On the Road to Emmaus

(Admin note)
No More Strangers is a new forum seeking to advance the dialogue regarding LGBT people and Mormonism.  As such, it has the good fortune of having bloggers who have made significant contributions to Latter-day Saint LGBT people, their families, their congregations, and to the Mormon Church itself. Collectively, contributors have helped make the Mormon community a much safer and more enlightened and hospitable place for LGBT people. 

The purpose of No More Strangers is to encourage dialogue about the issues that impact LGBT Mormons and their friends, families, and congregations.  This dialogue is essential for educating, for encouraging conversation, and for promoting change. Some aspects of this subject are easy to explore; others are more difficult. While the contributors to No More Strangers are united in their concern for the LGBT cause, they represent different points of view and speak with individual voices. 

The following special blog presents explores the relationship between the issue of blacks and the priesthood, including the 1978 revelation granting priesthood to blacks of African descent, and the current issues regarding LGBT individuals and the Church. The six authors present different perspectives on this subjects. Our hope is that both individually and collectively they can help advance understanding and provoke thoughtful dialogue.

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Their eyes were holden that they should not know him…. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way…? (Luke 24: 16, 32)

I love this story of the disciples who conversed with Jesus on the road to Emmaus because I believe Christ lives and because I find hope and comfort in Christ revealing himself to humble Saints under unexpected circumstances–Saints who were often confused or lost, grieving or without hope; Saints living in ancient times or in these latter days–are the heart and soul of our faith. But I love this particular story, because it is an example of how incapable we often are of seeing the end of the road we are on while we are yet in it.

I have had my own Emmaus-road-type experiences. I know that Jesus is in this journey with me as a gay man and as a Latter-day Saint. I am grateful for those of my brothers and sisters who are willing to walk this road with me, who want to get to know me better. I am grateful for the burdens so many of them have helped me bear, and I feel lucky to be able to walk it with them, and bear some of their burdens. In order to walk this path, however, there are some things I’ve had to let go of. One is any sense of superiority over or judgment of others–even those who have hurt me through their judgments or treated me as inferior.

One of the great moments in my journey came in the recognition of the splendid complexity and beauty of what we often too glibly refer to as “the Church.” There was a time when I used to speak of “the Church” as if it were some sort of monolith, as if every person who claimed to belong to it was responsible for every act committed or statement made in its name. The word for Church (ecclesia in Greek) means nothing more nor less than “gathering.” I think a theologically correct definition of the Church is those of us who have gathered together in faith in the living Christ. The Church is a gathered people. That’s it.

I want to state this as plainly as I can, and I think my statement is warranted by everything we know from scripture and from the history of the Church, that we are a gathering of sinners. The magnitude of whatever particular calling we hold in the Church doesn’t change our status as sinners, though it ought to give pause to those of us holding such callings. But whether it gives us pause or not, what we all share in common is that we are gloriously, splendidly imperfect. We call ourselves “Saints” not because of any virtue inhering in ourselves, but because God graciously claims us as his peculiar people. We are “holy” through the blood, lovingly spilled, of our elder brother and redeemer, of the head of our Church (our “gathering”), Jesus Christ. We are gloriously, splendidly imperfect, but on a road to perfection.

If there is one preeminent sin of the Church it is our woeful tendency to forget this fact about the nature of our gathering. Even the most superficial reading of the Book of Mormon reminds us of the ease with which members of the Church can descend into pride; how quickly we make divisions between ourselves, and how those divisions corrode the very fabric of the Church. One of my favorite moments in the history of the early Church is the one documented in Acts 10 where the Lord had to teach Peter a lesson about how he ought to relate to his Gentile brothers and sisters. As Latter-day Saints understand this history, Peter was the President of the Church, but he didn’t have any magical, a priori insight into the nature of things. In seeing Gentiles as unclean, he shared the predispositions and prejudices of his fellow Jews. (He had some good reasons to want to keep his distance from Roman Gentiles, who were there as part of the bloody military, political and economic apparatus of oppressive Roman rule.) He assumed that Gentiles were unclean and that he should have nothing to do with them, and it took some convincing on the part of the Lord before Peter could affirm in his own words that “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). What the Lord said specifically was, “What God hath cleansed [made a Saint!], that call not thou common” (v. 15). God claims his own. It is God who makes us Saints, not we, not our judgments of ourselves or of others.

