Monday, November 07, 2011

Circling The Wagons: Part 2

Continuing on from my last post:

The 2nd Session's main speaker was a former United Methodist minister named Jimmy Creech, who flew in all the way from North Carolina to participate in the conference.

Mister Creech is not Mormon and wrote a book called Adam's Gift, which I intend to read eventually.

Mister Creech started off by telling us that as gay Mormons, we are a part of history. He went on to talk about how he was defrocked as a minister and shared his experiences about Adam, a young man who had come into his office in tears telling him he wanted to leave the church because of how it treated gay people. Creech had not really had any experience or particular interest in LGBT issues at the time. What he did know was that he loved Adam and felt him to be a good person, and it was this meeting that caused his heart to change on this matter.

He said he told Adam that "there is no reason you should believe that God does not love you." He also said, "I do not want you to leave the church," but that no one should remain in an abusive relationship, and that if he felt the church was causing him harm, he would support him. He also said, "Even if you are no longer a member, I'll be your pastor as long as you want me to be.

Adam's humanity is what caused Brother Creech to change his mind and heart. He said it was our job as human beings to help people overcome spiritual damage; to help them know that God loves them; and to teach them to love themselves and love others.

He said sexuality is good. It is a gift He also said he still loved his church, and that in spite of possible resentments we may hold, we need to look at the good things our religions have done. But he also said that a church has no integrity when it talks of God's love, but then commits acts that cause great harm to others. He also said we have to go where truth takes us. He quoted the famous hymn, "Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so."

He said God is not in empty churches with locked doors. God is not in angry voices. God is in those who affirm love with dignity. We said we need to learn to distinguish between institutions and God. God is not limited to an institution. Justice, freedom, equality, dignity, and peace: that is God.

After Mister Creech's remarks, tow guys sang "For Good" from the musical Wicked. This song has personal meaning to me as it was one of the last things my grad school classmates and I performed together before we went our separate ways. It was clear that the two men who sang it cared for each other.

Here are the words:

I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good

And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I've done you blame me for
But then, I guess we know
There's blame to share
And none of it seems to matter anymore

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a bird in the wood
Who can say if I've been
Changed for the better?
I do believe I have been
Changed for the better

And because I knew you...
Because I knew you...
Because I knew you...
I have been changed for good.

As they sang the song, it made me think of some of the people who have changed my life for the better, and it made me hope that I have done the same for them and perhaps for others I am unaware of. I had tears in my eyes by the end of the song, and I felt such a strong love in the room.

In fact, that was something I noticed all throughout the day during the different sessions: the love and the spirit that were present. I know God was with us at that conference.

After the song, there was a panel consisting of Bill Bradshaw, Carol Lynn Pearson, and Julia Hunter moderated by John Dehlin. John would ask questions, and then the panel would give their opinions, and members of the congregation could also get up and ask questions or make comments. I didn't always write John's questions down, but here were some of the comments made.

There was the idea that we need to focus on how far we've come.

Bill Bradshaw made the comment that homosexual love is not counterfeit; that gay people have the same kinds of relationships that straight people do and that there love is just as valid. He said we need to get our fellow LDS friends, family, and ward members to use their imaginations to try and put themselves in our shoes.

Carol Lynn Pearson said that just as we wouldn't dream of going back to repeal women's right to vote or go back to the days of segregation, likewise, she thinks in the future this issue will be a non-issue as well. She stressed that we've come a long way. People are more aware, informed, and sympathetic than they once were. But she also stressed that there still must be greater understanding, acceptance, and nurturing on the Church's part, or it will eventually become irrelevant. But she said she also believes the LDS Church and its leaders and members are up to challenge. She said that history doesn't happen on its own; it happens because of the things we do, both big and small. Just being at this conference was such a thing.

Julia Hunter said that gay relationships are just as mundanely lived as straight ones. She said she was also appreciative to live in a country where she had the freedom to be out at all.

When asked what things can be improved,

Carol Lynn Pearson said the Church needs to give parents permission to love their children unequivocally. She said there is this idea that parents either have to choose the church or their children, and that doesn't have to be the case. She said the Church is losing too many good people and families because the Church taught that families come first, and so those people are choosing their children. She said we shouldn't even have to tell people to never withhold their love from their children; they should just know that based on the teachings of Christ.

