Monday, September 12, 2011

On Change

I’ve talked before about the great and inspiring leadership team I have the opportunity to serve with here in San Francisco. This talk was delivered on Saturday, September 10th here in the Bay Area. The speaker—and the author—were Matt Mosman of the San Francisco Stake High Council (shared with his permission, of course). I am pleased to call him a member of my leadership team, but, I think, more pleased to call him a friend. And while I could *tell* you how amazing and inspiring I find him, I think it would be more effective to *show* you. His words do his spirit and testimony a justice mine never could.

 On Change
Matt Mosman
I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak.  As I’ve mentioned several times before, I really don’t get any great joy from giving a talk, but I really do love preparing them.  It gives me a chance to put some thoughts down in a more organized way than they tend to be naturally in my mind, and so I tend to learn something every time I prepare something. 
So, thanks.

Just so we don't dive right in without you knowing anything at all about me: I grew up in the northern Idaho panhandle, but I’ve lived now for over 15 years in San Mateo and am a member of the Crystal Springs 2nd ward.  I went to BYU for both undergraduate and grad school.  My current church responsibility is as a high councilor in the San Francisco Stake, and my particular responsibility there is for the Bay Ward.  I am the father of four sons, two of whom are married, and stepfather of two more, and I am a grandfather of three, with the family’s first girl arriving only a few weeks ago.  I work in high tech.  Like some of you, I am a divorcee; I remarried not quite three years ago.  I was a terrible bachelor.  The fact that I’m alive today is attributable primarily to General Mills.  Thank heaven they vitamin-fortify Cocoa Puffs.

Now I said that I like writing talks, but I have to admit that I’m still puzzled every time anyone asks me to share some thoughts with them.  I mean, I’m going to end up giving six or seven talks every year as a high councilor, and that’s fine; but to actually request some of my thoughts, when you actually had the opportunity for it to be someone else...that doesn’t make any sense to me.

I was telling that to my mother, and she suggested that the reason someone might ask to hear my thoughts is because I tend to view almost everything from an off angle: My first-grade teacher told her that “Matt is either going to be brilliant or weird, or maybe both.”

But my tendency to view things a little askew, while it may lead to an occasional insight, is also precisely the reason that it puzzles me when someone voluntarily wants to hear what is inside of my head.  Because...let me give you an example:

Thursday morning I woke up to take my son Riley to seminary.  It was well before 6am, the house was dark, and as I was putting some shoes on I was looking at our dog, Barry, who was sleeping in a dog crate next to me.

(As an aside, that might tell you everything you need to know: I’m the kind of guy who names his dog Barry.  And if I get another, I plan to name him either Phil or Brad.)

Anyway, I’m looking at Barry, and this is the thought that enters my head: “I wonder if Barry takes a moment when he wakes up in the morning to gather his thoughts, or if he just commences with being a dog?”

I’m not stupid.  I understand that there’s something...well, off...about thinking that.  But I share it to help you understand why I’m puzzled whenever someone wants me to actually reach inside of my head and pull something out.  I mean, I don’t even want to hear half the stuff that goes on in there.  I can’t imagine why anyone else would.

In any case, it’s a tremendous honor to share this day with Sister Carter and Elder Carmack.  I’ll say this about Sister Carter: If I were to rank-order all the people I know just based on how awesome I think they are, she would be the first person on my list that’s not a member of my family.

The topic of the conference is “Change, Achieve, Become,” and I want to focus on just one aspect of that: Change.  If you’re anything like me, you need to change, so let’s spend half an hour talking about that.

For the purpose of this little discussion, I want to separate the ways that we change into three parts: First, I want to talk about what I’ll call “adjustment.”  Next, we’ll discuss wholesale change, the kind that comes all at once.  And finally, we’ll talk about miracles.

Adjustment is probably the most common way that we move through life, and it’s actually one of the most important.  This is how we mostly become kinder, more compassionate people, and better disciples of Christ.

But while it’s common, I don’t think it’s easy.  We have to be ready to adjust, open to some newness, prepared to hear when a call for adjustment enters our ears.  

In a really fundamental way, the scriptures are the story, over and over again, of people who don’t really want to change but find that they must: Peter would rather not fully accept Gentiles into the new church, but God shows him in a dream that he needs to do just that.  When young Alma heard Abinadi speak with power, he didn’t immediately effect wholesale change; instead, he just asked the king to let Abinadi leave in peace.  And on and on.  The scriptures are the story of us, and they underscore the fact that we don’t like to change, or even to adjust.

But we can’t be afraid of newness in this life: it’s probably good to remember that amateurs built the Ark, and professionals built the Titanic.  We don’t adjust because we’re afraid of being hurt, but you can’t protect yourself from sadness without insulating yourself from happiness.  We have to be open to the kind of small, bit-by-bit adjustments that will make us who we are supposed to be.

I think of my father in this context.  He was a big, gruff man, and one who grew up under truly awful circumstances: his stepfather, whose name was never spoken in my home, mercilessly beat him and his mother, once nearly killing her.  He lived for part of high school out of the back of a car, too ashamed, afraid and embarrassed to go home.  He was a street tough, and most people who knew him as a kid envisioned him spending his adult life in jail.

But a football coach at Boise State gave him a previously unheard-of path to college, and then he met my elegant mother when he transferred to the University of Idaho, and change began to happen.  He graduated from the University of Idaho, then Virginia Medical College, and finally the University of Oregon Law School.  Around the time I was born, he joined the church.

He was still a pretty rough-edged dude when I was young -- my friends were petrified of him, and you for sure didn’t want to leave your coat draped over the banister if he had a bad day at work.  He was a big man, but left a bigger impression.  One of my high school friends remarked that you could be alone in a very large room with him, and yet you would feel as though there were no space left.  He is the only person ever inducted into the state of Idaho’s Hall of Fame purely for his skill as an attorney, and that doesn’t happen unless there is quite a bit of fight in you.

