Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tennessee Gunman Targeted Church Over Its Stance on Gay Rights

Check out this story.

Apparently the American media have shied away from covering the full story... They've covered the shootings, but have generally remained silent about the gunman's motives.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gay Divorce

In an odd twist of fate, one of the headlines appearing on the front page of the LA Times on the very day of our wedding (July 25) was: "The next same-sex challenge: divorce." Since my brother subscribes to the Times, the headline was there waiting to greet me on the kitchen table after we arrived home from our wedding. It was a strange, almost grim reminder to me that as joyous as we were having literally just made these covenants of union, things don't always work out as we intend.

Later that evening, as I was enjoying my brother's outdoor hot tub with my niece, the topic came up again. "Sometimes divorce is the only right thing to do," my niece reminded me. She told me the story of a woman friend of hers who was married many years, only to find out that her husband had been cheating on her almost the entire time they were married.

Another friend of mine, in the week or so before our wedding trip, recounted to me his own sorrow at the recent divorce of a friend of his under quite different circumstances. The couple were devoutly Catholic and had been married many years, and had each apparently desperately prayed to God to help them save their union. But in the end the pain of trying to stay together was too great.

Number of years married doesn't seem to be a predictor for whether a marriage will end in divorce. Göran and I have been together for almost 16 years, but very close friends of ours recently divorced after 18 years together. I have personally known (or known of) couples who have divorced after 20, 25, 30 or more years together. As a teenager I remember hearing of an elderly couple my parents knew, who had grown kids and grandkids when they got divorced. Divorce rates apparently drop among the religiously devout, but are still relatively high, around 25%. Thus, as my friend observed, piety is no guarantee either.

I've also known of people who apparently stayed the course and remained married until parted by death, but who spent their golden years making each other miserable, leaving everyone else wondering if divorce hadn't been the more merciful (and honest) option for everyone.

My sister went through a very painful divorce, and so have a number of close friends. It's easy, from a distance, to oversimplify and to blame. The closer you are to a divorce, the less simple blame becomes. In a way, blaming people for their divorce just becomes a way to distance ourselves from it, to pretend that that can't happen to us. True, people are responsible for the choices they make leading to divorce, but I've never seen a divorce that wasn't extremely painful for both parties. When you see the heartbreak up close, you start to realize that to the extent there is responsibility (or blame) to be doled out, it is of a different order than the kind of blame you dole out for more quotidian mistakes. Life is for learning, and often the more important the learning, the greater the pain that can come along with it.

In asking for the right to marry, gay folks are, in essence, also asking for the opportunity to fail in marriage. We are asking for the right to learn the same life lessons that heterosexual people take for granted they have the right to learn. So yes, ironically (or not), the LA Times was right in calling divorce "the next same-sex challenge."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

(More) Married!

Last night I dreamed that Göran and Glen and I found cockroaches in the kitchen of our apartment. (In real life, we live in a house, not an apartment!) We tore open a wall near the entryway and discovered thousands -- perhaps millions! -- of cockroaches inside the wall. They were infesting the entire apartment building, not just our apartment. We realized that our ability to clear the apartment of cockroaches was beyond our power. We called a service, and told them that we needed them to help us rid our apartment building of cockroaches. We then left the apartment, walking along beautiful white, open-air sky-ways. We were on our way to a joyous event -- our wedding. My family was walking with us. As we walked, my dad and I were discussing the Church. I told my dad that I had studied the teachings of all the apostles and all the prophets. I had studied all the teachings of Thomas S. Monson, both before he became the prophet and since. Based on my studies, there was no doubt left in my mind that Thomas S. Monson was a prophet of God. I bore my testimony to my father. Then I woke up with an incredible, peaceful feeling. That is how I started my wedding day.

There were simple things that helped me prepare mentally and spiritually in the twenty-four hours leading up to the event. My favorite white cotton dress shirt was terribly wrinkled. The night before, I slowly and carefully ironed it with a steam iron, working out each wrinkle one at a time. Then I neatly set aside the clothes I would be wearing the next day -- both my wedding tuxedo, shirt, tie, shoes; and the more casual clothes we would be wearing before and after the wedding for family picture-taking and lunch. I set aside the marriage license and other important documents, and of course the rings. In the morning, before the rest of my family was awake, I wrote in my journal and held my morning scripture study. The day was fairly hectic from there on out, but that early morning calm, and my memories of the dream helped keep me centered.

