By Suzi Fei
On July 21, 2013, I had the opportunity to give a talk during Sacrament meeting at the branch in downtown Portland as well as teach Relief Society in my family ward later that afternoon. Seeing as how the ward campout was also that weekend, I decided to prepare one ‘talk’ and give it in both places. <sheepish grin> The topic I chose to focus on was True Charity. I received many positive comments, and the discussion during Relief Society was amazing and full of love. I adore my stake. The last half of my talk was about gay Mormons and is below, slightly edited for clarity.
What does true charity feel like?
Recently I’ve had a very unique opportunity to serve. I can’t explain why, but I feel a deep and abiding Christ-like love and charity for a very specific population, and that is gay Mormons. It feels to me like a spiritual gift that Heavenly Father has given me because He has a work that He needs me to do. I think it started growing around the time my husband and I met a gay convert who was baptized into our downtown branch nine years ago. It doesn’t matter which variety of gay Mormon: whether they’re deeply closeted, out and celibate, in a mixed-orientation marriage, in a same-sex relationship but still attending church, no longer active, and even those who are very upset with the church. I love them all. I spend several hours a week serving this population, and it doesn’t feel like a burden at all. I want to do it, and I love doing it, because I love them. Feeling true charity makes service so much easier and more enjoyable. I’m sure it’s circular as well—the more I serve, the more I love them.
I’m going to tell you some of the things I’ve learned through serving gay Mormons, but I think all of the advice I’m going to give could really be applied to anyone in your life. Maybe it’s someone who is doing something you think is a bad choice or someone who is no longer going to church because they have doubts. Maybe it’s someone who has committed a serious sin. Just try substituting in whoever that person is in your life into what I’m saying and see if it works.
So, what is it that I do with those hours each week? Late last year, it took the form of helping our stake president with all the fabulous work he did introducing the church’s new http://www.mormonsandgays.org/ website to the stake. He started out with a stake and ward leadership training, and then he taught a combined Priesthood and Relief Society 3rd-hour lesson in each ward and in the branch. He completed the series with two firesides with panel discussions: one for the adults and one for the youth. He really went above and beyond the duties of a stake president by putting this together, and from working with him, I can tell you that he too feels a deep and abiding Christ-like love for gay Mormons. I have such admiration for Priesthood leaders like him who have such deep wells of charity in their hearts.
Now that the lessons and firesides are over, most of my hours in this work are spent helping to admin and moderate Facebook groups that have formed to support gay Mormons and to help straight Mormons learn about what it feels like to be gay and Mormon.
Based on this unique opportunity to serve, I’ll tell you what true charity feels like to me. To me, it feels like a warm and consuming love and a complete absence of judgment. I know there are times when it is appropriate to judge another person. For example, parents raising children need to judge sometimes, and a couple Priesthood callings require judging, such as for temple recommend interviews. In all the time I’ve spent doing this, however, I have yet to encounter a time when I was justified in judging someone. Most of the time, when we’re judging other people, it’s not righteous and it’s not appropriate. It’s that lip snarling, looking down your nose at someone and thinking, “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” That, to me, feels like the opposite of true charity. True charity is more likely to embrace that person and say, “I love you, and that makes me want to understand what you’re feeling and experiencing so that I can truly empathize with you.” That is one thing I find so beautiful about the Atonement. Christ knows each one of us so intimately and so perfectly that He is able to take into account all of the factors that affect our choices. Only Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ know us well enough to judge us, and on those rare occasions where we are called on to judge another person, we better be praying for Divine guidance on how to do it righteously. Making a judgment call with Divine guidance simply doesn’t feel the same as unrighteous judgment, which is often based in fear, anger, or hurt. I invite you to ponder the people in your life who you’re judging and ask yourself with what spirit are you judging them.
Probably the most challenging situations I’ve had in this work have been talking with gay former Mormons who are angry at the church. Hearing their stories and feeling a little bit of their pain can leave you reeling when the gospel is something you hold dear, but part of true charity is trying to understand where someone is coming from and why they feel the way they do. I’ve learned some valuable lessons from these people.
People who are hurt and upset often blame the church, but I personally don’t believe the blame for their pain should be placed on the gospel. People who leave solely because of the doctrine or policies, but who have generally had positive experiences with church members, rarely leave in anger. The ones who leave with intense pain and anger have usually had some heart-wrenching experiences of being condemned and ostracized by members of the church—experiences that I would like to think stem NOT from the gospel or the doctrine but rather from people misunderstanding how to live the gospel and the doctrine.
