In the Meantime
Honorable Mention, 2000 Affirmation Writing Contest
By John-Charles Duffy
I grew up with a clear sense of how my life was going to unfold. At age 8, I'd be baptized. At age 12, I'd receive the Aaronic priesthood. At age 16, I'd start dating. At age 18, I'd receive the Melchizedek priesthood. At age 19, I'd serve a mission. Shortly after that, I'd marry in the temple and father children, whom I would then bring up the same way. It was all laid out for me, step-by-step.
When I came out, things got a lot more complicated. I didn't have step-by-step instructions any more. I was no longer sure where I was going.
I'm still not. Like many gay Mormons, I live "in the meantime," uncertain what my future is going to look like. I am beating my own path through uncharted territory, without even knowing where I'm supposed to end up. This essay, written in July 1997, while I was doing volunteer work in the Dominican Republic, captures the uncertainty that many gay Mormons face as they rethink their belief systems and search for new direction. My experience is unique only in its particulars.
I don't know whether or not I have a testimony of the restored gospel anymore. I'm inclined to say not. The evidence for Jesus' resurrection strikes me as highly suspect; evidence for the virgin birth, non-existent. I'm young enough that I'm not much concerned about the existence of an afterlife, but I think the LDS version improbable. I find it hard to believe that Joseph Smith's revelations are anything more than the products of his own mind, though I have no doubt that Joseph believed the revelations were genuine, and I am sincerely awed by his imaginative genius. I refuse to believe that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record, though the various witnesses to Joseph's possession of the plates remain a thorn in the side of my disbelief. Temple worship moves me deeply, but I suspect this is on purely aesthetic grounds; I don't believe for a second that the endowment is any more ancient than the Biblical and Masonic archetypes from which Joseph fabricated it. I do not believe that Gordon B. Hinckley receives revelation, except in the very general sense in which anyone might be said to receive revelation. I find the LDS Church sexist, authoritarian, increasingly fundamentalist, and frustratingly opposed to social progress. I am thinking, of course, of the Church's stance on gay/lesbian issues, which I believe is abominable. Of equal, if not greater, concern to me is the Church's failure to commit to social justice and liberation for the needy and oppressed. I have not attended LDS worship services, either church or temple, in over two years--i.e., since graduating from BYU. I miss the temple, sometimes acutely, but have no desire to return to church: I can nap more comfortably at home. I do not pay tithing, I do not strictly observe the Word of Wisdom, I do not wear temple garments, and I doubt there's a bishop on the globe who would judge me compliant with the law of chastity.
So. Where does that leave me?
Six months ago (January 1997) I was accepted as a volunteer in a Roman Catholic program dedicated to community development in the Dominican Republic, the country where I served my LDS mission. In my application essays, I had explained that I am no longer active LDS because of the Church's increasing fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism. At the same time, I explained, I remain grateful for the ways in which my LDS upbringing led me to commit myself to building up the kingdom of God. In spite of my inactivity, that commitment remains a driving force in my life; indeed, it provided the motivation for applying to the volunteer program.
As is no doubt evident, I do not understand "building up the kingdom of God" to mean merely contributing to the growth of the LDS Church. My conception of the kingdom of God has been heavily influenced by recent Catholic thought--specifically, liberation theology and the documents from the latest Latin American Bishops Conference, held in Santo Domingo in 1992. I prefer, in fact, to follow politically correct Catholic usage by saying "reign of God" rather than "kingdom of God." (The former is preferred, one, because it does not imply that God is male, and two, because it moves away from the metaphor of monarchy, which many people find distastefully authoritarian.) Building up the reign of God is understood as a radical transformation of human relationships, such that the dignity of all human beings is assured and "abundant life" (John 10:10) becomes a reality for all people. Building up the reign of God encompasses not only the sorts of concerns that Latter-day Saints would think of as comprising the mission of the Church: administering sacramental ordinances, preaching to non-Christian peoples, bringing separated members back into communion. Building up the reign encompasses overtly political, social, and economic concerns as well: assuring the integrity of democratic processes, demanding dignity for the marginalized, liberating the oppressed, dismantling the structures that cause and perpetuate poverty. The amount of attention given to these latter concerns in Catholic discourse has no comparison in contemporary LDS discourse. In fact, the Latin American Bishops Conference has criticized the LDS Church (along with Pentecostals, Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses) for its failure to seriously engage the social problems besetting the peoples to whom it professes to proclaim Good News. The criticism is slightly uninformed--Latter-day Saints are not altogether uninvolved in Third World development--but essentially fair.