The dream reminded me of the falsehood of certain romanticized notions of marriage. We enter marriage as sinful, imperfect beings. We enter into and accept the covenants of marriage pitifully blind to our own weaknesses. It is only in living together in the kind of commitment that marriage requires that we begin to become aware of how truly weak we are. Marriage offers us an opportunity to perfect ourselves, to build the kind of house we want to live in. We discover that our sins and imperfections are beyond our own ability to correct on our own. We need help from a source that is greater than ourselves. That is why, I believe, in order for a marital covenant to work we need to humble ourselves and turn to God. If we ask for help, God will help us perfect ourselves, and perfect our marital home.

Earlier this evening, Göran and I were discussing the nature of the commitment we made today. We smiled together at the notion that we were now "more married" than we were before. We entered into a certain kind of commitment almost sixteen years ago. We formalized that commitment in an extra-legal ceremony thirteen years ago. Today we renewed that commitment in a legal and religious ceremony that has civil recognition and standing in some jurisdictions and nations, and no recognition or standing in other jurisdictions and nations. (No standing in the state where we reside.) Thus we are still on a journey of "becoming" more married. Perhaps someday Minnesota, perhaps some day the United States as a whole, will recognize our union and we will become yet "more married" than we are today. We are still somewhere on a continuum of being more married than we were before, but less married than our heterosexually married friends and neighbors.

But this continuum of marriage, this journey of marriedness, as anomalous as it seems and feels at times, perhaps reflects the reality that a marriage might merely be a ceremony until we make it real, until we perfect ourselves, perfect our marital home in such a way that our commitments, our covenants become real and durable and powerful. If our marriage does not challenge us and force us to struggle, it cannot have the power to transform us into the kind of people we can become. There is never a point when we can rest on our laurels and say, "Now we're married; we don't need to work at this any more!" For Latter-day Saints, who believe in eternal marriage, this means that in a sense we qualify for the blessing of eternal marriage by perfecting our commitments in such a way that they can last more than a life time. Marriage becomes the crucible in which perfected selves and perfected families are created.

The last half of my dream reminded me of what I cannot "unknow." I have a testimony of the Church and of the Gospel in all their embodied beauty. I have a testimony of real, living prophets who have names and addresses. I have a testimony of an actual body of people, a living community, who show up in wards and stakes and missions. I have a testimony of a literal priesthood that emanates from God, that resides in mortal hands and hearts as one of the most precious gifts we have in this world of pain and darkness, ordinances that can bind on earth and in Heaven, power that can heal and enlighten.

I also know that in making the covenants we made today, we did the right thing. We did what we needed to do.

I am still wrestling the angel and demanding my blessing.

Until I receive it, here we are in this nether, half-way state. Merely more married.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pilgrimage, Part III

First thing Monday morning, Göran, Glen and I drove to the county clerk's office in Riverside, California. It is housed in a complex of government buildings in a section of town just off a highway entrance where there doesn't appear to be much else. The buildings are clean and modern, though of typically boring, institutional architecture, and the grounds were pleasant, surrounded by the palm trees and flora that are everywhere here in southern California. There was a clear sign at the edge of the parking lot that said "County Clerk / Marriage Licenses." It almost made it look as if the only reason anyone would want to see the County Clerk was if they wanted to get married.

I think I somehow unconsciously had envisioned us arriving and having to wait at the end of a long line of same-sex couples mobbing the office in order to take care of this same long-overdue bit of business. But when we walked through the door that the signs directed us to, the office was calm and quiet and mostly empty. There were two other heterosexual couples there filling out the marriage license forms. During the entire time we were there that morning, perhaps a half dozen other couples besides us arrived to complete this legal formality -- all heterosexual.

I approached the receptionist and said, "We're here to get a marriage license."

She pointed at a stack of forms in a receptacle next to the window. "Just take one of those and fill it out with your, uh... with him." She eyed Göran with a bit of a flustered expression. The forms have been amended so that instead of having a column for "groom" and a column for "bride," they simply allow for "partner A" and "partner B." Even though the forms have changed, I guess the people are still getting used to the idea.

