Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Coming Out From Our Safe Places

Diane and her son, Ross
Mama Dragon and active Latter-day Saint Diane Oviatt kindly agreed to share a talk she delivered in Sacrament Meeting recently. The focus: How loving her LGBT son for who he is (and seeing others do the same) has deepened her faith in Christ, and given her the ability to envision a Church where everyone fits--independent of any markers we place on others to make them different from us.

I've had the distinct pleasure of knowing Diane since 2008, when we worked together as part a stake-wide effort to repair relationships with the LGBT community after the damage we caused with our involvement in Prop 8.

I loved this woman the moment I met her. Time hasn't changed that--if anything, it's made it stronger. Her kindness, her compassion, her humility and humor--all combine to make her a remarkable human being, and I'm quite confident in my belief she is a blessing to everyone who has the good fortune to encounter her.



Author Fiona Givens wrote:

“The body of Christ needs its full complement of members:
-the devout,
-the wayward, 
-the uncomfortable, 
-the struggling.”

I have been all of these at different points in my lifetime. But I am still here because hands and hearts of my fellow Latter-day Saints have lifted me; because I feel the need to return the favor; because here, within this church, I have come to know my Savior.

I know many who have not had the experience I have. They have been shunned for doubting, for questioning, or for standing up for the right of their LGBT loved ones to belong in a religious environment that appears to have no place and no plan for them. I weep with them and have vowed to be a voice for keeping Christ’s example at the forefront of how we practice our theology.

I have always imagined myself a “live and let live” sort of person—tolerant and accepting. But I did not realize how far I had to go until my immediate family became the square peg that didn’t fit.

I grew up with an alcoholic, chain smoking mother. I would sit in primary and inwardly cry at the thought that I did not have a celestial family. The idea that we might not all be together after we died terrified me. I grew up determined to create my own celestial family by marrying in the temple and keeping God’s commandments, so that my children would never feel that fear that I felt.

To be sure, I felt inadequate as a mother and keeper of the religious flame that flickered off and on in our home over the years. But nothing had prepared me for the despair I felt when our son Ross came out as gay to our family nine years ago. The cavalcade of questions borne of fear about what this meant for him and our family in the eternities took me to a dark and lonely place emotionally. Yet, as the Persian poet Rumi said, “…the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Fast forward nine years, and that light is still coming and I am still learning what it means to love as Christ loves. I am being taught by those who have been marginalized for not fitting into the plan. My life is richer, more textured, more meaningful from these associations. Knowledge and faith have replaced fear.

I am now converted to the idea that in order to be one in Christ, we must do as Apostle Elder Renlund counseled. We must:

“…see people through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes.”

I received my Patriarchal blessing at age eighteen. There is a beautiful passage in it about learning to embody Christ’s Beatitudes in word and deed. I have loved the Sermon on the Mount my whole life. I never tire of its simple yet profound message. I keep the Sermon uppermost in my mind as I run a support group in our home through an organization for LGBT Mormons called Affirmation.

Diane with Carol Lynn Pearson
My husband Tom and I spend time affirming these mostly twenty something gay young men, many of whom have felt degrees of rejection from family members or church leaders.I mourn with them, I comfort them. I see them through a parent’s eyes—not hard for me as the mother of a gay son. I say to them, when they worry about their connection to their faith, what Carol Lynn Pearson said to me when I sobbed out my anguish over my son nine years ago. She said, “Tell Ross that I have a testimony of HIM!”

My patriarchal blessing also has a passage about my home being a refuge for God’s children who do not feel welcome elsewhere. A passage I did not understand until I was asked to do this work that is now so sacred and holy to me. My dear friend from Arizona, Bryce Cook, faithful Latter-day Saint and father of two gay sons, echoes my feelings about this perfectly:

“I have experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul and have seen it happen to many others who have become involved in getting to know and serving our LGBT brothers and sisters. It is truly an awakening because you see with new eyes and are given a new heart. What many thought they once knew- the firm convictions, the doctrinal justifications, the prejudices- all seem to fade in to irrelevance once they see someone as Christ sees them. This kind of conversion experience will both enlarge your spirit and refine your faith like nothing else I know.”

I have mentioned how much fear ruled my head and heart when my son came out and I saw my dreams for him evaporate and felt his utter despair at the thought that he would never marry in the temple and have a family unless he lived a lie. Fear is what causes us to judge what we don’t understand. We fear difference, we fear doubt. We value certainty. 

Brian Whitney, LDS scholar said:  

“For me, when I see the example of the Savior, I see Him spending His time with those who want to be healed and desperately want to feel his mercy, not those who were so certain of their own righteousness.”

