybe," I said.

So I walked out of Church that Sunday excited and confused and worried. Surely this sister knew I wasn't a member of the church, right? Surely she would know if I was a member? And I had made no secret of the fact that I was gay. I didn't advertise it, but I had told enough people whom I was sure would have told other people... She had to know I was gay, right? Or did she? Should I tell her? Did it matter? Did you need to be straight and a member of the Church to sing in the choir?

And then there was my partner. Every minute I spent at Church I ended up hearing from him about in some way or another. Every Sunday there was some little sign of displeasure, even if it was just a look or a question. So how was I going to add choir rehearsals without facing more wrath?

Fortunately Göran made no special fuss about me singing in the choir. I participated in all the rehearsals and at the end of the month sang in the ward Christmas program. The bishop sang in the choir with us as well. He sat right next to me during some of the rehearsals. "Well," I thought the first time I saw him in choir rehearsal, "if there's a problem with any of this, now he can put a stop to it." But the bishop didn't seem to mind. I never got pulled aside and told this was inappropriate. No sudden phone calls from the choir director uninviting me.

I still continue to sing in the choir. Sister Bruce makes a point of making sure I make it to rehearsal each time another performance comes up. One of my great disappointments this past week was that I actually had to miss a performance in Sacrament Meeting because of Gay Pride.

I eventually even did sing that solo in Church.

I actually got sort of panicked about it in the week or two before I sang. I wondered if the bishop knew I had been slated to sing this solo. Surely everything in every Sacrament Meeting program was approved by him, right? But I started imagining a variety of nightmare scenarios, and for my own peace of mind decided that I needed to meet with the bishop to discuss it and make sure everything was all right with him. I called to try to set up an appointment to meet with him, and for some reason there were scheduling difficulties and I finally managed to get an appointment the Wednesday before the Sunday that I was supposed to sing. I was actually meeting with the bishop just before I was supposed to go to Sister Bruce's house to rehearse. I had imagined these scenarios in which I would tell the bishop, and he would say something like, "Well, John, I'm not sure that's an appropriate thing for you to do." I had even sort of rehearsed the speech I would make to Sister Bruce as I called her after my meeting with the bishop to apologize and tell her it was all off.

The subject of my meeting with the bishop was about what it was and was not appropriate for me as an excommunicated member to do. To my great relief and joy, "participating in the ward music program" was one of the things he explicitly listed as OK. After our meeting, he actually gave me a ride to the Bruces', as we discussed his favorite topic: the 93rd section of the Doctrine & Covenants. I love my bishop with my whole heart!

The solo I sang was "As I Have Loved You," one of my favorite Mormon hymns ever. I'm not sure it was the best rendition of it ever. I was nervous as hell. But I sang it with my whole heart.

One of the speakers that Sunday was Sister Bambi Patrick. The talk was about forgiveness. She spoke about the need for us all to be humble, to forgive one another, never to judge others because we are all in need of the atonement of Christ. By the end of her talk, tears were streaming down my face. Here I was, feeling like the most miserable sinner of all about to try to stand up in front of all these Saints, and it was as if Sister Patrick was standing up there speaking just to me and saying Don't worry, we're all in the same boat together. Sister Bruce had invited me to sit next to her that Sunday, so I actually had this wonderful feeling of sitting in something like a family. And she saw me tearing up and she looked over at me and smiled, and said, "That couldn't have been a more perfect talk to go with your song." "Nope," I agreed, "couldn't have been more perfect." "You think you can still do it?" she asked. "Yup," I said.

A few Sundays ago, Sister Patrick collared me after the Ward Conference, the same one where I heard the best sermon ever from the second counselor in the stake presidency. She asked me if I wanted to participate in a multi-stake LDS choir that was going to sing a concert at Como Park on the 4th of July. She promised to pick me up and give me a ride. So for the last two Saturday mornings, Sister Patrick has been arriving at my house at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, and we drive out to the Stake Center in Burnsville.

