Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wagons Circled, Camp Broken

The Circling the Wagons Conference in San Francisco began Friday night with Carol Lynn Pearson reading poetry, followed by open discussion and sharing. My favorite poem of Sister Pearson's compared life to a school play, in which people are assigned roles not necessarily by acting ability, but by the director's sense of what will allow each actor to grow the most. 

It was quite a while ago that I'd come to look at life as a drama in which we each play roles, some as heros, some as villains, some as bullies, some as victims, some as healers. After it all ended, after the curtains went down, after the masks and the costumes came off, the cast -- the whole cast -- would all gather backstage with God the Director and debrief. We'd all be surprised to learn the true identities of the person behind each role.  Maybe our arch enemy in the drama, it turned out, was our best friend from way back.  Maybe our soul mate in the drama, had, until then, been a stranger.  Taking the masks off and reflecting on the roles we'd each played would teach us not only about ourselves, but about the identity of God, and about the true nature of everything...

Geckoman surprised me by being there with his wife! She melted my heart with her gentleness and humility. Literally my heart just melted.  She is perfectly matched by her devoted spouse. I met Gecko years ago, when he was on a business trip in the Twin Cities, and was humbled by his generosity of spirit. Meeting them together, I instantly fell in love with her, and instantly understood why Geckoman remains devotedly by her side.  He read a poem about the prairies and about hunger for redemption, which I pray that this conference added to him and his in at least some measure.

The most poignant moment of the evening for me was when a young father read a poem he had written to his son. The teenage son was there, accompanied by his whole family.  The son had recently come out, and everyone was there to support him, mom, dad and siblings. The poem was about a father's hopes for his son, and it moved me to tears. I marvel how this seems to be an increasingly common occurrence: LDS parents and siblings literally circling the wagons around their gay family member, determined that nothing and no one is going to harm their loved one.  Signs of hope that the sorry days of disowned, cast-out gay children will soon be a thing of history.

A Model for the Church

The following morning, keynote speakers Mitch Mayne and Bishop Don Fletcher described the confluence of individuals and circumstances that have allowed the Bay Ward and the San Francisco Stake to become models for the rest of the Church in beginning to heal the anguish and misunderstanding around homosexuality in the LDS Church and in the broader Mormon culture.

The most important step in the San Francisco model has been the implementation of a moratorium on excommunications for individuals in same-sex relationships. According to a talk delivered by Matt Mossman of the San Francisco High Council (the text of which is available here), the current handbook of instructions for the LDS Church requires disciplinary procedures only in a handful of situations which Bro. Mossman described literally as “horror stories” – cases involving extreme abuse. Homosexual behavior is not included on that short list of situations requiring Church discipline. Homosexual behavior is included on a longer list of situations in which a disciplinary process may be implemented at the option of local leaders. Local leaders in San Francisco and elsewhere have simply categorically decided not to exercise that option in the case of consensual homosexual behavior. They have, simultaneously, worked with local Church members and leaders to educate about LGBT issues and create a more welcoming environment in LDS wards. And in the Bay Ward in particular, where demography and geography have conspired to create a ward with an unusually large proportion of LGBT members, and where the bishopric now includes an openly gay man, the result is an historic opportunity for LGBT Saints to practice their faith unmolested, in a very LGBT-friendly environment.  LGBT folks are coming back to the Church.

The question begged is, what does this mean for the vast majority of LGBT Mormons who don't happen to live in San Francisco (or in the handful of other East and West Coast Stakes where similar conditions exist and similar practices are being implemented)? 

That question as it presents itself very personally to me is, if gay men and lesbians in these stakes are allowed to be in committed same-sex relationships and remain active members of the Church, why must I (and others in my situation) be treated differently?  Why must I remain excommunicated?

I've asked this question before to a number of individuals, and I posed it again in a conversation I had with High Councilman Mossman after the final session of the conference.  Nobody -- including Bro. Mossman -- has really been able to give me a good answer. We're in completely new territory. And the answer, I think, is that we'll know if the status of folks in my situation can change only with time, as we see if the practices of the San Francisco Stake produce good fruit that can be replicated elsewhere.

