This past weekend at the Affirmation Conference in Salt Lake City, there was a consistent, golden thread connecting all of the keynote addresses, both Friday night and Saturday night. That thread was personal story and personal revelation.
Darius Gray, an African-American Mormon filmmaker, broadcast journalist, and leader of the Genesis group, shared a very personal account of a personal revelation that transformed his understanding of the history of Mormon attitudes toward race. Jazz singer Spencer Day used song to describe and document his journey out of Mormonism. Jeff Benedict's interview with Clark Johnson, a gay Mormon who was part of the original cast of the Broadway production of The Book of Mormon: the Musical, explored Clark's 15-year-long struggle to reconcile his LDS faith with his sexuality, ending in his decision to break with the Church. Spencer Stout and Dustin Reeser ("The Home Depot Boys") described the process that led them to accept a same-sex relationship as right for them (also ending in a break with the Church). Eri Hayward discussed her transition from male to female, and her father Ed discussed his, and his wife's, journey from disbelief to acceptance of their transgender daughter.
Examined superficially, some of these stories seem to run at odds with each other. Darius Gray and Ed Hayward, for instance, described personal processes that ultimately kept them rooted in the LDS Church, while Spencer Day, Clark Johnson, Spencer Stout, Dustin Reeser and Eri Hayward described personal processes that ended in cutting ties with the LDS Church (even as they continued to identify with some aspects of Mormonism and as they continue to treasure ties to family and friends who are still a part of the LDS community).
I and other conference organizers in fact observed very bifurcated responses to the different keynote talks.
In the immediate aftermath of Darius Gray's talk that evening and the following morning, I heard from about 40 conference participants who described his talk as "powerful" and "inspiring." A number of individuals I spoke to described having spiritual experiences as they listened to the talk. Some described these spiritual experiences during the "Testimony Meeting/Spiritual Story Sharing" meeting on Saturday afternoon. I myself had an experience of feeling filled with light and warmth during his talk, and found his words triggering rich and comforting reflections on my own situation as an excommunicated gay man with a testimony of the Gospel.
On the other hand, in the debriefing session held by conference organizers after the conference, there were reports of individuals who complained that Bro. Gray's talk was "too religious," or "too churchy," and who even found his words "offensive." Some refused to attend the event or walked out of it. A number of those individuals, however, felt reassured after Saturday evening's event, which mostly featured stories of individuals who had left the LDS Church. They expressed relief that the stories of leaving Mormonism had restored "balance," and left them feeling better about the conference as a whole.
On the other hand, at least one individual who had been deeply appreciative of Bro. Gray's talk, felt dissatisfied and let down by the Saturday evening event. The spiritual high experienced during Bro. Gray's talk and during the Testimony Meeting of Saturday afternoon had been dissipated and deflated by the Saturday night presentations.
During our debriefing discussion, one conference organizer suggested that the positive and negative responses were indicative that we were "doing things right"! Affirmation's stated values include providing a nonjudgmental space where individuals can find healing and can work out answers to difficult spiritual questions and challenges on their own. Affirmation does not prescribe any one path for anyone, but rather makes space for individuals to find their own path. We make space for faith, and for connection to LDS teaching and to the LDS Church, but we also honor individuals' decisions to make other choices that they find more spiritually nurturing. The fact that we had presented different stories at the conference that provoked dramatically different responses was a sign that we were accomplishing what we had set out to accomplish.
Well, that's one (perhaps reassuring) way of looking at it, though I think still a rather superficial way. Reflecting on the different stories I heard, it occurred to me that the stories look very different if we focus on process rather than outcome.
Focusing on the "end" of the story is extremely problematic if you think about it, because any story ever being told by a person about him or herself always only reflects where that person is as of the telling of the story. For example, as I listened to Clark Johnson's story, it occurred to me that 15 years ago, my story would have sounded very similar. In fact, you can link here to a version of my story, published in 1997, which ends with the statement: "God has freed me in two ways in the last decade of my life: God freed me of the Mormon Church, and God freed me to come out of the closet and accept myself as a gay man. Thanks be to God, I can breathe again." At that point in my life, I would have been shocked and appalled if someone had told me that less than I decade later I would find myself returning to the Church and yearning for full membership in it. But here we are.
That is not to suggest that there is something truer or righter about my journey back to the Church than Clark Johnson's journey out of the Church. Again, keep in mind that my journey is not over yet.
