Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Affirmation: Zion or Bust

The Affirmation conference began for me Thursday morning, as I arrived at Randall Thacker's mom's home in Taylorsville, UT to pick up some supplies and then head to downtown Salt Lake for a lunch and some pre-conference meetings. When I rang the doorbell, I was pleasantly surprised to see the door answered by Adry Sán Román. I had known that two members of Affirmation Mexico would be attending the conference in Salt Lake, but it only really sank in when I saw them live and in person on the threshold with huge smiles on their faces. They greeted me with the first of many hugs at a conference whose woof and warp are hugs.

I have a souvenir to take back to me in Minnesota, a small Mexican flag that Adry, with flair and humor, planted on the hood of my car, so that everyone would know I was chauffeuring ambassadors of Affirmation Mexico. 

We spent some time exploring downtown Salt Lake together, which was a joy for three reasons. First, I really miss the friends I made at the Affirmation conference in  Mexico City last February, and reunions are always incredibly happy. Somehow, your time apart only makes you realize how precious your time together is. Second, I love practicing my Spanish! Third, this was Adry's and Francisco's first time ever in the United States, and their first time in Salt Lake. Francisco told me that for many Mexican Mormons it was a dream to be able to visit the center of Mormondom. Watching the excitement and wonder in their faces was like seeing these landscapes for the first time again.

As I  was driving them around Adry would share with me his philosophical and theological ruminations about the relationship between mind, body and spirit, usually some mixture of New Age energetic theory and Mormon theology. Francisco and I sang in the Affirmation choir together. He has this fine, operatic voice, and he loves to sing. After going to the parents' social in Draper, on the drive back to Salt Lake, he would spontaneously burst into song, mostly favorite LDS hymns, and I would join in with him. I'll miss singing with  Francisco.

I was in charge of media relations, so the first day of the conference I was a bit on edge, constantly watching my cell phone for calls or text messages from reporters. But after responding to a request for information from the Salt Lake Tribune, setting up and managing interviews with the Deseret News, and sorting out a communications snafu with ABC 4 news, my job was basically done. Unlike last year when I was on my own to handle media relations, this year I was assisted by PR savvy Dave  Schefcik who had helped out earlier that week with a media alert, and who was able to field requests from Fox 13 news reporters on the last day of conference. So I was able to relax and just enjoy conference most of Saturday and Sunday. My experience, I guess, was not atypical, thanks to a plethora of skilled and committed volunteers. We got some great media coverage.

In the three years since the Kirtland Conference, Affirmation has arguably put behind it its reputation as a predominantly post-Mormon organization in favor of being viewed as a "Mormon-normative" organization. Proof of this were concerns expressed at the conference about whether Affirmation was sufficiently welcoming to individuals who desired no affiliation with the LDS Church -- this despite the fact that 6 out of our 8 keynote speakers identified as ex-Mormon, and despite the fact that the "affinity group" break-out session included a group for "Faith Transition/Former Mormons" as well as for "Active LDS."

I posted yesterday about why I think it is not helpful to exclude people on the basis of labels like "ex-Mormon" or "post-Mormon," but to focus, rather, on fostering a healthy spiritual process, that protects individual agency and autonomy. Individuals who identify as ex-Mormon or post-Mormon must have an equal place in the organization alongside active or believing LDS. There shouldn't be any religious tests for membership. But Affirmation cannot fulfill its mission or potential as an organization unless "Mormon-ness" is in at least some sense normative for the organization. If it is not self-evident why an "LGBT Mormon" organization should in some more-than-nominal sense be a "Mormon" organization, I can at least cite Affirmation's founding documents. The Charter states the conviction that being gay or lesbian "can be consistent with and supported by the Gospel of Jesus Christ," and that a central goal of the organization is "to work for the understanding and acceptance of gays and lesbians as full, equal and worthy persons within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." I'm not sure what sense the Charter makes in the absence of members who are committed to LDS doctrine and the LDS Church. Non-Mormons or ex-Mormons can and should benefit from the work of Affirmation, but that work needs to be carried on in a way that does not eclipse the religious purpose of the organization.

Almost all official meetings at this year's conference (and the previous three conferences) began and ended with prayer, consistent with the history of an international organization that was founded in Los Angeles in 1979 after the organization's leaders "[knelt] in prayer and [asked] the Lord for guidance." Singing LDS hymns, organizing meetings where members can share their testimonies, engaging in scripture study, and holding devotionals or even organizing attendance at local LDS wards are the kinds of things that, for me, are a sine qua non for the organization. There's no rule that conference attendees have to participate in such activities, but an Affirmation conference that includes no such activities would unlikely be a conference I would consider worth attending. For me the heart and soul of the last four conferences has been the opportunities to pray together and testimony meeting/spiritual story-sharing time.

