Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Win Win

I've been having a lot of conversations the past week about Affirmation and the LDS Church.

Speaking of a time when she felt alienated from Affirmation and dropped out of activity in it, one individual said to me: "I felt like... I had been disowned by my family again. ... Affirmation means so much to me. It is my only family."

Toward the end of another conversation, I looked into the eyes of the person I was speaking with. This individual and I see things quite differently. We had been having a very positive, but also very difficult conversation about Affirmation and the Church. Toward the end of our conversation, as I looked into her eyes, she smiled, but I also noticed a glistening of tears that signaled deep yearning.

I am struck by the sacredness of each person's path through life. I am also struck by how much we mean to each other, and how desperately we need each other's love and approval. The idea of Affirmation as a people to whom LGBT Mormons (however variously defined!) can turn for unconditional love and support is powerful. And when people who have found that at Affirmation feel it threatened, the "fight or flight" instinct can kick in. And we can fight.

People have been brutalized by the Church. You can say, "Well that was just some people. They weren't really living the Gospel." And that may well be true. But there's also a core challenge that relates to Church doctrine and policies and procedures and mores. To experience excommunication because you have chosen to pursue something as core to human happiness as love and intimate human connection is brutal, no matter how kind a face you try to put on it.

And I understand how some people need Affirmation to be a refuge from that. And I understand how it may even offend some people to find themselves in the midst of individuals in Affirmation who, in a variety of ways, embrace the Church. I've been accused of having "Stockholm Syndrome." It's the only way some people seem to be able to explain how I would want anything to do with the LDS Church.

Others can speak for themselves, but I can say that embracing my faith as a Latter-day Saint and choosing to be active in a Church where I remain excommunicated is the opposite of masochism or self-denigration. For me it is a profound affirmation of my humanity. It is an insistence that I am a child of God and I belong in his kingdom. That I feel the Spirit at Church is a weekly reminder that God agrees. For the LGBT person -- despite all the obstacles and adversity they may face -- to be active in the Church is to redeem the Church from homophobia and transphobia. It is to insist that those things are not what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about. I will not abandon my faith because of what other people think. I will not be moved for what anybody under Heaven thinks.

That affirmation of our humanity, of our divine heritage, and that redemption of the community from the worst instincts of our all-too-fallen nature is what I, in the core of my being, believe Affirmation must be about. If it isn't, we have sold ourselves way, way too short.

To affirm that, to insist on that, is not to denigrate another single soul in or out of Affirmation. I can hold fiercely to my faith, and still fiercely defend my brother or sister who, wounded in battle, has found it necessary to retreat.

What this means in practical terms for the organization, I think, is that holding to that core of faith is not about driving anybody out of the organization. It is not about valuing some in the organization more than others. It is not about saying that some are better or braver or have more faith than others. It is not about denying people their family. We must be loyal to each other. If we are not, we have misunderstood the Gospel. My life is built around commitments: my commitment to my husband, my commitment to my family, my commitment to God, my commitment to my fellow Saints in the Church, and if I desire to serve Affirmation as president, my commitment to you.


Andrew S said...

I think that what people feel is that to be excommunicated is the institution's strongest way of telling you: you are not Mormon. You do not speak for Mormonism. You do not decide what Mormonism is.

I know that you may feel otherwise, and may have experiences otherwise. I know that you may have a better experience with ward members on an individual level. But institutionally, you cannot redeem the church from homophobia and transphobia, because you do not speak for Mormonism. You may personally insist that those things are not what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about, but institutionally, they are.

The problem isn't that you will not be moved for what anybody under Heaven thinks. It's that this very position is drummed into our heads by the institution's own words and actions as being the definition of apostasy.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

OK, Andrew! "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe."

That's OK... I actually think of "Doubting Thomas" as kind of a hero... After all, all the other disciples got to see and touch. So you can hardly fault Thomas for demanding the same.