I wondered what it was like for the other couples in that room. For them, filling out the papers was probably just a minor hurdle, an inconvenience (along with an inconvenient fee) along the way to the main event. For us, this was a privilege. We were allowed to fill out the form and pay the fee. Göran asked Glen to document the event photographically, which he happily did.

We were reminded in bold lettering in the instructions that came with the form that we were responsible to check and double-check the accuracy of all the information both on the forms and on the license. Failure to spell names exactly could lead to legal complications down the road. We were also required to present government issued picture ID's and swear an oath that we were who we said we were, and everything in the application was true and accurate.

They specifically wanted to make sure that we had not been previously married, either to someone else, or to each other. The "or to each other" part was odd. Yes, we are already married in our own eyes and in the eyes of all our close friends and family. But not in the eyes of the law. So we swore in the affirmative, even though in our hearts, in our spirits, this was only a half truth.

With that formality out of the way, we now had everything we needed for the event itself. Since then, we've been vacationing with Glen. We did a tour of downtown Los Angeles Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday we spent two tiring but extremely happy days (from 8:00 a.m. until midnight!) at Disneyland -- which Glen loved! Yesterday, while I was waiting on Disney's "Main Street USA" for Göran and Glen to get some drinks, I spoke with the minister over the phone and answered his final questions. Then while waiting in the nearly hour-long line for the new "Finding Nemo" attraction, Göran and I talked through all of the final details -- who would participate in this small ceremony and in what way. We are planning to ask my mother to be a proxy for Göran's family -- both for the family that raised him and for the biological family we just discovered, who really wanted to be present but couldn't afford a last-minute trip to California.

There have been several quiet moments of prayer this week, moments of peace, happiness and clarity. In these moments I have reflected both on what this is and what it isn't. What it is: an earthly, temporal covenant. A swearing that we make before earthly functionaries and before our families that we will fulfill a particular set of obligations and responsibilities in relation to each other, in return for certain (being Minnesotan, still merely theoretical!) rights and protections. What it isn't: a sealing for time and all eternity. But what it is: a ceremonial affirmation of love and commitment that will provide an opportunity for future growth.

What it is: Being patient and true. Being faithful. Keeping the faith with each other and with God.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pilgrimage, Part II

The past week has been overwhelming emotionally. It's included some family struggle, which has been negotiated (I won't say "resolved") with good prospects for long-term growth and happiness. It also included some painful discussions with a close friend, that began with introspection and grieving and ended with affirmations of love and mutual commitment. All this amidst the general hectic preparations for two, not just big, but life-changing trips: one that begins tonight to California to get married, and another in August to visit Göran's lost and re-found family.

In the past six months, I realize, there's been a tremendous amount of change in our lives. All good change -- unbelievably good! But change nonetheless. And with it has come a certain amount of stress. In a way, the better the news, the bigger the change, and the more the stress. So there have been moments of tension and uncertainty, as well as rejoicing.

In recent weeks, adding to all this stress, both good and bad, is the rising stridency of the California gay marriage debate in the Church. The calls for decency and compassion on the one side and the calls for faith and obedience on the other are growing in intensity (and tone deafness). I still don't know how to assimilate it.

People are so sure that the First Presidency letter of June 29, 2008 represents the Lord's will, and not just the fallible human opinions of a generation of leaders that came of age before the McCarthy era. They insist that if you have any kind of a testimony of our leaders at all, then you must support them in this, even if everything else in you says they can't be right about this. Others insist that this letter from the First Presidency is proof of callousness and bigotry, and proof they can't possibly be true leaders of God's church. I can't find myself in those kinds of arguments.

I'm certain that the Lord requires obedience, and I agree we can't know the mettle of our faith until it has been tried. And other people's seeming certainty that this issue is the test of our faith for this generation has certainly challenged me. And there have been moments when I've wondered, Can I be making a terrible mistake to get legally married? And those moments can be even more painful when the stress has been running high around here... Which it has on several occasions in the last week in particular.

