Sunday, September 23, 2012

Circling the Wagons: Bishop Don Fletcher's talk

The talk given by my Bishop, Don Fletcher, at the Circling the Wagons Mormon LGBT Conference in San Francisco last month, shared with his permission. I'm a blessed man to get to serve with a human who has such an amazing spirit.


One of my favorite scriptures is 1 Nephi 11:17.  In this passage Nephi is being grilled/peppered with questions by an angel.  Not personally being a scholar on all points of gospel nuance, I can readily identify with his answer to the angel in this verse: “And I said unto him: I know that He loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Nephi 11:17)

As a human, I certainly don’t know the meaning of all things either--yet I am also totally confident that God loves all of His children.

There are a vast array of challenges that beset the members of my ward – some are very emotionally distressing.  In my calling as a bishop, I love to make use of priesthood blessings – like Peter said in Acts, it is a gift that is very concrete and real that I can offer my ward members. The words of the Lord through a priesthood blessing can often be not only comforting, but sometimes very instructive also.

“Then Peter said, silver and gold have I none; but such as I have, give I thee.” (Acts 3:6)

My ward in San Francisco may have the distinction of having more members that are gay than any other on the planet.  I have had the privilege of meeting with many of these members and they have blessed my life greatly. A common thread that I hear repeatedly is an ongoing testimony of the gospel, a love of the Savior and a total confusion about how a gay person fits into the Lord’s eternal plan. 

In each of the many blessings I have given to these individuals, as I have laid my hands on their heads, I have felt strongly impressed to always start each and every blessing with the simple declaration that “you are loved by the Lord, right now, exactly as you are”.  It has amazed me at how powerfully those words have affected these members.  It may seem simple and obvious but it has had a deeply positive impact for my members to know that.

Bishop Fletcher at the Statue of Liberty
The history of the world is replete with various groups of people not being loved, accepted, or respected.  In a recent trip to New York, I had the opportunity to visit Liberty Island and gaze at that beautiful symbol of our freedom moving forward, even Lady Liberty.  I was interested to hear the story that in the 1896 unveiling party for that strong feminine form, women were not invited, not allowed on the island for that occasion.  The suffragettes circled the islands in boats, protesting their exclusion!
I have served as a bishop in 3 different states – Florida, Alabama and California.  Each location has afforded me the opportunity to advocate for the inclusion of sometimes marginalized members.  In Florida, I do not think that my older members were always given the respect and opportunities that they should have had.  (I must admit some bias here being a physician with an almost entirely geriatric practice – I love my senior patients.) 

In Alabama, my wonderful ward in inner city Birmingham was made up of about 65% African American members.  These fine Saints were familiar with the sting of not always being seen as equal.  My first counselor recounted the story of how several years earlier (but after 1978) he had been interviewed for the Melchezidek priesthood.  One evening, while cleaning the Stake President's office while working as the janitor for the stake center, he was hurt deeply to find his recommend with bold red letters scribbled on it proclaiming “THIS MAN IS BLACK.” The culprit was never identified, but the critical lesson was the Christlike manner in which this man responded. Though hurt, he proceeded on with full activity in the church, humbly serving around those who did not see things as the Savior would have had them.

The Bay Ward in San Francisco tries hard to be exemplary of Christ like love and acceptance to all in our diverse congregation – I am honored to be one of its members.  As I have visited as a bishop with our many gay members, I have been overwhelmingly saddened to hear their stories of great emotional suffering.  The feelings of isolation from gay members who have reached the conclusion that they are not worthy of God’s love are the most heart wrenching I have heard.

I have a family member who is gay and is not currently attending church meetings.  He still has a testimony of the restoration.  He knows the Book of Mormon is true.  But with reference to his ward, he simply states, “If they knew who I was, they would not want me there”.  That is his honest well considered perception—and his sad reality.
Primary songs bring the spirit into my life with great dependability.  One of my favorite Primary songs has always been the song – “I'll Walk with You”, the words of that song composed by Carol Lynn Pearson.  (pg 140, Children’s Songbook)

   If you don't walk as most people do,
   Some people walk away from you,
   But I won't! I won't!
   If you don't talk as most people do,
   Some people talk and laugh at you,
   But I won't! I won't!
   I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you.
   That's how I'll show my love for you.
   Jesus walked away from none.
   He gave his love to ev'ryone.
   So I will! I will!
   Jesus blessed all he could see,
   Then turned and said, "Come, follow me."
   And I will! I will!
   I will! I will!
   I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you.
   That's how I'll show my love for you.
 Words: Carol Lynn Pearson, © 1987 IRI
In the words of Carol Lynn Pearson from her wonderful book, “No More Goodbyes”, Carol Lynn has this to say about the song. In the Children’s songbook there is a lovely picture of one child pushing another in a wheelchair…"but as I wrote it I also had in mind the little children who, as they grow up, will find themselves of a sexual orientation sure to present a challenge for them in our church and our society."
I love these words of Elder Jeffrey Holland: "Some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord."  The time has come for us to work diligently to make sure that this admonition is applied to Latter-day Saints who are gay.  I cannot imagine how it would feel; to think you are not were not capable of being loved of God.  The priesthood blessings I have been privileged as a bishop to give many gay members have not only instructed the receivers of the blessings, but me, as well. And that instruction is quite clear: All of us are loved by the Lord.

