Sunday, September 15, 2013

Affirmation Reborn

One year ago, Affirmation was at a crossroads. The fundamental question: What role will faith play in our organization?

Two years ago, the Kirtland Conference, organized under the presidency of David Melson, took Affirmation back to the early roots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a way, Kirtland was an acknowledgment of the desire on the part of gay Mormons to come to terms with their past. There are two ways of coming to terms with your past. One way is to make peace with it, and then to move on. Another way is to engage with it, to remember, to let it renew and re-energize your present.

I believe there was divine purpose in God granting stewardship of the Kirtland Temple to the Community of Christ. At least part of that purpose involved their willingness to share the temple with us, to grant us gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Saints access to those sacred precincts. The effect on those of us who have largely been shut out of our temples, out of the places most sacred to us as Latter-day Saints, was electrifying. Kirtland surprised us by revealing how many LGBT Mormons still have a deep yearning to draw from the wellsprings of our faith. In 1835, in the Kirtland Temple, a latter-day Pentecost filled the Saints with light and courage. In 2011 gay Mormons, gathering in the same space, experienced an outpouring of the same Spirit that was poured out on our ancestors in that place.

Once we tasted of that Spirit, we wanted more of it. We learned in Seattle in 2012 that we did not need to gather in an LDS temple to experience an outpouring of the Spirit. All we needed to do was to ask God, "who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not."

One year ago, inspired by the rich outpourings we experienced in Kirtland and then -- to our delight and surprise -- in Seattle, we dared to propose something radical. We dared to suggest that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons could ask for and receive and follow the promptings of the Spirit. We dared to insist that we did not have to choose between being gay and Mormon. We dared to believe that the integrity of our souls allowed that "we through our faith may begin to inherit the visions and blessings and glories of God."

Randall Thacker articulated that vision in terms that resonated with many. Randall was elected president and asked me and Tina Richerson to serve with him as the Executive Committee of Affirmation, and together we extended invitations to all who felt called to this work to join with us.

Randall is a gifted leader, but I don't believe it was ever any one individual or group of individuals who were or are responsible for the incredible influx of new members, new leaders, energy, time and financial resources that came into Affirmation in the coming months. It was the vision.

In the course of leadership gatherings in Washington, DC in January 2013 and in Salt Lake City in April 2013, that vision was hammered out into a plan of action. On the eve of our 2013 conference here in Salt Lake City, during a 2 a.m. Facebook convo with Randall, I looked at the goals we had set only nine months ago, and what we had accomplished since then, and I wept. Back then, they felt like dreams, and now they are flesh and blood reality.

Through the course of the conference I talked to many of the individuals who had been instrumental in bringing those plans to fruition. Again and again I heard the words, "I didn't do that much. I could have done more. I didn't do enough." It was a team effort, not the work of any one individual.


From Seattle (2012) to Salt Lake (2013) conference registrations more than tripled, and our financial assets quintupled. More than 70% of those who participated in the Salt Lake City conference were first time attendees.

More astonishing and moving was the unprecedented numbers of LGBT participants who were accompanied by heterosexual family members, friends and allies -- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and ward members.

The first night of the conference, the documentary Families are Forever, featuring the family of Tom and Wendy Montgomery, was presented. The Montgomery's were present with their gay teenage son Jordan. In the documentary, Tom and Wendy posed the painful, poignant question: Is there a future for our son in the Church? What is Heavenly Father's plan for his gay sons and daughters? I presented an award to the film's producer, Caitlin Ryan, a Roman Catholic ally I am proud to call my sister in Christ. As I did, I turned to Jordan, sitting on the front row. "We may not fully understand what it is, but our Heavenly Father does have a plan for us. It is our privilege to work it out and to learn what that plan is." The Spirit was thick. Pure joy was beaming from Jordan's face. He knew that whatever his future might be with the Church, his family and hosts of friends would be there with him and for him. Unconditionally.

Later in the conference, I attended a workshop on transgender Mormon experience. I wept at the grace and faith evident in the testimony of Sara Jade Woodhouse, who recognized that even with the intense pain and loss she had suffered as a transgender woman who came of age decades ago in southern Utah, there was good in her life that could not have come without the pain. I wept at the hope and the fervor of Grayson Moore, a transgender young man whose mother, Neca Allgood, had learned to become his fiercest advocate and defender. I honor Sara's bravery as a pioneer, and Grayson and Neca's model of what LDS family values should be all about.

Our sages were there, those who over decades of faithful witness have believed in us when no one else would, when even we had a difficult time believing in ourselves. Saturday morning, Carol Lynn Pearson, who has spent decades lovingly witnessing, hearing and telling and retelling our stories, bore us testimony of our story as she has observed it. We were not unworthy, undeserving and excommunicate. We were heroes. We -- reluctantly or not -- had accepted a call, faced our darkest demons, recovered the elixir of life, and were now called to return to our tribe to share with them the healing that both we and they most desperately needed.

