Monday, August 22, 2011

Embarking on a new journey: My farewell remarks to my home ward

On Sunday, August 21st, 2011, I bid my home ward (Oakland First Ward) of more than a decade a bittersweet farewell. Below are my remarks.

It is difficult to leave behind so many experiences, but even more difficult to say "so long" to friends who have grown as close to me as family. Yet, I do so with an eye toward the next chapter in my journey as my Father's son.


Good morning, brothers and sisters.

It is genuinely, with a good deal of mixed emotion that I stand before you today. I’m sad, quite frankly, in many ways. For more than a decade, this ward has been my home. I’ve served in callings here and grown to love this place and each of you, far beyond my expectations. On the other hand, I’m embarking on the next step of my journey as my Father’s Son, and I know He has work for me on the other side of the bay. As tough as it is to leave you, I will heed that call.

In 2009, President Criddle of the Oakland Stake launched a series of 5th Sunday meetings throughout the stake. The aim? Help unite our church family once again after the difficulties we faced personally and faith-wise after Proposition 8. In the Oakland session, Judy Finch of the Oakland First Ward, read a short writing by an anonymous member of our ward—a gay member. The author talked about the pains, sorrows, spiritual discord, but ultimately the joy that he felt as a fellow among our flanks.

What Judy read that day reflected the righteous desires of the author’s heart. And, I believe, they are desires that each and every one of us long for, independent of orientation, gender, ethnicity, or any other “marker” that we use to define differences between ourselves and others. They are, I believe, universal desires felt by each of us within the human family.

The author’s words:  

"I am a gay Latter-day Saint.

I don’t want pity. To pity me is to make me a victim. I want understanding. To understand me, is to love me as an equal.

I don’t want tolerance. If I am tolerated, I am disliked or feared in some way. I want respect as a fellow striving child of God—an equal in His eyes.

I don’t want acceptance. To accept me is to graciously grant me the favor of your company. To accept me is to marginalize me with the assumption that I am less than you. I am your peer. I am neither above you nor below you.

I don’t want judgment. My path may be different than yours, but it is a plan built for me by a power greater than any of us. To judge me is to judge the designer of that path.

On a cosmetic level, we are very different, you and I. You have spouses, or the opportunity for spouses, I do not. You have children, or the opportunity for children, I do not. You are attracted to those of the opposite gender, I am attracted to those of my same gender.

What I want most of all is for you to look past the superficial and the cosmetic. I want you to look at what makes us the same: the simple fact that we are all children of our Heavenly Father, and we are striving day to day to understand how to best do His will, and how to return to Him. It is that simple sameness, brothers and sisters, that weighs more than all the differences in His universe."

I think what the author captures here is the idea that life is a journey, with our fellows as peers, each of us pressing onward on our prescribed paths, to learn the lessons that life is intended to teach us. None of us is ahead of the other, so there is no need for envy. None of us is behind another, so there is no need for judgment and scorn. True, each path is unique to every traveler—some may appear easier than others, and others, conversely, seem more arduous and difficult. Regardless, each path is geared to teach each of us what we individually need to know to come to rely upon our Savior, and eventually, return to our Father.

Brothers and sisters, I am the author of those words. I am an openly gay Latter-day Saint.

It’s a tough charge to come out openly as a gay Mormon, on the pulpit, in front of my entire ward family. But, I think it is important that I do so, especially now.

I was under the assumption that pretty much everyone in this ward knew I was gay—that is, until I was gently reminded by more than a few people that was not the case. In either case, it has pretty exciting potential for the next part of my adventure in our faith, and I want to share that with you today.

Last Saturday, I was confirmed as a member of the Bishopric as the executive secretary in the San Francisco Stake Bay Ward. And while that’s not a big accomplishment in and of itself, it is a remarkable accomplishment for the simple fact that maybe for the first time, a man was called to a priesthood leadership position not in spite of the fact that he is gay, but partly because he is gay.

San Francisco is perhaps a bit of a microcosm of gay culture and population, and within the ward districts there are a disproportionate amount of single, endowed, individuals who do not attend church. Many of them honorably served missions. Their families are members. Many of these members identify as gay or lesbian, and as such struggle to find their place within our faith.

One of the charges that I will take on, is to help reach out to these members. In addition to the other duties of my calling, I want to help these brothers and sisters understand that there is a home for them within our flanks, if they so choose.

And, given that I am a member of the Bishopric, my example demonstrates to them that not only do they have a home here, but that they have a path.

Reaching out to those members who choose not to associate with us every week is not just a responsibility for those in a leadership capacity. It’s a role shared by each and every one of us, regardless of our calling within the church—or none at all.

I genuinely can’t think of an activity that has as broad a spectrum of mutual benefits as reactivating members of our faith. For our ward, there is an influx of new energy, spirit, and talent. For us as individuals, we gain new friends and new fellows on our spiritual path, and we have the opportunity to broaden our own spiritual horizons through the testimony of others. For those who return, there is often renewed spiritual growth. I’m hard pressed to think of a downside of reactivation for anyone involved.

