Monday, November 7, 2011

Circling the Wagons: Grace and the Courage to Be

“Sometimes it happens that we receive the power to yes to ourselves,
that peace enters into us and makes us whole,
that self-hate and self-contempt disappear,
and that our self is reunited with itself.
Then we can say that grace has come upon us.”

“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself,
in spite of being unacceptable.”

The above two quotes were both written by Paul Tillich, a noted Protestant theologian and philosopher, and I think they aptly and beautifully capture much of what was expressed and felt at this past weekend’s “Circling the Wagons” LGBTQ conference, sponsored by and held here in Salt Lake City.

The conference was successful beyond expectations by any of a number of measures.  The Deseret News pegged attendance at 300.  I personally know of attendees who had come from Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, California, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon, along with many from Utah.  In addition to gays and lesbians who attended, there were many, many family members and other members of the Church who attended in order to learn and support loved ones.

Throughout the weekend, many plain and precious truths were conveyed, hearts were touched, friendships formed, and love shared.  As was expressed by a number of presenters and attendees throughout the weekend, we all felt like we were part of something historic.

During this week, and perhaps into next, I hope to share some thoughts that were provoked by various things I heard at the conference.  I say “hope” because I’m not sure of the extent to which I will be successful at articulating the many, many thoughts and feelings that were generated throughout the weekend as a result of talks, musical numbers, presentations and conversations.

I’d like to start with some thoughts about yesterday’s Interfaith Service, organized by my good friend Allen Miller, that was held in Skaggs Chapel at First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City …

It was somewhat discordant.  There we were, sitting in a Baptist Church singing LDS hymns.  The organist was a gay Mormon who will be married to his partner this week.  The chorister was a straight LDS woman.  The man who conducted the service is an openly gay member of his ward.  The congregation consisted of gay men, lesbian women, families with children, parents of gay children, straight men and women, friends of their gay brothers and sisters.

We heard inspiring talks given by Kevin Kloosterman, an LDS bishop who had traveled from the Midwest to attend and speak at the conference, by Rev. Mary June Nestler, the Canon of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, and by the Rev. Jimmy Creech, who had been one of the keynote speakers the day before.

Though there were many notable moments, the highlight of the service for me came when Julia Hunter, a lesbian Mormon who is a professional violinist, was joined by a young gay man who was long-time friend and fellow musician (Julia laughed when she said they had gone to the prom together in high school) to play a piano-violin duet of a medley of several Mormon hymns.  As I sat there, transported by the beauty of the music, I contemplated the words of the hymn Julia was playing, “There Is Sunshine In My Soul Today.”

In the row in front of me, I saw sights that are common in any LDS sacrament meeting:  a couple, sitting close together with one’s arm around the other person in an expression of tenderness and love.  Next to them, I saw a young couple, the flower of LDS youth.  As the young man leaned forward in the pew, the other’s fingers ran up and down his back – a sight seen over and over again in wards throughout the Church.

This scene was different, however, for both of these couples consisted of gay men.  The older couple, partners, expressed deep love and affection as one rested his body within the embrace of the other’s arm.  The younger couple, boyfriends, were both returned missionaries, both handsome, clean cut young men.  One had given the opening prayer for the service.  Halfway through “Sunshine”, after his boyfriend had been gently running his fingers up and down his back, he sat back up in the pew and put his arm around his boyfriend.

It was scenes throughout the weekend of gay couples openly expressing affection for each other - scenes that we would take for granted in an LDS meetinghouse among heterosexual couples - that I think was one of the most powerful messages of the conference.  Even for us gay folks, as well as our straight allies, these scenes took aback a bit at first; we're not accustomed to seeing this in a "church" or "LDS" setting; but then we think, "Yeah, this is what it's all about," and it just seemed (as it was) so natural, so right, and yet such a powerful representation of what all the talks, songs and discussion are all about.

But getting back to the Interfaith Service, these were the thoughts running through my mind while the violin and piano played on, transporting all of us higher and higher with beautiful musical runs that evoked feelings of ascension and transcendance.  It was during these moments that I felt what I am sure most people in that room felt:  a spirit of love, a spirit of peace, a spirit that confirmed that we are loved and accepted for who and what we are, a spirit that drove away self-hatred and self-contempt.  It was, as Paul Tillich wrote, a moment of grace, and I think we all felt it.