Bill said people need to stop inadvertently or intentionally saying things about gay people that aren't true. He insinuated that we shouldn't be so locked into the "truth" that we miss the truth. He said the Church should not invite leaders to make statements that are incorrect. People need to stand up in high priest meetings, for example, and stand up against people who are saying ignorant, hurtful, false, or wrong things about gay people.

Julia said she would like to see the Church apologize for past wrongs. There needs to be better education. Bishops need to be taught or trained in such a way that they are better equipped to deal with the issue. Parents need to know that they shouldn't blame themselves. The Church needs to retract harsh rhetoric.

A congregant said the Church could be better at honoring and respecting the relationships that gay people have with one another.

John asked what the panelists would do if they were in the shoes of the Brethren, realizing that they are in a tricky position where it is difficult to do anything that might significantly decrease the numbers of its more conservative members or that wouldn't cause them to be too progressive too quickly.

Carol Lynn said more stakes and wards could follow the examples of her stake in Oakland, for example, or the ward in st in San Francisco that Mitch Mayne belongs to - you can still have outreach programs without contradicting the doctrine of the church. She said it sounds cliche, but the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and you can't know what step 10 is until you've taken steps 1-9.

Julia said she didn't feel safe or acknowledged at church; that she felt invisible, and that this needs to be fixed. People shouldn't make hetero-normative assumptions. If she could feel like she wasn't invisible and be able to be open about who she is or about her relationship, she might return to church. She says she's doing things the church asked her to do by seeking for love and joy, and she has found that in her relationship.

Bill said members of the Church just need to be more Christian. It doesn't mean giving in; they just need to be more compassionate and less judgmental and not accept the loss of so many of the best and brightest.

A congregant said they were holding a fireside in their stake for the very purpose of helping gay and lesbians feel more welcome.

Another congregant said there needs to be more open dialogue from the top down. He also suggested the Church might allow civil unions in chapels in states where gay marriage is legal (I don't see that one happening any time soon).

Another congregant said "Truth is truth, but if tradition isn't working, let it go."

John asked what we personally can do; some practical things we can do ourselves.

Julia said don't stay in the closet. Show them who a gay person is. Be open, loving, and honest. Straight people have the power, so we need to create more straight allies.

Carol said we can write letters to those in authority and express our feelings. Acknowledge that it is a difficult issue for them as well as us. Take the risk to have the hard conversations with local leaders. Share your experiences.

Bill said he didn't have any thing else to say other than that he had great gratitude; that his life has been enriched by the goodness, morality, decency, and love of his gay and lesbian friends. He said his wife said, "Every mother deserves to have at least one gay son."

A congregant said that it begins with us and our allies. There are people in the Church that the Church doesn't know what to do with, and we need to help them figure it out.

At the end of the session, we took another break and then went back for what turned out to be one of my favorite meetings of the day.

The Concluding Session was conducted by an active LDS Bishop named Kevin Kloosterman. He is bishop in a ward in Illinois and flew out here especially for the conference.

He thanked John Dehlin for "seeking out the one." He asked, Isn't it our job as Christians to nurture and love and care for one another?

He said when we do our homework, we will receive inspiration. He talked about his own paradigm shift. He said we can't be Levites and priests (referring to the story of the Good Samaritan) and just shake our heads and walk by. Love unfeigned means no caveats, no strings, no qualifiers. Allies need to walk with their straight loved ones.

He also gave a good talk at Sunday's session, which I was not able to attend, but I have read the transcript, which is here.

After Bishop Kloosterman's talk, a guy sang a song called "Blessing." I didn't care for the song itself, but I did like the sentiment, which seemed to be the yearnings of this person for those around him to give his love for another man their blessing.

After the song, we had a kind of testimony meeting. I really enjoyed that part of the conference. It was definitely a testimony meeting, but an unorthodox one compared to regular sacrament meeting testimony meeting. I liked it a lot. There was such a wide range of people: active straight Mormons, active gay Mormons, non-practicing gay Mormons, non-Mormons, atheists, people with hard feelings towards the LDS Church, people who had reconciled their feelings with the Church, etc. All sorts of people, and it was just great to hear everyone's experiences and where they stood in their faith or spirituality or sexuality. Throughout, it was so interesting for me to see where various people were on their particular journeys.

Here are just a few thoughts from various people who "bore their testimonies":

- God is love. Am I living a good life today? Isn't that what it's about?