I want to share the story of one of my gay fellows—a man we’ll call Cliff. Cliff loved being Mormon. He was active within his ward, and a member in good standing. He taught Sunday School, and was a member of his ward choir.

A few years ago, Cliff made the decision to be honest about his sexual orientation with his bishop and stake president. When he shared this information—and even though he was single and living within the guidelines of the gospel—Cliff was removed from his calling. He was subject to a disciplinary trial, and it was determined that Cliff held ‘apostate views,’ and he was soon disfellowshipped, and eventually fell away from the church entirely.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the deeper effect felt by Cliff was the loss of his ward family. He was no longer invited over to friends’ homes. He was no longer included in personal activities with his ward associates. Cliff not only lost his church membership, but he also lost a critical cornerstone to his identity—his Mormon family.

Here is a comment that was shared with me about Cliff’s situation: "The Amish have an actual policy about shunning, which they refer to as ‘Meidung’ (the German word for avoidance), but a person leaving the Mormons is no less rejected than they would be if they left the Amish."

And while this story makes me deeply sad for Cliff, it’s even more distressing when I think about the loss of his testimony to the collective strength of his ward. His fellows lost a chance to learn and grow from the testimony of someone who displayed a deep, abiding faith to stay within the confines of the church even though there was no prescribed path for him. And, I think, it is often from the testimony of others that our own is nurtured.

In fact, let’s think about that for a moment. I know from personal experience when I hear stories from my fellow Mormons about their own struggles in life—whether those be with addiction issues, infidelity, word of wisdom issues—more often than not, my own testimony and commitment to my faith is strengthened. And since I seem to be opening the curtain into who I really am today, I’ll share something else with you: Those stories of struggle, triumph, and struggle again are the ones I love the best. There’s something so uniquely powerful in them, and seldom do I get the chance to see the hand of my Savior in the lives of others than through the challenges and trials of my fellows. Those are the testimonies that keep me coming back every Sunday, for they feed my own. So yes, indeed my heart does groan when I think about what Cliff suffered. But I’m even more sorrowful about the opportunities for spiritual growth that others will miss as a result of what Cliff experienced.

In the past few years, I have become intimately familiar with the stories of those within the gay Mormon community. I am sorry to say that Cliff’s experiences are not unique, and this is, really, more the norm than the exception.

In addition to my sorrow for Cliff and others within his circle, stories like these make me so deeply grateful for my own recent experiences within the church—and specifically, within this ward. And I can’t, in clean conscience, share Cliff’s story without sharing some positive experiences as well.

Last November, I was standing in the chapel foyer on my way to teach my Sunday School class. I ran into Harry Johnson, who at the time was the Second Counselor in our Bishopric.

Harry greeted me with his usual warm smile, and his eyes had an unusual sparkle that morning, and his handshake was even more vigorous and enthusiastic than normal. “Mitch! How good it is to see you!” I couldn’t help but return that kind of smile and enthusiasm, and responded with “Harry, it’s great to see you, too.”

“Do you have a moment to chat?” he asked. “Of course,” I responded, “as long as you’re not going to ask me to teach another class,” I said in jest. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well,” he said in a more solemn tone, “I’d like to speak to you outside.”

We walked onto the flagstone patio outside the chapel foyer together. Once outside, I turned again to look at him, and noticed that behind his glasses, his eyes had begun to fill with tears.

“I’ve just learned the truth about who you are,” he said, and his voice cracked with emotion. I couldn’t help but smile a bit when he spoke—knowing exactly what he meant—that I am a gay Mormon. “I want to let you know that I love you,” he continued. “I am so proud that you come here week after week and fulfill your callings in good cheer. It makes no difference to me whether or not you are gay--I want you here, and I want you to know that I love you for who you are.”

By this point, we were both tearful. I said nothing at first, and even with my hands full of materials for my Sunday School class, threw my arms around him and gave him a big, heartfelt hug. He returned my hug with the same enthusiasm with which he had originally approached me.

Here was Harry, a white, heterosexual and multi-generational Mormon, from a small town in Idaho—offering me his unconditional support and love. In that moment I was reminded again that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and exactly where my Father in Heaven wants me to be. I was reminded that I belong, I have something important to contribute to this church, and I that I am loved.

How grateful I am that Harry was humble enough to be an instrument in the hands of my Father, to deliver the message that I am on the right track. We spoke for a few moments more, and while it never became clear how Harry knew—some of my published writing, word of mouth—it matters not. What does matter is that he took the time to reach out and let me know how much he valued me—not for who he thought I was, but for who I actually am.

