Each According to the Dictates of Their Own Conscience
Laurie Lee Hall gave the following devotional talk at the Affirmation 2017 Annual International Conference, Sunday, September 24, 2017, at the Utah Valley Convention Center
I am honored to be asked to speak with you this Sunday morning, and I honor you for stepping into the light and being here at this conference this weekend. This is my first Affirmation Conference since crawling out from under my rock, just a year ago. If you are like me, then all of the sights, sounds, and profound feelings are amazing first-time experiences.
The other night at dinner in Salt Lake City, some of you that are more well traveled than I described the Sunday morning devotional and the following testimony meeting as the best part of conference, and that the testimony service always far excels in spirit any typical ward testimony meeting of which they have been a part.
I thought to offer them my zero-experience opinion of why that could be true. In the past as I would help a person walk through the repentance process, I would invariably near the end express to them how much trust and confidence I had found for them, because I knew the work they had done to come to know their Savior’s love and to obtain peace. I suggested then that the same may be true of all of you, in that I perceive that so many of you have paid a price, and done the heavy lifting necessary to know God, and to feel his love for you, and it is evident in the depth of the testimonies that you do share, and will share later this morning.
As many of you know, I have been invited to do a number of interviews in the past couple months. As these have occurred I have felt sincerely that they are not about me. I view each time I share a part of my story as a gift freely given with love to any who may benefit from it. The same is true for this opportunity to speak, though I must confess, I have been denied a pulpit for some time and it feels very nice to be standing before people whose love I feel and whose hearts are aligned with mine.
I won’t share much of my overall story today, as that is available elsewhere. But an important principle that I have learned to emphasize each time I share my experiences is that my story can be framed one of two very different ways: either I am a man who struggled because he wanted to be a woman OR I am (and always have been) a woman who has struggled to be seen for who she is and to live authentically. In all cases I will be misunderstood if your bias is the like the first, however, I promise there are beautiful truths to be found if you can see me in the latter manner.
Also that I am here this morning not because I was the woman who led the design and construction of numerous sacred LDS buildings over the past 20 years, nor am I here because I am the woman who over that same time span held keys to preside over a ward and a stake and minister to and love its members. No I am here this morning, I believe, because I reached a point in my journey when I finally said ENOUGH! I AM a woman! It is time for me to live authentically or perish!
To live authentically I found that I was required to place upon the altar every aspect of my personal identity, who I am professionally, publicly, socially, spiritually, and within my family, all these had to be offered as potential sacrifices in order to claim and own my gender identity as a beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents. Some of those facets of personal identity were sacrificed and lost; others have had to be reinvented. And new identities, such as advocate and bridge builder have been added.
This past May, I found myself sitting in our stake president’s office (the same office where I had served for nearly a decade), and was given an ultimatum of two untenable choices: 1. Write a letter and resign my membership in the LDS Church, or 2. Detransition and live the rest of my life as a male. I responded that I could do neither, and the date was set for a disciplinary council.
On June 4th (ironically the final day of the Utah Pride Celebration), I was called to sit before that council and was excommunicated from the church, for what I have come to describe as the Audacity of Authenticity.
Within a few days John Gustav-Wrathall called me to see how I was holding up. I described how I had actually begun to process the grief associated from being put out of an organization that I had worked so tirelessly to build prior to the council. As we talked his questions became more personal and direct and I realized I was being interviewed so I played along. When it became evident by my responses to John that my faith was much stronger than was my bitterness, he invited me to speak in this devotional. Apparently possessing faith that can weather deep trials and sorrow qualifies someone to be a devotional speaker.
In fact, John taught me on that call that there is a great need for visible leaders who can and are walking through all of this with faith. I felt the desire and the willingness to commit to be such a leader, so I accepted the assignment.
Though it continues to be an ongoing struggle to process what has happened with regard to my place in the church, I am making progress. I am unwilling to say at this point that I am a finished product. I am still very much a work in progress in learning how to lead faithfully; from outside the faith.
I have said many times lately that I would never have chosen the excommunicant’s path that I now walk, but I will walk it; I will walk it with those that I find along the way, and I will report my experiences as I walk. This is the gift that I am honored to offer.