I am somewhat mystified that this should be the case, for I see fundamental affinities between contemporary Catholic discourse on liberation and social justice on the one hand, and early LDS discourse on the establishment of Zion on the other. Currently, Latter-day Saints use "Zion" most frequently as a euphemism for the institutional church. To reinforce this usage, we are often reminded that Zion is a spiritual state more than, or even rather than, a particular locale. Even the term "Zion society"--which invites us to conceive of Zion as a social more than an ecclesiastical entity, a temporal reality as much as a spiritual one--has become passť for reasons that yet elude me. But in the scriptures of the Restoration, Zion is clearly understood as a particular type of socio-economic structure, one in which the foremost values are unity and equality and in which there is no poverty: "And the Lord called his people ZION, for they were of one heart and one mind . . . and there were no poor among them" (Moses 7:18).
Nowadays, we prefer to quote D&C 97:21--"This is Zion: THE PURE IN HEART"-- because this is easier to wrench out of its socio-economic context. But for the early Saints, being "the pure in heart" did not mean merely aspiring to what we today call personal spirituality. Rather, it meant maintaining a particular type of society and economy (the United Order, as laid out in D&C 42). This is to say that while Latter-day Saints have shifted their focus away from social and economic transformation, toward a supposedly transcendent notion of personal spirituality, contemporary Catholic theologians are pushing their church in the opposite direction--toward a Christianity pre-eminently concerned with establishing unity, equality, justice, and an end to poverty, all under the banner of the reign of God.
By serving, then, in this Roman Catholic program, I am living out the original spirit of the scriptures of the Restoration. By teaching English in an isolated village of the Dominican Republic so that my students can obtain better jobs and thus further the development of their community, I am fulfilling the commitment I made in the temple to "consecrate all that [I] possess--[my] time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed [me] . . . for the building up of the kingdom of God upon the earth, and for the establishment of Zion." I would like to use the experience I gain serving in this program to foster the development of a distinctively LDS liberation theology, based on the archetype of Enoch's Zion. That archetype gives Latter-day Saints a powerful--and unique--scriptural base for committing to Third World development. I am convinced that only by making such a commitment can the LDS Church prove faithful to the vision of its founder and to the millions of Third World inhabitants it counts among its members. By writing about my experiences in the Dominican Republic, I hope to inspire other Latter-day Saints to seek out similar opportunities for service.
There is always, however, "The Issue" to be dealt with.
My coming out was sudden and largely un-premeditated. By the time I graduated from BYU and moved to the University of Utah to begin work on my masters in English, I had acknowledged my homosexual desires to myself but had not yet decided what to do about them. I no longer believed homosexual behavior per se was reprehensible, and I placed little credence in reparative therapy. But coming out seemed a terrifyingly decisive break with my family and community. Celibacy or marriage (I was writing regularly to an old girlfriend serving a mission in Portugal) struck me as more attractive options.
When I moved to Salt Lake, however, two things happened which changed my mind and the course of my life. First, I discovered that there was nothing to keep me attending church now that I no longer needed to get my BYU ecclesiastical endorsement signed every year--with the possible exception of needing to renew my temple recommend. (It occurred to me, though, that I might be able to renew the recommend with token attendance.) Second, I witnessed the University of Utah's annual gay/lesbian awareness week, held during my first semester on campus. It was during the activities of that week that I experienced my first interaction with out gays and lesbians, and discovered how much I enjoyed that interaction; realized just how deeply I ached from a male lover to put his arms around me; and met the man with whom, during the following week, I had sex for the first time. Those were a heady, exhilarating, liberating two weeks, and by the end of them I was rather indiscriminately coming out to family, friends, and co-workers.
Coming out meant a decisive break in my already tenuous relationship with the LDS Church. I had started my coming-out process with the idea that I would date slowly, observing a no-sex-before-the-commitment-ceremony rule so that I could feel I was still living my temple covenants. After I threw that rule to the winds during my second hot-and-heavy make-out session, I decided I could not continue to wear temple garments in good conscience. That was the only break with the LDS lifestyle which I regarded as a sacrifice.
Breaking with the LDS Church, however, has not meant breaking with Mormon culture. Precisely because of my LDS upbringing, I do not relate well to what is generally referred to as "gay culture"; I find it tends to be shallow, hedonistic, judgmental, and just plain boring. (Getting drunk and gradually deaf in a dark, smoke-filled room is not my idea of a good time. Give my root beer floats and a rowdy game of Pictionary any evening.) As a result, nearly all my gay socializing is done in gay Mormon circles, chiefly within Affirmation. With one exception, all the men I've dated have come from LDS backgrounds, not because I refuse to date outside Mormon circles, but simply because I prefer to date people with whom I feel I have something fundamental in common besides attraction to men. My partner (with whom I maintain a long-distance relationship) is a surprisingly conservative Mormon. He believes that the LDS Church has not accepted homosexuality because the Lord has not yet told the prophet that it's time to do so; he came out only after prayer and fasting revealed to him that this was what the Lord wanted him to do; and he recently petitioned to have his name removed from the Church's records for the same reason.
