“Wouldn’t it be great if we could attend a ward like this?”
This was the question I posed on Saturday afternoon to my friend who was attending with me the first annual Mormon Stories Salt Lake Conference, held this past weekend in Salt Lake City and Alpine. Ever since I had learned that Carol Lynn Pearson would be there and would be speaking, I had planned to go.
For those who may not be familiar with it, Mormon Stories is website created by John Dehlin that features podcast interviews with various persons in the Mormon world. On his website, John explains his work:
“Mormon Stories is an Internet blog and podcast (i.e. radio/tv show) created in 2005 by me (John Dehlin). Inspired by Terry Gross/Fresh Air and Charlie Rose, Mormon Stories seeks to interview interesting people about Mormon-related current events, issues, media and culture … Some of the topics explored within the podcast included: Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, Joseph Smith’s life, LDS polygamy, masonry, racism, feminism, homosexuality, apologetics, Book of Mormon historicity, the LDS missionary program, the reconciliation between faith and the intellect, and apostasy.”
This past spring, John had conceived the idea of forming regional Mormon Stories groups:
“We have decided to organize several local, Facebook-based communities of support for what we like to call uncorrelated (or intellectual/feminist/gay/politically liberal/inactive/post/ex) Mormons. We have already created 32 groups, and hope to establish a support group for every major city/region in the world. The idea behind each group will be to: 1) foster local, face-to-face communities of support for non-traditional Mormons, and 2) help to encourage healthy/constructive living amongst those for whom the traditional LDS Church experience is not adequate … [These groups are] meant to augment the church experience (for those who still attend), or to provide community support for those who no longer feel comfortable attending church.”
The Salt Lake Conference would be the first such conference organized by a local/regional group. Besides Carol Lynn Pearson, Joanna Brooks and Margaret Toscano had been invited to speak. The opening event would be a picnic in Alpine on Friday night, followed on Saturday by a service opportunity in the morning, sessions in the afternoon, and a pizza party and social on Saturday night.
It was while attending the picnic on Friday night (which is where the lead photograph, above, was taken) that I sensed that there was something special about this group of people. Sure, it was fun to meet people in person whom I’d only known previously through Facebook, but there was something else … This was hardly your typical Mormon ward gathering. Everyone was so friendly. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there. There was a spirit of acceptance and affirmation that to me seemed almost palpable.
I felt this again on Saturday afternoon as the conference attendees gathered at the Unitarian church in Salt Lake. Starting with Joanna Brooks’ smile and friendly greeting at the registration table and continuing as I met new friends and saw older acquaintances, there was again that friendly, warm atmosphere. Again, there was that feeling of happiness, of expectation, of acceptance and affirmation. We were all there to support one another and to learn from one another.
And who were we? As Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote in her article in the Salt Lake Tribune, we were “ … gays and lesbians, fundamentalists and feminists, intellectuals, deists, atheists and true believers [who] came together on Saturday to consider one question: What does it mean to be Mormon? The participants came from very different places regarding their relationships to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — some were practicing Mormons, some have stepped away from the faith, some have been excommunicated, and some have resigned — but they all self-identify as Mormons.”
The same spirit I had felt at the picnic the night before were again present as we gathered for the start of the conference. This is when I commented to my friend that it would be great to attend a ward composed of people like this.
This spirit, or feeling, edified both the heart and mind and was further enhanced by the speakers. Carol Lynn Pearson spoke about the creation of “us” vs. “them”, both in the Church and in the world.
She was followed by Joanna Brooks, whose comments were the highlight of the conference for many, including me. She described how she had stepped away from Mormonism for about 15 years, but had come to a realization in 2007 that changed her life. As Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote in her Tribune piece:
“In 2007, while watching the PBS series on the Mormons, the California writer and, by then, mother, had an epiphany: Despite her unorthodox beliefs, no one could tell her she didn’t belong.
“Six months later, the LDS Church launched its support for California’s Proposition 8, the ballot measure defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
“’I volunteered with the ‘No on 8’ campaign,’ Brooks said. ‘I told them, ‘My name is Joanna and I’m a straight, Mormon feminist, representing the Mormonism I love.’ ’
“’Meeting [John] Dehlin and the other “unorthodox” Mormons, including those in attendance on Saturday, ‘has been one of the most healing moments of my life.’
“Surely, Brooks said, ‘there’s a place in Mormonism for all of us.’”
The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and I definitely think it was blowing through the First Unitarian Church on Saturday afternoon.