- It's a privilege to bear a testimony of sorts when you no longer can as an excommunicated member (boy, can I relate to that!) Feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment, while often justifiable, are also soul-destroying and ultimately unhealthy.

- A guy said he came to the realization that something he struggled with for so long never needed to be a struggle. God loves us and is aware of us and cares where we're going.

- It's okay that we're gay.

- One straight lady just said, "All of you are so beautiful," and I really felt the truth and power of her words. We are. It's true. She said, in regards to how homosexuals are often thought of and treated in the Church, "I won't accept it. God is love. When two people love each other, God is there. Truth is there."

- One boy said, "I just want to be home," meaning he wanted to be what God's true church is supposed to be. He gave an analogy of how there was no space for Mary and Joseph when they went to Bethlehem, so they created their own space in the stable, and that space has come to be one of the most beautiful and sacred spaces in all of Christendom. He said he could create that same kind of space for us.

-One girl stood up, and I sensed a lot of unhappiness and conflict within her. She seemed overwhelmed and unable to talk at first. The silence as all ears were tuned to her was very loud. It made me feel the love and care we as a group had for her and her welfare. (Attention was paid to her.) She lamented that in her prayers she would tell the Lord, "I don't know what to do. (a refrain I remember well from my own prayers when I was at the stage she is in of her journey). She felt the Lord say to her, "Do what makes you happy. You are my child." She talked of how her family isn't very supportive and in quite conservative and how much she wanted to come to this conference and how she couldn't afford it, but that her cousins paid for her to be there and even drove her there.

- We create our life and experiences. We are creators of how we want to live.

- One guy said he was an atheist who believes in God, so he knows what it's like to be in even more of a minority. Not sure how that works, but I don't doubt he was sincere.

- One self-described straight "pissed-off Primary lady" advised us (and herself) to be a part of the Mormon community on your own terms. Be the kind of Mormon you want to be. She said the love in the room was palpable and is what we are missing at church. If you don't feel loved at church, it's their loss. "We need what you have."

- If you strive to do the best you can, you are fulfilling the Creator's design. He called himself a "gay God in embryo." (That got quite a laugh.)

- An active woman whose daughter recently came out said she was thankful for all the wonderful drama in her life. She said God is bigger than the Church. There's a place for everyone. She loves the gospel of Jesus Christ and is grateful for every good thing she was taught in church.

- I believe it was a lesbian who helps run a gay support system at BYU who said, "There's no road map" for what she and her peers are doing. We're in uncharted territory, figuring it out as we go.

- John Dehlin closed by saying that as far as his own struggles, there are two things he can't deny: 1. There's meaning in life. Whether or not there is a God, he doesn't believe life is random, and so he has chosen to go on faith. 2. Whenever he worked towards a righteous goal, a higher power of some sort would come to his aid. He said he is just trying to do some good (and I believe he has done much good for many people). He talked about the toll Mormon Stories has sometimes taken on his family and thanked them for their support. He said that doing good does require sacrifice and comes at a cost. This conference all came from the idea of "what if we had a gay general conference," and John was so pleased at how well it came together because it was hard worked and required many people to pull it off, and that all that hard work would have meant little if we all hadn't shown up. He said, sure, we could plan a conference, but it only had validity if people showed up, and he thanked us for that. He said you don't have to abandon spirituality. Take a leap of faith. He quoted Jim Dabakis from the night before (a session I did not attend): "Find something you believe in, that fills you wish passion, that lights you up, and if you do, miraculous things will happen." If everyone did that, the world would change.

There was a closing prayer, and then we mingled and had pizza. I met a few people and had some really great experiences which are too personal to share here, unfortunately, but I left the conference feeling really good.

Two things particularly struck me: I felt such a love and spirit in those meeting that is sometimes lacking in regular LDS Church meetings, and I found that kind of sad. If it is indeed the "one true church," as it proclaims, why is that spirit sometimes missing? We need to work on that. (I guess they need to work on that; I'm no longer a member.) The other was that many who spoke and some of the organizers were all straight, and I found it touching that there are so many straight allies willing to reach out in an effort to help their gay and lesbian brothers feel more welcome, accepted, and understood. If they do a conference like this again, I would love to attend if I am able. I was fortunate to be able to do so this time around.

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