I have to say, it took me out of my safety zone at first. I had always been reassured by Sister Bruce. She's always had this kind, down-to-earth, Mormon mother sort of attitude that puts me right at ease. The crowd at the multi-stake choir were a bit more intense. And here I was with a bunch of strangers out in the conservative suburbs. It left me with this queazy sort of what-if-they-knew-about-me feeling in my gut. Of course, kind of a silly feeling, but last Saturday one brother noticed my wedding ring -- a beautiful and very unusual black titanium ring with inlaid silver and a cubic zirconium. He commented on it and how beautiful it was, and that always leaves me wondering, what do I say if he asks me about my "wife"?

But on the way to the rehearsal last week, Sister Patrick and I were talking about that Sunday when she spoke and made me cry, when I sang my song, "As I Have Loved You." She said, "You know, it just seems like no matter what topic they give me to speak about, I always find some way to bring it back to the same theme."

Her favorite theme was the Atonement, of course.

"If you had to just pick one," I replied, "that would be it."


GeckoMan said...

I'm new to your blog world. I found your post by skipping from Beck's blogs. I am touched by reading your "journey" of re-entry into our LDS world. Your reflections are real and heartfelt and totally inspiring to me. Your honesty with yourself and your ward is a shining example. Thank you for sharing.

I'm on a journey, too, brother. Surfing around the blogosphere this morning looking for something undefined consciously, your words and experience was just what I was looking for. I appreciate the understanding of men like yourself who acknowledge who they are and what they're feeling and still make room for faith and devotion.

We are at times in a tight spot, full of contradictions, but it is the love of God in our lives and the feelings of the Holy Ghost guiding and comforting us that make it all worthwhile nonetheless.

Like you, I find that singing is spiritual communion that confirms the reality of our faith in a loving Father in heaven. I hope you have continued joy in your ward choir, a connection to a greater whole that sings its heart out.


Beck said...

"It left me with this queazy sort of what-if-they-knew-about-me feeling in my gut"...

Don't we all feel that way? I mean, don't we all have secrets that we don't want others to know... and doesn't everyone have things that we have no idea are going on in their lives?

It's funny when we try to hide such "what if" scenarios from the Lord as well, as if He doesn't already know what is going on...

I often wonder what those in my ward would think of me if they knew that I was gay. Why am I so afraid of something that I just "am". Does that change who I am? Am I less of a person because of it? Of course not! And yet, I conceal it from everyone just the same.

I continue to find your story so inspiring. I marvel at the road you have taken. I am so happy for you that your ward is so accepting and loving and caring for you -not because you are or are not gay, not because you have or do not have a partner, not because you are a member in full fellowship or excommunicated for whatever reason - but JUST BECAUSE!

I find that simply breathtaking and inspirational.

I hunger to know more of your adventured down this "road less traveled".

J G-W said...

It's a bit unsettling to me how easy it can be in certain circumstances to slip back into the closet. Not that I'm trying to hide anything... Ultimately, if the brother had asked the question, I would have had to explain to him that I don't have a wife, I have a partner, and the ring signifies my commitment to him. But in these uneasy situations, it's amazing how strong your survival instinct kicks in, telling you to "Hide!"

I imagine the worst case scenario in a "coming out" situation would have been a moment of great awkwardness, followed by his possibly passing the information on to others to do with as they please. Would it result in me getting asked to not to sing with the special choir? I doubt it. Maybe if some folks knew, they might avoid me. But maybe some would actually be more sympathetic and supportive.

Rule no. 1 when trying to live in LDS Church community as an out gay man: expect friends in unexpected places. Mormons are generally good folks.

Rule no. 2: if you are honest and humble, the Spirit will step in and help when difficult situations present themselves. There is never any need to fear.

Abelard Enigma said...

My understanding is that, as an excommunicated member, you can do anything a non-member can do. In my ward, we've had non members serve on committees. We had one who was an assistant scout master in our scout troop. We currently have an excommunicated member who is our bulletin coordinator.

And, you're right, there are a few bad apples. But, overall, Mormon's are good people.