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“Better Together”: Affirmation Europe Conference, 2016

Aaron McManus
President, Affirmation Europe

In June 2015 the first Affirmation Europe Conference was held in London, with the theme “Be Found.” LGBT+ Mormons, their families and friends were found across Europe, and the conference provided an opportunity to put faces to names and connect stories to people. The foundation of Affirmation Europe had been laid.

Just over one year later and after the success of the first conference, the second annual Affirmation Europe conference was held in Soho, London. Now that we had “been found,” we realized that we are “better together” as a community and a network of LGBT Mormons from across Europe. The theme chosen for the 2016 conference was “Better Together.” 

As the conference was to be held in central London, we came up with the idea of using London’s skyline for the conference logo, keeping in mind the theme ‘Better Together’. Every building in the London skyline is different, individual and has its own unique history, trials and success. But when they are together they are ‘Better Together’ and make up the great city of London, they are old and new, tall and small, made of very different materials, but still they complement one another and if one were to be taken from the city the others would mourn that loss in their skyline.

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This year saw a new venue: St Anne’s Soho. St Anne’s is a working church under the leadership of it’s resident Priest Fr. Simon. They offer a ministry to the whole of Soho, expressing the love of God for all humanity and God’s desire for us to flourish. They offer an atmosphere in which newcomers and regular worshippers alike will feel comfortable and welcome. They welcome all to worship with them, people of every age, race, gender, disability and sexuality. Needless to say we were welcomed in with open arms, and it was the perfect venue for the conference.

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Friday evening started with refreshments prepared by family and friends of some of the attendees, followed by introductions and story sharing. What a wonderful feeling it was as we gathered together in a circle ready to listen to each other, in a safe circle of love and support.

On Saturday morning Angel Arrocha, vice president of Affirmation Europe, welcomed us all and shared the program for the day. The first workshop followed lead by Neil Loffhagen with the title ‘Holy Listening.’ It is 40 years this coming December that Neil joined the LDS church, at the age of 19. In 1978 he served as a missionary in the Scotland Edinburgh mission. He worked in IT for many years. Whilst doing so he completed a degree in Psychology with the Open University. Then just over 10 years ago Neil began training as a counsellor, being in private practice now for just over 8 years. Neil is convinced that it is his experiences as a counsellor that changed his heart and mind beyond, enabling him to become an ally for the LGBTQ community. He has also taken Pink Therapy’s (the UK’s leading LGBTQ organisation) Essentials of Gender and Sexual Diversity. His passion is the need for greater compassion, acceptance and empathy by all, for all.

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We then had a series of short talks. Our first talk was given by Cameron Ferris with the theme of,  “As a space Affirmation is unlike any other, with a sense of belonging available to anyone.” He joined the committee last summer after attending the conference to support his brother-in-law and other LGBT friends, but was also interested in an aspect of his Mormon upbringing which is taught very little. He wants to work with Affirmation to create acceptance to those who might otherwise go unappreciated.

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Chris Lovell was the next speaker, discussing his yearning to remain faithful within the church. He was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2006. However he has never left the church and is currently in process on getting re-baptised. He has been reaching out to many who struggle with SSA, supporting them from around the world, being an advocate and try to be a good example. He counsels them with sincere love on making their choices carefully and, if willing, to do what is necessary to remain in good standing in the Church.

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Our final short talk was given by Mark McManus, a convert of 36 years to the church, and father of four children. He shared his experiences as a parent with a gay son, and the journey he has been on alongside his son.

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Lunch was then provided in the beautiful court yard of St Anne’s church, a quiet sanctuary in the heart of London, were we could sit and socialize and discuss the things we had heard throughout the morning.

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A further two workshops were presented through the afternoon, first by Francesca Fotheringham with the title ‘The Gift of you.’ Francesca was introduced to Affirmation by her brother last summer and instantly fell in love with the positive energy and authenticity of many of the people there. From this she wanted to get involved in any way she possibly could. One of Francesca’s main motivations to work with affirmation is her love for the gospel. She is active in the Mormon church and serves in her wards primary presidency. However, feels that “Affirmation is a place where love is abundant and isn’t limited to shirt and tie; but crosses all boundaries.”

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John Gustav-Wrathall, president of Affirmation International, then gave a presentation on ‘What is Affirmation,’ a discussion of Affirmation’s mission, values and methods.

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We then had a chance to explore central London visiting places that feature on the famous monopoly board. It was the perfect time to get to know each other while walking and talking in amongst the excitement of London.

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On returning to St Anne’s we then all sat together for dinner followed by three speakers for the evening program.

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Michael D Walker his story, ‘From Classic Actor to Active Mormon.’ Michael is a writer and actor and lives in London. He is a writer of short stories, novels, poetry, plus has written 12 plays for the stage. He discovered the church whilst living in New York City. Michael returned to London and was baptised in 1975. In theatre he graduated from Royal Central in 1957 with Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench. He has worked with Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason amongst others. Michael was Professor of Theatre at the University of Utah 1975.

Michael was one of the founding members of Affirmation London one of the organizers of the first chapter of Affirmation in London in 1981. He helped to organize a variety of activities, spiritual and social. They had a help line (he remembers answering calls at 3 o’clock in the morning), and met with local Church leaders (who were initially skeptical, but gave their blessing once they learned what Affirmation was trying to do). Michael is a high priest, active in his ward, and was very excited to learn about a “revitalization” of Affirmation in the area.

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Adrián Sánchez Román, vice president of Affirmation International gave a talk on being spiritually independent. He talked about the importance of  cultivating our own, independent, personal spirituality that enables to find our own connection with the divine, independent of what other people think of us or tell us.

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In “I Will Not Leave You Behind,” John Gustav-Wrathall told the story of how he came to know that he should commit himself unconditionally to his partner Göran. He then told the story of a woman who joined the Church in part as a result of his testimony, who promised him at her baptism that she would not leave him behind. He spoke of covenants that we make in the Gospel to bear one another’s burdens, and how progress and perfection are made possible only as we make and keep commitments to one another. He finally spoke of why in Affirmation we must similarly never leave anyone behind.

Sunday morning arrived with the final workshop lead by Angel Arrocha and Aaron McManus on ‘The Church & I.’ Angel was born in the Canary Islands to a Catholic family. He has always been a religious person and at 18 met the Mormon Church. He went on a mission in 1992. After struggling with his sexuality for years he decided to leave the church and accept himself as he is. Angel moved to the UK where he has lived for the last 18 years. In this time, he has grown to love himself and accept who he is, and now thanks to Affirmation has the opportunity to help others like himself to start their journey of self-acceptance and find a way to reconcile conflicts they might experience between their sexuality and their faith.

Aaron was born and raised a Mormon. He came out as gay when he was 24 to his close family and friends. He has since navigated his way through staying active in the church and being a gay Mormon, while pursuing a long term same-sex relationship, finding the balance and making it work. He is very open about being gay within his church community and regularly organises and gets involved with church events and activities.

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The conference weekend finished on a spiritual high, as people in attendance shared their testimonies and spiritual stories. This was a wonderful inspiring end to another amazing weekend of Affirmation, love and support.

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