But time, my mother, and the Holy Spirit worked on him over a lifetime: A person who crossed him when I was young would be called an unrepeatable name.  Over time, I think hilariously, that person would be called a “son of a pup.”  And then they were called nothing at all, because he just wasn’t mad anymore.  He became bishop of a student ward at the University of Idaho.  He later became a stake president.  He became, by degrees, softer.  By the time he passed away a few years ago, you would have called him sweet.

That description would have been unimaginable only a few years before, and yet there it is:  My dad was a sweet man.

He became that, not because he made sweeping wholesale change in his life, but just because he kept himself open to the kinds of adjustments that the Lord asks of us all the time.  He learned new things, and he was open to truth.  Sometimes he needed to change his mind, but more often he needed to open his heart just a little bit wider.  And that’s what made the change.

I want to take just a minute and talk for a second about a recent event here in the San Francisco stake, and how it presents us with an opportunity to adjust.

A few Sundays ago Bishop Fletcher (formerly President Fletcher) called a gay man, Mitch Mayne, to be his executive secretary in the Bay Ward.  This decision has gotten news coverage nationwide.

I want to first talk about what this calling is not: this is not a change of any kind in church policy.  At least as early as 2007, Elder Holland explicitly stated that a person who is attracted to members of the same sex, but who is not acting on that attraction, should enjoy every benefit of church membership, including temple activity.  It would be easy to argue, in fact, that this is a policy that has been in place since the church’s inception: any person, no matter what their tendencies, who is living a life in accordance with the gospel’s teachings has always been considered worthy.  

It is also not new: gay men are serving elsewhere in positions of more responsibility than Mitch is, and there is at least one gay man serving as a worker in the Oakland temple.

What may be new, in fact, is only this: Mitch is pretty open about it.  He has written a blog for years about what it is like to be Mormon and gay, and he is about as direct and plain-spoken about his life as anyone you’re likely to meet.  It’s worth noting here, by the way: he is also a wonderful, highly spiritual guy, and I’m almost certain that you’d like him very much.

So it’s not a change.  But while it’s not a change, it may in fact be an adjustment.  

The fight over Proposition 8 definitely hurt our standing with the gay community, but what is more sad (and unthinkable) is that I think it very quietly might also have hurt their standing with us.  For a while there, they were on the opposite side.  They were the enemy.

And I’ve listened over the years to folks in our wards who seem to have forgotten, first, that if Prop 8 was a war, it was a Civil War, pitting brother against brother; and second, that it was a debate over public policy, not over how we treat our gay brothers and sisters.

So how should you adjust?  By opening your arms just a little bit wider, to encircle these brothers and sisters.  They are that, you know.  They are the son or daughter of some Relief Society President in Tempe, AZ who worries about them and wants very much for you to watch over and care for them.  They’ve spent their whole young lives in church; they might have served a mission somewhere, probably honorably.  And life’s been no picnic for them, either.  

Seek them out.  Encourage them to re-join us.  Welcome them with open arms.  And remember that no matter what their current situation, in any case they’ll join a congregation that consists, the last time I checked, of people just like them, all struggling to figure out God’s plan for them and trying their best to follow it..

For some, that will be an adjustment.  But it will be a loving, big-hearted, Christlike adjustment, and those are the best kind.

Next I want to talk about wholesale changes that we sometimes make: those moments when we really see what we are, and we know that we have to just stop.  And start being something else.  

When I think of making wholesale changes, I think of David.

King David was one of the greatest heroes Israel ever had.  He was handsome, the Bible says, with red hair and beautiful eyes.  He was fearless: he is the one who stared down  Goliath and brought him to the ground with a smooth stone.  He was a brilliant strategist and a charismatic leader.  Jerusalem was his idea.  He is the one who made it the capital of Israel and united the whole kingdom.  He was a wonderful poet and a musician.

He was God's anointed one: about David the prophet Samuel told Saul: “the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart,” and in the first book of Kings you can read how he went down in history:
"David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn himself aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite."

Ahh, yes: the soldier Uriah, one of the world’s great examples of loyalty.  Unfortunate husband of lovely Bathsheba, whom David happened to see bathing one day while walking on the roof of his palace.  He took one look at her and had to have her.  He sent messengers to bring her to him, and of course he was the king, and what the king wants, the king gets.  Not long afterwards, Bathsheba sent him some hard news: that she was pregnant.  So David developed a plan.

The first thing he tried, in the grand tradition of politics everywhere, was a cover-up.  If he could get Uriah and Bathsheba to spend a romantic weekend together, then perhaps Uriah would believe that the child was his own.  Problem solved.  Only Uriah, a little flummoxed at being called back from the front, refused to go in and see Bathsheba, telling David:
"The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.

David tried this strategy one more time, eating and drinking with Uriah in the hopes that a drunk Uriah would go and see his wife.  But still Uriah refused to go to her.

This messed up David's big idea pretty badly, so he went to Plan B, and believe me when I tell you that Plan B is evidence of just how far and how fast we can fall when our hearts have thoroughly turned from the Lord: He writes to Joab, who was Uriah’s commander, and tells him to put Uriah in the hottest part of the battle, and then withdraw from him so he will be killed.  Plan B, unfortunately, worked just fine.  Uriah was killed, and when her prescribed mourning period was over David married her.

But David had displeased the Lord and barely days after Bathsheba bore a son, Nathan the prophet was knocking at the front door of the palace, sent by God to confront the King.

The way that Nathan confronts David is one of my favorite stories in all scripture: he traps David with a story.  To attack David directly might help the world see what David had done, but to tell him a story might just help David, which is what Nathan wanted.  He wanted to save David’s life -- to help the king see what he had done so that his conscience was revived and his sense of justice restored.  