I myself remain a nominal member of the Church. I have never considered having my name removed from the records; I am certainly not fasting and praying on the subject. In fact, I live in some dread of the Church's finally tracking me down and excommunicating me. Why I feel this dread is unclear to me. Some months ago, I conceived the idea for a short story about a young gay Mormon man who responds to his "church court summons" by hosting a party for his gay and lesbian friends at the same hour as the church court. The party's theme is "X" and is meant to convey a cheerful indifference towards the on-going excommunication proceedings, though it becomes clear in the course of the story that the tone of the evening is more defiant than indifferent. The story concludes after the last guests have said their good-nights and the young man unexpectedly breaks down sobbing in his partner's arms.
The young man, I realize, is me, though I'm still not sure why he/I react to the excommunication the way he/I do. In spite of the anti-creed with which I began this essay, in spite of my own break with the LDS Church, in spite of the utter unattractiveness of church activity, I still feel some strong tie to an LDS identity which I cannot bear to have severed. My mother would say this feeling is the Spirit prompting me to repent. I would retort that it's the result of being raised by a manipulative woman whose self-esteem hinges on producing the model LDS family. I tend to live my life on the assumption that my theory is the correct one. But there are moments when, in spite of myself, I am not altogether unpersuaded of my mother's.
Being in the Dominican Republic is part of that mysterious tie to my LDS identity. Even before I'd been exposed to liberation theology and become convinced that Third World development is central to the call to establish Zion, I longed to return to the country where I served my LDS mission. Even before I'd heard the term "reign of God," I dreamed of returning to the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps. When I discovered that the Peace Corps does not send English teachers to Latin America, I began to look into the possibility of serving with a religious program instead and thus encountered the Catholic program with which I currently serve.
By that point, it had been almost a year since I'd started coming out. I knew that to serve with a Catholic mission I'd have to be celibate and closeted, both of which would be difficult. I decided that the sacrifice would be worth it. Nevertheless, I was hard put, as I wrote my application essays, to explain why I wanted so strongly to return to the Dominican Republic. In those essays, I list trivial elements of Dominican culture that, from the States, I miss with disproportionate intensity: colmados (corner stores), merengue music, pan de agua (a type of bread), burning cane fields, the smell of jasmine in the evening. I recount images of suffering which continue to haunt me: the hydrocephalic infant whose face seemed to be caving into his enormous head, swollen like bread dough; the little boy with the long, misshapen, useless limbs who sat on the sidewalk every day in his underpants, begging; Geor and her mother breaking down after yet another unsuccessful search for new housing (they were to be evicted within the month), Geor's mother wailing, "We are going to die in this place!"; Victoria collapsing full-length on a cement floor, having to be carried by bus to first one, then another, overcrowded emergency room. I describe my previous mission service in the Dominican Republic as the most intense spiritual experience, though simultaneously the most grueling experience, of my life. I talk with fervor about Zion and the reign of God.
I feel the entire time as if I am not quite saying what I mean.
It has since been suggested to me that this desire I feel with such intensity, yet find so hard to articulate, is what traditional Christians refer to as a call or vocation. The hardened skeptic in me winces. But the young man who loves to sit in cathedrals, letting the pipe organ work him into a kind of ecstasy, warms to the suggestion.
A month after starting the application process for the Catholic program, I met Rick. I advised him from our first date that I had applied to a Catholic mission which would have me in the Dominican Republic for anywhere from one to three years, which was to say that I was not looking to begin a serious, long-term relationship. When precisely that sort of relationship began to mushroom between us, Rick assured me he was willing to wait for his missionary. He proposed in September 1996; we were betrothed in the presence of a small circle of friends in June 1997, two weeks before I left for the Dominican Republic. We plan to hold a full-fledged commitment ceremony when I return.
Missing Rick--and missing him in secrecy--is the hardest part of being back in the Dominican Republic. At the same time, I feel that I have come home. Riding into Santo Domingo from the airport, I leaned deliriously out the window, high off the smell of burning garbage, amazed by the sensation that I'd never left. As we drove down streets I'd walked as a missionary, I babbled to the other volunteers about how nothing had changed, about how excited I was to be here, about how startlingly normal it felt to be here.