I could write about what Rev. Nestler had to say about the Episcopal Church’s journey to full acceptance of gays and lesbians.  I could – and may yet - write about the powerful words Jimmy Creech shared about no one having the power or the authority to tell us who we cannot love.  I could write about those things.  But what I personally think was most memorable about that service was what we felt … as a group of gay and lesbian Mormons, together with their friends, families and allies, gathered to worship together in a small chapel in a Baptist Church in Salt Lake City … and what we left with:  a greater courage to be, to accept ourselves in spite of being unacceptable.


  1. I continue to think and feel, deep within my intuition, that the fundamental reason why the Proclamation was written (and, by the way, never sustained by the entire Church) was to offer a political statement that would anchor, for once and for all, the LDS church in monogamy, in Sunbelt suburbia (the rising predominant value of Red America). If the sins of the fathers carry to the third, yea, to the fourth generation, then we are seeing the final shout of these sins from 1890 to our lives today. Great grandchildren pleading for acceptance of their bloodline - and transferring their own deeply buried feelings of shame (and therefore fundamental non-acceptance) onto a people they can find "big enough (in number) to identify, small enough (in number) to pick on. Alas, Mormonism has found its perfect scapegoat for all that went wrong in the 1840-1890 "experiment" with polygamy - and that is us.

    As a Jewish convert to Mormonism of almost 24 years, and as a devout fan of Martin Luther King, whose people might know a thing or two about multigenerational persecution, I beg my gay brothers and sisters to stand up, for once and for all, for the fundamental right to love and be loved - and to reject the shame game being played out in our lives.

    How can we do this? By showing small but meaningful public displays of affection. By talking openly about our future (or present) husbands in church or with Saints in small talk opportunities - whether at airport gates or in supermarket lines. By living life as if nothing could be more obvious than to live a life of love, of significant service and of joy - that we might demonstrate the pure love of Jesus Christ, rather than the judgmental (and probably misinterpreted) way of occasional Scripture.

  2. It was a service of profound experience. Indeed the Spirit was present and Truth was testified. That Love above all is God's Great Command.

    Sean Trueman

  3. As a straight ex-mormon who fights for the rights of the LGBTQ community at the University I work for, hearing accounts like this is enheartening.

  4. Julia's music was most certainly the highlight. Mere mortal words cannot describe the intense connection we all had that is easiest felt in congregations gathered to hear that familiar divinity tapped along with the strings of her violin! In moments we were almost transfered through time when some of those very notes were played by her ancestor around the camp fire. Truly magical.

  5. Thanks, IP, for a beautiful post. You captured the essence of the interfaith service perfectly.

  6. The shared musical heritage empowered Julia's music. I appreciated the democratic governance approach Rev. Nestler described, and think it not unrelated to the fact that the Episcopal church has ordained female clergy for over thirty years. Jimmy Creech's message about God creating us to be lovers was awesome. I was SO glad to be there- it's sometimes hard to remember the prejudices of the broader LDS community. Yesterday was proof of what could be!!

  7. To me, the service was extraordinary because I was the organist who will be married to his partner this week. I played the organ for 36 yrs in the various meetings of the church, and that is the one thing that I miss about no longer being affiliated with the church. (I was excommunicated in 2005.)

    But playing at this particular service meant so much to me, because after decades of personal hell, including having all four of my children abandon me (they have since come back into my life), I have finally come to feel that I was not broken because of my sexuality, and that I do not need to be fixed.

    That sense of peace came at an incredibly high personal cost, but it also paved the way for me to accept love from an amazing man with whom I am about to recite the sacred vows of marriage. We believe that our marriage will be blessed by God and we feel so very blessed that we were both spared and prepared for this beautiful ceremony.

    Having survived the many years of self-loathing, we can truly say, "It does get better."

  8. Thank you all for your comments. Russ, a particular thanks to you for sharing your thoughts and feelings in such a beautiful way. I wish you and your husband-to-be all the best. May you continue to have a beautiful life together.