Monday, September 19, 2011
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.
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!
(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!)
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?
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.