Monday, September 19, 2011

Kirtland


I didn't quite expect to feel the way I did, and to experience what I did.

This past weekend I was at the annual Affirmation convention in Cleveland/Kirtland, Ohio.

I arrived Friday night, in the middle of the opening reception. It was great seeing (and getting hugs from!) old and new friends! Right after the reception was over, there was a first rehearsal of the Affirmation choir, which was preparing to sing at the Sunday devotional, to be held at the Kirtland Temple. My friend Chuck, who lives here in Minneapolis, recruited me to sing! I almost didn't sing with the choir. I'm kind of an introvert, really! But I realized I didn't have any really good excuses not to sing, and part of me really wanted to do it, so I let Chuck persuade me. And I'm so glad I did!

We had a skilled choir director, J., who knows how to motivate, and had some great techniques for bringing out the best in our singing. More importantly, she has a deep love for the Gospel, and was full of the Spirit! We began and ended rehearsals with heartfelt prayers offered by choir members. And J.'s testimony came through in little inspirational talks about the meanings of the hymns we were singing. Her love for each of us choir members shone through in everything she did and said. In fact, thanks to J., singing in the Affirmation choir was probably my favorite aspect of the conference.

Saturday there were a series of workshops, held at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Cleveland. I attended two sessions dedicated to the topic, "The Future of Affirmation." There I spoke frankly about my sense that Affirmation has developed a reputation for having a membership and leadership that is largely alienated from and angry at the Church. I have to say at the outset that I've always been careful to check that "outsider" perception against the perceptions of active Affirmation members themselves. Whenever I have, however, Affirmation members have themselves confirmed the perception of Affirmation as an organization that consists mostly of "ex-Mormons" who have little or no desire to retain any kind of relationship with the Church. That perception was again confirmed in the discussions I participated in at the conference, by a preponderance of individuals who essentially said, "Yes, I am angry about what the Church has done to me/to gay people. And no, I have no desire to have any relationship with the Church any more. The Church is something that used to be a part of my life, but I have no desire for it to play any significant role in my life any more." One participant in the discussions said that if Affirmation started to put any sort of emphasis on having a more positive relationship with the Church, that he would likely leave the organization, and, he suspected, so would many others.

I posed two questions. First, Why have an organization of GLBT Mormons, if it doesn't include fostering a positive relationship with the Church and fostering a genuinely Mormon spirituality? Present at one of the discussions was Jill McCrory, President of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. She talked about AWAB organizing prayer meetings and Bible Studies, etc. I said that I didn't see much of that kind of activity in Affirmation. Unlike members of other gay religious organizations, Affirmation members didn't seem to have much interest in actually practicing the religion practiced by their straight counterparts. I talked about getting teased by Affirmation members, for instance, because of my desire to live the Word of Wisdom. (Apparently, the whole question of having alcohol, coffee and tea at Affirmation events has been a contentious issue in the past.)

My second question was, Given the sea change taking place in the Church right now, and the growing understanding of GLBT issues among Mormons and the greater acceptance of GLBT members, will Affirmation have a future if it continues to position itself as an ex-Mormon gay organization? As the Church becomes a more accepting place, won't more and more GLBT members prefer to stay active and connected to the Church if they possibly can, and won't Affirmation grow increasingly out of touch with the needs of those kinds of members? That question generated a fair amount of discussion.

One individual said he didn't want Affirmation to start "pressuring" him to go to Church. I'm not sure how he got that out of my question... For me, it is not a question of "pressuring" anybody to do anything. It's about providing support for those who do desire to remain connected to the Church.

The final workshop I attended was related to this whole question. The workshop consisted of a dialogue between Hugo Salinas and David Baker on the issue of whether the Law of Chastity could apply to same-sex relationships. The discussion revolved in part around the question of whether same-sex couples should adopt the same norms and values that exist in the Church for heterosexual couples. I posed the question: Is there value in sexual self-restraint? I clarified that I understand that excessive repression is unhealthy. But so is promiscuity. Are there principles built into the Law of Chastity that it makes sense for same-sex oriented individuals to adopt? This was a lively and fun discussion, that stayed on an upbeat note throughout. I hope Affirmation will continue to have many discussions like this.

But after the workshops began the most meaningful part of the conference for me: the time we spent in Kirtland, Ohio. A bus drove conference participants to "Historic Kirtland," owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to the Kirtland Temple, which is owned by the Community of Christ. There we participated in tours of the sites, and heard a lecture on the history of the Mormon movement given by John Hamer.