Sometime during my first few days with the program, during one of my frequent euphoric walks around the village, I paused to look out over the river bed, toward the lush mountain at whose foot we live. The sun was setting, giving everything a reddish tint. Two cranes--specks of ethereal white--passed between me and the mountain, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that I was in the presence of something enormous. The thought flashed into my mind that I had come back to the Dominican Republic in order to find something I had unconsciously known was waiting for me here. I suspected that something was God.
Admitting I have spiritual needs is hard for me. This is because of the training in postmodern philosophy I received as an English major. Having become adept at deconstructing the Christian tradition, I am ashamed to admit that kneeling at an altar rail each Sunday nourishes something inside me I cannot do without. To swear by Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault, and then to discuss my life in terms of a search for the divine, seems confused at best, treasonable at worst. The greatest obstacle in my search for spiritual peace is not the fact that I am gay, which occasions merely logistic concerns. (In which churches can I commune? Can I come out to my priest?) The real obstacle is the fact that I am postmodern and therefore believe devoutly in disbelief.
It is with considerable incredulity, then, that I find myself resorting here in the Dominican Republic to rituals and relationships I believed I no longer needed. I find myself longing to commune with the rest of the village at Mass. Since the Roman communion is closed to me, I instead purchase a bit of bread, pour myself a cup of water, and bless the sacrament, LDS fashion, in the privacy of my bedroom. It has been four years since I blessed the sacrament, two years since I partook of it. I came to the Dominican Republic with plans to visit only two, maybe three, people I knew from my LDS mission. Instead I find myself attending church meetings at my old wards during trips to the capital, renewing acquaintances I'd almost entirely forgotten, recklessly promising to visit people to whom I barely gave a second thought during the intervening years. When I was accepted into the Catholic program, I told myself that I looked forward to having a Dominican experience entirely apart from LDS missionary work. Last month (July 1997) I hitched a ride to the nearest town, some forty minutes away, sought out the missionaries, and spent a good hour reminiscing and comparing notes on the work. Last Sunday, during a trip to Santo Domingo, I attended all three hours of church services in a branch I helped open five years ago. During fast and testimony meeting, I bore a carefully worded but perfectly sincere testimony of my love for Jesus Christ's teachings, Joseph Smith's revelations, and the work of establishing Zion.
Rick, who fears my retreat from the LDS Church represents a running-from rather than a moving-toward, is glad to hear I'm doing all this. I myself am baffled and even a little horrified. I knew I was nostalgic for my mission days and the spiritual high they afforded, but I did not expect these visits to my old stomping grounds to leave me so wired. Energized. Abundantly alive. Infused--dare I say it?--with the Spirit.
When I learned that one woman I'd baptized has since become inactive, I burst into tears, thinking the whole time how crazy it was for me, of all people, to be upset about this.
I don't know what to do with any of these feelings.
Returning to the LDS Church is not an option. It would mean giving up Rick, and that is not something I feel for a second God wants me to do. It's not something I want to do. I have exchanged vows with Rick which I look forward to keeping.
I need, then, to discern what this tie to various aspects of my LDS identity is pulling me towards. In decidedly non-postmodern terms: what is God calling me to do?
Without question, the call has something to do with mission. It has something to do with establishing Zion. It may have something to do with the Dominican Republic specifically, or it may be that the Dominican Republic is simply the place where, for now, God's call comes to me most clearly.
The call may have something to do with some form of Catholicism. I have considered formal acceptance into the Episcopal Church, which I attended regularly for a year before leaving for the Dominican Republic, serving as sometime lector, translator, and English teacher for the parish's Hispanic congregation. I have even entertained the notion of a priestly vocation, though I suspect this is mere romanticism.
I like to think the call has to do with the LDS community. As I have said, I hope to continue to writing to LDS audiences about my experiences in the Dominican Republic. I certainly plan to continue participating in the liberal LDS community--the Sunstone Symposium, Dialogue. That option, at least, will remain open to me no matter what else I do with my life.
In the meantime, I teach my English class here in the village. I help prepare for the construction of an education center, to be equipped with a library, a photocopier, and six computers. I invent songs and activities for pre-school children. I offer my help to the local literacy workers. I help out in the villagers' fields. I build relationships. I try to be of one heart and mind with the people I serve. I miss Rick. I pray that he is healthy and happy and safe, and that he feels my love across the distance. I pray to know what to do with my life. I feel a little sheepish as I do so.
I'm not sure how to end this essay. My life feels too open-ended at this point for a neat conclusion.