Because it was a story about someone else, David's guard was down when Nathan told him about the rich man with many flocks and the poor man with nothing but one little ewe lamb.  When he was told that the rich man stole the poor man's little sheep to dress for a fancy dinner, David rushed to the poor man's defense and it was not until he had pronounced a death sentence on the rich man that he found out what he had done.

"Thou art the man," Nathan told him, and it is to David's credit that his heart split in two.  "I have sinned against the Lord," he cried -- not because Nathan had told him so but because he had discovered it for himself, and that was the beginning of him coming back to life again.

What Nathan did was just this: he helped David see himself clearly for the first time in a long time.  David was actually buying into his own nonsense: it would be comical for David to pronounce a death sentence on an ungrateful rich man, if it weren’t so sad.

But in the grand tradition of applying the scriptures to ourselves, I have to ask: are we so much different?  To start with: do you, like David, plan to sin, or are they all accidents?

Let me take this a step further, with an observation: if we polled all of the LDS people who have broken, say, the law of chastity or the Word of Wisdom, and we asked them whether or not the day they first broke it was the first time they ever really thought about it, if they were honest very close to 100% would have to admit that it was not.  It was, in fact, a plan that they had made.  And the same is true for us: we do what we mean to do.  Pretty much period.

If you take nothing else from this talk, let it at least be this: You and I, to a startling degree of precision, are exactly the people we mean to be.  

One of my favorite books, and one I highly recommend to you, is called "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life," by the 18th-century Anglican cleric William Law.  You can actually find its full text online for free.  In chapter two of that book, he investigates what he calls "why Christians fall so far short of the holiness and devotion of Christianity."  He compares us unfavorably to the martyrs and saints of early Christianity, and then he concludes with this stunning statement:
"Now if you will stop here and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it."

Here I’m going to stop for just a second, and I’m going to read that again, because it is the most important statement in this talk, and one of the most important statements I’ve ever read in my whole life:
“Now if you will stop here and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.

I wish that were not true, but instead it strikes me as one of the truest things I've ever read.  You and I, my brothers and sisters, day in and day out, are precisely what we intend to be.  If we seem not to be as good or as righteous as we think we should be, there is only one reason: we do not really mean to be.  

Think about that with me, since it applies to everything: I might say that I’d like to weigh thirty pounds less, but the truth is that I don’t.  At least I don’t want that as badly as I want to keep eating the way that I do.  You might say that you want to stop cursing, but the truth is that you like it.  You don’t mean to stop at all, and on the day that you really do, you will.

Wholesale changes come when we either have a Nathan, someone who points out who we really are, or else when we are our own Nathan: when we see on our own how thoroughly we need to change ourselves to line our lives up with what we claim to believe.  I’m hoping that just maybe if we take William Law’s comment to heart, we can see for ourselves who we really are, and we can change.

Finally, brothers and sisters, we can change when God simply plants it in our hearts to change.  We can change through a miracle.

I like to point out that the disciples changed through a miracle.  I think we see the story of their calling wrong: we see Jesus walk up to them and say “Come, follow me,” and they do.  We think of what great faith it must have taken for them to simply drop what was in their hands and follow a stranger.

But I don’t think it was that at all.  Chances are, if you were able to ask the fisherman brothers a few minutes before they saw Jesus for the first time, they’d have told you that they weren’t particularly religious.  They weren’t in Jerusalem, after all, and they were just fishermen.  And in any case, their later actions show that they often didn’t seem to be too familiar with Jewish law.

No, the disciples changed because Jesus planted faith in their hearts.  He made disciples out of almost thin air.  They were the right men, of course, but they were right because they were made right, not because of anything they did.

We can change by miracle, and in fact I think we do, all the time.  Testimony is a miracle, isn’t it?  And what would you call those moments in your life when clarity comes, when you rather suddenly know exactly what to do?  I’d call that a miracle.

What I’d like to make sure that you know about miracles, though, is that sometimes they hide.  Miracles can look like the furthest thing from a miracle until you see them from the distance of years.

Not long ago I was driving by Oracle, where I used to work in a job I loved, with my stepson.  He looked at those beautiful glass towers and asked me why I didn't work there anymore.  I told him a very long story that ended with me having to leave that job and eventually with great sadness end my marriage, and he said, "That's a bummer."  But then I said, "If I still worked there I would never have met your mother," and believe me when I tell you that meeting his mother has been a blessing beyond imagining.  The path I took toward that blessing is not one I would have chosen, but it is also one I would not trade.  I may have been stumbling, but I stumbled directly into happiness.

There were a few years that looked to me in the moment like a total disaster, but you know what they say: if you pray for a Mercedes, and God sends you a donkey...ride it.

Those years now look to me like a tremendous blessing.  A miracle.  Has it changed me? Tremendously, and all for the good.  

Brothers and sisters, being open to change -- and I mean, opening yourself up very wide and practically begging to be changed -- is a critical gospel principle.  You simply cannot become the person you need to be by remaining the person you are.

You’ve heard of The Serenity Prayer?  My hope for you and I is that we can put it in our hearts with this little adjustment:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the people that I cannot change, the courage to change the one that I can, and the wisdom to know that it’s me.”

In the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Modern Mormon Men: Interview with Mitch Mayne

Recently, I was interviewed by a progressive Mormon blog--Modern Mormon Men. I like doing these kinds of interviews in smaller venues best, it gives me a chance to more deeply share what I think is a positive move for our faith, and explain that in a way that the larger press often doesn't allow. Scott Heffernan, the interviewer, asked tough--but fair--questions. I like that. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed being part of it. I've presented it here in its entirety.

Over the last several years, Mitch Mayne has been anxiously engaged in a good cause. He has been helping to build bridges between the LGBTQ community and the LDS church. Visit his very cool blog and website to learn more. Recently Mitch made headlines over his announcement of a new calling he received in San Francisco's Bay Ward. He was called to be the Bishop's Executive Secretary, a highly visible leadership position within the LDS church. Mitch's placement into this role is remarkable because he is "openly and unapologetically" gay. It has been absolutely fascinating to follow the unfolding events. Read the story as covered by Joanna Brooks, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the San Francisco Examiner, and even Robert Kirby. Mitch was nice enough to grant us an interview as well.

