Howard Anderson: A Compassionate Stake President & Friend of Gays

Howard Anderson, former president of the Los Angeles Stake, passed away last week. I had known Howard for a very long time. He was the President of the California Mission when I first started teaching at UCLA in 1966 during which time we both attended the Westwood Ward. Later, he became a Regional Representative, a bishop of the Westwood Ward and President of the Los Angeles Stake. It was during the latter calling that I had the closest association with Howard since I was serving as a bishop of the Los Angeles First (Singles’) Ward during his tenure.

Howard was a sensible church leader, one who was more interested in people than in programs. He was an excellent administrator but one who gave primacy to administration as a vehicle for service, not an end in itself. As bishop ministering to a number of gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints in my ward, I was particularly struck by Howard’s common sense and compassionate response to these members, and his appreciation of how I was attempting to serve them and welcome them back into the fold. In fact, after I was released and was serving a humanitarian mission with my wife in the Baltics, I heard that Howard had organized monthly gatherings of gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints in the Los Angeles Stake. The purpose of the gatherings was to provide a place for fellowship among those who didn’t feel comfortable going to a ward or who had somehow been estranged from the Church.  Howard established two rules: no gay bashing and no Church bashing.

Howard was famous for his maxims. Here are a few of my favorites: “The most important talent for a bishop to possess is the art of selective neglect”; “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment”; “There is no church meeting that can’t be improved by good speaking and less of it and good music and more of it”; and, “You have to give people enough leeway to fail.” Howard was always generous and gracious with sinners.

When I returned from my mission I remember asking Howard about these monthly meetings. It was clear that he considered them among the most important achievements of his tenure as stake president. He revealed that someone had criticized him to Church headquarters for holding such meetings and that either an area or general authority had been sent to close them down. Howard refused. His response to the person assigned to end the gatherings was, “Brother _____, if you can assure me that when I stand before the Savior to give an accounting of my stewardship that he will excuse me from my responsibility to minister to these brothers and sisters, then I will comply; otherwise, I intend to continue.” He did continue but when he was later released, the monthly meetings came to a close. I have spoken with gays who were in those meetings and they speak of them and of President Anderson with appreciation.

The other memorable experience with President Anderson over matters relating to gays happened while I was bishop. I had received a call from a man whose brother was living within the boundaries of my ward. He reported that his brother who was gay was infected with the HIV virus and was dying of AIDS, and wondered if I would go visit him. I did so, and invited this brother to come back to Church. He was surprised by the invitation because he didn’t think he was worthy to do so because was he involved in an intimate relationship with another man.

He did come back to church and was fully integrated into the ward. He was a talented musician and, among other things, sang in the choir. When he had been coming to church for a couple of months, knowing that he likely had less than a year to live, I asked him if he had ever thought of going to the temple. He said he had thought of it often but was certain that the opportunity would never come to him. I said, “I am going to read you the questions I would ask if I were  conducting a temple recommend interview. I don’t want you to answer the questions, but I would like for you to think about them.”

A month or so later, I invited him into my office and asked, “Are you ready for me to ask the temple questions for real?” He said he was and so I asked and he answered them. When it came to the question about the law of chastity, he said that he and his companion had discussed this and that even though it would be a sacrifice, especially for his partner who wasn’t a member of the Church, it was a sacrifice they were both willing to make.

Several months later, on the appointed day, this brother, his mother (his father wasn’t a member), and a number of his siblings, along with members of our ward, went to the temple so this brother could take out his endowments. I was privileged to be his escort. It was one of the loveliest experiences I had as bishop. Afterwards, we all met for lunch. Joining us was this man’s companion.

It wasn’t until later that I understood something else about that special day, something that involved President Anderson. He reported that the morning this brother was to take out his endowments, the temple president called Howard to say that he had received a call from someone outside the stake telling him that there was someone who was entering the temple unworthily because he was gay and was living with another gay man. President Anderson responded to the temple president, “President, this brother has been interviewed by his bishop and by me, his stake president, and found worthy to be in the temple today. Further, I would like the name of the person who called you because I would like to call his stake president and ask him to call a council on this man for meddling in this matter.”

The member of our ward who took out his endowments that day died not many months thereafter, happy and peaceful in spite of the ravages of his illness. His companion lovingly nurtured him to the end.

I had the impression last week that when Howard Anderson passed into the next world and had his interview with the Savior, the Lord embraced him and thanked him for his compassionate service to his gay brothers and lesbian sisters, adding, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into my rest.”

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