Earlier this year, I was recruited to join the Affirmation Conference Planning Committee. My main accomplishments as a member of the committee were to persuade Kendall Wilcox to be the opening keynote speaker at the conference, and to persuade members of BYU's USGA (Understanding Same Gender Attraction) group to come speak at the closing general session. My bike accident and subsequent brain surgery prevented me from functioning effectively as a member of the committee after late August.
I had also organized a workshop -- to be co-facilitated with Kendall -- about "Having Difficult Conversations," and had purchased a plane ticket to be in Seattle, Washington Oct. 19-21. After my surgery, I accepted the possibility that I might no longer be able to attend the Affirmation Conference. But after checking numerous times with my doctors, I was informed it would probably be safe for me to travel, so long as I could avoid over-exerting myself.
I knew I needed to be at the conference if it were at all possible.
Last year's Affirmation Conference in Kirtland, OH was a spiritual mountain-top experience for me. I didn't assume that I would ever have that type of experience at Affirmation again. I supposed that having a conference centered around important Church historical sites had created a spiritual dynamic that would not be replicated elsewhere. I could not have been more wrong. I could only describe this year's conference in Seattle in terms of a great outpouring of the Spirit, unlike any I have ever experienced anywhere, including Kirtland last year.
What astonished me most was seeing individuals I'd never seen express any sort of religious sentiment -- including individuals I'd heard express some distinctly anti-religious sentiments -- stand and, for the first time, offer heartfelt prayers and testimonies. Bro. James stood up at the testimony meeting on Sunday, and prefaced his comments by saying, "I've always thought that the last place I would ever willingly go is to a meeting like this, and that the last thing I would ever do is stand up here and bear my testimony. But..." He then proceeded to bear a sweet, gentle testimony that reduced me and most of those sitting around me to tears, delivered with all the more power for being offered by a brother who hadn't been sure he'd had a testimony any more. I still cannot think on that testimony, and the hugs and words of love we exchanged afterwards without weeping. Brother James and I will always be brothers from now on, in the profoundest sense imaginable.
One after another Affirmation member took the stand, prefacing their testimonies with words to the effect of, "I haven't born my testimony in 10 / 15 / 20 years. But I do have a testimony. I've never lost my testimony." Each then proceeded to recount profound stories of how God had touched their lives and impressed knowledge on their minds and hearts that has stayed with them ever since. There were rivers of tears that morning.
Sister J., the conference choir director, had been a major force in creating the spiritual mountain-top experience at Kirtland. She directed the choir with a sense of mission, with prayerful fervor. She understood, and made us understand, that every hymn we sing, whether in rehearsal or in performance, is a prayer. So every choir rehearsal -- opened and closed with heartfelt prayer -- became a devotional. During the second rehearsal, on Saturday, a woman singing in the front row directly in front of me, in the soprano section, broke down weeping. "I can't sing," she said, "I am overwhelmed by the devotion I hear in all of your voices." Sister J. hugged her gently, and asked her if she would pray. She replied, "I can't pray. I am an agnostic." She was neither lesbian, nor Mormon, nor a believer of any kind. "That doesn't matter," Sister J. invited, "You can still pray even if you are agnostic." Duly encouraged, this woman bowed her head and addressed to "Heavenly Father," "in the name of Jesus Christ," one of the most genuine, heart-piercing prayers I had ever heard. I wept then, and I weep now remembering this powerful experience.
Testimony was added to testimony -- in the choir rehearsals, in the testimony meeting Sunday morning, and in the devotional following the testimony meeting. But also privately in hallways and hotel rooms. Randall Thacker and I had agreed to room together, since neither of our respective partners were able to accompany us to the conference. At night, after conference activities were done, we counseled with each other and wept together as we shared spiritual experiences with each other late into the night.
As hearts melted, deep wounds were healed and love was openly expressed. This was a conference of hugs and hand-clasps and profound expressions of gratitude. Brother James confessed to me in the hallway that he had never before, in 33 years of Affirmation conferences, experienced such great healing as what he had experienced at this one in Seattle.
A few individual contributions beg to be acknowledged. Brother Colby, one of the more energetic members of the conference planning committee, for months prior had invested all his energy and creativity into preparing the Saturday night dance. When we entered the ballroom at the appointed hour, we were awed to find ourselves in a magical space, overflowing with flowers, glitter, and color. I was astonished not just by the physical beauty of what he had planned and executed, but by the love that was so evident in this labor. What a magnificent gift of heart and soul and art!
At the beginning of the Testimony Meeting, Brother Adam, one of the BYU students who had come to present on the BYU USGA panel, sang for us:
It may not be on the mountain height, or over the stormy sea,
It may not be at the battle’s front my Lord will have need of me.
But if by a still, small voice he calls to paths I do not know,
I’ll answer, dear Lord, with my hand in thine:
I’ll go where you want me to go.
Refrain I’ll go where You want me to go, dear Lord,
Over mountain, or plain, or sea;
I’ll say what You want me to say, dear Lord,
I’ll be what You want me to be.
Perhaps today there are loving words which Jesus would have me speak;
There may be now, in the paths of sin, some wand’rer whom I should seek.
O Savior, if thou wilt be my guide, though dark and rugged the way,
My voice shall echo the message sweet:
I’ll say what you want me to say.
There’s surely somewhere a lowly place in earth’s harvest fields so wide,
Where I may labor through life’s short day for Jesus, the Crucified.
So, trusting my all to thy tender care, and knowing thou lovest me,
I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere:
I’ll be what you want me to be.
Brother Bob Rees honored us by bearing testimony of what he'd witnessed of the devotion Adam sang of, among the many hundreds of LGBT Saints he has ministered to and with in his decades of Church service. But he also challenged us -- in the words of the St. Francis prayer sung by the choir -- to sow love where there is hatred; sow pardon where there is injury; to become instruments of God's peace.
Tina Richerson bore testimony of the "futility of resisting the truth." The "irresistible truth" of which she spoke, she clarified, was not to be confused with the limiting mental constructs we humans love to create, cutting ourselves off from God, and wounding each other with judgmentalism. She then eloquently shared with us the story of her return to activity in the Church by way of Zen Buddhism.
Sunday afternoon, I felt increasingly heartsick, as the hour approached when I had to abandon this most remarkable fellowship. But the great sadness -- the loneliness -- I felt creeping into my bones, was more than recompensed by a dawning realization that still fills me with hope and gratitude.
Kirtland, I realized, was not an anomaly. It was merely a beginning. I believe that the days have come to an end when Affirmation can be characterized with any truth as a "bitter" or "angry" or "anti-church" organization. When those characterizations have been made in the past, they were of course always overdrawn. They always exploited anti-gay lies and stereotypes. Yes, there was a kernel of truth in the stereotypes. Yes, many members of Affirmation have struggled with understandable anger about the ways they have been treated by "devout" members and leaders of the Church.
But I believe in these last two years I have witnessed a blossoming of hope, of courage, of love, of faith, of patience, of a turning to God that is healing the anger, and forging Affirmation members into very special Saints. If there was ever a kernel of truth in those old characterizations of Affirmation, it is evaporating in the flames of a new outpouring of the Spirit.
This has been the answer to my prayers of many years. It is the literal fulfillment of prophecy:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28)