Sunday, February 6, 2011

Practice Spirit, Do Justice

The NGLTF-sponsored National Conference on LGBT Equality -- "Creating Change" -- was in Minneapolis this past week. I'd heard a lot about Creating Change. I remember when this conference was held in Minneapolis the last time -- in 1990. A few weeks ago I received the Affirmation newsletter inviting individuals to take advantage of a group rate by joining the Affirmation delegation, and I realized it might never be easier or cheaper for me to attend this conference again. So I took two vacation days, and headed to the downtown Hilton bright and early this past Thursday morning.

I'm not entirely sure what I expected. I will admit I was a little apprehensive. Typical reactions from more secular folks in the GLBT community to my being both gay and a believing Mormon run the gamut from pitying me to seeing me as an oddity to condemning me as a traitor. The part of the conference I was most interested in was the "Practice Spirit, Do Justice" track, organized in part by a personal friend of mine, Rebecca Voelkel, who happens to be the Director of the "Institute for Welcoming Resources," an NGLTF-sponsored program that works with a variety of Churches on trying to improve the religious climate for GLBT folks. I know Rebecca well; I am very familiar with the work that she does. I could have known, based on what I know of her, that I had nothing to worry about. Still I was apprehensive.

That apprehension gradually melted away over the course of my first day at the conference. When I arrived, Rebecca was busy readying the ballroom space where the opening ceremony for the "Practice Spirit, Do Justice" portion of the conference was taking place. As soon as she saw me, she dropped what she was doing to come give me a warm welcome hug. She apologized for not responding to my last email to her. A local church had been considering airing and having a discussion about 8: The Mormon Proposition, and Rebecca had wanted to know if I would be willing to participate. I had told her that I didn't like 8, that I felt it was marred by reliance on stereotypically anti-Mormon tropes, that I (and other gay Mormons) had "wanted a film that might have the possibility of opening up dialog between gay and straight Mormons, and the general feeling [was that 8 would] shut it down." Rebecca told me she had been too busy organizing the conference to reply to my email, but she had passed my concerns on to the church in question.

I soon learned that most of the conference participants were people of faith like myself, of many different faith backgrounds. Gradually, I got the sense that other conference participants actually honored the fact that I wanted to be a Mormon. They did not judge me or look at me as strange; they did not pity me. They recognized that I find strength and joy in my testimony and in my faith. They understood that the best way for me to be centered and healthy as a gay man is for me to be a whole, complete human being, which includes nurturing my relationship with God and with the community of faith of my choice.

By the end of the first day I found that far from feeling alienated because of my religion, I was being invited to draw on the deep wellsprings of my religion to help me understand and come to terms with the profound injustices we live with in this world. A focus of much of the conference was racial and economic justice, with a particular focus on the demand to restore Native American communities and rights. My mind was naturally drawn to passages I've been reading recently in the Book of Mormon warning of the judgments that will come upon the Gentiles if they fail to repent of their oppression of the original inhabitants of this land, and if they fail to restore them to their rightful place (in 3 Nephi 21); and of the general Book of Mormon witness against the dangers of economic inequality and the pride that results from it; and about the judgments that will come upon the United States if they continue "to be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and ... be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy..." (3 Nephi 16: 10).

Almost every session I attended was also attended by at least one or two members of Affirmation. Thursday evening, I met with members of the Affirmation executive committee just to chat and get acquainted. We had lunch together on Friday and Saturday. Over time, I got to hear bits and pieces of individuals' stories. Saturday George Cole was telling me about the Affirmation convention planned to take place in Cleveland, Ohio. Some of the conference events will be taking place in the Kirtland Temple. George mentioned off-handedly that a number of members would likely sit out the conference this year, because of this. When I asked him why, he said that for some members it was too painful to participate in a conference so explicitly connected to Mormon history and faith.

I could relate to this. Several months after my near suicide, I remember opening an American history text book and having a panic attack just from seeing a picture of Brigham Young. Through the course of my discussion with George, and through the course of other similar conversations I had over the course of the conference, I found myself grieving the deep alienation that so many gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints have experienced from their church, from the community that should have been a safe haven, that should have protected them.

At night I found myself earnestly praying for the Spirit to be poured out on us, to heal the wounds, to comfort us, to teach us, to reassure us of God's great love for us. The Spirit was poured out on me this morning. I wept all morning: as I prayed, as I read my scriptures, as I showered, as I dressed. Göran came with me to the closing worship service at the conference. David Melson, Director of Affirmation, was there. He gave me a hug, and asked me how the conference had been for me, and I just wept. Literally cried on his shoulder. Other Affirmation folks were there, Joshua, Mary, Robert. I sat down. We were all sitting together. I felt so happy being there with them, so grateful.

