By John Gustav-Wrathall, President, Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends
Brazil has a population of over 200 million people. It has a land mass larger than that of the continental United States, and has the seventh largest economy in the world. Brazil is one of the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse countries in the world, with a unique and fascinating history. Over 1.2 million Latter-day Saints live in Brazil today, and it continues to be one of the areas of the world where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing most rapidly. Portuguese, the primary language of Brazil, is the third most commonly spoken language among Latter-day Saints today, after English and Spanish.
LGBT Mormons in Brazil began reaching out to Affirmation about two years ago. Jean Carlos, a gay Mormon living in São Paulo, grabbed the attention of Affirmation’s international leadership team when he posted a picture of the word “Affirmation” written in the sand, and said “we are waiting for you!”
We had been praying to find leadership in Brazil and they were the answer to our prayers. Since that time LGBT Mormons in Brazil have been creating spaces in social media where they could meet other Brazilian LGBT Mormons, and have been holding face-to-face gatherings, such as LGBT Mormon family home evenings and other social events. The first ever full-fledged Affirmation conferences in that country, including participation by members of Affirmation’s international leadership team, were a dream-come-true for Affirmation activists like Jean Carlos, Remerson Lima, Luiz Antonio Correa, Everaldo Ewerton, Cristiano Celestino, and Sandra Cristina. One of the high points of my spiritual life is now the time I was able to spend in Brazil with them, first in Fortaleza (April 8-10, 2016) and then in São Paulo (April 15-17, 2016).
As always, the most significant activities at these conferences centered around the sharing of stories. As has been the pattern for most Affirmation regional conferences in recent years, the Friday evening opening events consisted of circles where each individual could tell something of their “LGBT Mormon story” — in other words, the history of their involvement with the LDS Church, and their experiences related to growing self-understanding as L, G, B or T, and the challenges that created in terms of their faith and their relationships with church and family. Stories continued to be shared in conversations throughout the conference, and during a testimony meeting/story sharing on Sunday morning.
Workshops on Saturday were on the themes of self acceptance, the relationship with God, relationships with family, and relationships with the Church. The workshops mostly consisted of open discussion, preceded by brief talks on each theme. Adryan Sanchez Roman, Vice President of Affirmation International and I led discussions on self-acceptance in São Paulo and Fortaleza respectively. Levi Barreto led a discussion about our relationship with God; and Luiz Correa on relationships with family; and Christiano Clementino Santos and Washington Carvalho on relationships with the Church. Saturday afternoon, after the workshops, there was open time for conference participants go for walks, hang out, go for a swim (in Fortaleza at the nearby beach, in São Paulo in the hotel pool), or take a nap. In São Paulo, most of the conference participants opted to take a walk through the scenic Parque Iburapuera close to the conference hotel.
Saturday evening at the São Paulo conference there was a talent show. Conference participants sang, read poetry, or danced. It was amazing how openly presenters shared, to the enthusiastic applause of spectators. Somehow, magically, the talent show transmogrified into a dance, as performers were joined by spectators, and people began clapping or singing along with the music. One of the things I have loved at many of our Latin American Affirmation conferences has been the music and the dancing, the wonderful way it breaks down barriers, invites people in, evokes laughter and burns calories!
Sunday morning we held devotionals, with hymns, prayers and talks. I delivered my talk “On a Journey Together” in Portuguese, on the importance for Affirmation of creating solidarity with one another regardless of where we may stand on the faith spectrum. Remerson Lima (in Fortaleza), and Sandra Cristina and Everaldo Ewerton (in São Paulo) gave inspirational talks on personal revelation and self-acceptance, on faith in Christ and how belief in the atonement can help LGBT Mormons navigate the challenges we face in and out of the Church, and on the power of humility and forgiveness.
In São Paulo, after a lunch that followed the Sunday morning devotional, we followed the pattern of other conferences held in places where new national organizations were being created, of organizing a leadership team and holding a leadership training. The Sunday leadership training dovetailed with a late Saturday afternoon presentation by Randall Thacker entitled “What is Affirmation?” discussing Affirmation’s mission, values and methods. The São Paulo session was by far the best attended of all the leadership sessions we’ve held.
There are so many dynamic, committed, talented individuals in São Paulo, the choice of a president was much more difficult than it has been in other countries. After interviewing every member of the São Paulo conference organizing committee, and prayerfully discussing the needs of the community in Brazil and the unique strengths each member of the leadership team had to offer, a consensus had emerged among the nominating committee. Presenting Sandra Cristina to the leadership team for approval was one of the most powerful spiritual events of my life. When I asked the team how they felt about the nomination, one after another of the leadership team members stood up and spoke glowingly of the ways in which Sandra had inspired them, expressing their love and support for her. It was an electrifying moment.
Although, in anticipation of the work in Brazil, Randall Thacker and I had been studying Portuguese for the last couple of years, and though, with the help of Portuguese-speaking Affirmation members like João Heitor, we were able to prepare and give our talks in Portuguese, we still needed the assistance of an interpreter. Sam Pereira, recently returned from a mission in Ecuador, was asked by the conference organizers to help out in this regard. Sam had arrived not entirely sure what he was going to encounter at an Affirmation conference. He later told me he was surprised to feel the Holy Spirit present so powerfully. It transformed his view of Affirmation, and by the end of the conference he had decided to become part of the Brazilian leadership team, assisting with the Portuguese language web site that was launched this past week.
One participant said the Affirmation conference “was like spending 3 days in the celestial room of the temple.” Another wrote, “What a wonderful morning… And the Holy Spirit is still present as it was on Friday. And the meeting was inspiring as everyone opened themselves up to learn… Thank you, Savior!!!”
Another interpreter, hired to assist with Spanish to Portuguese and Portuguese to Spanish translation at the Fortaleza conference, also felt inspired to help Affirmation. Neither Mormon nor LGBT, she was deeply moved by what she witnessed. She offered to use her connections with the local media to help get the word out about Affirmation and publish an essay about Affirmation in the local media.
In 1978, the LDS Church dedicated its first Brazilian temple in São Paulo. The quandary created by trying to administer the LDS Church’s racial restrictions in a country where intermarriage between people of all races had been common for centuries was a factor in the soul-searching that led to the end of the racial restrictions on access to priesthood and temple ordinances in June 1978, four months before the dedication of the São Paulo temple. Having gathered at such a momentous place in the history of Mormonism, it was hard to resist the sense we had, as LGBT Mormons in the wake of the November 2015 policy on gay families, of gathering together at a momentous time. The faith expressed by members of the Affirmation Brazil community was palpable. Tears were shed often, hugs freely given, singing heartfelt, prayers fervent. Goodbyes were long and difficult.
At the end of the conference, as I expressed thanks to Sam Pereira for his service as an interpreter, he insisted that it was he who wanted to thank us, because it was he who had been blessed. The miracle of Affirmation is the ways in which we are all blessed by each other. I believe we have only begun to see the blessings that will come to Affirmation worldwide from our sisters and brothers in Brazil.