“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.”
~ Paul Tillich
This is another in a series of posts chronicling my decision to resign my membership in the LDS Church and to confront the historical origins of the Church. As mentioned in my last post in the series, the first Circling the Wagons conference was going on while I in the process of resigning. I wrote this post in November 2011 about the interfaith service that was held as part of the conference.
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 MormonStories.org 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.
The Interfaith Service was no exception, though it was somewhat discordant. There we were, sitting in Skaggs Memorial Chapel at the First 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.
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 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.
Postscript: At the time I wrote this in November 2011, I still very much considered myself to be a Mormon - culturally if not literally. This was before I started investigating and confronting the history of the Church, before I became disillusioned and angry at lies and deception and betrayal.