I ended the conversation by thanking him, and asked him as he considers who I “really am,” to be careful to never consider me a victim—because I am not. I am exactly as my Father in Heaven made me, and exactly where he wants me to be.

Rather, I asked him to consider me a unique and valuable asset available to him in his leadership role within the Bishopric—because that is what I am: An ordinary man, blessed to be in an extraordinary circumstance. And, a man who is willing to bring that experience to bear to help others in my situation as they strive to figure out their place within the gospel, and within the Mormon Church.

I think we could all do with a few more Harry Johnson’s in our wards. I believe that as children of our Father, and righteous disciples of our Savior, that our cry to our fellows should be this:
"We would love to see you in church, no matter what the current condition of your life. If worshiping with us can help you in any way, please come. We will ignore the jacket that smells of smoke, if only it contains a heart that wants to be with us. Of course we hope that, IF there are changes that you need to make, you will make them. But if you can't or won't, please come back each week and bless us with your presence."

In fact, Elder Maxwell, in a 1980 talk in General Conference, noted pointedly that those who come back to us should "expect instant community but not instant sainthood." Our job is to provide that community, and to provide the unconditional acceptance such a community requires. Doctrine and Covenants 81:5 asks us to succor the weak, not hinder them.

If what we truly want is for people to join with us in fellowship and worship, we would do well to remember that there is no recommend interview for sitting in these pews, and no test to take to be the recipient of our love and concern.

As always, our Savior provided perhaps the best example of this kind of unconditional love.

When Christ was on an urgent rescue mission for the daughter of one of the Jewish synagogue leaders, he was followed by a large crowd of people. Among the throngs of individuals, there was a "certain woman," who pressed through the crowd to touch His robe in an act of faith--that by doing so, she might be healed. We are told that for twelve years she suffered a vaginal flow of blood, an almost constant hemorrhage. But worse than her physical illness was the suffering she had to endure at the hands of her brothers and sisters--because of mental and emotional shame inflicted upon her by her fellows.

Like so many, her desire was to be near the Savior, to look into His eyes, to feel His love for her. But this she could not do, because according to Jewish law, she was unclean. She, like so many of of our gay Mormons, was judged unfit to mingle with the community, unfit to worship in the temple. She was an outcast--scorned, and unclean.

Yet, like to many times in His mortal ministry, Christ stopped and healed this woman. True, the physical healing must have lifted a tremendous burden. But the most important aspect of His kindness was healing her aching and broken spirit. For the rest of her life she would know that Christ knew her, that he noticed her, and that he accepted her. What a profound demonstration of our Savior's love, mercy, and kindness. What a tremendous example of reaching out to someone in need, regardless of consequence.

Being born gay is not a plague; but what many of us suffer at the hands of others, is. What an amazing invitation for us within the Mormon Church to reach out to others and emulate our Savior—for as Mormons, there can be no more worthwhile pursuit than becoming like our Savior. And what an equally moving cry for those of other faiths, or none at all—for there is little more virtuous a pursuit than striving for what is right. 

When we listen to the sense of responsibility that is whispered to us by our own conscience, and do what is right, we move beyond our individual problems and give unconditionally. Through our words and actions we have the opportunity to lighten the burdens of others, to speak hope to the spirits of those who are heavy laden, and change hearts—and lives.

There is wisdom in knowing what is right; there is virtue in doing it.

Brothers and sisters, it is my prayer that I will serve my new calling with humility and with the close guidance and counsel of my Savior. I will seek to be an instrument of virtue, peace, and of my Savior’s unconditional love. I will act on my conscience, speak for what I know to be right, and welcome any and all who wish to join our flanks. For I know that there is no better gift I can give the world—or myself. It is also my prayer that you will join me.

Last, I wish to close with an email I got from another of my fellow gay Mormons upon hearing the news that I had been called to the Bishopric.

When you are sustained, I hope you will know that there are 141,314 LGBTQ Mormons who are also sustaining you in their hearts throughout the world. Add to that their families, friends, and supporters, and that number would likely be well over 300,000. That's more than twelve LDS Conference Centers full of gay Mormons and those who love them, sustaining you in your new calling.

This estimate is based on a conservative LGBTQ rate of just 1% of the church's claim of 14,131,167 members in 2010, and the capacity of the LDS Conference Center at 21,000.

In addition, there are many culturally gay Mormons who have resigned or who have been excommunicated will be supportive of you as well. And then there are those on the other side of the veil who have not had the opportunities that you now have in front of you.

They will also raise their hands to sustain you, Mitch.

I wish to leave you with my testimony of the love our Savior has for each of us. I have felt it first hand in my life, and in my better moments, I see His hand in almost every moment of my day. He wants to be near to us. He wants to guide us. He wants to help us. Then, when that is accomplished, he wants us to help one another.

Our Savior loves us for exactly where we are, and for exactly who we are.

I say these things in the name of my Lord, my Savior, and my friend, Jesus Christ, Amen.