No More Strangers Session, Sunstone Symposium 2013–Erika Munson

(This is part of a four part series including remarks made by four panelists at the Sunstone Symposium Session focusing on this blog–

Remarks at No More Strangers Session Sunstone Symposium
Salt Lake City, Utah
August 2, 2013

The mission of Mormons Building Bridges is to support faithful Mormons as they seek to make their homes and congregations safe and welcoming for LGBT people. Today I want to focus on two aspects of our work that have been featured in No More Strangers : Action and Attitude.

MBB’s philosophy is that there are many many ways we can improve the situation in the church for our LGBT brothers and sisters without challenging existing doctrine or policy. Instead of being a restrictive undertaking, we have found it actually very innovative and creative. It forces you to separate habit, inertia, and culture in the Church from our essential belief. It allows you to look with fresh eyes at the existing tools we have in our Christian community that can be used to help LGBT brothers and sisters on their life’s path.

The action that created Mormons Building Bridges was the idea that church members who identify as active and faithful can put on their church clothes and march in a Pride parade as a manifestation of their faith. In a recent post on NMS, John Gustav-Wrathall puts this phenomenon in perspective (Why We March):

What did we learn from Pride in 2012, and what does Mormon participation in Pride look like in 2013?

First, we learned that people’s worst fears about Pride never materialized. No active Mormons who participated in Pride reported experiencing alienation or ostracism (or Church discipline!) for having participated. To the contrary, many of their fellow Saints expressed curiosity about or interest in Pride, and a desire to make the Church a more welcoming place for LGBT people and to expand areas of common ground between the Church and the LGBT community.

Second, we learned that participating in Pride was difficult, powerful, healing, and necessary.

Yes, for many participation in Pride definitely went out of the “comfort zone.” It was stressful and scary in some ways, even as there were positive experiences. (Not to mention that the parade route was long, and the weather was hot!)

So many participants reported life-changing experiences. My contingent at Twin Cities Pride was often greeted by smiles and waves and shouts of surprise and excitement. “The Mormons are here? Look, here come the Mormons!” Parade watchers ran forward to exchange hugs with marchers. Participants in numerous cities described onlookers with tears of joy in their eyes.

An important part of the Mormons Building Bridges’ mission is providing a safe place for people to tell their stories. After our march last month, this beautiful story was shared on our Facebook page, and was later posted on NMS (A Gay Mormon Describes The Impact of Seeing His Own Mother Marching):

My mom has always said to me that she could hug anyone who was gay, she could accept and love them, but she could never walk a parade to support gay rights. Honestly I am just glad she accepted me and that she loves my partner. I know she will always love my family. This is more then many in my community could ever hope for. My mom has come so far in this journey with me. I have to say, I was a little surprised when she said she would be attending the pride parade with us this year. I was a little nervous about what she might see or what she might think.

The morning came and we were running a little late, she called me and said that she had saved me a place and to hurry and get there. As we arrived at the place where she was I saw an interesting sight. My mom and sister (who is preparing to serve a full time mission for the LDS church) sitting in a camp chair, dressed in church clothes, and surrounded by a sea of rainbow flags held by gays and lesbians. I ran up to see a big smile on my moms face, she was having a great time. Then a special group passed… It was the Mormons Building Bridges Group. My mom stood from her chair, head held high, and walked out to join the group. As she walked she turned and blew me a kiss and waved goodbye, I could see in her eyes what she couldn’t say “This one is for you son.” She turned back and marched on. I was not expecting the emotions of that moment… I cheered her on with a smile and the tears started to come, my sister came up gave me a hug and we wept together. Trent also couldn’t believe what she had done, and tears streaked his face as he joined the hug.

This story is incredibly valuable in that it reinforces the idea that LGBT support can be a journey for many of us–starting in small ways, but always having the potential to grow into a stronger statement. Each step can be scary but also meaningful.

