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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Disillusionment and Inconclusive Data

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.