In addition to these heart-struggles, on July 15 I received a letter from the Office of the First Presidency in response to a letter I sent on June 15. The wording of the letter made it clear that President Monson never saw the letter I addressed to him, and it was being answered by an assistant. It was, all the same, a personal response -- clearly not just a form letter, though the bulk of it appeared to be a boilerplate statement likely included in responses to all letters inquiring about SSA. It did also include a statement I assumed to have been penned specifically in response to my letter: "The Lord loves all of his children. However, it is not possible for one to both practice homosexuality (or adultery, or fornication, or a host of other infractions of the laws of God that come as a result of succumbing to our inclinations) and be in full fellowship in the Church."

The letter wasn't surprising in any detail. What would have been shocking was if the response had been anything else than what it was. But it was a tangible, physical, personal reminder that arrived in my home mailbox of the way the lines are currently drawn so as to cut right through me, cut my heart literally in two. And it certainly was another occasion for more soul-searching.

Nevertheless, the pattern I've noticed is that my doubt about what we are about to do is greatest when I am least in tune with the Spirit. When I'm caught in the midst of a stressful, contentious exchange with a friend or family member. When I'm feeling down or disappointed or stressed. When my prayers have been shallow, or I was too rushed to do my scripture study and meditation. When I don't take the time to listen to the still small voice.

When I truly listen, as I did in the quiet of the morning today, at 7:30 a.m. when my family was still asleep, when I stay grounded by practicing patience and love, by working my way through the stress and pain by remembering who and what we all are -- children of God -- I know what I need to do with a crystal clarity.

It is odd that the good, faithful people insisting on blind obedience is more like a temptation to ignore the Spirit, to turn away from God, to stop listening to what I know. Just kill the Spirit, quench it. Obedience is more important. More important would be getting caught up in a growing fracas that is more about being right or wrong than it is about caring for all the children God loves. That's how it always starts. High flying statements about God's love. Which sound fine and good until somebody's corpse is bleeding on the steps of a California stake center.

Sometimes I wish this were easier. But, like Forester in this on-going conversation about his marriage I refuse to try to resolve this by letting go of the apparent contradictions. I have to affirm the truth where I see it, cling to it, hold it, live it the best I can, trusting that somewhere down the road the meaning of all these things will come clear and grandly reveal themselves.

At this point, I see only the next step in a life's journey: when we get on a plane for California.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Devil Is in the Interpolation

I took down a post from earlier this week. It's the first time I've felt obliged to do this in the history of my blog. What I posted probably shared a bit too much about the inner workings of our family to be appropriate. Blogs can be dangerous that way, and I'll try to be more sensitive to that in the future. But the appropriateness or inappropriateness of what I shared was not the immediate catalyst in taking it down.

A friend read the post, and though it had nothing to do with him at all, he took it very personally in a way I never would have dreamed possible, and followed up by sending an email full of venomous personal attacks. I'm still reeling from this... Spent most of last night feeling heartbroken and sick to my stomach. Partly because this came so suddenly out of the blue. One minute I thought we were friends, the next minute this blindsiding attack. I took the post down because suddenly I felt terribly vulnerable, and I felt I had opened my family up to something it is really my obligation to protect them from.

I replaced the post I took down with another post on our anticipated reunion with family. With hindsight, I realized the post about our unknown family in Memphis is also about our known and loved family and friends in Minneapolis (among whom I still count the friend in question).

I'm trying to let go of my interpolations of what other people say to me. Especially when I'm feeling down and wounded. I think that's partly what I was writing about in my last post when I discussed the "expectations" we might bring to our encounters with family. Göran said something last night that felt insensitive and inconsiderate. And then later I realized it wasn't so much. That wasn't how he had intended it. And I realized, the Devil is in the interpolation. That's how our imperfect attempts to communicate get twisted into offense and contention and hate.

God, on the other hand, is in second chances.

Monday, July 14, 2008

On Finding Family

Göran and I approached the possibility of establishing a relationship with his biological family with a certain amount of trepidation. How can you help but wonder about the train of events that separated him from them in the first place; and about all that kept them apart all those years? And then one wonders about the protective walls a person must build around his or her heart to cope with such a primal loss. The separation of a parent from a child.

We've had our fair share of warnings from the well meaning to be careful. Oh, this is risky business to be sure. Nothing more risky than such affairs of the heart. How can you avoid getting your hopes up too high? Will mundane reality feel like a loss? Like the theft of dreams impossible to fulfill?

