Sunday, June 30, 2013

I'm Trying to Be Like Jesus

Super cautious, as usual, I arrived at the stepping off point for our "Mormon Allies" Pride contingent at 8:30 this morning. I wanted to make sure any arrivals would immediately find their place. I was literally the only person on the block for another half an hour or so. It was a privilege to greet each and every member of our contingent as they arrived, until we were all there and ready to start marching.

A number of members of our contingent were individuals who are wavering between semi-activity and complete inactivity. One of them confessed to me, "I wasn't sure if I should march as a Mormon. I haven't been very active in the last year."

I said, "You belong with us! We are marching as the church that should be, not necessarily as the church that is."

The majority of our contingent were active members. I realize Pride is a still a stretch for many church members, so I was incredibly grateful for these courageous brothers and sisters, some of whom chose to march as families. Two primary age daughters of one couple who marched with us very politely asked my permission to be one of the carriers of our banner! So this year I was mercifully spared  that duty! I was deeply impressed by the maturity and compassion of even the youngest members of our contingent.

One of the great moments for me during today's march was just before we were getting ready to start. I gathered our Mormon Allies contingent together and we bowed our heads in prayer, thanking Heavenly Father for all our blessings, and asking to be instruments of healing, in the name of Christ, who is our healing.

Our contingent was positioned right in front of a Roman Catholic contingent. We had been fraternizing with them, sharing jokes and stories as the two contingents were gathering. After seeing us bow our heads together and offer a prayer, they approached us as a group and asked, "Can we pray with you?"

"Of course!" we replied. So they joined us, and we all held hands in one great circle. A member of my ward volunteered to be the voice, and offered one of the most beautiful prayers I've ever heard about the mystery of the love of God. The Spirit was thickly present. When I opened my eyes and looked around the circle I saw expressions of awe and tears in people's eyes. After the Amen, we collectively let out a cheer, and  the march began. I'm not quite sure what happened there, but it was one of the most beautiful experiences I've ever had.

For those who marched last year, the experience of marching in a contingent of Mormon Allies was no surprise, but still moving. People were excited to see Mormons at Pride! They would cheer: "Mormons! Go Mormons!" It was wonderful seeing the delight in the smiles of those experiencing it for the first time.

It was particularly poignant to me noticing LGBT Mormons watching us along the parade route. They smiled, they waved! I ran up to give hugs at a couple of points. One woman ran up and breathlessly told contingent members the story of her life with the Church, how she had been baptized at 18, been married in the temple. "Mormons! No f---ing way!" She shouted excitedly. "We're trying to make things better," one of our contingent members offered meekly.

Shortly after that encounter, two women approached us. "We're Mormons. Can we march with you?" they asked. "Of course!" we replied, hugging them warmly, and offering them t-shirts and signs.

Last year, at the Pride bandstand, the announcer had been so flabbergasted, she muffed the reading of our group description, and the only intelligible thing she managed to get out was what everybody already knew about us: "Mormon Allies!!!" This year, the announcer managed to read clearly and forcefully so everyone could hear and understand:
We are LGBT Mormons and we are straight Mormon Allies of the LGBT community, here to advocate for our LGBT loved ones, neighbors and fellow citizens.  We are here to visibly demonstrate our love, solidarity and support, to speak out against misunderstanding and exclusion, to join in the struggle for fairness, and to fulfill our obligation to God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Still, there was confusion. A man approached one of our contingent members and said, "I love God."

Our member replied, "God loves you."

"What?!" he replied in astonishment, "I thought you were protesters!"

"NO!" she exclaimed, "We're here as part of the parade, to show our love for the gay community!"

"Then do you mind if I keep that as a souvenir?" he asked. He pointed to the sign she was carrying.  It said, "I'm Trying to Be Like Jesus."

Of course she handed him the sign.

Once again, I'm reminded of why Mormon Allies needed to be at Pride. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become so strongly identified in the gay community as an anti-gay Church, people are shocked and amazed to see us. They literally can't believe their eyes; can't believe that we're there; can't believe that, if we are there, we're not protesters against LGBT Pride.

I had hoped for a larger contingent this year than last, but we had roughly the same showing as last year, about thirty brave souls. Saints at Pride are still pioneers. Perhaps next year we should march with hand carts. I suggested that, and the kids loved the idea!

Last year was stressful for me. I was eager for our contingent to be "a success" in terms of numbers. There was a cloud of criticism and controversy surrounding Mormons at Pride that has only dissipated a bit this year, and I was afraid the criticism would discourage people from coming. Perhaps it did discourage people, both last year and this year.

Still, this year I felt a great calm. I realized that Christ calls us to the thin spaces, the spaces where it is difficult to be, the spaces where sometimes we have to stand alone. If I had had to stand alone, I would have been grateful for the privilege. I was blessed not to have to stand alone.

