Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shibboleths

I've been traveling a lot this year. Three trips to Utah. Two trips to Washington, DC. Two trips to Chicago. A drive to Iowa and then St. Louis and then Memphis. Camping on the borders of South Dakota. A weekend in New York. Is that for real? No wonder it feels lately like home is this stopping place in between trips.

Much of this travel has involved spending time with LGBT Mormons and allies, building and strengthening a once very fragmented and scattered community now at a seemingly pivotal juncture. The LGBT Saints are gathering. Last weekend I was in Washington, DC because of work, but I spent Saturday evening at an Affirmation Family Home Evening at the Washington Temple Visitors Center, I attended the Washington DC 3rd Ward Sunday morning, and then spent the rest of the day meeting and planning with Affirmation leaders. Monday morning was an opportunity to answer emails and finish some long overdue Affirmation-related work. At one o'clock, I tore myself away and I permitted myself to go on pilgrimage, first to the Holocaust Museum, then to the World War II Memorial, then to the Lincoln Memorial.

Monday night, I'd invited myself to stay with friends and fellow Saints James and Chip at their apartment in Arlington, VA. They kindly accommodated me. It's hard to adequately describe my feelings during this visit.

James is part of Affirmation's International Leadership Team. He's active in his ward in Arlington and has a strong testimony of the Church, and he and Chip have created this amazing, loving partnership. James had organized the Saturday Affirmation Family Home Evening, and he and Chip both showed up. Chip is not a Mormon. (It seems that gay Mormons in relationship with other gay Mormons is the very, very rare exception, not the rule. Gay Mormons in same-sex relationships tend to be ecumenical and intercultural in their relationships.) But Chip is incredibly supportive of James' involvement in the Church and in his work with Affirmation. Because it was Monday night, I was invited to participate in their "family night" and Chip offered a closing prayer that would have melted any missionary's heart.

Chip had to work late, so while we were waiting for him before family night, James and I had a chance to talk, sharing stories and reflecting on what it means to us to be gay and Mormon, and to discuss our work in Affirmation. James shared spiritual experiences with me that had confirmed to him that he and Chip were meant to become a family, that being together was where God wanted them to be. He said to me: "I prayed about this, but it was very clear to me."  (Chip later confirmed that he felt the same way -- he had been praying for years to find a particular kind of life partner, and James had been the answer to those prayers.)

And yet, James has a testimony of the Church. He knows the Church is true. He knows its leaders are called by God, and that the priesthood keys they hold are real. I understood well the dilemmas and the awkwardness and the power of holding these things simultaneously. James and I both participate in a rapidly growing group organized under the auspices of Affirmation called the "Prepare" Group, which includes individuals in every region of the country who have testimonies of the Church, are staying active, and who are also in -- or seeking, or supportive of -- same-sex relationships.

After Chip arrived, we spent our family night on an outing to the Martin Luther King Memorial and the FDR Memorial. I told them about what I'd seen at the Holocaust Museum, and we talked about what the American Dream meant to us: freedom and interconnection; unity and diversity. We each shared our sense of faith. We finally retired to their place, played with their cat Frankie, had ice cream, and ended the evening with prayer. 

The Spirit was present in a sweet, powerful way.

*****

That night I had a strange dream. I recorded it in my dream journal:

I was attending a new ward in some Midwestern city. I was invited to attend a session at the temple. At first, I was a bit confused. I was not sure how I could be allowed to enter the temple proper. I arrived at the temple, and I entered a large sanctuary area. I felt a bit reticent about entering, but my bishop, a woman, was accompanying me, and as we found our seats she reassured me that it was OK. The sanctuary area was shaped like a square, and there were rows of wooden chairs ascending in stadium fashion up all four walls of the sanctuary. I asked my sister bishop how it was possible that I could be allowed in the temple, and she said to me, “Look, see? It's OK for you to be here. Even these Jewish brothers are here in the temple.” I looked up and saw an entire section where there were orthodox Jewish men, dressed in black suits, with beards and hair in the orthodox Jewish fashion, and black, broad-brimmed hats. When I saw them, I set my mind at rest.

The temple ceremony began, and it was a dance. We stood up and moved into the center area of the sanctuary which was a great, open, square area. We were standing in concentric circles, and we began to dance, our arms crossed, and our hands clasping the hands of those on either side of us. The dance involved stepping side-to-side, back and forth with one foot crossing the other as we went side to side in a great circle. The dance steps seemed a bit complicated to me at first, but I was watching the others and doing as they did, and I was able to learn the dance fairly quickly. We were dancing to heartbreakingly beautiful music played by a klezmer band, and as the pace of the music slowly picked up we kept up with the rhythm, dancing faster and faster. There was great joy. People smiled and laughed and cried tears of joy. I asked myself, How could it be that we are dancing in the temple? How is it that dances are allowed in the temple? And then I remembered that the Saints danced in the temple in Nauvoo in the early days of the Church with Brigham Young. They danced and danced each night until the small hours of the morning.