I got an email from a cousin the other day. She wrote, "I just hope that we are all you are expecting. I pray that your dreams of a real family will be realized." That brought tears to my eyes. Of course, they've got to be as nervous and excited and all the rest as we are. Except that for us, it's multiplied because there are so many more of them than us. And we're meeting them on their home turf. And they've had family all along; they've had each other. Göran had only questions and more questions, and the angst of feeling alone in the universe.

Not that he was truly alone. He had his mom and his step dad, sisters and half-sisters. But the questions about the part of family tree that had been rubbed out, annihilated by his mother, always loomed... It was part of why he ran away and had to reinvent himself, complete with a new name of his own creation.

Now all of a sudden there's not only a name he never knew, but a heritage, a culture, a family tree...

And the truth is -- maybe people will call me a liar -- we don't have expectations. We just don't. We can't. Expectations are too big a thing to get a grip on for us. There is a family there waiting... A father, siblings, a grandma, aunts and uncles and cousins in the "zillions" (according to grandma). We're going to Memphis to see what we will see, and take it from there.

But after I recounted to an aunt and a cousin the dream I'd had about them, the cousin turned right around and confessed she'd had a dream about us:

Now John, I had a dream that you and Goran were saying your written vows to one another and as you turned to look at the audience, all of us were coming in the door! My mom, grandma, your dad and all your siblings, and lots and lots of cousins! We all yelled out, "Hey everybody, we made it!" Wouldn't that be cool?? I wish I could make it a reality!

We are meeting each other in our dreams.

But reality will be so much bigger. We are waiting to wake up.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Putting Together the Pieces

After reading Forester's recent post and after reading the comments, and commenting myself, and having read comments on those comments, I come back again to the seeming impossible dilemmas faced by gay people in our society.

I say in our society, because I think that many of the seemingly impossible or unresolvable contradictions are a function of the fact that social norms and conventions have been evolved by the majority of opposite-sex attracted people to make things helpful and convenient for themselves. If we could create our own nation of Gaylandia, or better yet our own Mohomeland, we would very quickly evolve a different set of social norms and conventions that would remove much of the struggle we face in Straightlandia every day.

Living in the Mohomeland would not, of course, solve all our problems. I know that, because I know so many unhappy and struggling straight people. Being part of the conventional majority doesn't alleviate us of the necessity of working to find our own happiness. It just eliminates certain annoying obstacles.

The societies we create are seldom wise. In many ways, human beings behave like children in a candy store with daddy's credit card. In some ways, being a disenfranchised minority forces us to look at things from a more critical perspective. It enables us to see more clearly the flaws in the thinking of the majority. Of course, we have our own set of flaws. But I digress...

We Mohos are caught in a particularly painful dilemma. We can choose a life that satisfies the requirements of the Church and that enables us to be members in good standing. But we are forced to sacrifice some of the deepest satisfactions of life. (Though even then, we are often looked at suspiciously and askance, since despite the overwhelming personal sacrifices we have to make in order to do that, our loyalty is considered suspect due simply to attractions that seem woven into our very beings.) OR we can choose a life that harmonizes with some of the deepest and most powerful feelings in our hearts, minds and bodies, but then we find ourselves disfellowshipped and excommunicated from the Church we love. We find it impossible to participate in the rites and communions that enable our souls to flourish. In either case, since Mormon scripture clarifies that "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C 88:15), our souls are literally torn asunder, we find it almost impossible to find a way in which spirit and body live harmoniously and unproblematically together.

What do you do caught in such a dilemma? It's like one of those 3-D puzzles where you have a pile of strange pieces that can fit together in multiple ways. The goal is to fit all of the puzzle pieces together into a single harmonious shape. But because the pieces can fit together in different ways, you might start assembling the pieces in one way, only to find, after a while, that if you fit them that way, the remaining pieces can't possibly fit in. So you disassemble some of the pieces and then reassemble, only to find that this time other pieces don't fit. Sometimes you have to tear the whole damn thing apart and start over. This puzzle is the puzzle of our entire life-times. We will work at it 60, 70, 80 -- if I live as long as my grandmother -- 100 years.

