Last year, after my class on Mormon history, in which I had discussed with my students the Mormon belief in modern day revelation and modern-day prophets, I overheard the following comment in a conversation between two of my students: “The idea of having a modern-day prophet totally makes sense. How can you not believe in it? But it becomes less appealing when you have to deal with the actual prophet.”
Living prophets are no less of an offense and a scandal than a living, restored Church. So frequently, people in (or on the margins of) the Church who are struggling say something along the lines of: “I have a testimony of the Gospel. I know the Gospel is true. It’s the Church I have a problem with. I just don’t know if the Church is true any more.”
But in my mind, to say this is something like saying, “I believe in the theory. It is the most excellent theory with greater explanatory power than any other. But I just don’t have the heart to put the theory into practice.”
If human relationships were not difficult, heartbreakingly difficult, we would have no need of the Gospel. If human beings were not prone to sin, if we were not implicated and imbricated in sinful systems and idolatrous social structures, we would have no need of the Gospel.
And it is the heartbreaking difficulty of human relationships, and the challenge of personal and social sin that makes the experience of Church so traumatic for so many of us.
But to give up on the Church because we experience pain in the Church is something like a patient giving up on a cure because of the pain she experiences from the symptoms that require curing!
I know this is a sensitive subject, because I find whenever I broach it, people get upset. They get throwing-hands-up-in-the-air, screaming-and-running-out-of-the-room upset. People get very angry when I suggest — especially to LGBT people and to many of our strongest straight supporters — that the Church needs us and we need the Church. I understand the reaction, because that was my reaction for a good eighteen years or so. I intimately know that reaction.
I have just recently been confronted with the power and the depth of my feelings on this subject in a series of conversations with people I work closely with and love dearly. What I have realized is that as much as I have often and ardently wanted to deny it, I know the Church is true. I cannot deny it. If I did, every atom in my body would rebel at the denial. I am excommunicated, and the pain of the separation that that excommunication represents on occasion causes me to weep and to tremble. And that being the case, the only work that has any merit for me is the work of building, improving, refining, and perfecting myself and the body of Saints among whom I yearn to be counted.
O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of my heart.
Not too long ago, my bishop asked me if I would be willing to go out with the missionaries, and to bear my testimony to a sister who was holding back from joining the Church because of her concern about how it treated gay people. I did and gladly. A couple of years ago, I gladly bore similar testimonies that resulted in two other individuals being baptized into the Church. On the shelf behind me, I have a stack of Books of Mormon that I periodically engrave and give out as gifts. If you give me half a chance, I will bear my testimony again and again and again and give my life to the building up of this Church.
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.
I caught a foretaste of that reward this past Sunday in Chicago, at a small but powerful gathering of LGBT and straight Mormons. Present at the gathering was the President of the Chicago Stake, who gave the gathering his official blessing, and who humbly participated in the gathering as just another member of that gathering. I knew he was nervous about this gathering. I had heard stories of his nervousness. But there he was.
I was deeply moved by the sincerity of his hunger to hear the painful stories of LGBT Mormons who had gathered there. For some of us, the pain was still raw, and manifested itself in tears and trembling and stammering. He probably heard a number of things said that a Church leader wouldn’t generally want to hear. But with a gentleness and a kindness and an openness that bespeak true Christian discipleship, he opened himself up and listened.
And I watched him be transformed by that meeting in the short course of two hours or so. I watched the nervousness at the outset slowly give way to determination. I saw him react to the pain with a pain of his own, and a desire to heal that pain. By the end of the gathering, he stated firmly and unequivocally and with power that he wanted to see this gathering happen again.
A sister I had brought with me from the Twin Cities — one of the ones whose pain had been so raw, and who, despite her fear, somehow managed to give voice to the pain — said to me afterwards: “This is what that scripture means about bearing one another’s burdens.” She had felt as if this Stake President and other straight members of the Church who were present there had finally helped lift some of her burdens. She felt lightened. We returned through drifting blinding snow — blizzards in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin — with joy in our hearts.
And we had never felt that joy, had we not offered our straight brothers and sisters in the Church the opportunity of sharing our burdens with us. Had we not honored them with our trust, they never would have had the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and none of us had been blessed.
I realize that far too often to relate, the tender, raw trust of LGBT Church members has been offered, and the gift has been rejected, and people have left wounded. Sometimes wounded to death.
And I know some of us have to go away, wherever we can find a safe space, to recover and heal ourselves. And some of us have had trust shattered to the point that we may never recover it, in this life at least. I leave that to the Saints to ponder, and ask them to consider what accountings may be necessary when we stand before the Great Judge at the Last Day.
Just before that wonderful gathering of the Church that I witnessed in Chicago, I had had lunch with Devan Hite, one of the event’s main organizers. We spoke about pain and the necessity of healing, and the woeful inadequacy of where the Church is yet in this process of healing our LGBT wounded. I confessed to him, and will be the first to confess here that some of us need to leave, and that most of us can’t come back until we have learned to believe in ourselves sufficiently.
But I firmly believe that in order for us to find the ultimate fullness of joy that is intended for us as our divine birthright, there needs to be some small corner of our hearts where we make room for the possibility of reconciliation with the Church.
I’ve been listening lately to John Dehlin‘s “coming back” podcast, the podcast published on January 27, 2013 in which he announced his “return” to the faith. This interview has been very interesting to me, because John Dehlin was leaving the Church right around the time I was coming back to it (in 2005). And in some weird way, despite (or because?) of everything that’s happened since then (including Prop 8 and the notorious Boyd K. Packer talk and everything else) I’m still here, still loving the Church, still yearning for a fullness of communion that is still denied me as an excommunicated gay man married to a man, with a testimony of the Church that is stronger than ever.
In the first of this three-part podcast, John talks about his interaction with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. At a key moment in that interview, John asked a question that I myself have been asking all along simply by showing up at Church. That question was, in essence, “Are we welcome? Are we wanted? Does the Church want us?”
This apostle’s response was urgent, fervent and unequivocal: “Yes we want you!”
He recognized the pain and the challenges for so many of us who are seeking answers to urgent questions and not finding them. And that is certainly almost every LGBT person in the Church. He recognized that many of us are on the way out, perhaps never to return. But he said (and I paraphrase): “All we ask is that you keep the flaps of your tent open in the direction of the prophet.”
That statement was of such great comfort to me. I can do that, even out here in the wilderness, excommunicated and beyond the pale. I can keep the tent door open toward the prophet.
I pray that some day I can be a member of the Church again. I pray that the doors of the Church, perhaps even the doors of the Temple, might be open to me and my husband as a couple. I don’t think it’s heretical to ask God for that, especially since I don’t ask my Church leaders to do anything that doesn’t come to them directly from God.
But in the meantime, I pray for us all to be able to keep the tent door open.