What made it most worth it for me was witnessing the participation of a member of our contingent who worked hard to organize last year's event, who at the last minute had gotten horribly sick and been forced to sit it out. She had suffered a kind of anguish both last year and this about marching, because she is not yet out to her family. Marching in Pride is a hell of a way to come out.  She wasn't sure if she could do it.

But today she did not content herself to march. She danced! Her face was transfigured with joy, as she moved gracefully back and forth, in and out toward the crowd, and all around our contingent.

She carried a sign: "I will walk in my integrity" (Psalms 26:11).


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Marching in Holy Places

This past Sunday, a member of our high council came and spoke in my ward. And if there was any doubt in my mind about the importance of having a good, strong Mormon presence at Gay Pride this coming Sunday (June 30!) before his talk, there was none after.

I wasn't the only one who made the connection. Another member of my ward and I talked about his talk afterwards, and we had both independently come to the same conclusion. This talk was about Gay Pride, and why we need to be there!

I get the objections to Pride. I have on occasion admitted to preferring Church to Pride on a Sunday morning. I'm not always comfortable with everything at Pride

Mormons Building Bridges made me feel differently. Once I realized I could bring all of who I am to Pride, the sense of conflict I felt evaporated. And the lessons I learned marching with our Mormon Allies contingent are driving me to participate again this year.

Our high council speaker this past Sunday offered us an interesting interpretation of the "standing in holy places" concept which has become a common theme in Church-correlated materials lately.  (See Psalm 24:3; Matthew 24:15; and D&C 45:32; 87:8; 101:22 for the relevant scriptural texts.) The more conventional LDS interpretation is that the imperative of "standing in holy places" means we should spend lots of time in temples, ward meeting houses, and in prayer-filled homes. Which is a fair enough interpretation! Spending time in these kinds of places fills me with peace, and anchors me in right thinking and love.

But our high council member prodded us a bit by suggesting that maybe the ultimate holy place, the holy place where we always stand is within us. It is the place we make holy by living our lives in such a way that the Spirit of the Lord always dwells in us. He said (according to my journal): "To stand in holy places is to receive the Holy Ghost and follow its promptings."

He went on to talk about how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not "a one size fits all" gospel. Each of us faces different challenges and has different needs. My journey as a gay Saint has meant a journey through wildernesses that most straight Saints have no concept of. This is why the Gospel is not complete if we are not actively seeking the Spirit's promptings so that it may "show unto you all things what ye should do" (2 Nephi 32:5). We each need that personally for ourselves.

I particularly loved our high council speaker's example of Samuel the Lamanite. Samuel belonged to a race/group of people the Nephites assumed to be lost and fallen.  He compared Samuel preaching to the Nephites to something like if a prophet from Guatemala showed up in Salt Lake City and started telling all the good, white Saints their failings.

He speculated that the wall Samuel preached from was probably not as high as it is in the classic Arnold Friberg painting. The stones flung at him and the arrows shot at him were probably much more up close and personal, and non-miraculous missing would have been much less likely.

Later that evening, I attended the special broadcast from Salt Lake City, announcing some of the new ways the Church was going to engage in missionary work, with an ever-growing emphasis on full-time missionary - member cooperation. Missionary work, the broadcast emphasized, was about relationship building. Bridge building.

An artfully prepared montage that showed individuals reaching out to friends -- over lunch, at a basketball game, on a school bus, at a children's birthday party -- drove the point home. In my mind, I saw Mormon Building Bridges as part of that montage, marching in Gay Pride.

Like the message delivered to us by our high council speaker, a core message during that Sunday evening broadcast was that there was no one "right way" to do this. That we needed to be attentive to the Spirit, to listen and follow the promptings of the Spirit and go where it told us to go.

It still feels risky to many Latter-day Saints to participate in Pride. After my last post on Pride, some individuals pointed out to me that there had in fact been at least some documented instances of threatened discipline for participating in Pride -- though fortunately none were carried through. There's still a lot of misunderstanding among Latter-day Saints about what participation in Pride means. Some of us feel a bit too close to the stones and arrows that might come hurtling at us... From both sides of the wall!

Yet, this past Sunday I knew, with that miraculous, peaceful, clarity-inducing warmth of the Spirit, that the place I need to be this Sunday is at Gay Pride. I invite you to prayerfully consider if the Spirit might be speaking to you to come join us as well.

If you are here in the Twin Cities, come join us. We have plenty of t-shirts for all participants, emblazoned with our "Mormon Allies" logo, and the slogan, "Where Love Is, There God Is Also."