Some Mohos have started with the Church piece first, have fit what pieces they could onto that, and begun to assemble a satisfying shape, only to discover that those damned inconvenient same-sex attraction pieces can't go in there. And as long as there's no place for that, there are inconvenient gaps, and the end result is frustrating.

Other Mohos have set the Church piece aside, and have started with the sexuality and relationship pieces first, and have assembled other spiritual and social pieces around those. They too have begun to assemble a satisfying shape that puts so many of the pieces so smartly together. But those damn Church and marriage and family pieces don't seem to fit, leaving inconvenient gaps and a similarly frustrating end result.

But aren't we all trying to assemble the same puzzle? Can't we learn from each other? Don't we need each other's advice and support? Can't we learn about how the missing pieces might fit, by seeing how others have assembled them successfully?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In the End, All We Have Is Family...

I had a very peculiar dream last night.

In the first part of the dream, I was looking over some genealogical charts I had completed for Göran's family. I had completed all of them, traced his genealogy all the way back to the beginning. Someone (unseen) was telling me I had completed the work and had done a good job.

Then Göran and I were on a moving train. We were walking down the train, passing from car to car. At some point, we entered a car and encountered Göran's family. I recognized his aunt and his cousin (whom I've been emailing and with whom I've spoken on the phone in the past week). We had a very joyous reunion. There were hugs and tears all around.

Then all of us were no longer on a train, we were in a home. My grandmother (who passed away last year) was there with Göran's grandmother (who is still alive and whom we look forward to meeting in Memphis in August). My grandmother told me she was concerned about my family, and it was important to bring them in as soon as possible. All communications with the outside world were lost: no TV, no radio, no Internet, all the phones were down. We realized it was the end of the world. Everybody was worried, but nobody panicked. We all stayed calm.

I was getting ready to go out on foot to find my family, when my father arrived in a jeep. He told me that my mom and the rest of my family were nearby. He had a cell phone that actually worked, and called my mother to let her know he had found us. I told him that he needed to let Grandma know that they were safe, and then we were going to go back together in his jeep to get the rest of the family.

It's been a while since I've had an apocalyptic dream. But whenever I do have them, they are always about gathering people in, getting them to safety. In these dreams I always find myself working right down to the last second to find that one last person and bring them in before night falls and the storm breaks.

I think my dad's jeep and his working cell phone in my dream were symbols of the priesthood. But what was most powerful to me in this dream was the sense that we are not truly safe, not truly saved, without our families.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

FreeJoe, Part II

Last week, I posted about Göran's ancestor, "FreeJoe" Harris. Yesterday, we received in the mail the books we had ordered about FreeJoe's life and about the genealogical research of FreeJoe's biographer, Mr. Earnest E. Lacey. As we immediately dug into these fascinating texts, we started to learn more of the nitty gritty details of FreeJoe's life.

One of the things I learned is that FreeJoe's mother was a slave about whom we know relatively little, except that her name was "Comfort." His father was Comfort's slave master, and he was born the property of the same slave master. The name that Göran inherited, "Harris," was originally the name of his ancestors' slave master. I'm not sure what to think and say about the parental sentiments of someone who raises his own flesh and blood as a slave. The best thing I can say is that John Harris had the decency to emancipate his son at the age of 36. The emancipation papers of Joseph Harris (a facsimile of which is provided in The Search for FreeJoe) states dryly, "I John Harris... have manumitted, emancipate, and set free, and by these presents do manumit, emancipate and set free, a negro man slave named Joseph and sometimes called Joseph Harris" (p. 131). That's as close as the document comes to admitting that he is "manumitting, emancipating, and setting free" his own son.

I said in my earlier post about FreeJoe that "like other Americans in search of freedom," he headed for the frontier, ultimately settling in Shelby County, Tennessee. FreeJoe may have left for the frontier "like other Americans," but his motives were considerably different. His wife Fanny, the woman with whom he had fathered a number of children, was owned by a different slave master, a Samuel Leake. It was Leake who headed for the frontier in search of "freedom," bringing with him a train of slaves. FreeJoe came along, to stay with his family.