ScottHeff: Hi Mitch. I just want to say thanks for being willing to interview with me. From what I understand you have been inundated by the press trying to speak to you. It's an honor to have you here on Modern Mormon Men. Welcome! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Mitch Mayne: Thank you, Scott. It’s my pleasure—I think it’s pretty apparent that this is a topic about which I am deeply passionate, and have been for some time.

First, I wish to mention a couple of points. I am not a spokesperson for the Mormon church—I speak for me, and as such can share my perspectives, my experience, and my hope. Second, I don’t set doctrine—fortunately, that mantle of responsibility does not fall to me. I do believe our faith is led by kind, inspired men who seek to do the right thing, and that gives me great hope.

As for me personally, I believe every single one of us is equal in the eyes of our Savior, regardless of orientation, ethnicity, gender–or any other marker we use as humans to define differences between ourselves and others. As such, I don't believe it is ever my job to condemn, criticize, or mock another. My job, as my Father’s son, is to walk beside you as you learn the lessons life is intended to teach you; to celebrate your joys with you, and to lend a hand when you stumble. The true spirit of love we have for one another is kind, patient, and doesn’t demand it’s own way. It doesn’t scold, condemn, or criticize. I am most certainly an imperfect human–but this is the spirit I think our Savior wants us to strive to achieve throughout the human family, and it is the spirit that I endeavor to bring to my entire life–and most certainly my faith.

And, it is the spirit I bring to this interview with you today.

Scott: Good to state all that right up front. Let me start by asking why your calling is such a big deal? Why do you think this is getting the attention that it is?

Mitch: I think what’s generating the enthusiasm and attention is the direction we’re taking here in San Francisco, and the opportunity that represents to begin to create more peaceful hearts when it comes to the topic of gays and lesbians within the church.

There are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of LGBTQ people and those who care about them in the membership of the church. In 2010, there were over 14 million people across the globe on the church membership records. Based on an extremely conservative estimate of just 1%, that would mean that there are over 140,000 gay and lesbian individuals within the church. Add to that their families—and that number quickly grows to at least 500,000. Then, add to that their friends, their neighbors, and their priesthood and relief society leaders, those who care about them—that number quickly grows to over a million.

Now, let’s factor in those who have left the church over this issue, and those within the LGBTQ and straight communities alike who listen to what our faith has to say on this matter, and we can extrapolate that there are probably tens of millions of people in the world to whom this is an important topic—tens of millions of people who are troubled, pained, and long for some kind of reconciliation on the question of how gays and lesbians fit within our faith.

Currently, at the local level in San Francisco, we have an opportunity to help begin to build the reconciliation that I believe so many seek. My local leadership is comprised of kind, inspired men who recognize how painful this topic has been in our community, and want to help reach out to those whose souls are hurting. They’ve called me to help, and I’m blessed to be able to play a small role in bringing that to fruition in the San Francisco area. But, I think you can see that this is a topic that dwells in the hearts of many people across the globe—and I think they’re watching with great anticipation, and welcome our efforts. The place of our gay and lesbian brothers and sister isn’t something that just affects those in San Francisco—its impact is felt in every corner of the world.

Scott: One important point of interest is that you self-identify as a “gay Mormon” as opposed to one who “suffers from same sex attraction.” Can you clarify that distinction?

Mitch: I understand my sexual orientation to be a core component of my spiritual identity—not something that has been placed upon me as a burden, test of my faith, or cross I must bear. Orientation encompasses much more than simple attraction; I think to reduce it to that one aspect dismisses how deeply this is embedded in my spiritual DNA.

I am a gay man, just as my Father made me. I am not someone who suffers from same sex attraction. I think the words from one of my first essays on being a gay Mormon called, You know who I am, fit quite well here:

I don’t want to be labeled as “afflicted” or “suffering” or “struggling.” I do not have an illness that requires my soul be mended. I want to be recognized, like you, as a whole person, just as my Heavenly Father made me. I have suffered no affliction by His hand; I have, however, suffered affliction at the hands of others, including my brothers and sisters in the gospel.

Scott: Your story has been met with some skepticism—on both sides of the spectrum. I kept an eye on some of the reactions to the news of your calling and they were interesting, to say the least. I can imagine that you are receiving some criticism as well. Care to share any stories? Would you say the overall feedback you are getting is more negative or more positive?

Mitch: Positive, hands down. The outpouring of support has been humbling, to say the least. Not a day goes by now that I don’t get a couple hundred emails from people around the world expressing how happy they are to see this happening. For example, I got a note from a straight, married Mormon man who told me that he and his wife had been praying for years now for some kind of movement toward reconciliation on the topic of gays and lesbians and the church—that they had experienced much spiritual discord over the topic. The news of my calling—and the direction I’m following from my Bishop and Stake President to outreach to the gay community—strengthened their testimonies of both the church and our Savior. The volume of email and messages are astounding—it tells me people genuinely want heartfelt reconciliation on this challenge. Our faith community is not only ready for this, they’re desirous of it.

I am seeing it locally as well. My first Sunday in the Bay Ward, where I’m serving my new calling, I was approached after speaking in Sacrament Meeting by several straight members with similar stories. And, I was approached by at least three gay men—some of them new to the ward—who are also happy to see movement in this direction. In the Oakland stake, an investigator heard me speak about this work and called the Bishop and said he was ready to move forward into full fellowship—that the gay and lesbian issue had been a sticking point with him.

It’s been overwhelming, but in a very good way.

Scott: People are having very public conversations speculating about the details of your private life. That has to be fun. Some of the flak you have been given is because you haven’t committed to a life of celibacy, which some people interpret as you "planning to sin" and are therefore unrepentant and unworthy. Could you explain this?