That fruit would likely include, among other things, more united, supportive families, and a healthier, happier, less suicide-prone generation of LGBT Mormons. Dr. Caitlyn Ryan presented a summary of a study freshly published in booklet form by San Francisco State University, Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Children. (Here's where you can get a copy.)  The family I described above who attended Circling the Wagons with with their teenage gay son are a model of the ideal type of family described in the Supportive Families study, and with any luck, leaders throughout the Church, like those in the San Francisco Stake, will provide increasing encouragement and support for LDS families to follow in their path.

LGBT Pioneers

In the meantime, those LGBT Mormons who insist on seeking joy and redemption in relationships where fully reciprocal intimate love is possible, and who wish to practice their faith as Latter-day Saints and remain connected to the Church, remain pioneers. Kim Mack and I spoke about the realities – spiritual and social – faced by gay and lesbian Mormons who suffer the ultimate sanction in LDS communities – excommunication – and what that means for our spiritual paths. 

(Hint: an authentic, Gospel-centered path for LGBT people in our situation is not only possible, but can offer us opportunities for growth, and teach us to find peace and joy and the pure love of Christ beyond words to describe!) 

Sister Pearson spoke out -- in her poetically eloquent way -- on behalf of romantic love as a great democratizing force, and on why equals choosing one another freely is and must always be the kernel around which meaningful family and meaningful faith grow.

I also co-facilitated a workshop with Utah-based therapist Hollie Hancock on “What Helps (and Hurts) in Resolving Sexual, Religious, and Social Conflicts.” The workshop really boiled down to the question: How do we enter into dialog with people who disagree with us? How can we have hard conversations that not only don't end in bitterness, but that actually increase love and deepen relationship with all the significant people in our lives? Hollie and I role-played some scenarios, and then gave our workshop participants an opportunity to role-play as well.

It felt to me that the focus of folks like me and Sister Mack and Sister Pearson and Sister Hancock during the conference appropriately had to be on offering tools to LGBT folks for spiritual survival and growth in situations where we won't necessarily get much outward encouragement from our immediate Church and family environment.  For now -- despite deeply encouraging signs of improvement in places like the San Francisco Stake -- that is still very many, likely the majority of us.


The content of the conference was wonderful. But in the final analysis, it was the relationships that the conference fostered that were most transformative for me. This was the first time that my husband has ever attended any such event with me in its entirety, from beginning to end!  It felt good to be there with him, to be able to reflect publicly with others on my faith, on our common faith, and to have him be a part of it.  He is a part of me, every bit as much as my faith is, and it felt so amazing to me to bring all those parts of me together into one great whole.

After the session in which I spoke, I was approached by someone who told me that, while he was grateful for my words over the pulpit, what he really came for was to see me and Göran together, and to see other gay couples as well.  His whole life, he had been told that gay couples couldn't be happy, and he wanted to see for himself.  And it meant everything to him to see.

I spoke to another gay man who is not LDS -- yet.  He's been investigating the Church.  He has a testimony and wants to join.  He was grateful to see how others of us manage the challenges this presents.  The Gospel offers us something worthwhile, some pearl of great price, even when we have to negotiate some pretty incredible hurdles to get at it!  To me, this seems an acid test for the Church.  Will we really be open to everyone who feels the call of the Spirit to join us in this great work?

All the connections were so important to me -- the hugs, the words expressing love, gratitude and faith; the stories told; the tears shed and the laughter shared.  It's always hardest for me when these gatherings finally end, when we turn our backs, face outward and go our separate ways.  I'm grateful, though, for the pieces of each other that we keep, that we take home with us as we do the work that needs to be done in each and every one of our lives.  To all of you I met, thank you!  I cherish the piece of you I have right here, in my heart.

We each have our roles to play, until someday when all the masks can come off, and forgiveness is offered and accepted, and love perfected, and we're all welcomed home into our Heavenly Parents' arms again.


Duck said...