FreeJoe was eventually able to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife and two of his daughters. But the other nine children he fathered by Fanny remained slaves until Grant's armies secured their freedom, and the freedom of all other slaves in America, in 1865. Their mother, Fanny, died that same year, at least having the satisfaction of knowing that the freedom she and her husband had worked so hard for would soon be the right of all her children.

Last night, I spent several hours on the LDS genealogical site fleshing out Göran's family tree. Families were big back then. FreeJoe had eleven children, and his children (and their children) had similarly large families, so FreeJoe today has descendants like the proverbial "sands of the sea." We were chuckling last night about the fact that Göran's grandmother insists he has "zillions" of cousins. She may only have been exaggerating slightly.

We can hardly wait to learn more about them...

Monday, July 7, 2008

GLBT Fast and Testimony Meeting

We gathered at The Open Book, a resource center for writers near downtown Minneapolis. As C. and I found conference room number 301 on the third floor and noticed the room schedule neatly printed with the word "Affirmation" in the 2:00 - 4:00 p.m. time slot, I said, "Wow, that looks official." C. laughed.

There were only three of us. In my opening prayer, I reminded God (and us) about Christ's promise "when two or three are gathered" in his name. The promise was kept.

Because there were only three of us, we each were able to bear our testimony without having to worry about how much time each of us were taking. The testimonies were real. They were painfully personal. There were too few of us to fall back on clichés or try to impress each other. These were real testimonies of the Gospel, witnesses of how the Spirit's influence, obedience to divine principles, and Church fellowship have transformed our lives. But they were testimonies born in the specificity of our lives not conventionally Mormon, testimonies where the gay / same-sex attracted part of the story didn't have to be elided. Those parts of our testimonies were just there, just part of the story, without being the main point of the story.

We each told our conversion stories. I told of my re-conversion in the summer and fall of 2005. N. told of his conversion in September of 2006, and C. told of her conversion experience over the course of years, culminating in her baptism in November 2007. Each of us bore witness to the patient work of the Spirit in our lives, planting and nurturing seeds of faith, sometimes in spite of ourselves, sometimes in spite of the homophobia of fellow Saints, always miraculously.

This was an emotional moment for me. I am not permitted to speak or pray in Sacrament Meeting and so intentionally pausing to share my testimony felt momentous. C. had told her bishop about our small gathering ahead of time, and he had given his blessing to her participation. By her account, he even thought it "a good idea," despite strong disapproval from her Evergreen-affiliated ward sponsor. N. told of his ward leaders' perennial discomfort with him. Their only response to him since his baptism has been that he needed to put all this homosexuality stuff behind him. That was all in the past now that he was a Latter-day Saint. That advice had plunged him into depression. Yet the Spirit has spoken to each of us so undeniably, so irrepressibly, we each have been drawn powerfully to the Church despite the ambivalence and disapproval, the denial and the disconnects. So we needed this opportunity to bear witness to the truths in our lives -- all our truths.

Last year I managed to organize a few Affirmation meetings with a somewhat different cast of characters. We gathered to watch and discuss each of the three videos on "Same-Sex Attraction" produced by LDS Resources. But this meeting -- this "GLBT Fast and Testimony Meeting" -- to me felt like the true beginning for Affirmation Minnesota. It was the Affirmation I've always wanted, the one in which we embrace the fullness of who we are. Body and spirit. Faith and life. Struggle and testimony. An Affirmation that affirmed our faith as well as our personhood, where we could come as we are and bear witness! Where the Spirit was present and we were refreshed!

After we had each shared our stories and our testimonies, there were hugs and encouragement and expressions of hope. We discussed our next meeting (same time, first Sunday of the month from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m., same place, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue). Renting a room at The Open Book is not cheap. But I like the space. It is bright and airy, open and physically accessible, Spartan but attractive. I love the creative energy of a center devoted to writers. But more importantly, it felt right to me. I had a "this-is-the-place" kind of feel about it. C. and I committed to cover the monthly rent out of our own pockets for the time being, until we have a chapter membership willing to pay dues and help defray costs. It felt right to me to commit to this something personal, something as real and tangible as cash. This is how we progress. This is how faith becomes flesh and blood.

