Monday, April 8, 2013

Affirmation Leadership at General Conference

For some of us, it was a gesture of good will.  Not all members of the Affirmation leadership team that gathered in Salt Lake this past weekend are active Church members or believers in the LDS gospel, but attended the Saturday morning session of General Conference as a way of demonstrating their desire for reconciliation between members and leaders of the LDS Church and the larger LGBT community.  But for some of us -- myself included -- it was not so much an act of good will as of faith.

Fourteen of us attended General Conference together as a group.  That group included Göran's and my 16-year-old son, who came carrying the triple combination Book of Mormon/D&C/Pearl of Great Price he had begged me to give him as a gift the week before we flew out to Salt Lake.   Göran boycotted the conference for the same reason he generally refuses to attend the LDS Church with me.  As he puts it, when they allow me to be baptized without having to divorce him, then he'll come.  Our son came, mainly as a gesture of solidarity with me.  "If anyone says anything bad to you," he warned, "I'll spit them in the eye."  (He hadn't needed to worry -- we were warmly welcomed!)  For me, it was an incredible experience attending General Conference live for the very first time, and being able to do it with my son.  A few months ago, I had a dream about attending General Conference with my husband, and if that dream was prophetic, the prophecy is yet to be fulfilled.  Though not because the Church would have excluded us.

When I asked my son afterwards which talk had been his favorite, he told me it was Boyd K. Packer's.  He'd loved the poem at the beginning about growing old, and about not wishing to trade old age for youth because of the reward that old age offers: a greater understanding of the truth.  It's a poem I could relate to.  Elder Packer took an oh-so-common (albeit indirect) swipe at same-sex marriage by bemoaning "these times" when the family is "under attack."  Maybe same-sex marriage wasn't in his mind at all.  Families certainly face many painful challenges in these difficult times.  Of course I know better than to hope Elder Packer was thinking about something else with that coded reference.  But if my son caught it, it didn't phase him.  He still liked Elder Packer's talk best.

I refer to "my son" at my son's insistence.  Technically, he's our "foster son."  But shortly after he was placed with us, he took me aside one day and said, "When you introduce me to people, don't tell them I'm your 'foster son.'  Tell them I'm your son.  And you're my dad."  We are his "dads."  He knows people won't assume I'm his biological father, because he's African American and I'm very, very Scandinavian American. Before being placed with us, he had never had a father in his life, and he feels very lucky to have two dads now. During conference, he wanted to hold my hand, and would occasionally lean his head on my shoulder. He saw another father at conference affectionately massaging his teenage son's back as they listened to conference.  He knows better than most young men in that room what it means for a family to be in crisis, to be torn apart by forces seemingly beyond the control of its individual members.  And he knew better than most of the other young men in that room how lucky a young man could be to have a loving father by his side at a gathering like General Conference.  He had his own context for hearing and understanding, and being grateful for, Elder Packer's words about the importance of family.

Thursday evening, I met with Randall Thacker and Tina Richerson, the other members of the Affirmation Executive Committee, to discuss our work together as a team.  All day Friday there were Affirmation leadership team activities.  (By the way...  If you feel called to serve, you are a part of the leadership team!  Contact me if you want to know more!)  We discussed our progress in achieving the goals that had been set at our leadership gathering in Washington DC this past January, and we engaged in planning for the upcoming months, including for our annual conference, September 12-15, 2013, in Salt Lake.

Both in the Affirmation board meeting Friday morning, and in a Friday afternoon gathering hosted by Kendall Wilcox and Anne Peffer, who discussed their "Circles of Empathy" model for reconciling perceived conflicts between being LGBT and Mormon, we discussed the challenges of diversity within the Affirmation community.  Many members of Affirmation left the Church long ago, and have no desire for "reconciliation" with the Church any more.  For them, that ship has long sailed.  Some of us -- like myself -- left the Church for a time and now, through some surprising twists and turns in our personal journeys, find ourselves coming back.  Some of us never left the Church.  A few of us, even, have never been Mormon, but find ourselves drawn to the Church.  The only thing we all have in common is some intersection of LGBT-ness or same-sex-attractedness (if you prefer that language) and Mormonism (whether that connection to Mormonism be a profound faith commitment, or just a cultural or familial connection).

Some of us are still processing the anger and pain we feel about experiencing rejection by our Church and our families.  (Anger, by the way, is not a sin; it's a natural reaction to rejection and unfairness that we all need to wrestle with honestly at some point in our lives.)  Some of us have healed in various degrees.  Some of us are ready to move on and become healers.

In addition to attending the Saturday morning session of General Conference with the Affirmation leadership team, I was privileged to attend the Priesthood session Saturday evening, also with my son, and with a member of the Affirmation board.  During Dieter F. Uchtdorf's incredible talk, that board member leaned over and whispered in my ear: "This is what Affirmation's mission is."  President Uchtdorf talked about not judging each other.  He talked about celebrating diversity within the Church.  We should not, he warned, "confuse differences of personality with sin."  For members of the Church to demand conformity would "contradict the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ."  But it was toward the end of the talk that his words struck me with the greatest force.  "YOU ARE NEEDED BY YOUR CHURCH," he said.  That call was regardless of where we found ourselves, regardless of whether we held a calling in the Church.  He reminded us, "GOD HATH CHOSEN THE WEAK THINGS OF THE WORLD TO CONFOUND THE STRONG."  We are children of God, we are disciples, we are heirs, but one of our most important roles, he emphasized, was as "healers."