I have always been taught that a Bishopric consisted of a bishop and two counselors. I do not know how Mayne, an executive secretary only, is considered a member of the bishopric? He is neither a bishop nor a counselor.

I read Matt Mosman's talk- truly amazing. It gave me great hope for gay members of the Church. I was glad that Matt clarified why people are excommunicated: because of very serious ill-behavior, such as committing adultery or abusing children. I agree COMPLETELY with this policy. I found it also amazing that leaders in the San Francisco area are not holding disciplinary councils against people for having same-sex partners. It is too bad that this policy is not widespread throughout the church.

Anonymous said...

What a great opportunity this must conference must have been for all who atteneded. With all the 'hearts' that are opening, I am puzzled why literal doors are not opening and these gatherings must be relegated to the ranks of non-Mormon meetinghouses such as St. Cyprian's and the Community of Christ. When will Circling the Wagons and Affirmation conferences be allowed in LDS chapels?

Although, I have great admiration for Mitch Mayne, but I'm not particuarly swayed by his calling. It would hold much more weight if we knew that he holds a current Temple recommend. I wonder if he will speak up and enlighten us on this very personal part of his life.

I too, think this is great for the Bay Ward, but what about the rest of us who live far from San Francisco and are without such supports.


Duck said...

@ anonymous (ALONE): I have asked Mitch, in a comment to one of his posts, whether he holds a current temple recommend or not. I know it is a personal question and he may think it is none of my business to know. But, I asked. I will let you know if he says anything regarding it.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Dear ALONE - As I said in my post, the vast majority of us must still learn to be "pioneers."

Later this morning, I plan to post my talk from the conference, which contains many of my thoughts on this subject.

Even in San Francisco, obviously, we are still pioneers, though we are finding greater institutional support than ever before.

Duck - I'm just referring to Mitch's role in the way he and his bishop themselves refer to it. My sense is that even though he is "just" an executive secretary, the bishop relies on him to play a very important role in providing ministry for the LGBT membership in his area.

Yes, Matt Mossman's talk was very encouraging! As I said in my post, San Francisco is not the only place in the Church where these practices are being implemented.

Dad's Primal Scream said...

As a former ward executive secretary I'm also less than impressed with Mayne's calling. How included in the bishopric he is can vary greatly depending on the bishop. But the reality is than no one else in the church considers it to be party of the bishopric. I had some bishops include me in everything and ask my opinion as if I were a counselor. Others would ask me to leave the room during sensitive discussions.

Still this sort of meeting really isn't for the church. It's for the individual homosexual. I attended the first one in salt lake city last fall and it was life-changing. The straight folks involved in this movement are angels.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

DPS - I got the sense from Bishop Fletcher himself that he leans toward greater involvement for Mitch rather than lesser. Mitch seems to have a portfolio that is much broader than that of the typical ward executive secretary. He seems to be specially charged with developing a pretty unique outreach to LGBT folks in the area. I think what matters from their perspective is that he is a formal part of the leadership structure, and can engage in outreach to the LGBT community as a called and set-apart representative of the Church.

It's a beginning.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Oh, and about the straight folks involved in these events being angels... Amen! It was so wonderful interacting with all the incredible straight allies at this event!

Unknown said...

I am still basking in the glow of the wonderful weekend in SF. It was only a year ago that my own precious daughter told me she was gay. I stayed up all night and researched the subject on the internet. That is when I found Carol Lynn's book No More Goodbyes and I was able to read all the talks given at the special fireside to heal after the Prop 8 campaign. I was so thankful to have these resources to help me understand and to know how to help and not hurt. I really needed that guidance. It has been a blessing to be able to talk together openly and help each other. John, I was in your class last weekend, it was amazing and most helpful. Like a stone dropped in the pond, the message will ripple out to all the wards and stakes and we can keep our precious members, loved, wanted and needed, within our circle. Thank you for being there.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Cherie, thank you. Thank you for being there and being in this work. It feels to me like some very significant tipping point in the Church has been passed just within the last year. There's still plenty of hard work ahead, but it seems to me like there's some definite light at the end of the tunnel.