Darius Gray's talk was, I believe, one of the most important talks delivered at an Affirmation Conference in recent memory. It was important first because of the attention that it drew to issues of race and racism in the LDS context, and because race privilege is something Affirmation needs to think about as part of the process of putting its own house in order. But it was also important because it presented what I believe to be the theological framework most relevant to the work and mission of Affirmation, consistent with an orthodox Mormon understanding of priesthood authority and continuing revelation (the two preeminent concerns in relation to issues faced by the LGBT Mormon community). Gray presented a detailed account of his own wrestle with and search for answers to the problem of how a just and loving God could allow the Church to keep in place a policy barring blacks from the priesthood which was fundamentally unjust and theologically wrong. The  answer Gray eventually discerned was that God did not institute the ban, men did, but God permitted it to remain in place as a test of righteousness.

Gray's account of his wrestle with this question was intensely personal. In fact, he shared details at the Affirmation conference that he had never shared publicly before, a mark of the depth of his empathy with his LGBT listeners. He found answers to the difficulties he faced -- both as an individual believer, but also as the President of the Genesis Branch -- through personal revelation. He sought (and received) First Presidency permission before publicly teaching that personal revelation, and his method of teaching it was in conformity with conditions established by the First Presidency, a mark of his respect for priesthood authority as duly constituted in the Church.

Gray did not draw explicit parallels between the pre-1978 priesthood ban and the current challenges LGBT people face in the Church. He left it to his listeners to discern if and how the teaching was relevant to them. However, he described his theodicy in relation to the suffering experienced by blacks both in the Church and in the larger society as relevant to the suffering experienced by LGBT people in the Church.

I had my own spiritual experience in conjunction with his talk. I felt filled with pure light and warmth, and had what Joseph Smith described as a "flood of intelligence," something I'm continuing to process in the days since the conference. I spoke with others at the conference who had similar spiritual experiences.

Personal revelation was a theme that was repeatedly brought up in stories I heard during the conference, including in the talks of other keynote speakers and performers. Individuals who are currently active in the Church and individuals who have left the Church alike described praying for greater understanding and for guidance, and receiving answers to prayers that affirmed that they were "OK," that God accepted them as they were, and didn't have a problem with them being gay or transgender, or seeking an intimate relationship. Opportunities for story-telling and testimony sharing took place not just in formal talks, but in the "affinity groups" that met Saturday morning (for women, men, bisexuals, transgender people, youth, elders, people of color, families and friends, faith transition/former Mormons, millenials and university students, church priesthood and auxiliary leaders, individuals in mixed orientation marriages, married/partnered LGBT people, and active LDS).

The Active LDS (including Prepare) group was attended by 30-40 people. The lion's share of the discussion consisted of individuals describing their church affiliation and status. We then also had general discussion about issues related to the environment for LGBT people in their respective wards and stakes, how individuals coped with difficult environments and what kinds of support they felt they needed. There was also an interesting discussion of what people believe to be their "life calling." I asked the question, "How many of you believe you have a life calling?" Virtually every hand went up. There was also some discussion of Darius Gray's talk -- which most participants in the group seemed to view very positively. The discussion became quite emotional at times, especially as one individual discussed her testimony of the Gospel, and some of the pain she'd experienced in a rejecting ward.

The Testimony/Spiritual Story-Sharing meeting took place Saturday afternoon. Justin Keyes was polite but firm in timing the testimonies/stories so that they would be no longer than two to three minutes each. A gentle bell sounded from his iPhone at the two minute mark. Everyone who bore testimony/shared stories conscientiously limited their remarks to the allotted time, which was a beautiful collective gesture of consideration for others. Justin invited straight, cisgender allies to let LGBT individuals take the podium first, since many of us have restrictions placed on our membership and the Affirmation conference is one of the few opportunities we have to publicly bear testimony in a gathering of Saints. I had made a plea for a longer testimony meeting than the ones we've done in the past. The testimony meetings are usually intense. The presence of the Spirit is palpable. The yearning to share is deep, and the meetings have usually ended with a long line of people turned away. The meeting this year was no exception. But perhaps it was good to keep it to one hour, to ensure ample time for the outing to the "This Is the Place" monument, and for lunch and dinner, which gave people more time to connect and share stories one-on-one.

Sunday morning, a large contingent gathered in Temple Square at the Tabernacle to attend the live Music and the Spoken Word presentation. Church public affairs arranged for us to be seated in a large, reserved section at the front of the Tabernacle (I've never been that close to the stage!). Before the show starts, it is a tradition for groups of special visitors to be introduced to the audience. We were introduced as "Affirmation," so I suppose folks who were there had to be in the know to recognize that the Tabernacle Choir was hosting "LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends." There were so many of us present that we filled up five or six rows in the center section and then several more rows in the section to the right. When the announcer introduced "Affirmation," he actually gasped "wow!" under his breath when he saw the number of us that stood up.

