By John Gustav-Wrathall
LGBT Mormons, their family and friends in Colombia experienced a weekend rich with opportunities for prayer, meditation and song, trust-building, creativity, spiritual experiences, and the sharing of stories and testimonies, not to mention incredible food, relaxation and fun.
The setting of the conference was the gorgeous retreat center of “Buenos Aires,” in Chinauta, on the outskirts of Bogotá. The long ride on the bus to and from the retreat center provided opportunities to unwind and get to know each other better. The center is owned and operated by a Roman Catholic order. We were the first LGBT group as well as the first Mormon group ever to be hosted at the center, and we were incredibly blessed not only by the natural beauty of the grounds and the surrounding forest, but also by the spirit of Christ-like love, humility and hospitality exemplified by our Roman Catholic hosts there.
Leaders and organizers of Affirmation Colombia from the beginning have reached out to the broader LGBT community, and have invited all seeking a spiritual focus in their lives to be a part of Affirmation, so the weekend included Catholics and a member of the Sikh religion, as well as Mormons. This created a spiritual richness I have not often been privileged to experience at Affirmation conferences. Our Sikh brother Ananta and his partner Alfonso, who shared with us their sense of God as the ground of all existence and as our divine teacher or “guru,” opened the conference by leading us in a Saturday morning session of yoga and meditation, teaching us patience and humility, and affording us peace and well-being in body, mind and spirit.
All of our sessions began and ended with prayers and the singing of hymns. Saturday morning after the yoga and meditation, we each shared our stories and experiences with family, with faith, and with coming out. As always, at Affirmation conferences, this was powerful, emotional, vulnerable and healing. As participants shared experiences of pain, self-doubt, sometimes even experiences of intense abuse, tears were communally shed and hands were reached out to reassure. As participants spoke of healing, enlightenment, and self-discovery, and as they shared happiness and humor, we laughed and expressed gratitude. Story-sharing is and always has been such a vital part of Affirmation conferences, a key to all the good that ensues.
Following the introductions, we engaged in an experiment, something new for Affirmation conferences. Adryan Sanchez Roman, our indefatigable Vice President, organized a trust-building exercise that involved half of the conference participants putting on thick blindfolds, and the other half of the conference participants guiding them along a kind of obstacle course through the retreat center gardens. No speaking was allowed during the exercise. The guides were allowed only to give five types of signals (a pat on the left or right shoulder, on the left or right calf, or a tap on the head) to indicate whether those being guided needed to stop or go, turn left or right, step up (or down) or duck their heads to avoid some overhead obstacle.
I started as one of the guides, and was unprepared for what a nerve-wracking experience it was! I felt an intense sense of responsibility for the well-being of the person I was guiding. There were plenty of places on the obstacle course where it might be possible to trip and fall, sometimes into a stream or underbrush. I felt not just protective of the person in my care but a deep sense of love for him that was intensified by the exercise.
After all had been guided safely to the destination at the edge of a gorgeous pool full of clear water, the roles were switched. Now former guides became the guided. I found being guided while blindfolded an incredibly spiritual experience. The physical signals often made little sense to me. Without sight I could not tell why I was turning this way or that, only that that was what was expected of me. I could only be conscious of what I needed to do in the instant it needed to be done. At one point it became necessary for me to get all the way down on my hands and knees, and crawl (under what I later discovered to be a low foot bridge). Sometimes I had to wait for a long period of time (presumably while others ahead of me in the queue cleared an upcoming difficult obstacle). Just as I felt protectiveness and love toward the person I had guided, I felt love from my guide. When an upcoming obstacle was more perilous, the hand signals became stronger and more urgent. When an obstacle was cleared, the hand signals communicated reassurance.
After the exercise, we all debriefed and shared what we had learned about fear and trust, care and accomplishment and community. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at a conference, and one that I’m not 100% sure we could or would (or should!) repeat at a U.S. conference, where issues of liability tend to weigh more heavily. But it taught me a lot about what it means to trust one another and to trust God. Risky business, trust is!