Mitch: There’s been a lot of attention on what my romantic future may or may not hold, and I understand that.

First, my commitment is to uphold the identical standards we ask of any single male in a priesthood leadership role while I have this calling; that is fair, and I do so with full purpose of heart. I was interviewed, deemed worthy, and sustained in the identical fashion as any other single male would have been. That is also fair.

Beyond that, I simply don’t know. I don’t have any increased psychic abilities as a result of taking this position. I don’t get to know what life will bring me—romantically, professionally, or otherwise. I am a gay man, and gay men are emotionally and intimately attracted to other men. That hasn’t changed. And, I have always strived to live my life in accordance with what I understand my Savior’s will for me to be. That hasn’t changed, either. Both of these qualities are part and parcel of my DNA as a gay Mormon.

I think we, as humans, tend to get ourselves in trouble when we use the terms “always” and “never.” As far as I know, there has been only one unchangeable, perfect human who always made the right choices. The rest of us aren’t perfect, and life comes to us in ways we often don’t expect. I think the best any of us can do is hold good intentions, stay close to our Savior, and do our level best. And if I haven’t misread my scriptures entirely, I think that’s all He asks us to do.

Scott: I understand you were called because you are gay, not in spite of it. Is that accurate? What unique qualities do you plan to bring to your calling as a gay Mormon? What do you view as the mission of your calling?

Mitch: My mission in my calling is to follow the orders of my Stake Presidency and my Bishop, Don Fletcher. Within the ward boundaries of the San Francisco Bay Ward alone, we have 2500 members; only 500 members actively attend. Many of those who are inactive are single men and women—some of whom have served missions, and honorably so. Their families are still members. And many of these are our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, who feel like they have no place among our flanks. I’ve been asked to help build a bridge between these two communities, and it is my pleasure to do so.

My Bishop’s direction is this: The doors of the church in San Francisco are open to any and all, regardless of where people are in their lives; partnered, single, monogamous, dating, celibate—there’s room for everyone in our congregation. Bishop Fletcher said the other day that he wants our biggest problem to be lack of seating in the chapel on Sunday, and a challenge in keeping people from talking to one another during Sacrament Meeting because they are so darned glad to see one another. What a great goal! How could I not want to be part of a team like that?

Yes, I was called in part because I am gay. I have a foot in both worlds, Scott. I’m a gay Mormon, and one who is comfortable living with what so many see as two irreconcilable perspectives. And that gives me the unique ability to help my leadership understand what we go through as gay Mormons, and also speak to the gay community about our faith. That’s a great thing, and a pretty impressive blessing I’ve been given. I’m grateful for it.

My mission is simple: Follow the guidance set forth by my leadership. They’re the coaches. They write the plays. They direct the game. I’m just the quarterback who executes.

Scott: Wow. Your leaders sound amazing.

You've been fairly public about announcing your calling. Even before your calling you have been a very vocal gay Mormon. How does that play into your goals for this calling?

Mitch: One of my goals has always been to help people understand that it’s our similarities that bind us—not our differences that separate us. We’re all children of our Father. He loves us for exactly where we are, and exactly who we are.

Yes, I have been very public about being a gay Mormon for a long time—talking about not only the struggles we face, but also the joy we get from the gospel. That won’t change with this new calling. But the great thing now, is I get to be able to be part of a team of kind, compassionate and inspired men who want to do the right thing. And I get to leverage my history as a gay Mormon to do it—to hopefully create a better future for all of us.

But this really isn’t about me—it’s about the opportunity for all of us within our faith to come a little bit closer to demonstrating the kind of unconditional love our Savior has asked us to emulate. True, I am more open than many others feel comfortable being. In the end, we all need to stop declaring our individual identities over the pulpit and just focus on being disciples to our Savior. But until the invisible among us are recognized and respected, I think it’s incumbent upon me to do a little more identity sharing.

Scott: What is a straight ally? Why should we be one? And what should we do? Can one be a straight ally and still sustain the leaders of the church?

Mitch:This is a great set of questions—so many people have asked me what it is and how they can become one. I think in most ways they already are by virtue of simply asking the question, quite frankly. A straight ally is someone who recognizes exactly what we’re trying to accomplish here in San Francisco: that we’re all children of our Father, and there’s room for every one of us at His table. And someone whose actions and words speak that vision of equality among our brothers and sisters. The great news is so many people are asking the question—and how amazing that is!

I’m teaming up with Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project in the next few weeks to begin to put together a package for those who are interested in learning more. It will cover things like how parents can talk to LGBTQ children, how Bishops and leaders in the church can support LGBTQ folks, and what the role of the congregation is—all in ways that are in keeping with the guidance our faith provides. So stay tuned, there is much more to come on this topic as well.

And can you be an ally and still sustain the leaders of the church? Absolutely! Our faith is built on the gospel of our Savior, and one of the cornerstones of His gospel is the commandment to love one another. I think this direction goes hand in hand with His mandate to us.

Scott: Homosexuality is a very controversial/sensitive subject within the LDS church. Being gay, has it been difficult to maintain activity in and a testimony of the church?

Mitch: I think one of the best things that’s happened since this announcement is the volume of people who’ve begun to ask questions like this: How does it work for you? Is it challenging? How can you be both gay AND Mormon? Maybe, for the first time, people are beginning to understand what it is like to hold two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives in their heads and hearts. To them I say, “Welcome to a small glimpse of what it’s like to be a gay Mormon—we have to grapple with this every day.”

It’s not an easy task, being a gay Mormon. And, I don't think it's supposed to be easy...our Savior sent us here to grapple with difficult choices, seemingly competing perspectives, and challenging situations. That's part of the plan. But He also blessed us with the spirit, the ability to communicate with Him (and Him with us), and critical thinking skills. I think we offend Him when we don't bring those gifts to bear on every matter, not just the rough ones. That's also part of the plan—and what a great one it is!