Contact me via Facebook if you're interested in joining us!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The End of Ex-Gay Ministry

There are celebrations in Munchkinland right now. Ding, dong, the witch is dead.

Exodus International, the world's largest and most prestigious "ex-gay ministry" and proponent of "reparative therapy" has announced they are shutting down. Their president is publicly apologizing to the LGBT community.

This gay man says, Apology accepted. If you finally want to engage in real Christian ministry, I will consider it a privilege to serve by your side.

I personally don't believe Exodus International (or any of the other "ex-gay" groups -- the Mormon analog being Evergreen International) were "evil." Exodus was not the Wicked Witch of the East, and Evergreen is not the Wicked Witch of the West.

The reparative therapy movement was part of a process of trying to figure things out. It came out of a genuine belief that homosexuality was wrong and that it was amenable to change. The Exodus International web site is still using the word "change," but now they are applying it to their own attitudes.

Exodus and other similar ministries were and are the source of much pain. Many lives were damaged by what they did. Some people committed suicide -- damage that can't be fixed. By their own admission.

But many of those who participated in these ministries were gay men and lesbians who themselves believed they were broken in their sexual orientation and needed to be fixed. Those who eventually turned away broken-hearted had learned from experience that reparative therapy was wrong. I never tried reparative therapy, but my process of figuring out what it meant to be gay was similar. I made similar mistakes until I finally figured it out.

It took many years of such experiences for the organization, collectively, to figure it out. The end of Exodus is proof that collectively and organizationally we do learn. We do, eventually, repent of our mistakes.

It is further proof to me that the Holy Spirit is in process with all of us. It is capable of teaching us, if we are willing to learn. There's a lot in me that still needs to change, and I pray for the wisdom to know what that is and to work on it.

But today, I take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief and give thanks.

Hallelujah! Literally, praise God.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why We March

In 2012, there was unprecedented Mormon participation in LGBT Pride celebrations in the United States and Latin America. Mormons Building Bridges brought together over 300 active Latter-day Saints to march in Salt Lake City Pride in a show of love and support for the LGBT community. Hundreds of other Mormons in over a dozen other cities followed suit.

Naturally, there was controversy, for the very reasons that many Mormons felt impelled to march at Pride in the first place.

Involvement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Prop 8 campaign in California in 2008 widened already painful divisions between the LDS Church and the gay community. Those wounds were still fresh as of last year; they are still fresh now, as we await, perhaps within the next 24 hours, a Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8 and on DOMA.

Caught in the middle of the rift between LGBT Americans and straight, active Mormons are LGBT Mormons.  Many LGBT Mormons love and are loyal to their faith and their Church. The majority are alienated from the Church, having experienced extreme rejection at the hands of their fellow Latter-day Saints. Within that alienated majority -- whether they quietly dropped out or were excommunicated -- there are mixed feelings about the Church. Many are angry and in pain; many have left and moved on; some quietly continue to practice a faith shaped by their Mormon upbringing far from the precincts of organized religion; some yearn for reunion or reconciliation with their Church and/or their families.

The majority of those who marched at Pride were active Mormons who wanted to make a concrete demonstration of empathy and support of the most basic sort. Their views in relation to homosexuality ranged across a spectrum from, on one end, a simple yearning for greater understanding and empathy to, on the other end, full support for civil equality. Some even envisioned a Church in which gay couples and their families could participate fully and without hindrance. All of them gladly marched side-by-side with LGBT Mormons across the spectrum of Church activity and beliefs.

For many in the LGBT community, any gesture of reconciliation short of complete and total support for full civil and religious equality would be considered too little too late.

But for many, myself included, any gesture of support was warmly welcomed and encouraged and gratefully received.

For Mormons to march in Pride in 2012 it took an act of great courage. You risked, on the one hand, misunderstanding and rejection on the part of fellow Latter-day Saints. You worried about the possibility of Church discipline. You also risked facing skepticism and rejection from those within the LGBT community (both Mormon and non-Mormon) who saw your actions as self-serving or insufficient.

What did we learn from Pride in 2012, and what does Mormon participation in Pride look like in 2013?
First, we learned that people's worst fears about Pride never materialized. No active Mormons who participated in Pride reported experiencing alienation or ostracism (or Church discipline!) for having participated. To the contrary, many of their fellow Saints expressed curiosity about or interest in Pride, and a desire to make the Church a more welcoming place for LGBT people and to expand areas of common ground between the Church and the LGBT community.

For example, in the aftermath of Pride, I met with both my bishop and my stake president to discuss my reasons for marching and for helping to organize a contingent of Mormons to march. I talked about my yearning as a gay man to be able to march as a Mormon, to be able to integrate every aspect of who I am into one great whole. I shared stories of healing and reconciliation that took place at Pride. As a result of my talks with them, they expressed support for future contingents.

