“What I witnessed in Mexico City convinced me that the Lord is teaching us the meaning of true love”
by John Gustav-Wrathall
My heart is full of mixed emotions: heart-break and hope, sadness and the most profound joy. As I write, I sit in the airport of Mexico City, leaving behind new spiritual family among the more than 50 Mexican LGBT Latter-day Saints it was my privilege to gather with these last few days, at the Affirmation Conference here, Feb. 7-9.
One of the most remarkable and hopeful aspects of this conference was the presence of active LDS family members and friends of Mexican LGBT Saints. There were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Some were clearly wrestling to come to terms with new information and conflicting emotions. A number actively participated in conference discussions, bearing their testimony of the Gospel, and also bearing testimony of the presence of the Holy Spirit they felt in our midst. One Mexican mother of a gay son told us: “I have seen you. I have felt your hearts, and I have felt the goodness in your hearts, and I love you. I am thankful that my son contacted [Affirmation] and told me about this conference.”
The last three International Conferences of Affirmation – in Kirtland, Seattle and Salt Lake – have been spiritual mountaintop experiences for me. I’ve been moved by the outpourings of the Spirit I’ve seen at all these gatherings. The Mexico City regional gathering was smaller, but there was a greater sense of urgency among those gathered. Perhaps it was the smaller size of the group or perhaps it was also a product of Mexican culture that this gathering felt more intimate and more intense, and the presence of the Spirit felt more constant and comforting. There were ample opportunities for one-on-one conversation. Time and time again, I found myself telling my story to a brother or sister, and hearing their story in return. Fervent testimonies were born and tears were shed at every meeting of the conference. This is why I leave feeling my departure was far too soon; feeling that I am leaving family behind; feeling that this was the most spiritual Affirmation conference I have attended yet.
My husband Göran and I arrived in Mexico City Friday afternoon. By the time we made it to the Hotel Misión, Zona Rosa, there had already been informal gatherings and meetings of arriving conference participants, which continued until a dinner outing to the nearby Reforma 222 Mall was organized.
After eating and socializing at the food court of the mall, on the way back to the hotel, we took a detour to the Ángel de la Independencia monument, an important landmark in Mexico City and a symbol of Mexican freedom. Alejandro Alcántara, one of the key conference organizers, told us the story of the monument, and what it meant to him to be a Mexican, and what the principles of freedom and justice meant to him as a Mexican. As I observed Alejandro’s pride and love for his country, I found myself experiencing a feeling I had rarely experienced so profoundly: gratitude that there are other countries and cultures in the world with histories and experiences and perspectives different from that of mine. I began to fall in love with Mexico.
Once back at the hotel, chairs were arranged in a circle, and over delicious Mexican cookies, ice cream and juice, we introduced ourselves and began to share parts of our stories as LGBT Mormons, or family and friends of LGBT Mormons. The story-telling was sometimes funny, always non-prepossessing, often vulnerable and poignant. We retired after 11 p.m. The more formal conference sessions began the following morning.
There is something wonderful to me at these special LGBT Mormon gatherings about singing the classic hymns that are so core to my experience and identity as a Latter-day Saint. We sang “Come, Come Ye Saints,” a hymn that helps me to see us LGBT Mormons as pioneers in a journey, not knowing whether we will arrive safe in this life, but finding the faith and courage to continue forward until we arrive one way or another. As we sang “The Spirit of God” toward the end of the conference, I caught a sense of how God is piercing the veil over the earth, extending the Saints’ understanding, and restoring our judges. “As I Have Loved You” is another favorite of mine, and seems to be becoming an anthem of Affirmation gatherings. I love being enveloped by the sound of LGBT Mormon voices singing these hymns with fervor and with new understanding. And I love praying together with LGBT Mormons. I have never been in one of these gatherings where we have petitioned the Lord to send his Spirit, when those petitions haven’t been answered, filling us with peace and joy. I am grateful for the new emphasis in Affirmation on singing hymns and praying together.
The first Saturday session set a tone of faith, hope and testimony, as a variety of speakers shared their conviction of the reality of God, and of the power and inclusiveness of his love for us. They also bore witness of the power of the Church and the Gospel in our lives. The Mexican LGBT Saints gathered at this conference insisted on the truthfulness of both the Church and the Gospel. They expressed faith that the Church is in a process, and their conviction – based on personal experience with God – that that process can only lead to greater love, knowledge and inclusion.
In the second Saturday session, Samy Galvez of USGA presented in Spanish the new Church web-site, www.mormonsandgays.org, which to date is available only in English. Affirmation has developed a Spanish-language web site, www.mormonesygays.org, that provides summaries of the entire official Church web site, and accurate (though not official) translations of key portions of the site.
