By John Gustav-Wrathall
Local leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met with participants in the 2015 Affirmation Leadership Retreat in Palmyra, NY, bringing messages of love, hope and welcome. Jerry Argetsinger, Affirmation member, member of the Rochester Stake High Council, and former director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and his wife Gail Argetsinger, former costume designer for the Pageant, addressed participants as well. Richard L. Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling, and his wife Claudia Bushman, a Mormon studies and women’s studies scholar, also spoke to retreat participants on topics related to the early history of the Church, as we reflected on the theme of Finding Our Sacred Groves.
The Palmyra Inn, the hotel where the events of the conference took place, is within walking distance of the Sacred Grove. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 75 retreat participants took advantage of this proximity to walk through the grove in quiet conversation, meditation and prayer. I organized a small group of us for a sunrise gathering there on Sunday morning.
Saturday morning, we read and reflected on verses 10 through 17 of the Joseph Smith History in the Pearl of Great Price, the verses that describe the First Vision. We too may feel dismayed by “this war of words and tumult of opinions.” We may “[need] wisdom from God,” not knowing “how to act.” Some of us may even feel “seized upon” by “thick darkness,” feeling “doomed to sudden destruction.” Where do we go in search of vision?
Randall Thacker continued the reflection on what the Sacred Grove experience would mean for us as leaders within the larger LGBTQ Mormon community. “What does the young 14 year old Joseph’s experience teach us,” he asked, “about the qualities of a leader?” The group identified more than a couple dozen and then Randall specifically mentioned the young Joseph’s extreme curiosity, humility, sincere heart and real intent and how these are important qualities of all leaders seeking a vision. Among other things, participants identified the courage to seek answers to our most urgent questions and to trust what we have received even when others tell us it is wrong.
Jerry and Gail Argetsinger presented a vivid example of trusting revelation, when they described their experience leading local Church public relations efforts related to the Book of Mormon: the Musical. Rochester area Church leaders panicked when they learned that the musical, with its bawdy humor and irreverent take on the Book of Mormon, was going on tour and would be showing in Rochester. As they wrestled with the question of how to deal with what potentially could become a public relations nightmare for the Church, Jerry felt prompted to try something unexpected. Rather than treating the musical producers as the enemy, as an external threat that the Church needed to defend itself against, why not treat them as guests? Why not extend hospitality? As Jerry pondered and prayed on this, he felt confirmation that this was the right thing to do, so he went to his Stake President with the idea. After praying on it and seeking confirmatory revelation, the Stake President came back to Jerry and agreed. Despite strong reservations expressed by Church public relations in Salt Lake, they proceeded with a plan to invite the cast and crew of The Book of Mormon: the Musical to go on a guided tour of the Church sites in Palmyra, and arranged for the cast — many of whom would be playing Mormon missionaries in the musical — to meet and talk with real, live missionaries of the Church. The fruits of this effort included cast members portraying LDS missionaries more genuinely and with more depth, and resulted in opportunities extended to full-time missionaries of the Church to set up tables in the lobbies of theaters, not to mention positive P.R. for the Church. The Church came across as magnanimous rather than defensive.
We spent Saturday afternoon visiting the various historical sites and reflecting on what they mean for us today as LGBT Mormons.
Richard Bushman described how the last half century of scholarship on the prophet Joseph Smith has dramatically revised our understanding of key elements of that story. “Faith crises” caused by cognitive dissonance between an officially correlated account of that story, and facts that are widely available in print and on the Internet, he predicted, will gradually become a thing of the past as the Church and its general membership assimilate the new data. One of the elements of the new story relates to how the Church reads and understands the first vision. The account of the First Vision found in the Pearl of Great Price was written in 1838, many years after the fact, and was not written by the prophet himself (though was likely approved by the prophet). In the twentieth century it’s been used as a proof text about the nature of God, though that is not how any of Joseph’s contemporaries understood or used it. The 1832 account of the First Vision, which was written by the prophet (we have a copy of it written in the prophet’s own hand) emphasizes Joseph’s personal search for forgiveness. The Lord’s response, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” Bro. Bushman pointed out, was the starting point for numerous key revelations of the restoration, a reminder that at the heart of the restoration is the grace and the love of God. (Note: all the First Vision versions are just recently now available at https://www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng).
Claudia Bushman took a slightly different approach to the personal search for grace by describing an incident in the life of the prophet’s wife, Emma. Emma had asked the prophet Joseph for a blessing, and Joseph asked Emma to write down the blessing she wanted, and said that he would sign it. The focus of the blessing that Emma wrote down was to ask for humility, faith, wisdom, health, strength, and so on, so that she could more effectively serve others. What Emma desired most was to be of service. Sister Bushman encouraged Affirmation members to think about and write down the blessing that we wanted. She encouraged us to write our stories and our personal histories so that we could remember the important things in our lives and be remembered. She then described her efforts to document the lives and histories of women in the Church, and shared poignant reflections of LDS women related to the Church’s campaign for Proposition 8 in California.
Affirmation members were extended a very warm welcome by the presidents of the Rochester and Palmyra, NY stakes. Cary Jensen, the President of the Rochester Stake met with us Friday night, and gave a talk on Isaiah texts that he believed should give great comfort to sexual minorities, or anyone who doesn’t fit the mold in terms of marriage and family expectations. His study of Isaiah 54 revealed a God who promises never to turn away from us, and always to keep his arm outstretched toward us. Isaiah 56 comforts those who, without children, are tempted to say, “I am a dry tree.” Isaiah promises them in the name of the Lord that they shall “have a place and a name that is greater than sons and daughters.”
President Jeff Clark of the Palmyra Stake attended the Sunday morning testimony meeting held at the top of the Hill Cumorah, around the Angel Moroni monument. He had been asked to give a talk to us midway through the meeting, but he set aside the notes of the talk he had brought, and said that he preferred to listen to our testimonies. He said he wished that every single one of us were members of his stake; that he wished every member of the Church had the quality of testimonies he had heard shared among us; that we had had to work and struggle against opposition and doubt to come to a deeper understanding of the Gospel, and find our place in it, and he wished for every member of his stake to work at claiming their faith as authentically as we had. He applauded both the doubt and the belief; he praised the honest search for truth that was evident among Affirmation members. He later expressed gratitude for having been there, and his sense that he needed to be there, and needed to hear the things he heard as we bore our testimonies.
This was the largest Leadership & Spiritual retreat Affirmation has organized yet, with about 75 attendees from all over North America — including Canada and Mexico. Those of us who came seeking wisdom, found it. We found love, hope, faith and community as well.