I’ve been blessed with a unique faith community here in the bay area. I could live a quiet, healthy, happy life as a member of my church here—fully accepted for exactly who I am. But, I think my Savior had a different plan in store. He blessed me with some marginal communication skills (which He augments every time I speak or write!), and gave me a pathway to share what I have—by helping create it in other wards. True, I could have declined and probably had a much more peaceful life than I’ll have now, but to decline it would be toss back into my Savior’s face all the blessings and opportunities He has given me. And given how much I owe Him, I can’t possibly refuse.

Scott: Earlier you mentioned that in your area, "the doors of the church are open." What exactly does this mean? What is different in your ward and stake?

Mitch: “The doors are open.” This is a quote from my leadership. It means that everyone—independent of where they are in their lives—is welcome in the Bay Ward. There is no authorization interview to sit in our chapel on Sunday. There is no test to take to qualify for our love, support, and kindness.

True, doctrine as we understand it today has not changed; but no one will ask you to give up your partner or change your life to attend. Is it a doctrinal change? No. Is it a great and wonderful softening of the perception of all of our Savior’s children as our brothers and sisters? Will it help mend families? Will it help people who want the feeling of being part of a community of faith? Absolutely!

Scott: What an inspiring message you bring with you today, Mitch—a message I think we can all benefit from. I hope we can all grow in unconditional love and empathy for our fellow brothers and sisters. I’m excited to see such a big step in this direction, and I know a lot of my fellow Mormons feel the same way. Thanks so much for stopping by!

One last question: The goatee—did you have to shave or did they let you keep it?

Mitch: Hahaha! I love this question! No, no one has asked me to shave it. In fact, in one of my lighter moments a few months back I put up a before/after photo of me with and without the goatee on Facebook, and opened it up to a poll to help determine whether or not I should keep it. I think there was only one vote to shave it off. I suspect it hides some of my face, so I can understand the requests, and shall follow suit. I am, after all, here to serve my fellows—facial hair and all. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

PRIDE in Utah Interview

On Thursday, September 1st, I was interviewed by PRIDE in Utah's Eric Ethington. For those of you who missed the interview, I've provided it below. 

I've known of Eric and his efforts for some time; and now I know him to be a good man, with a good heart--and one that I am honored to call a friend. He is a professional and asked tough questions, and I'm glad he did. The interview was honest, informative, optimistic, and speaks of good things to come for all of us. Enjoy.  

San Francisco – This past week, I read an article in the Salt Lake Tribune about an openly-gay man in San Francisco who has just been named as a member of the Bishopric in his local Mormon congregation. Needless to say, I immediately tracked him down for an interview.

Most of our readers know that I have a complicated past with the Mormon, or LDS, Church. I was raised as a member in Utah but was thrown from my house when I came out at 17 by an intolerant and bigoted Father who believed that I was an embarrassment because I wasn’t following the Mormon doctrine. I eventually rejoined the Church and went back into the closet (long story) and was married to a woman in the Mormon temple in SLC. Obviously, that didn’t last long. Since then, I have been an outspoken critic of the Mormon Church and their policies and attitudes towards the LGBT community. This does not mean that I am anti-Mormon, I do not wish to see them disbanded nor do I want to see the government ever force them to change. What I want is them to change themselves. Protest after protest, I’ve called for them to change their own attitudes so that no child ever has to go through the trauma and horror that I did just to stay alive.

So when I heard about Mitch Mayne, an openly-gay man who was called to the Bishopric of this local Mormon Ward (aka congregation), I was intrigued. How does someone who’s being open and honest with and about themselves still find happiness being part of a religion who’s doctrine tells you that you cannot be who you are?

I thought about editorializing my interview with Mitch. But the more we talked, the more I’ve decided that I’m just going to give it to you raw, and without any additional commentary.

PRIDE in Utah Interview of Mitch Mayne
Eric: Mitch I very much appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, I have many questions for you and I want to try and understand more about your situation. So question 1: When did you receive your calling as Executive Secretary. And what does that position entail?

Mitch: I officially received the calling during the second week of August. Don Fletcher–now the Bishop–was serving in the San Francisco Stake Presidency. He was called to be the bishop of the Bay Ward, and then he and the stake president called me to serve as Don’s executive secretary. And I wish I had a detailed job description to provide you, it would be helpful to me, as well. I will be the interface between our congregation and Don–so anytime anyone wants to meet with him, I’ll be the point of contact. In our ward, the executive secretary and the ward clerk are viewed as an integral part of the bishopric. And as such, I’ll also continue to participate in ward callings for other service positions, setting those individuals apart, and participate in congregational executive-level decision-making.

Eric: How did you come to belong to the LDS faith? Were you raised as such? Have you always been Mormon?

Mitch: I was baptized when I was eight, but fell away from the church shortly thereafter, due in large part to my parents’ rather acrimonious divorce. I reconverted when I was in my mid 20s, knowing full well I was gay, and knowing I would have to somehow find a way to integrate my faith with my sexual orientation.

Eric: I read that you only received this calling once you and your partner had been separated for a year, did the Church have something to do with your break-up?

Mitch: Out of respect, I’d rather not go into details of the past. My former partner is a man with many amazing and wonderful qualities. I still deeply care for him, and he will always hold a special place in my heart.  Suffice it to say, it ended due to no direct pressure from the church; no one asked me to leave to remain part of the Mormon faith.

Eric: So as an openly gay man who is also an active member of the Mormon faith, how did Prop 8 effect you? How did it make you feel to watch your church be involved the way they were?

Mitch: Prop 8 was probably among the most challenging times in my Mormon faith. I felt first-hand the sorrow this caused. And, I felt it from within my very own spiritual family. Watching my Mormon brothers and sisters advocate for an issue that would keep me from marrying the man I loved tore at my heart. It was difficult to maintain my personal integrity and, at the same time, stay close to the home where I found my Savior.

