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Breaking Down Walls, Becoming One

By John Gustav-Wrathall

The Affirmation Leadership and Spirituality Retreat in New Hope, Pennsylvania, held May 19-21, 2017, focused on the theme of “intersectionality,” with a goal of learning about how conscious and unconscious sexism, racism, transphobia, able-ism and other forms of prejudice can create alienation and barriers that prevent us from being truly united as a queer Mormon community.

Our ultimate goal is to fully empower every member of our community, and we recognized in planning this retreat that there are challenges that we could not overcome in the course of one retreat. Rather this was intended as a contribution to what needs to be an ongoing, conscious commitment that every member of Affirmation makes to every other member of Affirmation.

This is actually hard spiritual work. Addressing structures of inequality and prejudice go to the core of what it means to be a spiritual being. And reflecting on the principles related to this work we realized that LDS scriptures are replete with teachings directly relevant to this challenge. The theme of the conference was taken from the Doctrine & Covenants, “If you are not one, you are not mine.” Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon teach that in Christ there is not male or female, Jew or Greek, black or white, slave or free. Jesus Christ’s first words uttered in public ministry spoke of relieving the burdens of the oppressed, and allowing the captives to go free. And Paul reminded us that Christ came to break down every wall of separation that divides us. So it felt eminently appropriate to do this work at a retreat devoted to spirituality and leadership in Affirmation.

All of the presenters at the retreat both in plenary sessions and and workshops were women, people of color, trans folks, and ace/aro folks. A major focus of the retreat was on hearing stories, and learning how different individuals have been affected by intersections of race, gender, gender identity, sexuality and religion.

Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, our dear Catholic puertorriqueña sister in Christ set the tone when she reminded us that we need to learn to see each other as Jesus Christ sees us: as whole human beings, without any aspect of ourselves being left at the door.

The opening panel on Friday night included Jenn Lee Smith, Fred Bowers, Melissa King, Justis Tuia, Emmett Claren, and Megan Howarth. These Affirmation members were vulnerable, open, and shared sometimes painful, sometimes humorous stories.

Saturday morning Jena Lowry Peterson offered a brief devotional. Then the workshops were broken into two tracks: a “healing spaces” track for individuals affected by a particular “intersection”; and an “allies” track for the rest of us to gain deeper understanding of that intersection. Kimberly Teitter, Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, Justis Tuia, Neca Allgood and Grayson Alexander Moore were “allies” track facilitators. Jenn Lee Smith, Fred Bowers, Melissa King and Emmett Claren were facilitators for the “healing spaces” track.

That weekend happened to be Pride in New Hope, Pennsylvania, so some retreat participants wandered into town to enjoy the sights and sounds and rainbow colors! And some stayed at the camp to get much-needed rest! (Since most retreat goers were staying together in the main lodge there was socializing and laughter going late into the night both Friday night and Saturday night!)

Saturday evening we heard from Fatimah Salleh and Sammy Galvez speaking on the theme of breaking down walls of separation. Fatimah Salleh delivered a powerful message about how we need to not only tear down the walls that separate us from each other, but tear down the walls that separate each of us from an unconditionally loving God.

After the formally scheduled activities on Saturday there were desserts, and thanks to the fortuitous completion of the final cuts of a short film produced by Dana Christensen and Jenn Lee Smith, there was a sneak preview viewing of the documentary “Faithful,” a documentary about a lesbian Mormon couple living in rural Utah. The film was powerful! We watched two different versions of the film, and then offered critiques and feedback, but also reflected on what the film meant to each of us.

The final session was Sunday morning’s, which included talks by Terry Blas and Neil Aitken, talking about their experiences growing up in mixed-race homes,  Neil spoke about his experience of growing up Mormon and being a sexual, and spoke of the power of being able to connect with affirmation. Terry talked about his work as a comic book artist and how that enabled him to reflect deeply on lessons he had learned as a Mormon missionary about race and sexuality.

The talks were followed by an emotionally and spiritually fall and fulfilling time of testimony and spiritual story sharing. Other highlights: Grayson Alexander Moore and Augustus Crosby shared original songs about finding our place in Zion and about demanding answers from God.

The Affirmation leadership and spirituality retreat in New Hope, Pennsylvania was filled with powerful stories, and testimonies of the healing that is possible when we are able to truly see each other and be seen in our wholeness, in all of who we are. There is undoubtedly powerful healing that comes from hearing and being heard, that all of us experienced that weekend. But for me, it would be unsatisfying if that was all there was to it. Hearing, being heard, learning, Teaching need to continue. And consciousness transformed needs to translate into new practices that make us stronger and more inclusive as a community.

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