Andrew S said...

it's 2 different things, though.

there's doubt in Christ, and there's doubt in the church -- which, as per your own admission, has brutalized people. I'm just pointing out that this brutalization isn't just the foibles of people who "aren't really living the Gospel." No, the church defines for themselves what the Gospel is, and they are living up to their values with high fidelity.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Being active in the Church is what Christ has asked me to do, so for me that is my faith in Christ.

A few years ago, I read an anthology entitled "Black and Mormon." There are a couple of chapters in that book that document the spiritual experiences of black Mormons who stuck with the Church prior to 1978, in the face of INCREDIBLE hatred, not to mention the denial of priesthood and temple blessings. Individuals told of being on the verge of leaving the Church for good, and then receiving a compelling personal revelation urging them to stay, that kept them going, and that resolved for them all issues related to the discrimination they experienced institutionally and personally. As a result of those experiences, they continued to stay active and faithful in the Church until their faith was vindicated in 1978. Those revelations and the sense that God was with them gave them a reserve of personal peace and strength that was greater than the institutional inequity.

The stories were so similar to the experience I myself had in 2005 (and some subsequent experiences), I immediately related to it and fully accepted the reality of what they had experienced. I have over the years come to know a growing number of LGBT individuals who have had similar experiences... It's real.

I have noticed a kind of softening of Church members and leaders. Yes, I am excommunicated. But strangely, I am treated by my Church leaders and fellow ward members as if I am not. I am not ostracized, I am not shunned, I am not looked down on. My faith is acknowledged and encouraged by my leaders. My stake president at one point said to me: "What is time to the Lord?" For me this is a matter of time. I am convinced that this softening is part of the process of the Lord preparing peoples' hearts.

So here, for me, faith in Christ and faith in the Church converge. I'm following what Christ has guided me to do, and trusting Christ to guide his Church... And, FWIW, finding tremendous joy in the process. This doesn't feel like a burden or a grind... The way is full of light and full of wonderful, loving fellowship with the Saints.

Andrew S said...

So then, isn't that implicitly a recognition that Affirmation (under your presidency) would privilege those who have the sorts of experiences you (and the "growing number") have had, at the expense of those who don't, and those for whom they do not find tremendous joy in the process?

that may not be intentional, but it is valid.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

NO! That's specifically what I've said will not happen... For the reasons I've explicitly laid out in this thought piece... For me it's unthinkable for Affirmation to push anybody out or marginalize anybody within the organization. In my roles the past few years as vice president and board member, I've had great working relationships with non-believers in the organization, and I will need many more such working relationships if I'm to succeed as president.

I've been accused of thinking that Affirmation is not for non-believers, or intending to marginalize non-believers because I've made what I think is a very logical assertion that Affirmation's raison-d'ĂȘtre must be to sustain a space for believing LGBT Mormons. To be an organization that is fully gay and fully Mormon. It has not always been in practice, though it always was in theory. That's always been my position since long before I got involved in the organization... I chose to get involved at the point where it seemed to me that significant numbers of Affirmation members agreed with me.

I've never seen that as implying that Affirmation should not include and meet the needs of folks wherever they might be on the faith spectrum. But Mormons (ex- or believing) may be so accustomed to black and white thinking that they can't imagine a believer who welcomes non-believers, or an Affirmation that is not either ex-Mormon and gay, or ex-gay and Mormon.

Andrew S said...

i know that you don't intend for it to happen, but the question is whether the reasons you've laid out in this thought piece actually address the concerns of those who feel disowned, etc.,

and I don't really think they do

When you say "[Affirmation] has not always been in practice [an organization that is fully gay and fully Mormon]" that is just the flip side of the group who feels disowned. You see this as something to be fixed -- that Affirmation should be more an organization that is fully gay and fully Mormon in practice. Others see this process as a disowning.

When you say "I chose to get involved at the point where it seemed that significant numbers of Affirmation members agreed with me," that just implies to me that the organization is moving away from its past reputation/"practice" as an organization supportive of disaffected/ex-Mormons.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Andrew - I think a good measure of whether ex-Mormons will be disowned is what's happened in the organization in the last few years. We've specifically created groups for active Mormons ("Prepare") and ex-Mormons ("Journeys"). We've invited ex-Mormons as keynote speakers at conference. We have ex-Mormons on our board.