In regard to LGBT issues, I am grateful for the empathy and support of all allies wherever they may come from. But I feel it is not helpful to me, or to many other LGBT Mormons like me, to suggest that the simple, easy solution to our dilemma is to leave the Church. We may leave it (as I did for a time), but ultimately for very many of us (for at least 30% of gay Mormons as documented in a recent study by Bill Bradshaw, John Dehlin et al.) leaving the Church might resolve certain tensions, but it does not solve our problem. We need a way forward that is both true to our sexuality, our relationships, and our faith.

There’s a treasure of faith that really matters to LGBT Mormons. There are substantial numbers of us who have stuck it out and put everything on the line because we trusted our testimonies more than one of the deepest human yearnings it is possible to have. Some of us have moved forward in faith and in hope in so-called “mixed orientation marriages.” Some of us have moved forward in celibacy, trusting that God’s love and the love of the Church would somehow make up for the lack of personal, intimate companionship—in eternity if not in this life. There are even folks like me who, despite having found happiness in a successful, long-time (for me 20 years!) same-sex relationship, found that it was not enough in itself to bring us the kind of happiness that really matters, the happiness that comes through our testimonies of the gospel. Part of what’s central to that treasure of faith is the affirmation that God is real and that he guides us as a Church.

I’ve never been satisfied with the simplistic “the gospel is true but the Church isn’t” approach, because to me it is a denial of the power of the gospel if we don’t acknowledge its embodiment in a real-life Church, in a gathering of real-life Saints, led by a real-life prophet. Those Saints and that prophet are—of course!—not perfect. But to deny that the Church is the place where God meets us is like saying the Gospel is only true in theory. And I have a testimony of this Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember at some point in my journey back to the Church being inspired by David’s words, “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand [anywhere else]. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalms 84:10). I would rather be a doorkeeper in the Celestial Kingdom, and be true to my testimony, than reign anywhere else and deny what I know.

I dislike comparing the experience of being black in the LDS Church with the experience of being gay and LDS. The histories and the social relationships and theological questions related to those experiences are completely different. (And some of us are black and gay and LDS!) I believe it is both unproductive and a logical fallacy to argue that because the Church had one outcome in relation to blacks and the priesthood that it therefore must inevitably have a (presumably) similar outcome (however similarity is defined) in relation to gay marriage. It is unproductive to shame members of the Church with examples of poor behavior in relation to race, and then use that shame in a manipulative way to imply that people ought to repent of their attitudes toward homosexuality.

The Church–I hope–has learned at least some lessons in the last four decades about the corrosive impact of racism on the fabric of the Church. Apparently, we have not learned enough, because I am aware, in 2013, of African American members of the Church who still experience the sting of both subtle and not-so-subtle racist attitudes and behavior in LDS communities. In 2006, President Gordon B. Hinckley found it necessary to remind us that, decades after the end of the priesthood ban, we still needed to be concerned about the “ugly and unacceptable” sin of racism. We still have work to do. But Mormons have a greater appreciation of the work we need to do in relation to racism because we’ve traveled a road that has taught us those lessons. And, yes, we received a much sought after revelation. I am grateful that President Kimball insisted that the problem of blacks and the priesthood needed to be solved through revelation. To do so was to guard the treasure of LDS faith, to trust that as a Church we need to be guided by God–even if that guidance is to correct a past error.