Since Pride last year, the LDS Church launched its "" web site. Affirmation, the oldest and largest gay Mormon organization in the world, reorganized its leadership and took concrete steps toward building bridges with the Church. Local and regional conferences of Mormons have been organized -- some with official Church sponsorship and participation -- geared toward expanding the dialog between "Mormons and gays."

The overall positive experience has been bringing active Mormons to Pride in growing numbers. Earlier this month, Mormons Building Bridges' second ever contingent in Salt Lake City Pride brought out 400 marchers, 100 more than last year, even as significant numbers of Mormons who had marched under their banner last year marched under different banners this year (such as with the ACLU, for those who wanted to express more unequivocal support for civil rights and civil equality).

Second, we learned that participating in Pride was difficult, powerful, healing, and necessary.

Yes, for many participation in Pride definitely went out of the "comfort zone." It was stressful and scary in some ways, even as there were positive experiences. (Not to mention that the parade route was long, and the weather was hot!)

So many participants reported life-changing experiences. My contingent at Twin Cities Pride was often greeted by smiles and waves and shouts of surprise and excitement. "The Mormons are here? Look, here come the Mormons!" Parade watchers ran forward to exchange hugs with marchers. Participants in numerous cities described on-lookers with tears of joy in their eyes.

Last year I described a particularly powerful encounter in which a man approached one of our marchers, and told of being excommunicated from the Church three days after his lover died. That reminded us all why our participation in Pride was necessary, why we should have organized contingents to march a long time ago. It was that story in particular that had moved my bishop to encourage me to keep on organizing Mormons at Pride.

Miles to go!

To me it feels completely different now than it did a year ago.

A year ago, the idea of Mormons at Pride was shocking. Now it feels strangely normal, maybe part of a much better, "new normal." Will it still take people out of their comfort zones? Are there still risks? Yes and yes.

We have a lot of work left to do, many miles yet to march. There are so many unanswered questions for those of us who are LGBT and Mormon. We still struggle to know what our place is in the Church. There is still much pain, much alienation. There is still bullying, there is still suicide. LGBT people are still afraid to walk into a Mormon chapel, not knowing how they will be received.

Christ still has a work of healing for us to do.

If you are interested in joining me and other "Mormon Allies" marchers at Twin Cities Pride this year, email me, or check out our event on Facebook.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Pharaoh's Heart

Everybody gets things, everybody sees the light and understands things, at differential rates.

And sometimes the Lord works in such a way that he won't move things forward until everybody gets it.

There is a moment in the Exodus account of God's delivery of the children of Israel from slavery when all of Pharaoh's servants beg him: "Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?" (Exodus 10:7). They've seen that the fight is over, and they've lost, and they plead with their leader to relent.

Pharaoh himself, of course, wavers throughout the account. At times, he seems ready to let the children of Israel go, but then his heart is hardened. The Joseph Smith translation asserts that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart. The original Hebrew text is fairly clear that it is God who hardens Pharaoh's heart, "that I might shew these my signs before him, and that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord" (Exodus 10:1-2).

Without wading into the thorny debates over predestination and free will that have historically been provoked by these Old Testament texts about God hardening Pharaoh's heart, it is worth noting that Pharaoh's refusal to let the children of Israel go does in fact seem to serve a didactic purpose. It gives God an opportunity to demonstrate his power in a way that ultimately everybody -- Israelite and Egyptian -- confesses that it is God who has freed the Israelites from slavery and nobody else.

God wanted everybody, Israelite and Egyptian alike, to know who he was and what he stood for, before he delivered the children of Israel from their plight.

That's why it's interesting to me that the Exodus account takes note of what ordinary Egyptians think about the plight of the Israelites. God is as interested in reaching them, as he is in reaching Pharaoh. More importantly, he's reaching the Israelites themselves. He's as concerned about what Moses will tell his children, and what Moses' children will tell their children about what God has done for them.

This gave me insight into any process of social change -- whether we're talking about racial justice, or women's equality, or the treatment and status of gay and lesbian people or transgender people. The process of "getting it" is long and painful, especially when the end goal of the process is for everyone get it.

The United States is not a dictatorship. It has always appealed to "the people" as the ultimate authority. So even more than in Egypt, in America "the people" need to "get it" if anything of lasting social value is to be achieved. If it was important to God that ordinary Egyptians, that ordinary Israelites get it, that they understand that all people deserve to be free, and that they understand that all true freedom originates in our status as children of God, how much more important for ordinary Americans to "get it"?

This isn't supposed to be easy, folks.  If it were easy, we wouldn't need this: this earthly, embodied experience of life and mortality.

These kinds of lessons, painful, life and death lessons, are what God put us on this planet to learn.