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AffirmTalks – Bishop Don Fletcher

Enjoy watching this fabulous AffirmTalk from Don Fletcher at the 2014 Affirmation Conference.  Over 400 LGBT Mormons, family members, friends and church leaders attended.

Don Fletcher, Former Bishop

Dr. Donald Fletcher discusses his experience as the bishop of an LDS congregation in San Francisco with a large gay population, and about labels and undoing labels.

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I’ll tell you first right off the bat I am honored to be here. In this world there’s a lot of good people doing good things. In this room we have a collection of some of the heroes of the world as far as I’m concerned. I deeply respect you that are here as LGBT Mormons, those that are supportive of it and I don’t think there’s a more important work on the planet that can be done than what’s being addressed in this conference. And so I salute you and honor you and it’s great to be here with you.

I want to just today throw out one topic that may be interesting for you to reflect on, and that’s the importance of labels in our lives–their potential for both positive and negative effects on what we do. I have many labels in my life, and I’m gonna tell you about some of them. I’ve often been called a dreamer. Sometimes that’s a positive, and sometimes it’s a negative. The Walter Mitty–Ben Stiller kind of image where I’m off in the clouds. Okay, I like to dream–dream big. Some of them I’ve not grounded in reality, and some of them aren’t.

But I’m also a dreamer in the Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors sense. I’ve received in my life some interesting revelations through dreams. One occurred about ten years ago. I had a family member that was quite ill, and I had the dream that this individual was gay and had AIDS. And as I told this family member about my dream, the individual could come out to me and was so blessed because he was able to do that. That helped him but the difference it’s made in me has been immeasurable over those last ten years. And as many of us had that experience… you know, it wasn’t on my radar screen. I wasn’t thinking until it was in my family. And I’m just so much a richer and better person because of the community that I’ve been part of since my brother came out to me.

Now, I have other labels in my life. I’m a Mormon. Died in the wool, true blue, through and through. Yes, I am Mormon. LDS. I’ve also had the label affixed to me, three different times, of being bishop in Florida, Alabama, and California. Three different times. Three different sentences, as some would say. [audience laughs] There were wonderful experiences.

My time in Alabama was really interesting. When I was a bishop in Alabama, it was in a ward, inner-city Birmingham, Alabama, that was about two-thirds African-American. So very early on in that career I had experience with minorities and discriminations and some of those issues.

It was the Bay Ward in San Francisco, which takes in the heart of San Francisco, Castro area, and when I was made bishop we had on the records 975 members. I looked at it, and in the time period since, I estimate in that about half of those 975 members were gay members. And not a lot of them were active. So that was simply one of my top agenda items was to reactivate our gay members in the Bay Ward. And so that Bay Ward took upon itself labels as well. One of the labels we had in the Bay Ward was that we were “warm.” Fortunately didn’t melt Olaf in the movie Frozen. [audience laughs] We melted a lot of traditions and cultures, and it was a marvelous experience. Many of you know my executive secretary Mitch Mayne who worked with me in San Francisco, and it was a wonderful experience.

One of the things that we did was right off that bat try to engender that warmness in the ward. But one of our early methods of trying to reactivate our less active members was to send out a letter. So I sent out a personal letter, signed 800 copies of it personally, saying “Hi, I’m your bishop! I’m Bishop Fletcher. Welcome to the Bay Ward. You’re not active right now, and there’s probably many reasons why that could have occurred. You might not want to pay tithing, maybe some crusty member offended you somewhere down the line, or maybe you’re gay and feel like you don’t fit in. I don’t think any of those reasons–I think they’re all crummy. None of them hold any water with me. Come back to the Bay Ward. you’re gonna love it. It’s a great place where you can feel welcome and wonderful. My executive secretary here, Mitch Mayne, is openly gay and he loves it here. He feels welcome here, and you will too.”

So I sent out that letter, and it was amazing the response I got from probably 400 or so members of my ward. A lot of them left it on their kitchen table. They didn’t through it out right away. They read it again. And I would get telephone calls months later saying, “Were you serious? Did you really mean that?” [audience laughs] Yes, come talk to me! And I had many people come back to a ward that was warm and inclusive. And very commonly, they said, you know, I still believe the Church is true, but I don’t want to be excommunicated and I don’t want to risk coming back. I said “You will be excommunicated over my dead body. Feel comfortable and safe here. That ain’t gonna happen.” We’ll circle back to that, but that certainly was a fear with a real lot of them that occurred.

Another couple labels that I have. I’m also a physician. I’m an ophthalmologist. My speciality is dealing with people that are visually impaired. So low vision rehabilitation is my speciality. So I have people that come to me, and this is the entire scope of my practice, people that have lost vision permanently, and I can try to show them how they can use what they have left, how they can live a full life, in spite of the fact that they have a visual impairment.