As I have dealt with the very real feelings of exclusion that have come as family, neighbors, and friends have learned that I am no longer a member of the church, I have been in an almost constant state of discovery of issues, emotions, feelings that are new to me. It seems to me that presently I am not walking this new path, but literally tumbling headfirst down a steep hill with no idea the distance to the meadow on the valley floor below where I can rest and collect myself.
So while I have this challenge rolling headfirst and gaining speed, let me pause long enough to honor and support the inspired conference theme, Many Paths, One Heart. I look upon this diverse and loving assemblage of beautiful souls, I feel the desire to teach these three related concepts:
Foster Inclusivity – Accept Our Interdependency – Embrace Mutuality
Foster Inclusivity – Commitment to the practice of deliberately involving all types of people
Inclusivity goes beyond recognizing diversity, by drawing together the diverse into a united whole with common goals
I grew up during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s rural New England and considered myself to be a promising and gifted young artist. I often studied the life and works of an iconic local artist, Norman Rockwell who’s studio was not far from my home.
Of all his works it is likely that his Four Freedoms paintings are the most well known. These were inspired by the 1941 State of the Union address by President Franklin Roosevelt, as the President sought to prepare the nation for the eventuality of war, Roosevelt spoke of the inclusivity we should feel as Americans centered on four freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. At the depths of the war, Rockwell memorialized these themes in heroic-sized paintings.
As a youth, before I was aware of the LDS Church, I read about the artist’s effort to convey these supernal ideals, I was impacted by Rockwell’s description of painting the Freedom of Worship which proved to be the most challenging of the four: “Most of the trouble stemmed from the fact that religion is an extremely delicate subject,” Rockwell said. “It is so easy to hurt so many people’s feelings.” Rockwell’s original sketch for Freedom of Worship had depicted a diverse group of people cheerfully getting along in a barbershop, but the scene was ambiguous and lacked conviction. “I discarded the picture and started another…. But that didn’t work out either,” he recalled. “I started another, junked it.”
Then an inspiring phrase came into the artist’s mind which guided the development of the final image of eight faces in profile each visibly distinct from the others, ethnically and religiously. Laura Claridge has written that “the inspirational phrase “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience” (that is included at the top of the canvas) is a “platitude that suggests the plurality of Rockwell’s own thoughts on religion”. However the artist did not know its origin, “Rockwell repeatedly asked colleagues about possible sources of the quote and was not told about Joseph Smith’s writings until after the series of paintings was published.”
I did not forget the story or that inspired phrase, —‘Each according to the dictates of his own conscience’. Several years later I too read it again, this time in the Eleventh Article of Faith, written roughly 100 years earlier by Joseph Smith, Jr.
“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
The largesse of this ideal inspired me as a young investigator of the restored church. Here was a truth worthy of attention and it had been witnessed to me from two disparate sources.
We seek to become of one heart, a Zion people. Unity of heart is not possible unless there is community commitment to inclusivity. This requires going beyond recognizing and tolerating diversity; to comprehending that people within our faith community are, and should be, guided by the dictates of their own conscience. The result will be broad but entirely appropriate and desirable individuality of expression within the context of living principles of truth, which I find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There can be no unity without inclusivity, which requires all to draw together in strength those that are different from us to accomplish something which is far greater than what could be accomplished apart.
In many ways I am still looking for signs of inclusivity. For this to be realized propensity for judging others must be relinquished.
Near the end of the disciplinary council in June, I was asked one final question, “What did I want ideally the outcome of the council to be?”
Without hesitation, I replied, “I ask to be able to live and to worship God according to the dictates of my own conscience!” And my conscience undeniably confirms that I am a woman, a beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents!
On that day Inclusivity was not found, but I need to believe that it can be found and fostered.
Accept Our Interdependency – That we are related to one another so closely that each one of us relies upon all the others in order to exist
I am aware of a beautiful example of this principle in a story found in the Book of Mormon, 3Ne chapters 2-4:
11 And it came to pass in the thirteenth year there began to be wars and contentions throughout all the land; for the Gadianton robbers had become so numerous, and did slay so many of the people, and did lay waste so many cities, and did spread so much death and carnage throughout the land, that it became expedient that all the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, should take up arms against them.
12 Therefore, all the Lamanites who had become converted unto the Lord did unite with their brethren, the Nephites, and were compelled, for the safety of their lives and their women and their children, to take up arms against those Gadianton robbers, yea, and also to maintain their rights, and the privileges of their church and of their worship, and their freedom and their liberty.