The lecture emphasized the structural and doctrinal evolution of Mormonism. It highlighted the various schisms, and the effects that structural and doctrinal evolution of the movement had on different groups of Mormons. In the process, we learned a lot about the Community of Christ, and it's relationship to the LDS Church. It was a fascinating lecture!

At the LDS visitor center, we were greeted by a number of elderly missionary couples, who divided us into two smaller groups and then took us to various sites. The stream in the picture here was used for baptisms. The Saints would dam the stream up until the water became sufficiently deep to baptize by immersion. Later, they showed us saws that were used to cut the ice in the winter, for winter baptisms!

This is the Newel K. Whitney Store. We also took a tour of the Whitney home, where we learned a lot about life in 1830s America, and what life was like for the Saints in Kirtland.

The high point of that part of the tour for me was when they took us to the upper rooms of the Whitney store where the School of the Prophets was housed (a much smaller room than I had envisioned), and (pictured here) the room where Joseph Smith worked on the inspired translation of the Bible, and where he received a number of important revelations that are now canonized in the Doctrine & Covenants. At times, the tour was very emotional for members of the group. J., our choir director, wept as we sat in the School of the Prophets.


The tour of the Kirtland Temple itself was particularly poignant for me. I had been asked to speak at the devotional on Sunday, and had been anticipating this for some time, wondering what it might feel like to speak from the same rostrum where Joseph Smith and so many other early Church leaders spoke. The accounts of the temple dedication, of course, also described this as the place where Christ himself had stood. When the Community of Christ tour guides brought us into the assembly hall itself, and I saw the pulpit where I would be standing, it's hard to adequately describe what I felt. Awe. Longing. Reverence. Sadness. Gratitude. The welter of emotions took me by surprise. It was almost overwhelming. I think many members of the group there felt similarly conflicting emotions.

Göran arrived Saturday evening, after the tour. I wished he had been able to make it to the tour, but he wasn't able to get off early enough Friday afternoon to travel there with me. Göran did make it to the banquet Saturday night.

(There might be some strange rumors floating around on the Internet about me donning a geisha dress and wig and performing some kind of dance instigated by Hugo Salinas during the entertainment portion of the banquet. I cannot confirm or deny any such rumors, and certainly won't post any photographs!)

Sunday morning we arose early, put on our Sunday best, and got back on the bus for Kirtland. At 8:30 a.m., I went to the third and final choir rehearsal in the Kirtland Temple itself, while Göran met up with Jon Jon to explore the Kirtland Temple visitor center.

After the choir rehearsal, a testimony meeting was held in the Kirtland Temple. This was the high point of the whole weekend for me. After the opening prayer and hymn ("I Know that My Redeemer Lives"), one by one, conference participants stood up and started bearing their testimonies. Some shared powerful spiritual experiences. All spoke frankly and poignantly about their feelings about the Church and the Gospel, and their feelings about being in the Kirtland Temple. Part of the power of the experience was to be in a place that has played such a central, formative role in the history of the Church, and that is still used as a Mormon place of worship. For those of us who have been excluded so long from bearing our testimonies in a Mormon place of worship, this was unbelievably powerful. (I cannot thank the Community of Christ enough for their hospitality.) Rarely have I felt the Spirit so powerfully present.

Göran was there, and so as I bore my testimony, I was speaking mainly to him. I talked about our relationship, and all the ways he has supported me, and how difficult it was for him to see me go back to the Church, largely because of his desire to protect me. I spoke from the heart about my feelings for the Church -- first the intense pain and trauma I had experienced as a young adult, and then my alienation and anger, and then my surprise on learning at the age of 42, that I actually had a testimony. And I spoke about feeling the Savior's presence in the Kirtland Temple, and what it meant to me to be in that space. And I shared my perception that what I know about Christ and his Atonement and about the Restoration of his Church is so much larger than me or any one of us -- a sentiment that several listeners audibly and visibly assented to.

After I came to my seat, Göran gave me a gentle hug and a kiss, and put his arm around me. As other gay and lesbian Mormons stood and bore their testimonies, and spoke of their love for the gospel and their love for the Church, I experienced a growing sense of surprise. Some, true, spoke of their sense that their calling in life had now taken them beyond the LDS Church. But most didn't. Most testified of the continuing power of the Restoration in their lives. What was happening here? Had anything like this ever happened anywhere, much less at an Affirmation convention? There was just such a spirit of gentleness and peace, and tears were flowing like a river. And I was so grateful that Göran could see. I wasn't the only one. There was something powerful here. Maybe hearing others' testimonies, Göran could finally understand why this meant so much to me.

I have been in a state of amazement since that moment. Is there some new work of the Spirit here?