The presentation of Spanish language resources for LGBT Mormons continued in the third session with the airing of a video produced by HRC entitled “Ante Dios, Todos Somos Familia” (“Before God, We Are All Family”), about which more information can be found here, followed by a panel discussion on family acceptance featuring Pilar and Jordan Fish (a Spanish Mormon mother and her gay son) and Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera of HRC. Participants were also introduced to the Spanish language brochure “Niños saludables con el apoyo familiar” (“Supportive Families, Healthy Children”) published by the Family Acceptance Project. Though neither the HRC video nor the FAP brochure are specifically developed for Mormons, the basic issues relating to faith, family, and the inclusion and safety of LGBT youth are very relevant to Mormons.
I was grateful for the presence during the first half of the conference of Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, a puertorriqueña Catholic with a huge heart, an urgent sense of justice, and a sharp sense of humor. Her interfaith perspective enriched our gathering in ways I believe to be deeply beneficial to LGBT Mormons, and gratifying to me as a teacher of American religious history.
Pilar Fish and her son Jordan struck a deep and sensitive chord at the conference. Nothing is more painful to LGBT Mormons than family rejection. Interestingly enough, Jordan told how, when he came out to his family, his mother immediately communicated complete and unconditional love of him and acceptance of his gayness. “For me,” Jordan said, “the problem was not being accepted by my family, but learning to accept myself.” Jordan told of years of wrestling with his sexuality and praying for God to make him something different. Pilar told how, one day, she told her son, “All these years you have been praying for a miracle. But you don’t understand. You are the miracle.” It was that reflection of himself through the eyes of his mother that finally helped him shift his self-understanding. After announcing that her only wish was to have more gay kids, Pilar’s wish was granted, as conference participants adopted her as a surrogate mom.
In the fourth Saturday session, I shared my story of my relationship with my husband Göran and my experience as an active though excommunicated member of my ward. I also described the “Prepare” group created by Affirmation as a support community for active LGBT Mormons. In the discussion that ensued, Randall Thacker and I invited participants to talk about their experiences in Mexican wards and stakes. Randall and I heard heartbreaking stories similar to the many we’ve heard described by U.S. LGBT Mormons. One young man described coming out to his bishop and being immediately released from his calling as a ward executive secretary. Later, another conference participant confided in me how he had resigned from the Church after his bishop and his bishop’s wife created an intolerable environment for him by telling members of his ward that he was gay. Many conference participants felt that the Mexican culture of “machismo” made things more difficult. It was not their perception that the Church was immune to this culture. The more gay-affirming statements by Church leaders published on www.mormonsandgays.org have not yet begun to be disseminated to Mexican Church leaders and members. (They still are unknown by many U.S. Church leaders and members!) Still there were remarkable expressions of faith by conference participants. “Whether or not we have a church calling,” said Alejandro Alcántara, “we all have callings from God.” In testimony after testimony, and in private conversations I had afterwards, conference participants expressed their love for the Church and their determination to go forward with openness, integrity, compassion and forgiveness, no matter what the response to them might be.
We reconvened after an afternoon break that gave conference participants the opportunity to go site-seeing and enjoy Mexico City. Kendall Wilcox presented some of the film resources he has produced in Spanish translation, and he reviewed positive developments in the LDS community, particularly the growth of dialog in forums like Mormons Building Bridges, Circling the Wagons, and the Circles of Empathy.
The conference ended Sunday morning with a powerful, miraculous testimony meeting, followed by a tour of the Mexico City Temple visitor’s center.
I miss my newly found brothers and sisters terribly already. I learned so much from them. They gave me such hope, and were such an example of courage, faith and love under difficult circumstances.
This was demonstrated Sunday morning, when one of the speakers from the first Saturday session experienced a family crisis at the conference. Ironically, just as we were getting ready to begin our testimony meeting, this young man’s mother showed up angrily demanding that her son leave the conference immediately. Her flinty, immovable expression, and the anguish in her son’s face told the whole story. All of us felt heartbreak for him. All of us wanted to reach out to him and reassure him, but his mother took him aside, isolating him from the gathering, preventing him from participating or having contact with anyone.
I prayed for the mother as much as for her son, because she certainly was experiencing her own kind of anguish, an anguish most of us are familiar with. I understand her. She doesn’t want her son to be gay.
I’ve since spoken with this individual (who gave me permission to write about what happened to him). It was a painful experience, but he described to me waiting patiently while his mother vented, until he could finally talk more calmly with her. “Of course she doesn’t want her son to be gay,” he told me, “and right at this moment she thinks I can change. But that’s just part of the process. I know that she loves me, and I told her it’s OK.”
It is situations just like this that test our ability to put Gospel principles into practice. It’s so hard, so painful for LGBT Mormons, because we’ve so often seen those Gospel principles betrayed when it’s come to practicing them in relation to us. But one of the consistent messages we heard at this conference from parents and straight allies was: “The Church needs you. You teach us what it means to truly live the Gospel.” What I witnessed in Mexico City these last 48 hours has convinced me that the Lord is equipping his LGBT sons and daughters with the spiritual tools to pass this greatest of all tests. He is teaching us the meaning of true love, and we are learning to love unconditionally, others as ourselves.