From the beginning, MBB chose to step away from the gay marriage debate. Initially, we characterized this decision as a desire to stay away from actions that were political–assuming that all political LGBT issues were by definition divisive. But this winter Equality Utah asked us if we could support state-wide non-discrimination legislation. This seemed to be a dilemma: making it illegal to deny someone housing or a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity seemed pretty basic demonstration of Christian principles–a manifestation of a Zion society– but working to get this legislation passed would be without a doubt a political act. So as the Mormons Building Bridge Steering Committee we looked to the essence of what we do: figure out ways for church members to support LGBT people without challenging church policy or doctrine. The reason we hadn’t included the same-sex marriage issue in our conversations was because the church has been very clear in it’s opposition to it. But in 2009 the church very eloquently supported a Salt Lake Municipal nondiscrimination ordinance. So we had a precedent for church leadership supporting this idea, and went ahead with the project. No More Strangers posted the testimony our Steering Committee member Doree Burt Ashcroft gave at the committee hearing on Capitol Hill (Mormons Testify Against Discrimination):

In a Mormon congregation, we take care of each other’s spiritual and temporal needs. The church welfare program is well known, in fact, world-renowned, for helping those who are struggling financially, but there is also often a ward housing chairman, or employment specialist. Imagine how disheartening it would be if your bishop has asked you to help a member find a job or a place to live and because that person is gay it is legal for employers or landlords to turn them away. Mormons Building Bridges is about making all our church programs safe and welcoming for LGBT people– passage of this bill will make it easier for members to address the temporal needs of all our members, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

So marching and supporting legislation are examples of fairly public actions that MBB has taken. But of equal, maybe even more importance are the individual actions that take place in our homes and wards every day. On our FB page we have found that sharing the apparently small challenges and triumphs, others can be inspired to be brave in church and with their families. This kind of experience is beautifully described in “How I Came Out to my Ward” which was posted on NMS by James Brinton:

In true Mormon fashion, they did ask about my personal life— and pretty quickly too! On my first Sunday, I was invited to dinner at the home of a lovely couple with a group of other visitors. Upon learning that I was in my 30s and unmarried, two different people tried to set me up on dates with women they knew. I was flattered! Needless to say, when I cleared my throat and told them I was gay and returning to church, all conversation at the table stopped. Everybody listened. Was I really doing this? Sure, it was a little awkward at first, but my story was met with humor, understanding and apologies—they just didn’t know! I think some were a little shocked too (by the look on their faces)! I stayed true to the promise I made to myself and was so glad I did!

Stories like James’ build true empathy. Gay and straight readers can journey with him and ask themselves, “Could I do the same thing? How would I react to a new ward member if as a part of the normal introductory small talk he told me he was gay? On our Facebook page we are keenly aware of the conservative Mormon who may be approaching LGBT issues for the first time, who may come from a place of fear and confusion–never even daring to join MBB but lurking and reading our content. Simple honest stories can be the least threatening and most empathy-building tools we have for this.

Finally, Mormons Building Bridges seeks to foster an attitude of love and respect amongst individuals on all sides of LGBT/LDS issues. We have an opportunity to model civll conversation in a world where polarization and personal attacks can sadly be the norm. There are two NMS posts that address this. The first are remarks I gave at the Utah Pride interfaith service. I was inspired by the recent movie that explored what a community that had suffered at the hand of a dictator must grapple with as they seek to bring the moveable middle along with them to change They had to choose between a message that re-hashed perfectly justifiable grievances or present a more positive message of a better future:

More often than we may be willing to admit, through God’s transformative power, anger and disappointment with our adversaries can become love and encouragement. This is not easy–it is a formidable act of faith. But we all know that when God tells us to love our neighbor, he’s talking about the neighbor who’s hardest to love. It is my prayer that during this next year we can all try to listen to, learn from, and understand those individuals who threaten us the most. Looking for the divine in the one who has hurt us is one of the most sacred experiences we can have in this life.

I’m going to embarrass John once again with a quote from his NMS post “why we must not give up on the church” which I think powerfully expresses Mormons Building Bridges desire to work with what you have in the present in the hope of a better future:

People will say to me: “How can you want a Church to prosper, when that same Church has done so much to injure you and your family in Prop 8 and in so many other circumstances? Doesn’t it just make you sick?”

Or they will say or imply that something is not quite right with me. That I am “self-oppressed” or must be afflicted with some sort of internal homophobia or self-hatred to love a Church that hates me.

But I don’t see a Church that hates me. I see a Church that — yes! — is yet imperfect in a journey toward perfection. And I want to be a part of that journey.

Some day, when the Church is what God wants it to be, when the Church becomes the Church that Christ envisioned when he died for it, my love for the Church will receive its full reward.

Thank You