The devotional was at 11:00 a.m. The choir sang "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning." (It was.) Bill Russell, from the Community of Christ, spoke about GLBT inclusion within his own community, and shared his hopes for reconciliation between the Community of Christ and the LDS Church. Then I spoke on the subject of "Keeping the Spirit in Our Lives." The next speaker was John Behn, the father of an Affirmation member. He shared his testimony, and told about the spiritual experiences that led him to love and accept his gay son unconditionally. Then Joanna Brooks gave the final talk, telling of her journey as a GLBT ally and committed member of the Church.

It was all sort of overwhelming. Kendall Wilcox was there with his film crew, documenting some of the conference (though they were not permitted to film inside the temple). They also interviewed me and Göran after the devotional. One of Kendall's photographers was weeping during the devotional -- though he later protested that he never gets emotional at these kinds of things! This was just different. The LDS missionaries from Historic Kirtland were there too. The conference organizers had invited them to come, and they graciously accepted the invitation. One of them was weeping as well. As were many, both on the stand and in the audience.

I felt deep, deep gratitude and amazement for the conference as a whole, for all the big and small miracles that happened in the choir rehearsals and performance, during the historic tours, and during the testimony meeting and devotional.

At least three different Affirmation leaders had told me before the conference that members of Affirmation were boycotting the conference this year because it was "too spiritual." They felt uncomfortable attending a conference that was organized around the Church historical sites at Kirtland. Perhaps the fact that it was in Kirtland this year had the opposite effect as well; perhaps it attracted individuals who yearn deeply for that spiritual connection. I've never seen so many lesbians with testimonies! The stories shared by the lesbian sisters (including our intrepid choir director, J.) were the ones that made me weep the most!

Perhaps it was something about that place that put us in touch with our deepest spiritual yearnings, that gave individuals permission to open themselves up to feelings they'd been too afraid to come in touch with.

Whatever it was, I want more.

18 comments:

Neal said...

So glad you had an awesome experience. Kirtland is such a fantastic place - I love to go there! The School of the Prophets is truly a phenomenal, and probably right there with it as a spiritual focal point is the Johnson farm in nearby Hiram, Ohio. That's where the Prophet Joseph was tarred and feathered, and where later in an upper room many sections of the D&C were recieved, including the vision of the Celestial Kingdom. If you get a chance to go back, do not miss that tour.

J G-W said...

Yeah, we were on kind of a tight schedule so we just couldn't see everything. As it is, our tour to Historic Kirtland got kind of cut short because we had to hurry on in order to make the tour of the temple on time.

As soon as I have a chance, I also want to go to Nauvoo!

I was chatting with another guy at the conference who performed in the Hill Cumorah Pageant the same year I did (1982). It made me want to go back to Palmyra too, some day...!

Mike said...

As a gay member of Community of Christ, I am so happy that you and the Affirmation group felt so welcome at the Kirtland Temple. I loved reading about your experience.

J G-W said...

Mike, we were made to feel more than welcome. I am incredibly grateful to the Community of Christ, and grateful for them!

Sharon Hines said...

As an ally and a member of Community of Christ, I am so glad to hear of your experiences at Kirtland Temple. I used to live in Western PA, so I've been to two large retreats at the Temple, one for Youth, one for Women. Both were times of deep spiritual significance for me. Now that I live much further south, I have found that those of us who have been to the Temple share a bond and an understanding that others just don't get.
You may already be aware that Bill Russell has written a book about the experiences of GLBT members of Community of Christ called "Homosexual Saints", published by John Whitmer Books.
Please consider sharing the link to an article from my "Heavenly Father's Day" blog called "Heavenly Father's Day Excerpt Supports Gay Marriage."

J G-W said...

Sharon, thanks! I have actually been inspired by my experience in Kirtland to write a post about my experience with the Community of Christ, which was truly wonderful. CoC folks are setting an extraordinary example in so many ways that I hope my fellow LDS will learn from.

Not only am I aware of Bill Russell's book, I reviewed it for the Journal of Mormon History! It's a wonderful book.

I'll definitely check out your blog!

Andy said...

Thank you so much for your heartfelt comments. As a youth I went to the rededication of the St. George Temple. Sitting in the Solemn Assembly room an hearing that angelic choir from Las Vegas sing The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning is one of the spiritual highs of my life. It felt as if the music flowed through me.

I would have loved to have been at Kirtland!

Alissa Sosa said...

This is beautiful to read! Thank you for taking the time to write this.
The photographer that was weeping really NEVER cries and he told me that he did. I couldn't believe it myself.
He was honored to be there and I'm thankful that I have been able to experience a tiny bit of this experience through him.