This church is truly the church of Jesus Christ.  He lives and He loves us - each and every one.  We are loved and we need to love each other as He loves us.  I hope that as a church we can all shed some of the cultural relics that have prevented gay members from viewing themselves as the loved children of God that they are. 

Such is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Our Not-so-Mormon Moment

I’m a pretty easy going guy. Very little gets under my skin these days. I am, after all, a gay Mormon. If I were easily offended I’d have left the playing field a long time ago. And, I’ve often remarked that the only opinion of me that matters more than my own is that of my Savior—and quite honestly, that’s a place I am quite content to remain.

Something happens, though, when I see my Mormon fellows joining hands, and engaging in a spiritual round of, “Tick, tock, the game is locked, and nobody else can play.” I jokingly told my friend Joanna Brooks that maybe this was evidence that I have a paternalistic instinct after all, despite a house full of dead plants that seem to provide evidence to the contrary. But humor aside, not only is this a hurtful, unkind signal to anyone who doesn’t fit our own personal definition of “Mormon,” it completely misses the primary message of our Savior: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matt. 7:12.)

Last week’s Rock Center special on “Mormon in America” provided us as a faith with a potentially amazing opportunity to give our fellows across the country a look at Mormons at their best—honest, kind, compassionate, diverse, and a people who genuinely aspire to be emissaries of our Savior’s unconditional love. And by and large, while it wasn’t perfect, I tip my hat to my new friends at NBC for doing a pretty darn good job with what they had to work with.

But then it went wrong.

The post-interview on KSL (a local Salt Lake City station) featured the Mormon family that had been interviewed in the same segment as Joanna Brooks, Abby Hunstman, and me. And as I listened to what was said, I felt a familiar hot feeling crawling up my gut and into my face—shame. Rest assured, I was not shamed by the messages they delivered—I believe what we say about others tells the rest of the world a lot more about us, than it does them. I was ashamed, as a Mormon, for them.

In the KSL commentary from the Mormon family, there was no gratitude. Humility was shockingly absent. There was no wish that more of our church had been presented, or that more time had been dedicated to what the sacrament or other cherished parts of our faith represent to us. It wasn’t about our religion at all. It was about being better than others.

Said the wife, smiling: “I always am concerned when they focus on circumstances or exceptions that are the fringe element of the faith. I think 98% of the members of the church are indicative of how our family is, but they seemed to focus on more of the 2% that are disenfranchised at some level, so I always go, ‘Oh…’ (rolls eyes). Because they spent three days with us! And so we know what they saw, and what they could have highlighted, and it seemed like it was a little superficial in some of the clips they did on us, and more in depth on those that were...” (groans, winces)

Said the husband, smiling: “I wish they had shared more in depth things, as my wife just said, about, like kind of the way they did with the 2%, and the folks that are disenfranchised…I wish they had shown more of our kids because that’s really who we are.” 

Said the wife, again, while the husband smiles in the background: “I wish they would have highlighted a little more of mainstream Mormonism, instead of highlighting some of these, unusual, (winces, looks pained) circumstances, situations or feelings (of) a small minority of members, they always seem to focus on those who have issues with the faith, and I think, ‘Well..’ (winces again). I’m not sure that’s the best, you know, indicator of a faith.”

Said the husband: “But I want to add to that, most of America, when they’ve been exposed to people of our religion and our faith, are impressed and they know who we are.  And I think for the most part, we’re becoming more and more accepted into the mainstream, and you know, a tree is known by its fruit. And members of this faith who live their faith religiously, faithfully, their fruit is good. And that’s really who we are and what we’re about, and we go about letting our light shine, and I wish NBC had shown more of that tonight, but, (deep breath) it’s NBC, and they’re a little different in terms of, uh, what they wanted to portray tonight, and I understand. But we know who we are, and we put our best foot forward for those three days.”

We are the better Mormons, their message implied. We deserve more. And the element we consider “fringe diversity” didn’t merit representation to such an extent—or maybe even at all. They don’t really count. After all, the fringe, in our estimation, only accounts for 2% of our faith—so clearly they deserve less.