Finally, the chief of the robbers boldly demanded of the people of the Lord who were both Nephites and Lamanites to surrender or be destroyed, but it is the response of this people under the direction of Lachoneus their governor is to us most instructive:
12 Now behold, this Lachoneus, the governor, was a just man, and could not be frightened by the demands and the threatenings of a robber; therefore he did not hearken to the epistle of Giddianhi, the governor of the robbers, but he did cause that his people should cry unto the Lord for strength against the time that the robbers should come down against them.
13 Yea, he sent a proclamation among all the people, that they should gather together their women, and their children, their flocks and their herds, and all their substance, save it were their land, unto one place.
14 And he caused that fortifications should be built round about them, and the strength thereof should be exceedingly great.
15 Yea, he said unto them: As the Lord liveth, except ye repent of all your iniquities, and cry unto the Lord, ye will in nowise be delivered out of the hands of those Gadianton robbers.
16 And so great and marvelous were the words and prophecies of Lachoneus that they did cause fear to come upon all the people; and they did exert themselves in their might to do according to the words of Lachoneus.
And because all these people of diverse backgrounds joined themselves together in a righteous covenant of interdependency they were able to withstand a siege that lasted for several years and were able to avoid harm and ultimately find peace.
I believe that all of us here and those many more beyond this conference, of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, our straight allies everywhere, and indeed all the children of God exist in a state of interdependency.
Only through finding our common purposes, accepting our reliance upon each other – our Interdependency, and gathering tightly together as though in one place, can the real power of One Heart be realized.
Embrace Mutuality – A deep and emotional sense of reciprocal trust towards each other
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed in its first sentence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal . . . endowed . . . with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The brave and yet diverse men who signed the document concluded with “We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
When Lincoln dedicated the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, after giving honor to the “brave men living and dead who have struggled here, have consecrated (this ground) far above our poor power to add or detract” he taught that “It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced . . . that we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion.”
Life Liberty and Happiness for ALL is yet unfinished work.
Michael Austin recently wrote:
“The accomplishments of civil society are significant. Things like mutual toleration, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for the rule of law have dramatically improved life for millions of people (and failed to do so for millions of others). In many parts of the world, racism, sexism, and other exclusive ideologies have decreased over the last thousand years, and even in the last fifty, but these advancements did not come about because time passed, and there is nothing about the passage of time that guarantees that they will continue.
There is no inherent shape to history. Justice and social advancement happen because people work hard to bring about justice and social advancement. When we stop working, advancement stops happening, and backwards movement is just as possible as forward movement. The moral arc of the universe bends whichever way we bend it.”
I served the LDS Church with devotion throughout my entire adult life. I now find myself outside of its embrace, learning how to process feelings of expulsion and attempted annihilation to safeguard peace in uniformity. Yet I am committed to being a visible leader walking through all of this in faith from outside the faith.
I retain and testify to you of my deep belief in the love of God, of the strength I find through the atonement of my Redeemer, of the guidance I experience through the medium of the Holy Spirit, and I testify to you of the beauty I find in the simple truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in my reading of truths contained within the scriptures.
But I join with Troy Williams who posted the following on August 25th:
I’m worried for people tonight. Transgender service members are under siege. Latinos just witnessed a racist human rights abuser escape justice. Native tribes are preparing legal battles to protect lands. Black Americans are seeing White Supremacists more emboldened. Journalists are being disparaged and targeted. Climate scientists are seeing their work maligned and defunded. A massive Hurricane is striking our country.
We face relentless attacks that are designed to distract, divide and separate us. They are exhausting everyone.
In the face of all of the above, there is no greater power now than “WE”.
WE must love and support each other. WE must build each other up. WE must organize and win back political power. If we are apathetic, if we are divided and fighting each other, if we become disconnected from the common values that we share, then it’s all over.
I worry that if we don’t have each other’s back, many of us will burnout and check out. I worry about that for myself.
So, please keep up the fight! But also take time to recharge with art and beauty. Read poetry. Laugh and drink with your friends. Breathe out fear and anxiety. Hike in the mountains. Love the hell out of everyone around you.
Because I really, really need YOU.
And WE all need US.
I love you and I feel your love abundantly, may we love more, may we foster inclusivity, accept our interdependence, and embrace our mutuality is my prayer!