Neal said...

I love Nauvoo as well, and have actually been there 13 or 14 times. I used to go up every 4th of July and catch the fireworks in St. Louis on the way, but have missed the last couple of years.

The scope of Nauvoo dwarfs Kirtland, but Kirland has a spirit all its own. Not nearly as "commercial" as Nauvoo.

J G-W said...

Andy - wish you could have been there too.

Alissa - it was amazing. I sincerely hope there will be more like this in the future.

Neal - I've driven past Nauvoo three times in the last three years... On the way to Memphis to visit my partner's family. I swear, next time, we will definitely stop there.

I hope I won't be disappointed after Kirtland... Kirtland is definitely a special place.

But I really want to see the new temple in Nauvoo.

Neal said...

Definitely want to go to Nauvoo in the summer when they have the shows and all the tour guide "missionaries". It is on a par with Colonial Williamsburg, if you are familiar with that restored community. First class work - fabulous!

And the temple is totally unique. Hardwood floors, period furnishings. Probably the finest woodwork I've ever seen in my life. And so many cool details, like the carpet runners. In the original Temple the floors were all wood but you would have wool carpet "runners" down all the halls and such to protect the floors. The original carpet runners were imported from England. When they rebuilt the Temple they dug through all the records from the original project, and the manufacturer and pattern of those carpet runners had been recorded. So they checked into it and lo and behold that same carpet manufacturer was still in buiness, and they still had the templates for that orginal carpet pattern! So they were able to exactly reproduce the carpet runners that had been in the original Temple. So cool!

J G-W said...

Amazing! I didn't know that they tried to replicate the Nauvoo temple inside as well as outside.

I pray someday to be able to see that.

BGM said...

I read you're account of the Affirmation conference with a tear in my eye. I live in the UK and we don't have anything like this over here. In fact I am the only gay mormon that I know of in the British Isles. Though I am certain that there are plenty of others, there just isn't any network for us to share our burdens and support each other spiritually.
I want you to know that reading your blog has helped me at times to feel the spirit. Something I wasn't sure would still be possible.

I am so happy for you that you had such an amazing experience in Kirtland. And thank you for sharing it with us

J G-W said...

BGM - How I wish you could have been in Kirtland with us.

Believe it or not, I did actually get to know someone at the conference who is from the UK. We had some wonderful conversations about what the LDS Church is like over there, and comparing attitudes toward homosexuality on our respective sides of the Atlantic.

I actually lived for a year in Iron Acton (near Bristol) when I was in high school -- just as I was starting to deal with my homosexual feelings. I had a massive crush on one of the guys in my priest's quorum in our small branch there!

I'm glad that we can at least connect on the Internet... Please stay in touch! If you're on Facebook, please send me a friend request!

J said...

John,
This was so amazing for me to read today. Ironically, it was sent to my by a CoC friend. I'm telling you, referring to the end of your post, I think what made us feel so open was being in that place that was OURS as Mormons (even though CoC owns it) and being able to be ourselves, and feeling good about being there. And of course the power of being in the Kirtland Temple and feeling all we felt there. It's kind of crazy how being in the church causes us to censor the best parts of ourselves, our spirituality and testimonies. But...this was a wonderful time to be ALL of ourselves in one place! Oh, what the LDS church is missing!
The other thing of course was being in the Kirtland Temple. And all of the powerful things you described. It was so life-affirming for me and I imagine all of us. Thank you for recording it. A small correction, the choir wanted the opening hymn for the Testimony Meeting to be "I Know That My Redeemer Lives", and that is what we sang. Close though! I remember watching all of your faces as I conducted that song. It was like everyone was bearing a testimony through the singing of that hymn. I had the thought that we could have ended right there and had a beautiful testimony meeting just with that (though I'm glad we didn't! :) ). There was so much expression and were so many tears during that hymn.
You are right. I was so full of love for all of you, and still am. It was such a gift to experience all of that together. So, to your blog and comments I say, Thank you soooo much for recording this. And a big AMEN to all you wrote! Love you! And all of you!

J G-W said...

Hey J.!! I'm so glad you saw this!

Thanks for prodding my memory... I was having trouble remembering the name of the hymn we sang at the beginning of the testimony meeting... I knew it had the word "Redeemer" in it! I amended the post to correct it.

I really, REALLY miss you.

Thank you so much.

William Schuler said...

You have a proud look. Read about that Proverbs 6: 12-19

How dare you blaspheme the Holy God, by: Celebrating abomination in the same House that Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery!

J G-W said...

William, man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.