This felt like the beginning of something important.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Joseph "FreeJoe" Harris

Since our discovery of Göran's biological family last week, the floodgates of communication have been opened. Göran finally spoke on the phone with his Grandmother, who has a lively sense of humor and a great laugh. He's had conversations with his younger siblings, who are delighted to discover they have an older brother. His little brother can't wait to challenge him to a one-on-one basketball match! And there have been daily phone calls, emails and text messages from his Aunt Dottie and Cousin Nikki.

I finally spoke on the phone to Cousin Nikki for the first time a couple of days ago. Since her first phone call to Göran last week, I purchased some genealogical software on line and have begun to map out the families and relationships, filling in whatever information I could get. When I spoke to Nikki, she said, "I understand you're interested Göran's genealogy."

"I am," I said.

"Well," she continued, "We have a cousin who's researched all that, and wrote a book about it."

"Really?!" I gasped.

"Yes. About our ancestor FreeJoe Harris."

"Really? Can we get this book?"

"I think so," she said.

She gave us the titles of two books this cousin, a Mr. Earnest Lacey, had written: FreeJoe: A Story of Faith, Love and Perseverence (1996) and The Search for FreeJoe: Researching a Family's History (1999). We inquired about the books at the local Barnes and Noble, and were told they were out of print. But a quick web search turned up this web site where we were able to order the books directly from the author and publisher. Within an hour of having learned of them, I ordered them.

After receiving the automated confirmation of the order, I received a personal email from Mr. Lacey thanking me for the order and promising prompt shipping of the books. I responded to his email with an email of my own, introducing myself and telling him Göran's story, to which he in turn responded with the graciously expressed hope that we visit him when we come to Memphis.

FreeJoe Harris was born a slave in Virginia in 1796. Three years after becoming a Baptist minister in 1829, he was emancipated. Like other Americans in search of freedom at that time (though for him, certainly, more than for most Americans, freedom had a particularly precious meaning), he headed for the frontier and settled in what would later become Shelby County, Tennessee. Later he was able to purchase freedom for his wife and two of his daughters. Though he was forced flee Tennessee for Indiana for a time in order to avoid being forced onto the "Trail of Tears," he eventually returned to Shelby County, where his descendants (and Göran's family) live to this day. Among other activities, he was an agent in the Underground Railroad starting in 1841. He valued education and, at a time when education for women was not valued, he sacrificed in order to send his daughter and granddaughter to college in Indiana. He was the first person of color to handle mail as an official agent of the U.S. Government and owned his own stagecoach company. He founded the first and oldest African American church in Shelby County. He bought land and became a farmer. He was an incredible man.

It seems appropriate to remember FreeJoe today, on the 4th of July. His story reminds us that the Declaration signed 232 years ago today was a promise not always kept, a promise requiring struggle to achieve. FreeJoe reminds us both how precious a gift freedom is, and that freedom is a process. And FreeJoe also reminds us that freedom is meaningless without commitment, without family, without the ties and connections that fill our lives and our hearts with happiness and meaning. FreeJoe wasn't truly free until he had won freedom for his wife and children. And once they were free, he realized he still couldn't be free as long as there were brothers and sisters in bondage, which is why he devoted his life to freeing them through the Underground Railroad. There's a message in there somewhere for all of us...

And of course, for Göran and for me personally, FreeJoe has now become a symbol of Göran's new-found family; freedom from alienation and isolation; freedom to know who you are and who your family is; freedom to love and to be loved; freedom to build relationships; freedom to live for others and to build a life worth living for.

On this day when we celebrate freedom, here's to FreeJoe, author of freedom for his own family and for the families of many others! May we honor his life and sacrifices with worthy lives and sacrifices of our own!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mormon Palindromes

A palindrome is a word or a phrase that reads the same backwards as it does forwards.

We have Judeo-Christian palindromes, like these words attributed to the first man after the creation of the first woman from one of his ribs: "Madam, I'm Adam."

I think we need more Mormon palindromes, so here are a couple of my own creation to get your creative juices flowing:

The words of Professor Charles Anton to Martin Harris, after learning where the ancient characters were transcribed from: "So. Gold logos."

Jared's response to his brother, when it was suggested there would be enough room on the boats for their pig herds: "Mahonri, sir, no ham!"

Any takers?