I just turned fifty, and I'm planning to live another fifty years or so. But imagine I were to die shortly after completing this essay. Say I die tomorrow. My epitaph would be, "He died having a testimony of the Church." But is my death the end of the story? I would argue it cannot be, neither from the LDS perspective of life after death, nor from an atheist perspective of my death as the final end of me. Because even an atheist would acknowledge that had I lived longer, my views might have evolved or changed. Whatever my endpoint might have been at the time of my death, it could only be viewed as historically contingent. Historians and biographers speculate all the time -- sometimes very contentiously -- about how individuals throughout history might have evolved had they lived longer. This is not just an academic, historical problem, it's a political problem. For instance, in debating constitutional law, we frequently debate the "intent of the founding fathers." What would the founding fathers say about the second amendment if they lived to see the proliferation of weapons far deadlier than they ever imagined in our society? In reflecting on Church history, we often speculate how the Church might have been different if Joseph Smith had not been assassinated in 1844. We could not have such debates if we didn't acknowledge that new information and new experiences can change people, and that where those individuals were at death does not tell us the totality of who and what they were.
So, what if we disregard the "end" of any individual's story (living or dead) as "inconclusive data"? The end of a story is only a hiatus, not a moral. We of course frequently act as if these incomplete stories of ours have a moral. And maybe they do have morals, but, as Darius Gray suggested in his talk, maybe "not what we think."
If we exclude the end of the story from our evaluation of what the story has to teach us, we are forced to focus instead on the process described in the story. And I would argue that if we focus on the process rather than the end, all of these stories -- the "Church-positive" as well as the "Church-negative" stories -- actually are more similar than they are different.
All of these stories had a common element of disillusionment. What I mean by disillusionment is that individuals telling these stories described how a series of experiences or encounters or exposure to new information led them to question and reevaluate and abandon old beliefs or old patterns of thought. What was once accepted as normal might now be viewed as oppressive and unjust. What was once viewed as impossible might now be viewed as necessary.
All of these stories also had a common element of self-empowerment. What I mean by self-empowerment is that individuals telling these stories describe how they came to trust their own ability to discern and make sense of facts. They claimed not only the right but the responsibility to act for themselves as free agents, to make decisions that might disappoint family or friends or the larger society, but that felt truer to the new understandings that emerged in the wake of disillusionment.
All of these stories also had a common element of faith. What I mean by faith is changing one's behavior in a way that feels more life-affirming. It means taking steps into the darkness, without necessarily knowing that one's new course of action will end well. It means being willing to make mistakes or to make sacrifices in order to make way for the possibility of something new and better to emerge.
I would argue that until we experience disillusionment, until we empower ourselves, and until we begin to exercise faith and act as free agents, we are not fully mature beings. When we fail to act out of fear, out of a need to conform, we become stunted. I would also argue that a major cause of depression and suicide stems from the perception that we have no choice, that an intolerable situation is inescapable because we must be wrong, or there is nothing we can do, or anything we do differently from what we're currently doing will only lead to disaster.
So, for instance, a common observation of individuals who had left the Church was that prior to leaving the Church they believed that happiness outside of the Church was impossible. I could relate to this. I experienced a very similar kind of fear. These individuals discovered (and I discovered) that in fact one could be quite happy outside of the Church; that in fact we became happier after leaving the Church than we had been as members of the Church. People who believe that true happiness is only possible within the Church may inevitably be disillusioned.
But I would argue that these necessary steps of disillusionment, self-empowerment and faith don't guarantee us happiness. They make us free agents. But they don't guarantee that all our choices will make us happy. We often feel a rush once we become free agents. It's a heady experience to realize that you can now do things you once thought impossible; to see spread out before you the virtually infinite range of choices that are now available to you. But the rush doesn't last forever, and eventually the choices we make (we can never not make choices) create new obligations and expectations and restraints, that lead us to new cycles of disillusionment, self-empowerment and faith. (Or... if we choose... stasis.)
What I found in my return to the Church is that I had a different kind of testimony based on a depth of experience I hadn't had before. I found that my decisions to practice my faith (by, for instance, living the Word of Wisdom) were decisions I made because I wanted to learn from them, not because I felt obligated to make those decisions. Not because I felt I had no choice. That kind of faith is powerful.
But by definition, it requires that I not begrudge others the right to perceive and to choose differently.