My sister bishop and I eventually left the temple. She asked me to help her run some errands in the ward. The streets of the city were beautiful: broad streets lined with trees and small, white houses. The streets were arranged in a grid pattern around the temple. My sister bishop led me to the home of a widow who needed some sort of assistance. We arrived at her home but no one was there. The sister bishop said it was OK, we just needed to pick up some bills that needed to be paid. She knew where they were, and she had a key to let us into the widow sister's home.

I accompanied her inside, and was meditating quietly as the sister bishop found what she needed to find. I was still marveling that I had been allowed to go inside the temple. 

That was when I woke up. I recalled the dream with force and clarity. It filled me with happiness and peace. I knew I had to write it down right away. I climbed down out of bed and found my cell phone and looked at the time: 3:51 a.m. I turned on my computer and started writing the dream, and as I wrote, tears flowed down my cheeks.

I climbed back up into bed. (The bed in the guest room was the top of a bunk bed.) I still couldn't sleep. I felt prompted to pray. So I started to pray, and as I did, I realized that the Lord had given me -- in a dream -- a vision of Zion. I was very humbled, very aware of my many deep, deep imperfections and flaws, but aware that part of faith in the Atonement is to go forward in spite of one's flaws, trusting in God more than we fear our imperfections.

I felt so excited, I wanted to go right away and wake up my hosts and tell them what I had dreamed: that I had caught a vision of Zion, and that I -- that we! -- would be there, in the temple, dancing with the Saints.

*****

In the past year I have gotten to meet many LGBT Latter-day Saints with strong testimonies. When I say "strong testimonies," I mean that they know the Church is true and they are willing to live that truth in some way that requires making sacrifices or facing fears and challenges. These are individuals who are transgender, who are living the gender they know they are. These are gay men and lesbians who are in the same-sex relationships they know God intended them for. We are praying, studying, living the Word of Wisdom. We are going to Church. We are serving in various ways in our wards, usually very humbly and without formal callings, because many of us are not permitted to hold formal callings, or if we are allowed callings we are allowed only the humblest of callings. Some of us are excommunicated, and some of us are allowed to keep our membership. Many have started going to Church despite strong fears of rejection or misunderstanding. We are laying down  weapons of self defense, and going back, hoping that we will be received by the Saints as Saints. We are looking for Zion.

I was born in 1963 and grew up in a generation when LGBT people were accustomed to being subjected by members of the Church to a series of shibboleths. What I mean by that is being told, for instance, "If you're in a same-sex relationship, you're not following the prophet and you're not really a Saint and you don't belong here." And we have been subjected to a series of humiliations and have experienced forms of rejection that literally broke us. We usually experienced this rejection in its most intense form from those who ought to have understood us best -- our closest friends and family. Often we pushed those who ought to have known us best furthest out, because we ourselves feared what was in us; because we assumed that to be fully known would mean to be hated; because we ourselves found it impossible to believe that we ought to believe in ourselves.

Our Church leaders remind us again and again that "the Church's doctrine is not changing and will not change." Two of our leaders reminded us of that again at the most recent General Conference. But fortunately, what is changing is the attitudes of the Saints. Not always. I'm still hearing all too frequent reports of the old shibboleths. But with stunning frequency I'm also hearing growing numbers of reports of LGBT Saints who are going back, and who are being told, "I'm not here to judge you. If you want to come back, and you want to worship God with us, you are welcome."

What we know in our heart of hearts doesn't always seem to line up with every utterance of the brethren. Often, we are the ones who feel most confused about that. Our fellow Saints don't know how that works and neither do we.

What we do know is that it's for us to move forward the best we can, in faith.

The Lord has a place for us in Zion. It's not a separate-but-equal place. It's not an inferior place where we get to be lonely and everybody else gets to be fulfilled. It's a place in Zion where we are valued and we have family and we will be blessed, just like everybody else. That's what Zion is.

But it takes faith to get there. And we have a long journey ahead of us.

3 comments:

EdwardJ said...

Your dream is so beautiful. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Wow and it was just Monday that I told my father I would NOT go back to Church. If only your dream could come true...

Thanks for sharing.
Ron

Trevor said...

While you may or may not agree, all the traveling sounds like fun! Im jealous.

I admit, I do not know much about Affirmation. What I know is what I researched over 5 years ago. When I did look at Affirmation, I walked away with the concept that it was for current or former Mormons who are gay, but that have many grievances with the church. I didn't like that, and so didn't think about them again.

However recently, through various people I know, it seems like Affirmation has changed. It appears to me, who has done little to no research, that it is a group of current or former Mormons, who are gay, that love the church but have been affected negatively or positively by it. They are not fighting against the church.

I know I can go research more about Affirmation, but you sound connected to it. What would you say to my current (or former) understanding of the group?