Eric: Were those feelings aggravated again when the Mormon 2nd-in-command, Boyd K Packer, made his now infamous statements last fall claiming that anyone can change their sexual orientation?

Mitch: What Packer said hurt a lot of people, and yes, I was included in that group. I have a lot of respect for that man, I’ve read a lot of his work–some of his writings and talks are spiritually amazing. I think that maybe made this hurt even more.

Eric: But is it hard to believe in anyone who makes statements like his? Not just from last October, but his earlier writings advocating violence against LGBT people?

Mitch: I think that’s a very fair question. I look at it this way: I can’t very well go around and ask the Mormon community to lend compassion and kindness to the LGBTQ community without granting others that same degree of compassion. We’re all three dimensional mortals, every single one of us. And as such, we each have strengths–and flaws. There is not a human on this Earth that is exempt from that, it’s simply our human state.

Eric: Do you ever find people who feel that they have to end relationships if they wish to be fully embraced by the church. What do you tell people who feel that a life without the love of someone is at odds with the doctrine of the Mormon faith?

Mitch: If I am to follow my Bishop’s example and directions–and I shall do so with absolute pleasure–I welcome them into the congregation, just as they are. That’s the thing that’s really great here–the direction we’re taking. Everyone is welcome, regardless of where they are in their personal lives!

Eric: But what about people who are in relationships with their partners and don’t want to give them up? Doesn’t LDS doctrine say that they cannot be full-members (meaning no temple ordinances or callings)?

Mitch: No, doctrine has not changed. But no one will ask you to give up your partner to attend. That means anyone can come to our congregation and be part of the ward family. There are a lot of things that hold straight people back from getting temple recommends and holding callings as well, and they’ve always been welcome in our flanks. That same welcome is extended to everyone here. Is it a doctrinal change? No. Is it a great and wonderful softening of the perception of all of our Savior’s children as our brothers and sisters? Will it help mend families? Will it help people who want the feeling of being in a community of faith? Absolutely! I met three gay men last week alone who came to church because they were starting to feel welcome. Each of them is in a different spot in terms of how deeply he wants to develop his relationship with the church. And each one is welcome! I got told today of a straight investigator in the Oakland Stake who heard my talk–the gay and lesbian issue was a sticking point for him–and now he feels more comfortable moving into full fellowship.

Eric: You seem to be in a unique position there in San Francisco. Being openly gay, and yet still fully-accepted into the church as long as you do not have a relationship with another man. There are many stories of people however, in other wards across the country who were immediately excommunicated from the Mormon Church when they came out, even if they intended to remain celibate. There are even reports of straight Mormons who were kicked out just because they opposed Prop 8. What is it about your ward that makes it so unique and accepting?

Mitch: I’ve heard these stories as well, some of them first-hand. They also pull at my heart. In my farewell speech to my home ward in Oakland, I shared the story of a man who I called Cliff, who experienced this exact thing. The goal was to help others understand how truly difficult it can be for gay and lesbian Mormons, and the challenges we encounter. And yes, you’re right: I am a blessed man to have what I have, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear a story that reminds me that I am. I want to bring that to others. Prop 8 was a divisive time in our history; true, it affected people everywhere, but I think the bay area was hit especially hard. For example, within the ward boundaries of the Bay Ward alone, there are hundreds of endowed, single members on the record books who don’t attend church. Many of these members are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I am being led by a local leadership of kind, wise men–who understand how important this topic is to our local community. I am following their instructions when it comes to opening the doors and reaching out–I am part of a team, not an individual long-distance runner on this one. I think because of their kind hearts, and the recognition that this topic is especially important locally is one thing might make things a little different here. It’s not just me doing this; my leadership wants this as well, and from the feedback I’m getting from the ward membership, they’re elated and stand ready with open arms! It’s a great time to be a Mormon, and I am humbled to be part of this!

Eric: As you know, there are also thousands, if not hundreds of thousands (myself included), of LGBT children who have been thrown from their homes by Mormon parents. Many of them end up homeless or in suicidal situations, and all of them end up feeling scarred physically or mentally. What do you say to those who have been put in those situations?

Mitch: Oh, man…I know so well those stories. Mine wasn’t terribly dissimilar. I think what troubles me the most about these stories is they really seem to be so counter what I understand we want our faith to be about: the family. One of the things I want to focus on here (with the support of my leadership) is working to develop supportive, healthy, nurturing ways that parents and loved ones can help LGBTQ youth. Caitlin Ryan, the Director of Family Acceptance Project, has just done some powerful research and actually has a toolkit for parents of these youth that they can use, and do so in keeping with our Mormon faith. I’ve posted about this in my blog before, and I’m working with Caitlin to speak at a meeting of our local bishopric and stake leadership where we can share that with them–and they, in turn, can share it with parents. Here’s a great quote from one Mormon mother had when she discovered this information: “The Church teaches us that no success can compensate for failure in the home, and when we realized that included our relationship with our gay son, we knew that, with God’s help, we could do whatever was necessary to make our home a safe and loving one.” What an amazing opportunity we have, Eric, to keep what happened to us and so many others from continuing to happen. Our LGBTQ youth–and their families–need our support, our help, and our outreach. We can’t unring the bell on what happened to us; but we can help keep it from happening to others. And to those who’ve experienced that trauma, you, too–and perhaps most especially–are welcome among our flanks.

Eric: Do you yourself support full equal rights for LGBT people, up to and including marriage?

Mitch: I believe every single one of us is equal in the eyes of our Savior, regardless of orientation, ethnicity, gender–or any other marker we use as humans to define differences between ourselves and others. I don’t speak for the church here. But I don’t believe it is ever my job to condemn, criticize, or mock another. My job, as my Father’s son, is to walk beside you as you learn the lessons life is intended to teach you; to celebrate your joys with you, and to lend a hand when you stumble. The true spirit of love we have for one another is kind, patient, and doesn’t demand it’s own way. it doesn’t scold, condemn, or criticize. I am most certainly an imperfect human–but this is the spirit I think our Savior wants us to strive to achieve throughout the human family, and it is the spirit that I endeavor to bring to my entire life–and most certainly my faith.