It reminded me of the exchange I had with James Kent last year after the Seattle Affirmation Conference was over, when he took me aside in the hallway and reminded me that as an organization we urgently needed "spiritual healing."  Affirmation's current board and leadership teams urgently understand this need, and we are determined to become a healing force within the LGBTQ communities touched by our lives, and within the Church, for those of us who feel called to be a part of the Church community.

I was vividly reminded again of our call as healers the moment our plane touched the runway in Minneapolis.  Göran and I received an urgent call from our number one son, Glen.  He had just received a call from his mother.  His sister had been in a terrible car accident.  His sister's fiancé was dead by the time they were able to pry him from the wreckage.  His sister died late last night, with her family gathered around her, in the hospital.  We'd been traveling since 3:30 a.m., and had gotten straight into a rental car at the airport to drive down to Rochester, Minnesota to be with Glen and his family.  Families face too many challenges in this world for us not to become acquainted with the healer's art.

It is ironic that some of the worst wounds we sustain in life can be inflicted by the members of our own families or by the members of our own church.  Ironic, because, if we are to be healed, it is in family, and in community.

We have a work ahead of us.


Evan Clayson said...

I will admit that I cringed when your son said he liked Packer's talk the best. But when looking at it from his perspective, it totally makes sense for him to love it. You are his family! (I'll admit that I haven't read or listened to any of the talks, but look forward to reading Uchtdorf's)

I am looking forward to hearing details about the Affirmation conference. I bought plane tickets to SLC last week, so I will *finally* be able to attend. I hope to meet you!

And I am so sorry to hear about Glen and his sister. He is in my thoughts and prayers.

J G-W said...

Evan, that's just precisely it... We ARE his family, and there are indeed forces at work "attacking" our family. I guess it's rather ironic to put it that way in this context.

I CANNOT WAIT to meet you in September... It's going to be fantastic!

And thanks for the well-wishes in relation to Glen. That was heartbreaking, and I mention it mainly to underline how important family is... To all of us!

Miguel said...

Great to meet you John!

I have some thoughts about the Affirmation Fireside on Friday night that I might blog about--still trying to decide, but if anything it was a great chance to meet new people and see some friendly faces that were visiting town-I'm also sorry to hear about your son's family tragedies, sending you all good thoughts and I'll light a candle tonight on their behalf.

J G-W said...

Miguel - I LOVED seeing you Saturday night at the social event (which I didn't even mention in this post!). Greg Prince's presentation was so intellectually stimulating and hopeful. And Mike McLean's music and spoken word was so moving...

I MISS the wonderful fellowship I was able to experience in Utah of fellow LGBT Mormons and a growing host of straight allies, friends and family.

I'm hungry for more... Can't wait till September. You will be there, of course?

Duck said...

I am so sorry to hear about what happened in Glen's family and your losses of his sister and her fiance. I am glad he has you for support and compassion right now, and always. I know he has blessed your life and I know that you and Goran bless his.

I missed you again?!!? How did I not know that you were in Utah???? Arg!! One day, SOME day, I will get to meet you in person. I can only hope. :)

Love to you and your family!

Sarah said...


It was wonderful to see you Friday night. And I so enjoyed the event. Michael McLean touched my heart, as always. I'd forgotten the strong spirit I had felt in hearing him perform previously--probably 20 years ago! The entire thing definitely strengthened my faith, which has been seriously suffering lately.

I'm sad that I had to run off afterward and didn't get to visit with you more. Thank you for sharing your experiences from the weekend. I, too, will look forward to September and the chance to see you again.

J G-W said...

DUCK!! I thought of you, I really did. I wanted to contact you, but somehow I don't seem to have a current email or phone number for you. Send me an email through the email listed on my web site, and we WILL meet. I'm planning at least 2 trips to Utah in the next 6 months or so. We will have a long lunch and finally get to meet in person.

Thanks for the well wishes for Glen. A lot of people are praying for him now... This is a very difficult time for him!

J G-W said...

Sarah - LOVED seeing you and exchanging hugs Saturday night. Mike McLean was amazing... It was so amazing to hear him talk so candidly about his relationship with his gay son. Gave me much hope...

Duck said...

Whoops- inappropriate public question- des wegen habe ich es (erased)... I will get in touch with you via e-mail in the next few days.

Thank you for your friendship. :) I think you are a remarkable man. I love you. Duck

calibosmom said...

I'm so sad. I had no idea you were coming to Utah. I would have loved to say hello in person. Maybe next time.

J G-W said...

Calibosmom! Same to you... I will definitely be in Utah around the September 12-15 Affirmation conference, and probably at least once more between now and then...!

Duck said...

I was just wondering how Glenn and his family are doing? and, did you receive my e-mail?

Hoping all is well with you and yours. :) Duck