They deserve less.

At its best, this message tells the rest of the world that Mormons are elitists—that while we may smile when you’re with us, underneath simmers an ugly disdain and scorn for anyone we determine to be different in any regard; that while our smiles may be warm, our hearts are not.

At its worst, it’s a way of legitimizing persecuting and humiliating those we think, in our imperfect mortal state, are less than us. It tells the world that we believe that anyone different from us not only deserves less air time—but less church, less inclusion, less love, and perhaps even less God.

I suspect there’s not a Mormon out there who hasn’t heard (or been the recipient of) one of these messages—so sadly, this isn’t just a horribly unfortunate and isolated mistake. Instead, it exemplifies one of the most significant challenges within our faith today. Facebook chatrooms and individual blogs share thousands of stories where Mormons have dishonored their own covenants to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ and instead, castigated their fellows and heaped upon them scorn and rejection.

After the NBC special and following interview aired, the emails and messages started pouring in from the ‘fringe:’

I went to the Mormon Church while I visited Utah. I’ve seen these kind of people. Never before have I met such intolerant people who smile so much.

I was raised in the Mormon Church, and there are parts of it I love and miss. But I got tired of the Relief Society sisters bringing over plates of cookies and looking at me with pity and saying (about my non-member husband), ‘Don’t you hope one day he’ll convert?’ My response was, ‘No, I married him because I love him for who he is.’

I heard these same messages over and over again in my ward. I’m not gay, I’m not a feminist, but I couldn’t watch these people claim to be Christlike and hurt others in His name. When I resigned, I put my Sunday School teaching manual down on my Bishop’s desk and said politely, ‘I’m sorry…I’m just too compassionate to be a Mormon.’

I don’t know how you and Joanna [Brooks] do it. Good thing Jesus didn’t have the attitude many Mormons seem to have. There sure would have been a lot of disappointed lepers.

What troubles me the most is we know better—and we can certainly do better. This isn’t Mormonism at its best. And it certainly doesn’t exemplify what each of us strives to be—examples of our Savior’s unconditional love.

In fact, if we think about it, our Savior was chiefly concerned with the fringe—one of his mottos, after all, was “leave the ninety-nine to get the one.” And as always, His example is the penultimate when it came to expressing 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 ‘fringe’ Mormons, was judged unfit to mingle with the community, unfit to worship in the temple. She was an outcast--scorned, and unclean.

Yet, like so 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 on the fringe, regardless of consequence.

Being numbered among the fringe is not a plague; but what many of us suffer at the hands of others, is. What an amazing invitation this story is 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. 

Over time, I’ve come to view my church much the same way I view my mortal fellows—imperfect, and presented with constant opportunities to improve. As such, there are things we will get amazingly and stunningly right. And there are things we will get horribly, painfully wrong. But like the humans who inhabit it, our Church will learn, grow, and continue to improve as long as we’re mindful of where we’re off course, and gently guide ourselves back to where we should be.

I believe that I cannot be an ambassador of my LGBT brothers and sisters and ask for compassion, understanding, inclusion and patience from my Mormon fellows—if I am not among the very first to offer those same qualities to them. It is the responsibility of every Mormon to help our church and our membership continue to become better children to our Father, and better disciples to our Savior.

Often, for me, I’ve found one of the most effective ways I improve is when someone has the courtesy—and the courage—to hold a mirror up to me, to allow me to see myself as others view me. Sometimes I don’t like the image that’s reflected back. But invariably—and especially when I don’t like what I see—I’m always grateful for the chance to make a course correction, and come a little bit closer to the kind of person both I and my Savior want me to be.

And it is in that same spirit in which I write this post—with love for my fellows both inside our church and out, and the confidence that we, too, can improve and grow. 

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 its 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 in this Mormon Moment. 

So to my new friends at NBC, thank you. I know how many nights, weekends, and labor-intensive hours went into this production. I know your hearts were in the right place. I know it was your desire to produce something that would represent us honestly and that would make us happy—yet not be a manufactured PR infomercial. And I, for one, think you did a pretty good job. Any time we can get an hour of Mormon time on national TV, it’s a win for us—and one that many, like me, appreciate.

And to those who have heard a scornful Mormon remark that makes you feel like ‘fringe diversity,’ I am sorry. We’re not perfect, and our words and our actions may not always show the love we strive to hold in our hearts for you. But we’ll get better—it’s part of who we are.

While no one speaks for 98% of our faith, I do speak for myself. And you’re welcome in my ward any Sunday—regardless of your color, stripe, spot, pattern, or any other marker we use to create distance between ourselves and others. I’d love to see you there.

Heck, I might even take you out for a Diet Coke afterward.