The debriefing from the blindfold experiment naturally segued into a discussion about our relationships with God, with our families, and with the Church that lasted the rest of the afternoon. We then focused on the question, “What do I most need from God?” Each participant had a chance to share their personal answer to this question, and again, the sharing was heartfelt and emotional, and accompanied by the Spirit. It reminded me of that moment in 3 Nephi when Christ asked each of his disciples what they most wanted, and had to give extra encouragement to at least some to speak what was truly in their hearts, and not just what they thought Christ or others wanted to hear.
Up to that point, we had all been given opportunities to reflect on our needs and explore our relationship with the Divine not just intellectually through talking, but in very physical ways, through yoga and and through the blindfold exercise. In the mid-afternoon we were given an opportunity to do it creatively, through art. We were provided different kinds of paper, paints, crayons, pencils and markers, and were encouraged to capture our most important learnings visually, in line and texture, in symbol and color. I’m very much a word person, a head person, so this was challenging at first. But again, it afforded me new insights and a richness of experience I have not experienced at other conferences. After the artwork had been completed, we were each given an opportunity to share with the others the thought/feeling process that had gone into our productions. It was wonderful to see each participant cheer each other participant on, both in the creative process and then in the exegesis of our creativity.
In the late afternoon we were allowed to rest from our labors. Nap time for some, a pool party for everyone else! After the swimming and a light snack of almojabanas (a popular Colombian snack that consists of bread with cheese baked inside), Randall Thacker gave a talk on “What is Affirmation?” We discussed the history, values, and mission of Affirmation. Ananta was curious about what Mormons believe, so the talk segued briefly into a free-wheeling discussion about what Mormonism is (and isn’t!) that was probably as educational and interesting to the Mormons present as to the non-Mormons. It makes me think that Affirmation conferences in general might really benefit from more discussions of “What is Mormonism?”!
The meals at the retreat center were a highlight of the weekend. They almost always started with fresh fruit and/or delicious soups, breads, a rainbow variety of fruit juices (one of my favorite things about meal time in Latin America!), fried breads and tortillas, rice, potatoes and yucca, meats and pollo a la plancha, served with Colombian hot chocolate for the Word-of-Wisdom-ly inclined, and coffee for the rest. Delicious cakes and pastries for desserts! And of course, boisterous, delicious conversation! After an extra special Saturday evening meal, participants entertained themselves with dancing and karaoke – at the same time! Some would sing, while others danced to their singing.
Sunday morning began with hymns and a prayer circle, where each individual had an opportunity to pray out loud with the stated intention of focusing on what we were thankful to God for. By that point, we were all brimming with love and gratitude from a weekend of sunshine, great food, spiritual wrestling and reflection, laughter, healing and lots and lots of hugs, so the prayers were heartfelt.
After breakfast, we held a devotional. Ricardo Damian, the first president of Affirmation Colombia, spoke about spiritual healing, and about the power of learning to love ourselves. At one point he told conference participants, “If God is love, and we are children of God, that means that we are love too.” Adryan San Roman spoke about faith, sharing a powerful reflection on the experience of the women who went to the tomb of Jesus, whose access to Christ was blocked by Roman centurions and an enormous stone. He encouraged LGBT Mormons to have faith like they did. I shared my reflections on our relationship with our community of faith, what we can do if we have been wounded by that community, and what kinds of things we might need in order to have a healthy relationship with them.
The testimony meeting immediately following the devotional was an Affirmation testimony meeting at its best. Everyone shared, Catholic, Sikh, and Mormon, devout and doubting. Stories were shared of finding love and healing, experience of the Divine, yearning for communion and Christ, lessons learned the hard way, and what it has meant to really connect. One of the most memorable moments of the testimony meeting was when Jhon Miranda shared his vision of those whose hearts were once hardened against LGBT people “opening like a flower!”
Following the conference the presidency of Affirmation Colombia was officially organized, with Ricardo Damian as president, and Jhon Miranda and Carlos Castillo as vice presidents.
I was deeply impressed by the richness and the quality of the conference. It deviated in some significant ways from the format we’ve developed for most other Affirmation conferences in the depth of ecumenical sharing and in the emphasis on non-cognitive ways of learning, experiencing and sharing. We learned many things that we hope to share at Affirmation gatherings in other parts of the world.
We were fed a final lunch before boarding the bus back to Bogotá. But we look forward to much more breaking of bread together, both physical and spiritual, in the months and years ahead. May our divine parents, our divine teachers, guide us and strengthen us for the work and the road ahead!