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Step by Step: the Nauvoo Leadership Retreat

By John Gustav-Wrathall
Photos by Kendall Wilcox

Shortly after LGBT Mormons, family and friends had eaten a meal of fresh lasagna, home-baked by Affirmation gourmet Colby Goddard, Lachlan Mackay, one of the Nauvoo historic site managers and a member of the Community of Christ, welcomed us to the Nauvoo House by reminding us that when the Saints first erected this building, they did so in obedience to the same revelation commanding the building of a temple in Nauvoo. “This house,” he reminded us, “was a house of the Lord.”

Nauvoo House
The Nauvoo House

Let my servant[s] build a house unto my name, such a one as my servant Joseph shall show unto them, upon the place which he shall show unto them also. And it shall be for a house for boarding, a house that strangers may come from afar to lodge therein; therefore let it be a good house, worthy of all acceptation, that the weary traveler may find health and safety while he shall contemplate the word of the Lord; and the cornerstone I have appointed for Zion. (D&C 124: 22-23)

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Lachlan Mackay welcomes Affirmation to the Nauvoo House and offered historical perspectives on Nauvoo
Lachlan Mackay welcomes Affirmation to the Nauvoo House and offers historical perspectives on Nauvoo

We were in fact “weary travellers” when we arrived there, many having driven from as far away as Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky, Chicago and Salt Lake. Even those who had flown in had a long drive of two and a half hours from St. Louis, MO before their trips were finally over. Most of us boarded at the Nauvoo House (though some of us stayed at nearby hotels or at other historic sites like the Willard Richards Inn). And the Nauvoo House became for us in fact a place to “contemplate the word of the Lord” and to draw close to “the cornerstone” the Lord has “appointed for Zion.” But it also became a place for story-telling, for games, for laughter, for singing, and for forging new and deeper bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood.

OK, I admit. I’m a crier. Kendall Wilcox told me he and Jon Hastings had placed bets on how soon the waterworks would begin for me. And the answer was, Almost Immediately. Over our Friday evening dinner I sat across from a family, a mother and father who had accompanied their gay son to the retreat. The father was a former bishop, and he and his wife love the Church and are faithful, active members. I looked this brother right in the eyes and said, “Thank you so much for coming.” He looked me right back and said, “We came because we love our son. That’s all.” Tears began flowing down his face. At the point where he said, “I wish Church members would not be so judgmental,” tears were already flowing down mine.

The Friday evening "icebreaker" begins
The Friday evening “icebreaker” begins

Our icebreaker involved a game called “social mapping” that helped us get a sense of where all of us are and how we’ve traveled geographically. Then we broke up into small groups where we had a chance to tell stories and start to get to know each other individually and learn about how we’ve traveled spiritually.

Yes, we were exhausted. And yet, it was so exciting to be gathered with other LGBT Mormon friends, I found myself up till past midnight chatting intimately with friends, and then up another hour till almost 1:30 a.m. preparing for events that would begin at 8:30 the next morning.

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Unlike other Affirmation leadership retreats where we have had working agendas that included visioning, goal-setting, and assignment-delegating, the purpose of this retreat was spiritual and social. We wanted the opportunity to reflect on our spiritual roots and history as gay Mormons, to engage with the scriptures, to sing and pray together, and to tell spiritual stories and bear testimonies. We have realized since our visioning and goal setting retreat in Potomac, Maryland in January 2013, that we have hard work to do as an organization, and that that hard work can exhaust us unless we find joy in it. And our greatest joy is in each other, in the life-long, deep friendships this organization offers us the opportunity to find, nurture, test and enjoy.

The Joseph Smith Monument, commemorating Joseph and Hyrum's last ride to Carthage
The Joseph Smith Monument, commemorating Joseph and Hyrum’s last ride to Carthage

Reflections on LDS history in Nauvoo took place Friday evening in a talk followed by a question and answer session with Lachlan Mackay, and continued the following morning during a scripture study led by me, Todd Richardson, Tom Christofferson, and Judy Finch. One of the most helpful insights for us was the understanding of how Latter-day Saint identity and experience in and beyond Nauvoo was shaped by trauma — the trauma of being forced out of Missouri under the threat of an extermination order, the trauma of internal divisions caused by new doctrines that pushed the faith of the Saints to their limits, and finally the trauma of assassination of religious leaders and rising mob violence that forced the Saints out of Nauvoo. One of the results of this trauma was painful division, that left the Saints divided against each other, and that created a lasting rift between Emma Smith and her children, and Brigham Young. “Some of us (Latter-day Saints),” I said, “decided we couldn’t take it any more — we couldn’t go further with this. Others of us decided that, whatever the cost, we would continue to the end…. Randall, Todd and I have decided that we as an Affirmation movement can not afford to leave anybody behind.”