At the beginning of the service, we were invited to place a symbol of our faith on a table at the front of the meeting space. I placed the Book of Mormon on the table. There was a point in the worship service where we were invited to sit in silence, Quaker style, and then share words if we felt so inspired. David stood up and spoke of his hunger for a better world, of his desire for justice, for the poor, for those who have been marginalized and oppressed. I stood up and basically bore my testimony. I mentioned that today was fast and testimony Sunday in LDS churches. I explained that this is a day when we refrain from eating and give the money we would have spent to feed ourselves to those who are without. This is a time when Mormons also sit in silence, and wait for the Spirit to move them to stand up and bear witness of what they know.

I spoke of my love for the Church, and my testimony of the Church. I pointed to the Book of Mormon I had placed on the table, and spoke of the truths that that book had taught me, and how it had inspired me with a hunger for justice, with an understanding of how the Lord will hold us accountable for pride, how it calls us to repentance and faith and humility and love. And then I spoke of how I have been grieving this week: grieving for the pain of my fellow LDS gay men and lesbians, those with whom I was sitting there. I spoke of my grief over the pain that kept so many of us away from the Church. I spoke of my grief over the fact that I could bear my testimony here among strangers, but not in my own community. Not among those whom I love and claim as my own. And so I asked for the prayers of these strangers for me, for us, for those of us who are still grieving.

Many individuals came to me afterwards. I received hand clasps, hugs, kisses, blessings. An elderly man came to me and asked if he could bless me, and then reminded me that Christ blesses those who grieve, those who mourn. I was grateful and moved by the responses. I was most grateful to Robert, part of the Affirmation delegation, who like me had come to the worship service that morning fasting, who had wept during my testimony. I was grateful for more hugs and expressions of love from David and Joshua. I was grateful that Göran had been there to hear my testimony, and had lovingly held my hand and been quietly supportive through it.

I was grateful that none of the responses of those who came to me involved the least hint of pity. There was no suggestion breathed by anyone in that room that the appropriate response to my grief should have been simply to leave the Church, to stop believing in it, to pack up and move on. Not the slightest suggestion that someone else's faith must somehow be superior to mine because there was more place for them in theirs than there was for me in mine. One woman said she wished there were something she could do. I told her I had already received as much of a gift from this group of people as I needed: acknowledgment of my right to this journey, and a willingness to work with me in those aspects of our struggles for justice and mercy that we shared in common.

Though there were more activities after the ecumenical service, that was the end of the conference for me. Göran and I left together. I felt some of the same wistfulness I felt last summer after leaving Utah. But with a greater sense of urgency.


alan said...

In German, the word for "pity" is Mitleid, which means "suffering with." Nietzsche argued that modern-day pity has moved away from "suffering with" (in which a person would help you try to overcome your suffering because they would feel what you feel -- what we English-speakers might call "compassion") to what is now an impulse to appropriate what we believe is a weaker position in order to maintain our own positions as stronger. Today's pity lacks humility, empathy and the capacity for effective action/justice generally because it tends to be laden with classism, ageism, racism, heterosexism, whatnot.

When people lack pity, there's a misconception that they lack empathy. Yet I find that people who pity (the bad kind) generally lack empathy. My understanding from Buddhist teachings is that the truly empathetic person never pities -- or, put differently, has "infinite pity/compassion," recognizing that we all suffer (and at the same time, need not to).

Now one question I have is, in your experience as a gay Mormon, do you receive more pity from secular types or from religious types? I can see how pity would function differently in both populations in order to maintain their "strong" positions of exclusion.

I just want to let you know that when I first heard you talk (on Sunstone clips), I thought you were amazing because of the work you've done to build a boat for yourself and others on a raging ocean. When you would weep, I did not take this as moment in which to pity you, but rather to somehow stand beside you. Although I debate you on specific topics, it's to try to build a more solid path forward, or I should say, the various paths we all are taking that overlap.

J G-W said...

Alan - I like your discussion of pity vs. empathy.

I'm not sure I would try to weigh or compare religious vs. secular pity. My point here is not to start some sort of a "pity party."

I will simply agree with you that the best antidote to pity is real compassion, which is usually best expressed (and most easily recognized) in concrete acts of encouragement and assistance.

I will also add that when I've resisted the urge to pity someone else (in that negative sense), and have, instead, imaginatively put myself in their shoes, and tried to see things from their perspective, and tried to be supportive even when some of my own gut instincts told me they were wrong and making a mistake, I have found my capacity for self-love increasing, and I have found greater internal peace and happiness...

Odd how that love of neighbor, love of self thing works...

JonJon said...

I also liked Alan's discussion of pity vs. empathy. I love this quote by Henri Nouwen about compassion:

"Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken."

J G-W said...

Jon - GREAT quote...

Pablo said...

Thank you John, Alan and Jon. You've all given me many things to ponder.

John: While your perspective on Mormonism is far different from mine, I am always moved by what you write. You have one of those rare voices that transcends mere words. I wish more in the LDS church would hear and listen, read and understand, look and truly behold.