I think it's been helpful to create sub-structures within the organization that can cater to the needs of different constituencies within Affirmation. We're trying to do the same in relation to women and men, cis and trans, white and people of color. By creating sub-structures for different constituencies we're trying to ensure that everyone's needs will not be overlooked and no one will be marginalized by the organization as a whole.

I don't intend to change any of that. In fact, I was one of the architects of this approach.

But I would still assert that the root cause for the homophobia and transphobia that LGBT Mormons experience comes from attitudes within the Church. So if you withdraw from the Church, if you disengage, you will always be dealing with the symptoms and never the root causes. So I would argue that the needs of all Affirmation members -- believing or non-believing -- call for full engagement with our faith and our Church. I don't think you can do that effectively if you are not committed to the faith and the Church.

Andrew S said...

It's not just attitudes within the church. It's people living their faith as is institutionally supported and validated. You can't engage the root causes because you are not part of the institution, and you are not institutionally supported or validated.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Andrew, I have a question for you... If Affirmation were a clearly ex-Mormon LGBT group, would you join?

Andrew S said...

i am not your target audience in any event. i am not a joiner in general, but moreso not of exmormon groups typically.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Why do you say "moreso not of exmormon groups"?

Andrew S said...

I can see how for some, exmormon groups could have tremendous value -- the brutalization already mentioned in the church, loss of family, social connections, etc.,

And, as a perpetual outsider, I'm interested in seeing what people do in that space to build something constructive there.

But for me, I don't feel a need for a social net in that space, and I don't feel a need (most of the time) to vent.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I didn't either, during the 19 years that I considered myself a non-Mormon.

It's interesting that you cite "a need... to vent" as a reason for that kind of social space. It seems to me that this is a perennial source of tension within groups (not just LGBT groups) that try to create a common forum for ex-Mormons and active Mormons. The ex-Mormons want to vent, and the active Mormons are not so interested in the venting. I tend to drop out of groups where there's endless venting, or groups where there is constant fighting between ex-Mormons and active Mormons over the venting. It's not that the venting offends me; it's just that I find it uninteresting. I'm more interested in finding constructive ways forward as a person of faith.

Andrew S said...

That's why I think you and Affirmation are hard-pressed to do both. It's not a matter of black and white. It's that the sorts of things that will appeal to one population will not be interesting in the slightest to the other population...and vice versa...if you're in a period where venting is valuable (or in a space where you moving out of the church and disentangling from the church), then finding constructive ways forward as a person of faith is not appealing.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I don't know if that's true or not... It seems to be common wisdom in many quarters. Perhaps you are right.

I think there are activities that can appeal to both, and that are meaningful to both, such as sharing stories (different from "venting") and community service.

Also, I think describing them as two distinct populations or communities doesn't take into account that, first, there are folks in between, and, second, there's movement. I'm a case in point... Left the Church at the age of 24, became a Lutheran for 8-9 years, became an agnostic/atheist for a year or two, evolved to being a liberal UCC Protestant/agnostic for 10 years, then had a conversion experience and came back to Mormonism. What we're really talking about is people who have wrestled with questions relating to faith, who are at different stopping points in different journeys. Some people (maybe the majority?) eventually reach a destination and stay there. But we all still relate to the same set of questions.

It's impossible to keep separate organizations, because the organizations themselves will drift based on the community dynamics. I've seen this time and time again in the on-line Mormon social media... A group that starts out as committed to the Church drifts toward skepticism and criticism. Or, as the recent history of Affirmation has shown, an organization dominated by skepticism and criticism becomes faith friendly.

To my mind, it makes sense to try to make it work together, as I've stressed in my essay. A sort of federated republic seems to have evolved in the last couple of years... I think it's worth seeing if that can work. The only alternative is to definitively split and create two separate organizations (which some folks have actually encouraged me to do).