If comparisons need to be made between the issues faced by LGBT Saints and the issues faced by Saints of African ancestry, I will say that the part of the story relating to blacks and the priesthood that inspires me most is the stories of Africans and African Americans who clung to their testimonies of the gospel and who stayed faithful prior to the 1978 revelation, when it was not obvious at all that there would ever be a relenting of racism on the part of white LDS, or a “revelation” to normalize blacks’ relationship with the Church. I am astonished by the story of Nigerian Saints who created a kind of Church in exile, petitioning Salt Lake for guidance and leadership, despite repeated rebuffs. These individuals had grasped the treasure of the faith, and they sought the “pearl of great price” even if it required them to do so in a Church that seemed to have little need for them. In Official Declaration No. 2, President Kimball wrote, “We have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren.” The story of the end of the ban is as much a story of the faithfulness of Latter-day Saints of African ancestry as it is of white Mormons finally “getting it” (whether “it” is new personal insight or understanding or compassion, or a revelation).

That, to me, is a piercing witness. Because I have felt that burning in the bosom that tells me: Regardless of whatever else I know, regardless of whatever outcome awaits at the end of this journey, I know this Church is true. I know this is where I need to be. I am on a journey that is unique, a journey that belongs uniquely to those of us who choose to make this journey together. What we ultimately learn together is anybody’s guess, but I know that Christ is with me in this journey and that faithfulness has its own rewards.

I also know that whatever the Church has to learn about homophobia, it will not learn if we do not patiently travel this road together. It is not helpful to get impatient just at the point where there seems to be a convergence of once divergent paths. I am grateful that the Church collectively is signaling ever greater willingness to be in a journey with me and with other LGBT Saints. How can I mourn the fact that “Mormonsandgays.org” repeatedly states that there has been no change in doctrine, when change is always the culmination of a journey, not the beginning of it?

What I also know is that if I get angry and judge and condemn my fellow Saints, I’ve failed in the central ethic of the Gathering. It does not matter that they judge and condemn me. Oh, there is a sweetness in that kind of letting go. I pray for it for all of us.

5 comments for “On the Road to Emmaus

  1. steph
    April 7, 2013 at 1:49 am

    Beautiful. I can only hope I’ll someday be as patient, forgiving and humble as your words are here.

  2. Daniel
    April 8, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with every word of this. I’m not gay, and so don’t share this author’s experiences as a gay mormon. But I do recognize the Savior Jesus’ teachings when I hear them taught and exemplified.

    Changing others is like changing ourselves – it’s a journey, a process. We all know how hard it is for ourselves to change, even on small matters. So small wonder that on such a fundamental matter change should be slow. Patience and faith in Christ have never been more important.

    Like this brother, I don’t know what the end result will be, necessarily. The process could be similar to the ending of the priesthood ban for blacks. Likely, it will be different. But how, I do not know. What I DO know, is what Jesus taught us about loving each other, and ourselves, and our God. Perhaps God delays his response to this issue because we haven’t yet, as a people, learned the lesson in compassion, empathy, understanding, patience, and love that this experience is meant to teach us.

    Let’s not give up on the church. Let’s believe in each other, and engage with more love than ever before.

  3. ccarrolls
    April 8, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    thank you. i have a gay son who i support in his path with his partner, but i appreciate your perspective. My son wanted to follow your path, but was horrified, as a return missionary, to see the discouragement of the gay single and mixed-gender married men at an Evergreen support group our stake president sent him to, and was in horror of living his life alone, ending up in support groups as an old man. He was too young to see any other end to such a path. He needed other role models of men with the viewpoint you share so he could truly have seen his options. His heart still hurts from the excommunication and loss of all he thought would be his life, but he has carved out a good life and is rebuilding his soul…

  4. April 9, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Daniel – What you’ve said here rings absolutely true to me: “Perhaps God delays his response to this issue because we haven’t yet, as a people, learned the lesson in compassion, empathy, understanding, patience, and love that this experience is meant to teach us.”

    This is not to blame LGBT people for the pain they’ve experienced from exclusion and misunderstanding; and I believe in a final accounting and a balancing. But I have learned empathy and patience through the struggles I’ve experienced around this, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned.

  5. April 9, 2013 at 6:39 am

    ccarrolls – “It is not good that man should be alone.” Carving out a good life and rebuilding one’s soul is what we’re all called to do, if we’re honest. We all find truth that way.

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