Sometimes the condemnation comes from someone or several people in their congregation, although to be honest, I haven’t heard many recent stories like that. Now, I have heard of a number of stories of family members of gay people who have left the church because their congregations ostracized them for being a little too supportive of their gay loved ones. Those stories are heart-wrenching as well.
As for the gay members themselves, though, sometimes the ones who leave have had a really awful experience with Priesthood leaders, for example a disciplinary council where they didn’t feel loved and only felt attacked and condemned. Thankfully, those are becoming fewer and farther between as more Priesthood leaders become educated about the nature of homosexuality. Sometimes gay members leave simply due to bad advice by a well-meaning but uninformed bishop. For example, especially in decades past, bishops used to say things like, “Just get married—it’ll fix it,” or, “Fast and pray some more, and the atonement will heal you and take this burden away.” Well, when your knees are calloused from praying and you’ve lost 30lbs from fasting, and you’re still gay, that’s when many people lose their faith in God entirely. Our stake president watched that happen to an amazing and valiant young man in his ward when he was a bishop. That experience was one of the things that prompted him to learn more and then teach others what he learned. Thankfully, bishops who are familiar with the content on the church’s new website no longer give advice like that, because they know that gay doesn’t go away.
Most of the time, though, when a gay person is truly angry and hurt and has left the church, it’s because they’ve been judged, condemned, ostracized, and rejected by their families. They blame the church because they believe the church told their families to do it, and most of the time the families actually believe the church is telling them to do it. What I’ve learned from this is that a person’s perception of what the church teaches is a product of how their families actually practice their religion. Gay people who are disgusted with and critical of the church often have judgmental families, whereas gay people with fewer negative feelings towards the church often have loving families who do their best to practice true charity. This isn’t always true—different personalities and other factors certainly come into play, too—but it is a pattern I’ve noticed. This is another reason I’m so grateful for the church’s new website. It clears up some of the confusion some families have about how to treat their gay family members. On it, Elder Cook from the Quorum of the Twelve says, “Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to those and lets not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”
This reminds me of something very profound that Josh Weed said during the panel discussion portion of our stake leadership training about the new website. A bishop was wondering if he needed to do anything about a gay couple that had been attending his ward. Josh said something along the lines of, “Keep doing what you’re doing. The example you set of unconditional love and warm welcoming will speak volumes louder to the youth than any concerns you may have about them seeing a gay couple at church.” I wish more LDS families would internalize that message as well, because I keep hearing stories of parents who exclude their grown children or their partners from family events for fear that the grandchildren may see them. Perhaps there’s more to the story than I’m aware of in some of these cases, but I know several of these individuals quite well, and they are not contentious or in-your-face about their orientation. I can’t help but think that if the parents were feeling true charity for their son or daughter—if they were truly seeking to see their child as Christ sees them—then I would hear a lot fewer of these stories, and I would meet a lot fewer angry gay ex-Mormons. I wish these parents would focus more on the opportunity they have to set a powerful example of love for their grandchildren and worry less about them being exposed to some different beliefs at family events.
The feelings of deep love and charity that I feel for these people are beautiful, and I truly wish I could feel this way for every person on earth all the time, especially members of my family, because they’re the ones I have the hardest time not judging. I find that when I’m upset with someone and I’m judging them, and then I go to Heavenly Father in prayer, it’s such a sweet feeling when the Holy Spirit comes into my heart; the anger, fear, and hurt release; the judgment dissolves; and I feel pure love for them. It is then that we are truly open to Divine guidance on how to respond to our loved one. That’s what true charity feels like. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Suzi Fei lives in Portland, Oregon, and is an active and devout Latter-day Saint, a wife, and a mother of one young daughter with a son on the way. Professionally, she has a Ph.D. in computational biology and currently studies cancer genomics as a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon Health & Science University. Suzi serves in several capacities that aim to increase love and acceptance of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints within the church. She’s on the steering committee for Mormons Building Bridges and the ally committee for Affirmation. Through Affirmation, she helped compile a packet of information for church leaders and family members, and she worked with John Gustav-Wrathall and others to form a Facebook group to help support LGBTQ LDS who are in or affirming of same-sex relationships but who also desire to be active and attend church. Suzi’s husband, Yiyang, is on their stake’s high council, and they work with their stake president to teach leaders and members how to be more loving to gay members.