Bob Rees, another of our mentors, presented a workshop with me and three other lesbian and gay Mormons who are active in the Church: Sam Noble, Ellen Koester and Tina Richerson. The title of the workshop was "Restoring our Relationships with the Restored Gospel and Church." Bob spoke compellingly of how the principle of restoration could operate in the lives of LGBT Mormons, healing injury and repairing brokenness. I and the other LGBT participants shared insights from our experience staying connected to the Church or returning to the Church. Basic principles of the gospel, first principles of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance, hope, patience and love had helped us navigate the treacherous challenges of coming out in communities blinded by homophobia. In turn, the challenges we had faced and overcome as LGBT Mormons had deepened our understanding of the Gospel and the Church. No magical answers, no doctrinal formulas; just faith, hope and love. The workshop participants were invited to share their own stories of restoration. The stories revealed pain that was still raw, but also that deep, deep yearning for faith and connection. The workshop was offered twice, because it had garnered the largest numbers of conference pre-registrants. Many of the participants stayed for both sessions of the workshop.

Other panels/workshops, which I unfortunately can't comment on since I didn't attend, included "Growing Up LGBT in America" (with HRC's Ann E. Nicoll and Sharon Groves); "Follow Your Heart: Breaking Through Stereotypes and Confronting Shame, a Guide in Being a Fearless Lesbian Mormon" (with Tina Richerson, Hollie Hancock, Berta Marquez, Kim Mack, Anna Empey and Amy Larson); "Circles of Empathy" (with Kendall Wilcox of the Far Between Project); the "LDS Family Fellowship" panel (with Kathryn Steffenson and the Abhau family, Oviatt family and the Weyman family); a panel on "Spiritual Partnerships" (with Karin Hendricks and Tawyna Smith); "Building Local Communities for LDS LGBT/SSA Individuals, Family and Friends" (with Bryan Hendrickson and Bryce Cook); a BYU USGA panel (with Adam White, Keith Trottier and others); and "Healing Our Spiritual Selves" (with Karin Hendricks, Tawnya Smith and Alaina Hendricks). In the afternoon there was a family/parents discussion group with the Montgomery's, Abhau's, Weymann's, and Oviatt's).

Over lunch, Daniel Parkinson presented a montage of testimonies of LGBT Mormons who had, at the end of deep heartache, often on the verge of suicide, turned to God and been rewarded with powerful personal assurances of divine acceptance and approval.

As in previous years, the heart and soul of conference was in our worship and testimony together. Prayer, hymns, and the conference choir (rehearsals and performance) were heartfelt. The first evening choir rehearsal, I couldn't make it through our singing of "The Spirit of God" without getting choked up at the thought of what it meant to us for the Lord to "extend the Saints' understanding" through returning "visions and blessings" and our anticipation of a day when "the lamb and the lion shall lie down together without any ire." The testimony meeting, this year held Saturday evening to a standing-room-only crowd, was filled with raw authenticity; belief and hope rendered all the more poignant by honest admissions of doubt; a man who wept as he told of an experience in which God healed shattering self-hate. Peter VanDerWalt who had traveled all the way from South Africa, reduced many of us to tears as he told of how he had read the Book of Mormon with the intention to prove the absurdity of religion, and had come away with a testimony of God.

At the "Evening of Affirmation" Saturday night, Judy Finch, featured on the website, told the story of how her understanding unfolded through decades of wrestling to come to terms with the homosexuality of a son and a grandson. Steve Young used an analogy of faith that LGBT Mormons could relate to when he described the experience of "throwing blind," striving for a goal that you can't see. His wife Barb Young spoke passionately about the pain caused by Proposition 8, and the story of a heterosexual LDS friend of hers whose life and understanding were transformed by the forgiveness of her lesbian next-door neighbors.

Both Friday night and Saturday night, Benji Schwimmer shared his own testimony of the power of authenticity and love, through words and then through dance. My feet didn't dance, but my heart did.


The conference isn't over yet. We will be gathering at the Tabernacle later this morning, and then for a final luncheon in which Mormon ally Erika Munson will speak to us. I risk being a zombie today, having forgone my night's rest in favor of publishing this post.

I could not sleep partly because I miss my husband, whom I wish could have been here with me to witness this richness of love and exuberance and hope. But it was also that I lay in bed, the visions and blessings of the last few days washing over me, replaying again and again in my mind and heart, drawing out tears of gratitude. This conference exceeded all our hopes and expectations.

Affirmation experienced a kind of rebirth this weekend. We've gone back to Affirmation's roots, to the hopes and dreams of Affirmation's founders in the 1970s that LGBT Mormons might find faith, hope, and love against all odds in a Church that denied the possibility of gay Mormon virtue. We've gone back to the roots of our faith as Latter-day Saints, blossomed from the yearning of a 14-year-old farm boy for wisdom greater than that he possessed, who dared to "ask of God."

We too dare to ask.


Diane Oviatt said...

John, beautiful wrap up to an astonishing weekend of unconditional love, that has me once again moved to tears.
I cannot express the gratitude in my heart for your gentle soul and generous faith. My family will cherish our memories forever!

Dan Christensen said...

Thanks John for reporting and, more, making the conference happen!