Eric: That doesn’t really answer the question though. Do you personally support equal rights, not under the LDS church but under civil law, for LGBT people? And for that matter, do you also believe that your (and every other person’s) sexual orientation and gender identity are innate and cannot be changed.

Mitch: Absolutely. As Mitch Mayne, absolutely and without question.

Eric: Glad to hear it. You know, the longer we’ve continued our questions. There’s still something that is sticking in my head. I believe that to be happy in this life, you need to fully embrace yourself for who you are. That includes finding someone you love to spend the rest of your life with. How can one do that and still be a member of the LDS Faith. According to Mormon Doctrine, every member needs to work to be “temple worthy,” and for LGBT people that means not being with the people they love.

Mitch: I understand that question. I live that question, just like you and so many of us. I don’t get the ability to write doctrine, I don’t have that blessing nor that responsibility–it’s a daunting job, and I’m grateful that mantle does not fall to me. I do know, though, that our gospel is very much alive–and as such, will continue to grow and expand. In fact, our 9th article of faith tells us that God will “yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Is this something that will fall into the category of more revelation? I don’t know. I’m not blessed with any more psychic abilities than any other average mortal. What I do know is what feels right in my heart. And what we’re hoping to accomplish in the San Francisco Bay Area–and the Bay Ward specifically, feels *right.* Bringing families and those who share our faith a little closer together feels right. Opening the doors and allowing everyone to come in feels right. Building strength in unity and in faith feels right. Is it perfect for everyone? Perhaps not. But it sure feels like the right direction to me. What has worked for me–and again, this is sharing my own personal experience–is staying close to my Savior and striving to do what I understand His will for me to be. I think that’s the best any of us really can do–and if I don’t misunderstand my scriptures entirely, I think that’s all He asks us to do.

Eric: It’s well documented that when equal rights are finally achieved, that has no bearing on what any religion is required to teach or the ordinances they perform. Why do you think it’s so hard for many members of the LDS Church to understand the difference between equal civil rights, and their religion being FORCED to change their doctrine?

Mitch: I can only speculate here, but I think what we’re seeing is a human characteristic, not a Mormon one. I think being a human is an exhilarating and simultaneously scary thing. There are a lot of unknowns. I think we find safety in categorizing and labeling things: good, bad, black, white, gay, straight. Change of any kind requires we think differently, and that’s tough for many of us–and sometimes it’s frightening. The great thing is at least in the San Francisco area, people now have permission to begin to see things a little differently, to think a little differently, to be a little more open. And I think that is a tremendous blessing! God gave us critical thinking skills to use, it’s part of the plan! I think we offend Him when we don’t use them. Here’s a chance to open hearts and minds and understand things in a new way–as a closer human family. That’s a good thing for every single one of us!

Eric: Do you view yourself and your new position as a bridge between the two communities? There’s a long and extremely painful relationship between the LGBTQ community and the Mormon Church. Do you think you can use your position to try to heal the wounds?

Mitch: I sure hope so. I think I have a unique opportunity, Eric. I’m a man with a foot in two worlds that most people don’t think intersect–but they do. There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of LGBTQ Mormons and those who love them. I’m just a single individual–but I am maybe one who is comfortable being more open than many others feel comfortable with. I understand full well the difficulties between the two communities; I have experienced many of those first-hand. But, I also think there is an amazing opportunity here, to stand up as an openly gay man, recognizing that is how my Father made me, and let my personal story speak for many who have felt silenced. And, I think there is even a greater opportunity for me to play a part–however small–in reconciliation between these two groups. What makes this truly astounding is I am following the direction of my Bishop and Stake President: They are the ones who are opening the doors here. How great it is to be part of a team like that!

Eric: You say you’re following the directions from your Bishop and Stake President. How so? What type of outreach have they asked you to attempt?

Mitch: I’ve been pretty heavily involved in a series of outreach programs and events we’ve run in the Oakland Stake with the goal of healing the wounds from Prop 8. Those have been very well received. And while we’re still in the formative stages of figuring out specifically what we’re going to do on this side of the bay, I do want to replicate the success we’ve had in the Oakland Stake.  I think this quote from my Bishop Don Fletcher states our end goal pretty clearly:  “I want to reach out to gays and let them know that they are welcome in the ward, wherever they’re at,” Fletcher said. “If they are, like Mitch, living the commandments, they’ll be put to work. But everyone can get spiritual recharging and feel the savior’s love by worshiping with us.” To me, that means the doors are open!

Eric: Any final thoughts?

Mitch: Ha! That’s a dangerous question, my friend! Millions of final thoughts! But I’ll limit it to this: I know who I am. I know I am my Father’s son, and I am just as He made me. And I know he wants me to be here doing this right now, in the company of a ward and stake leadership that I am honored to serve with. He loves each of us for exactly where we are, and exactly who we are. I’ve said this to a few friends, but think it bears repeating here. It takes a strong spirit to be gay in this world; it takes a remarkable one to be a gay Mormon. To my brothers and sisters out there, don’t ever doubt that you are, in fact, remarkable.

This was no small interview for me, it dug into some very personal and painful memories that I’ve tried to forget. I can’t say that I agree with everything that Mitch says and believes, but I think it reflects change, change in the Mormon Church. And although it’s moving ever-so-slowly (and you know how glacial-paces thrill me), any change is positive.

I don’t know if the Mormon Church will ever change their doctrine, but I think that it’s individuals like Mitch Mayne who make those small differences within their own circles – attitudes begin to soften, hearts open, and perhaps someday we can hold up these Mormon families as models of how good parents should treat their LGBT children.