Fear impedes faith, and it impedes love. It keeps us from opening our hearts to change and learning from others. It is borne of insecurity. It is behind the divisive rhetoric we are hearing in this election season. It is what creates emotional distance.

Does fear make us like the priest and the Levite who pass on the far side of the road from the wounded so as to insure our own purity? My friend Tom Montgomery posed this question after his gay teen son was shunned by ward members who refused to take the sacrament from him on Sundays.

I have learned to be vulnerable on this journey, to admit that my notions are not always correct; that different kinds of people with different views enrich my life; that there is more than one way to be a Mormon, a follower of Christ; that Christ-like action can come from unlikely places.

Christians can be un-Christ-like. Conversely Muslims, like my favorite family at work, can literally embody the beatitudes in word and deed, even though they do not believe in Christ the way we do.

A friend wrote in real time, recently, of an experience in his ward back east that touched me deeply.

“In Sunday school, a substitute teacher is talking about how his son, now on parole after six years in jail for selling cocaine, is making a life outside of the church. He is speaking about how people make beautiful lives amidst great diversity. He is speaking from a place of vulnerability, going way off the script, and bringing out the real gospel of Christ. Now others are sharing more personal experiences. The people who are sharing don’t typically talk during the meetings. It’s beautiful. The teacher just now related how the prisoners miss his son. Apparently this now non-member son was instrumental in reaching out and helping his fellow prisoners. The teacher brings it back to how Mosiah spoke of how these groups that support one another were called “the churches of God”.

Are we brave enough to go off script? The script of our tidy little lives in order to break through that emotional distance borne of fear and ignorance, in order to reach the one? To create the “churches of God” in diverse places?

I love what sister Neill Marriott has to say on this:

“With the help of the Holy Ghost, we can create an emotionally healing place for the discriminated against, the rejected, the stranger. In these tender yet powerful ways, we build the kingdom of God. All of us need a spiritual and physical place of belonging. We can create this. It is even a holy place.”

Elder Kearon, in a talk about ministering to refugees, spoke this beautiful passage:

“We [Latter-day Saints] have found refuge. Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in god and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Heavenly Father. “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love.”

I would posit that there are refugees of a different kind in our midst here within Mormonism. Those of us who fit nicely in to the plan must come from the safety and certainty of our abundance to literally “touch the cross” as Fiona Givens says, of those who are hurting, because they don’t see a place of welcome here. These spiritual refugees need a healing place, a place of belonging.

In his marvelous book “Planted,” Mormon studies professor Patrick Mason gets right to the point:  

“In order to fulfill its mission to invite all to come to Christ, our meetings must be a place where all people feel welcome: smokers and nonsmokers, women and men, the elderly and babes in arms. Native Americans and Arabs and everyone else. Welfare recipients and billionaires, single and married, divorced and widowed, childless and child blessed, soldiers and peace activists, believers and doubters, straight and gay. Every weekers and once a yearers, feminists and non- feminists, intellectuals and the illiterate, groomed and unkempt. Those in suits or jeans and those in dresses or pants. Conservatives and liberals, publicans and Pharisees. This inclusiveness is not by way of contemporary political correctness. It is by way of commandment.”

My four year olds in Primary get this. Every week we talk about how Jesus loves everyone, and how great it is that we are all different, and they enthusiastically embrace this concept. This is why Primary feels like a sanctuary to me. Kindness can never be over emphasized; it is the light that enters our wounds.

This poignant poem by Naomi Shihab Nye speaks to my soul:

Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things. Feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive. Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore. Only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say, “It is I you have been looking for”, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

My husband Tom and I are still here sitting in these pews in part, because of two humble leaders who let love and kindness rule their response to our child’s anguish and subsequent departure from a church that did not want him as his authentic self.

My friends with gay children in other parts of the country have not always been so lucky. There have been judgement and condemnation. Most of their children have left the church. Some have left their life here on earth as well when the pain became too much.

What we do and say to others matters tremendously—more than doctrine, more than policy. Lives are at stake. As stated in first Corinthians chapter 12, we cannot cut off parts of the body of Christ if we are to be one in Christ. My former Bishop knew this. My Stake President did, too. They reached out and gathered us up as a shepherd gathers his flock. They answered this question Patrick Mason poses in “Planted”:

“In our ward families, can we, in our pale imitation of Christ, develop deep empathy for those struggling with doubt, disbelief, feelings of betrayal, or suffering from God’s silence? Can the church be a place for people who cannot now, always or ever say I know?”

Our family’s experience says yes, it can.

I will close with the simple declaration by Rumi: 

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

It is my fervent prayer that that field can be right here, right now.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.