By Diane Oviatt and Michael John Amesquita
This post contain two different accounts describing the same Bishop who was willing to listen and learn from and about LGBT Mormons
Like so many fellow Mormons, especially those of us who are close to the LDS LGBT community, I have been angry and despondent over the recent exclusion policy regarding these people we love and care for. Any hopes I have had for a softening of hearts over at the church office building, were effectively dashed with Elder Nelson’s recent revelation that it was a revelation.
Thus, I approached last weekend’s Los Angeles conference for LGBT Mormons and allies sponsored by Affirmation, with less than my usual enthusiasm. And I returned hopeful and renewed. Besides soaking up the aura of unconditional love and acceptance that permeates what many of us now refer to as “Gay Church”, (which by the way, always feels how regular church should feel), I had a specific experience while there that felt like a healing balm to my soul.
In an effort to even the ratio of women to men present, I was asked to attend a workshop at the conference for church leaders. There were several local bishops attending, and during the course of the session, they managed to convey their utter lack of knowledge/education regarding LGBT issues.
In my usual fashion, I spoke up to correct some of their false assumptions, as did a couple of my Mama dragon sisters who were also present. One young bishop was there with his wife at the request of a gay Affirmation Board member who attends his ward, (and who undoubtedly paved the way for his leader to want to learn more). Although this Bishop, by his own admission, “stepped in it” more than once in the course of our conversation that continued long after the session ended, his humility and open heart made it such that he allowed us to school him in the ways of ministering to this vulnerable population.
We shared some personal stories, educated him on the fact that, contrary to his belief, there were gay kids in his congregation, and proceeded to instruct him on how to talk to these youth. I asked him not to use the word “sin’ in his conversations with them, explaining how they would interpret that their very existence is a “sin.”
We spoke plainly of suicide rates, homelessness and families torn asunder. He stood in disbelief, with tears streaming down his face, as did his wife. Through it all I silently cursed our top down, patriarchal hierarchy as I realized how great it would be if we women, mothers of LGBT children, could hold seminars to teach from the heart, these woefully uneducated ecclesiastical leaders, how to minister in order to save lives.
He shocked us all by returning the next day, abandoning his own flock, to come to our Sunday meeting, with his wife and teen daughter in tow. They sat in front of us and passed tissues back and forth as all three openly cried listening to the beautiful testimonies and heartbreaking sadness shared. The three of them stayed for the luncheon afterward, engaging in meaningful conversation with many LGBT attendees.
Speaking with his daughter while in line for the bathroom, she expressed to me how her father had come home after the Saturday session and tearfully told her about the “amazing women” who schooled him with such passion and fire. In a message on Facebook he said to me, in part, “I don’t know how to put it in words, but it was one of the most important events ever for me and my family. Thank you for the straight talk and energy, and the love for your family and others. It rubbed off.”
How I wish every church leader could have the opportunity to listen to the heartfelt pleas of the LGBT Mormon community and their loved ones the way he did. How I wish we had more tender hearts and open minds like his.
My experience there is a drop in the bucket, but we can all add drops by boldly speaking up and educating our leaders. There are some softer hearts among them, I now know. I believe now that while we won’t change the edicts coming from Salt Lake, we can and will contribute to safer, more loving spaces for those for whom, like our vulnerable youth, it is necessary to stay a while. For now, it is enough to keep me tethered to a faith tradition that feels increasingly unrecognizable to me.
This morning I was able to chat with my Bishop for about 20 minutes before he gave his “5th Sunday” lesson to the youth. He said because of the “Knit Together in Unity and Love” conference he know has a greater appreciation for the “breadth of the spectrum” LGBT members are going through. He knows that leading with love is the right way. That he still ponders the conversations he had at the conference, both from LGBT members who identify as such and have learned to meld the two identities together and others who identify as SSA and shared their struggles. He reiterated how much love he felt at the conference.
Now to his amazing lesson – So on the chalk board he wrote “Standards and Commandments”. Then he asked for the youth to list the standards that a “perfect Mormon” would uphold. The list had the usual suspects from temple marriage, law of chastity, testimony, sacrament taking, etc. Then he asked our youth, “Who lives every one of these things perfectly?” Of course the answer was no one, zero people live these 100%. These are standard we have to help guide our lives. Commandments are from God. He asked what the two most important commandments were and received the correct reply. He then told a story about how a girl in the ward came to him and asked him if it would be a sin to dye her hair blue. He replied to her that he loved the color blue! They chatted and he told her that she shouldn’t be afraid to be different, that she could tell everyone that the Bishop loved the color blue and anyone with blue hair was welcomed to church. He discussed with the youth about how being different was okay and that sometimes, in our church, we think we all have to be the same or it is bad thing to be different. Different colored skin, different languages, heights, ability…differences should be celebrated.
He then said that sometimes people treat others badly, both in and outside of our wards, for being gay. He then said something that made me tear up, loudly with outstretched arms he looked them all in the eyes and said “I love gay people”. He asked them if they knew anyone who was gay. About 3/4 of the kids raised their hands. He then shared his experience attending our Knit in Unity conference in SoCal and how special it was.
He then asked his daughter (she might be 15) to share her experience from Sunday’s meetings. (get the tissues ready) She shared with her peers that she saw so much diversity in one place. That she saw all sorts of families, single people, people of color, and all of these different people were going through the same trials but going through them differently….that they were all treated badly just because they were born gay. She looked at the room and told them of how so many bore witness that they knew God still loves them in spite of everything. Then she told the youth of the powerful spirit that she felt when those in the conference sang “The Spirit of God” in Sunday’s session, that the love in the room was so strong. That knowing so many hadn’t been to church in years made the spirit very strong in the room. Then she said, “We have to love them strongly because they won’t find it anywhere else.”
The bishop’s wife (I am avoiding using names or I would say sister ____) said the conference reminder her that people can feel different in our church for so many different reasons. That we really should get to know people we perceive as different because they could just be awesome and we are missing an opportunity. She gave an example of how this is exactly what she did to get to know a teacher that, to everyone else, was really mean. The bishop’s wife found her actually to be quite a nice woman but would never have had the opportunity had she ignored her because she thought she was different.
My Bishop continued his lesson and circled back to the blue haired girl and shared with her that he did something different with his hair at one point. That he had shaved his head a couple years back and how he got tired of people only talking to about his hair or in others words how he was different. Same can be said about people in the ward, he continued, that we should get to know the whole person and not just what is different. He had them read John 13:34-35. (34. A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. 35. By this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.) He then told them, again, that he loves gay people and that everyone should feel loved. To go tell people the Bishops loves gay people and they are all welcome to come to church or go talk to him. That if we are true Disciples of Christ we will love people no matter what. It was a great Sunday and I feel so blessed to have a Bishop who leads with love.
I would only add that we each, if we feel comfortable, need to be the change agent and start a relationship with our Bishops or other church leaders. Part of the reason he said yes to speaking at the conference was because he knew me by my work in the ward. By my talk in church and by my callings I performed, and mostly by the way I interacted with our ward. Because of this he knew I had to be associating with good people in Affirmation. I cherish our relationship and I am excited that now he is being a change agent. I know some of you have tried and don’t have leaders as accepting but I am also guessing some of you haven’t had that conversation. Pray about it. Take it to the Lord to see if you should start a relationship with your Bishop. You might be surprised where it leads.
–Michael John Amesquita