Friday, June 22, 2007

The First Sunday

I remember the first Sunday I walked into the building.

I had seen it before many times, driving past with friends. "Hey, isn't that the Mormon Church?"

I was nervous.

I had told my partner that I was only planning to attend a few Sundays. Just long enough to get to know the bishop, see how supportive he might be. See if he knew of any gay parishioners, might be willing to refer people to Affirmation. I really believed that was why I was going.

But as soon as I set foot in the building, as soon as I sat down in the back pew, I knew that was not why I was there.

This building could have been the church I went to as a kid, in Rochester, New York. I had been away for twenty years, moved to a different state, and nothing had changed. The same prelude music wafting down from the organ. The same kinds of pews, the same shape of the sanctuary.

I looked over, and there in the pew just in front of me was Elder Armstrong, from Panguitch, Utah.

Flashback: A few weeks earlier, Göran and I had been visiting my friends Sam and Lee, and who should come a'knockin' but the Mormon missionaries. My friend Sam said, "You're Mormon, you go talk to them!" So I went out onto the front porch and talked to the missionaries. I'd encountered missionaries many, many times before, but I had never really talked to them. I had always just brushed them off and told them I wasn't interested, without ever letting on that I had once been a Mormon. But this time, I took a deep breath, and I really talked to them. From the heart.

I started off by saying, "I was raised LDS. I served a mission in France and Switzerland. But I'm gay, and there's no place for me in the LDS Church." I then proceeded to give them the intensive course in Gay Mormons 101. "How did you lose your testimony?" one Elder asked. "I didn't lose my testimony," I said, "It was because of my testimony I almost committed suicide."

The exchange stayed friendly. The one Elder, I assumed he was the senior companion, did most of the talking. I don't remember much of what he said. When I said I couldn't believe in the Book of Mormon based on what I knew about pre-Columbian American history, he went on about how archaeologists are always unearthing more and more proofs of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I warned him that he probably didn't want to go there. But what I remembered most about the encounter was the junior companion, the one who just stood there and didn't say much of anything, the one who looked slightly sorry when he heard me mention I had almost committed suicide. There was an air of kindness and gentleness about him. That was what impressed me. That was Elder Armstrong.

So back to that first Sunday: I looked at the pew in front of me, and there was Elder Armstrong with a new companion. He looked back and saw me, and we instantly recognized each other, and he smiled, and he shook my hand, and he said, "Hey, do you remember me?"

"How could I forget?" I replied.

He made small talk, and made me feel welcome. I found out that when I had encountered him on the porch of my best friends' house, he had been assigned to the Dinkytown Ward. He had only just been transferred to the Lake Nokomis Ward that very Sunday, that first Sunday I walked into the church.

Later, just as I was getting ready to walk out the door, Elder Armstrong ran up and called to me. He wanted to introduce me to someone. He had found a member of the Elder's Quorum presidency, a Brother Stainer, and introduced me to him. That first Sunday, my encounter with Brother Stainer was very brief. But after that, as I showed up on successive Sundays, he sort of made it his job to make sure I never sat on the pew alone, that I never came to Church without feeling welcome.

That first Sunday all I could remember thinking was, "Wow. This elder knows I'm gay. And he still really wants me to come back."

That first Sunday, as the opening hymn was sung, I sang the familiar words in a full voice. The opening prayer was said and I bowed my head, and said my own prayer.

And the Spirit was there, and I suddenly knew the real reason why I was there.

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