Unfortunately, one of the other labels that I have is that I’m a label-undoer. For those of you that are older like me, in the audience, and remember watching the near-sighted Mr. Magoo, he was not a particularly good role model for the visually-impaired. [audience laughs] A lot of the patients that come to me have a label affixed to them by their referring doctors. They’re labeled as “legally blind.” That’s a term that I’m very familiar with. You know where that comes from? It’s not a legal term, but it’s the IRS that coined this term about 80 years ago. They picked a line on the letter chart and said, “This is the line that determines legal blindness. You’re legally blind beyond that, and better than that you’re legally normal. It’s 20/200. So if you’re 20/999, what are you complaining about? You’re normal. You’re 20/201, you’re blind. Why bother trying to see? You’re blind, you know?” [audience laughs]

It’s as preposterous to use that term as calling someone sick and in the hospital “legally dead.” [audience laughs] Dumb dichotomy. But that’s what I gotta deal with, with these patients, all the time who came to see me. Because that’s what they’ve been told. Usually, it’s they’ve been declared. “I’ve been declared legally blind. So why bother trying with your magnifiers or with your techniques. I can’t do it. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.” Well, that’s a label that is exceedingly negative. That’s way more harm. More people have been blinded by a definition than any eye disease. And I have to undo that and start with more positive labels. “You’re capable” and so on. So that’s something I do in my work life.

Now one of my heroes in the medical community is one of the doctors by the name of Bernie Siegel. He wrote a book some time ago called “Love, Medicine, and Miracles.” He’s a general surgeon, and he deals with cancer. And he found in his research that there was a real difference in survival to cancer depending on the labels that people were internalizing as they were patients. And he’s written extensively on this and shows the danger. One of his common sayings on this is “words can kill, or words can heal.”

An example: when a patient is told that they have cancer, their first reaction is often “how long do I have to live?” And my camp of physicians unfortunately usually answer that question with statistics. There’s always a range of survival, but there’s an average always, and what physicians tend to do is give a person the average. So, “I have such and such cancer. How long do I have to live?” “You have six months.” So the person goes home, and what do they do? They get out the calendar, they write a circle around the 6 month mark, and then they die on schedule. Statistically, absolutely, abnormal. Everybody clumps on that date. The range is 1 week to 50 years kind of thing on the survival. So what Bernie Siegel says very appropriately is that you answer that question with, “There’s a good portion of people with your condition that survive and live many many many years.” It may only be 10%, but it’s important that you give that person that hope. You don’t have to die! It’s okay to live. And that is a label, again, that is very dangerous. Words can kill, or words can heal.

Now let’s in our church sense look at some of the labels that we sometimes affix to people. One is that word “excommunicated”–excommunication. On Powerpoint, when I was getting ready for this presentation, I right-clicked on the word “excommunication,” and these are the synonyms that popped up for excommunication. Excluded. Barred. Ejected. Removed. Expelled. Thrown out. Does that sound like a very friendly, loving list of adjectives to apply to anyone? In other words, we’re telling them, “You’re now on the outside. You’re not worthy of the name of Christ. You’re not part of the Savior’s family. You had a chance, and you struck out.” Does that sound like we’re doing any good, when we put those kind of labels on people? I ask you.

Ponder. What labels do you think He would us take on? What does the Lord want us to label ourselves? He wants us to all know that we’re children of God. He wants us to all know that we’re loved of God. And he wants us all to know that we’re part of God’s plan.

One of the really wonderful experiences I had when I was bishop of the Bay Ward is members of my ward that were gay that came back to the Church and were able to come back to the home of their faith, where they had come from, that they had lost. I would ask each of these members, whether or not they came back to Church, whenever I met with them. If they came to my house and wanted to talk, even if they didn’t want to come back to Church, I asked them, please, as a bishop, can I give you a bishop’s blessing? Can I lay my hands on your head and give you a bishop’s blessing? And those were rich spiritual experiences for me. And without exception, every single member, every single individual that I laid my hands on, some weren’t even members of the Church, that was gay.

I felt overwhelmingly, strongly, inspired, first thing that I told them was, “You need to know, right now, that you are loved of God. Exactly as you are. You don’t have to change anything about who you are, what you’re doing right now, to know that you are loved of God.” Invariably, there would be many tears, as they internalized that very, very important concept.

We’re encouraged in the Church to welcome back into our congregations everyone that comes out. None should be cast out of our synagogues. I think that tradition and cultures have used disciplinary councils ineffectively and have not served the individual. We’re told in the Handbook of Instructions that disciplinary councils are to bring people to Christ and to help them feel closer to the Savior. There’s no penalties that have to be paid for our sins. The Savior’s done it all, and we just need to bring people closer to the Savior. We need to revisit the way disciplinary councils are used to meet the purpose of what we’re supposed to do as Latter-day Saints. We’re supposed to bring everyone to the Savior so that they know that they’re children of God and they’re loved of God. I know that’s true, and I say that in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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