Fred Bowers and I sat together. It was the first time Fred had attended a performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The show was well done, though nothing really moved me until the end, after the recording was complete, and the choir sang "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." It's become an Affirmation tradition to sing that song at the end of every conference. When they finally closed, and Fred and I stood up, we were both wiping tears from our eyes.

As we started filing out of the Tabernacle, an Affirmation member tapped me on the shoulder and introduced me to two women who had been sitting in front of  the section reserved for Affirmation. "He can answer your questions!" she said, gesturing to me to talk to the women. One of the women said, "Can you tell me what Affirmation is for? What you do?"

I said, "We provide support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons, and their families and friends in navigating the challenges that are unique to being lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and Mormon." (I figured I better say the whole darn thing, because I was betting the acronym LGBT would go right over their heads!) I elaborated a bit by sharing something of my own faith and struggles and talking about how much it meant to me to have a community like Affirmation where I could experience unconditional love, openness and acceptance. I was getting a bit teary. Adry wandered up, and I introduced him to the women and said, "I want you to meet my brother who is visiting us from Mexico. I love him so much!" He smiled and shook hands with them, and I could see that they were starting to tear up too. One of the women said, "How can I find out more about Affirmation?" I replied "affirmation.org," which she dutifully wrote down on her program before we parted.

The night before the first day of the conference, I had a dream. Adry and Francisco were in the dream, as were many other Affirmation friends and loved ones. We were on a long journey through the desert, and we were trying to find a place to stay. We found a building that was stripped bare and too dilapidated to serve as safe shelter. We were thirsty. Trevor Cook found a water fountain near by. Unfortunately, when I took a closer look at the water fountain, I realized that the water was polluted, and we couldn't drink it, so we decided to leave and continue our journey on, in hopes of finding something better. We found a highway that made it easier to walk.

The dream made perfect sense to me. It was definitely about Affirmation. We are a community on a journey, through an inhospitable desert. We need shelter, and we need the living, pure waters. (That image in my dream sort of reminds me of Nephi's dream of the Tree of Life, and the pure waters of life flowing from it.) The dilapidated house and the polluted water fountain perhaps represented the things we're tempted to settle for that are less than the complete redemption, the complete reconciliation we seek. We might settle for less because the journey seems interminable, because we're thirsty and exhausted and we're not sure if there's water or shelter ahead. In my dream, even though we still lacked shelter and water, we found a road that made it easier for us to travel, maybe a reminder that God doesn't just magically transport us to the place we need to go, but he gives us strength to go without if we need to, and makes a way for us to get there, to find true shelter, and true and pure water, if we are willing to walk. In those circumstances, it takes courage to insist on "Zion or bust."

Randall Thacker, Todd Richardson and I have often said to each other that we are on a long journey. There were several times during the conference when Randall said something to the effect of, "If you think that the change you hope for will happen quickly, you will be sorely disappointed. Be prepared for a long, long, long, LONG journey." I don't know how long it will be. It may be shorter than many of us think. But however long or short the road is, it will take faith to get where we're going, and it will be worth it when we get there because it took faith to get there.


RED said...

Among the many spiritual experiences for this Ally while attending the Conference, one of the most memorable was when, sitting behind you in the Choir at the conclusion of the testimony meeting, I noticed you, excommunicated from a Church you love, with arms extended around the brothers to either side of you, energetically singing "The Spirit of God." Thank you, John, for your great example!

armando bravo said...

I enjoyed a lot your shared experience. Your work in Affirmation is wonderful.
Now, you can return to your hubby and the marriage ceremony of Glen and Will.
My best wishes to you (the parents) and the newly wedded.

Trev said...

Beautiful post, as always. And, I am surprised and flattered to make an appearance in your dream ;).

I checked the Moho Directory for the first time in a while this evening, and probably the majority of the posts at the top of the list are a bunch of people's first Affirmation conference experiences: it's fantastic! Everybody is universally feeling the excitement and the Spirit of what Affirmation is striving for. It's very encouraging!

I love what you say at the end: "[H]owever long or short the road is [of this Mormon LGBT community journey], it will take faith to get where we're going, and it will be worth it when we get there because it took faith to get there." Amen on the faith requirement making the journey worth it in the end. It's exciting!

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Ha! Trevor, I was wondering if you'd read this post and find yourself in my dream. I have actually wondered why it was you who found the water fountain. I guess what was cool about this dream for me was our feeling of us all working together and doing our part. Maybe you were in my mind because I knew you were doing important work with Provo Pride, and helping with our web archives.

It was a remarkable conference, with a remarkable spirit. We need those times of refreshment and encouragement for the other times that are less than encouraging! :-)