Members of Affirmation Chicago, Prince Winbush, Brooke Wardle and Devan Hite (left to right)
Members of Affirmation Chicago, Prince Winbush, Brooke Wardle and Devan Hite (left to right)

Todd Richardson led a discussion of D&C 127: 1-4, and Joseph Smith’s statement in these verses that “deep water is what I am wont to swim in” became a metaphor that many at the conference drew on again and again. Tom Christofferson led a discussion of D&C 130: 18-19, and what it means to “gain… knowledge and intelligence in this life through diligence.” I invited us to consider D&C 128: 20-22 & 24, which included other themes conference participants revisited later, discussing how we learn “line upon line, precept upon precept,” and what it means to us to “go forward and not backward.” Devan Hite challenged the ways in which some of the ideas in verse 24 might be used to romanticize needless unkindness and suffering, suggesting that while much of life is a “refiner’s fire” that strengthens us and purifies us, the fact that “fire” can “refine” us is not an excuse to leave abuse unchallenged.

Scripture study presenters, Todd Richardson, Tom Christofferson, Judy Finch and John Gustav-Wrathall (left to right)
Scripture study presenters, Todd Richardson, Tom Christofferson, Judy Finch and John Gustav-Wrathall (left to right)

Judy Finch closed the scripture study by sharing a moving testimony of her experience of the faith and love of LGBT Mormons she has come to know through Affirmation. She then read D&C 132:66, reminding us that the Lord has promised us that he would “reveal more unto you hereafter.” She quoted Joseph Smith:

When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel – you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation.  But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them.  It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 268)

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Randall invites us to discuss our visions for our future
Randall invites us to discuss our visions for our future

After our scripture study (at the Community of Christ visitor’s center), we gathered at the waterfront, at the end of the “Trail of Hope,” the trail followed by the Saints as they left Nauvoo to cross the Mississippi and begin the trek toward Winter Quarters. There, Randall Thacker invited us to put ourselves in the shoes of the Saints, as they crossed the Mississippi Rivier, looking back on everything they had built and now were abandoning — homes, farms, businesses, civic buildings, and most of all the temple.  Then he invited us to reflect on what had brought us here, what we hope for, and what our vision is for our future. We then listened as individuals shared the diverse paths of heartache and hope, exile and insight that had brought us to this place together; and what we envisioned for our futures.

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Nathaniel Currey led us on a walking tour of Nauvoo. He showed us maps of the Nauvoo plat, and discussed the impact that Joseph Smith’s visionary approach to urban planning has had on western American cities since then. Nathaniel used the tour as a meditation on building Zion, reading D&C 128:21-22: “giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope! Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward.”

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If Friday night was about making introductions and meeting new friends, and Saturday morning was about exploring our heritage and envisioning our futures, Saturday afternoon was about exploring, kicking back, and getting to know each other better. Yes, we had fun!

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Retreat participants gather in the Redbrick Store for prayer, hymn singing, and inspirational talks
Retreat participants gather in the Redbrick Store for prayer, hymn singing, and inspirational talks

Saturday evening we gathered at the Redbrick Store, a social and civic heart of old Nauvoo. As we sang hymns together in the upper room there, we felt enveloped in warmth. Affirmation members can sing! Berta Marquez told her own story of being a Guatemalan refugee, and described her father’s involvement in the resistance to oppressive conditions under a brutal, U.S.-backed dictatorship there, using that story as a metaphor for how we can find hope and create new realities. Samy Galvez shared his reflections on the significance of modern Latter-day Saints returning to Nauvoo in 1999 to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed in the 1840s as a metaphor for reclaiming our faith. Finally, Carol Lynn Pearson shared her reflections on the life of Emma Smith, her love for her husband, her faith as a Latter-day Saint, the anguish she experienced in relation to her husband’s plural marriages, and the trauma of his assassination.

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Particularly moving was the story Carol Lynn shared of Emma asking Joseph to give her a blessing before leaving for Carthage. “Joseph told her to write out the best blessing [she] could think of and he would sign the same on his return” (Quoting Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, p. 191). Carol Lynn invited us all to do the same: the write out the best blessing we could think of, and ask our Church leaders or ask our Heavenly Father to sign it.

Saturday night, we returned to the Nauvoo House for tiramisu by our chef de cuisine, Colby Goddard. Some of us bought tasty root beer sold at the Redbrick Store. We played games and talked and laughed until late into the night. (I didn’t get to bed until after midnight!)

The Nauvoo Temple
The Nauvoo Temple

Sunday morning, some of us got up before sunrise. (Nauvoo sunrise on May 4 was at 6:02 A.M.) I got up at 5:15 a.m. and showered and put on my Sunday dress, and walked down Main Street from the Willard Richards Inn in the preternatural stillness of pre-dawn, watching the sky change from indigo to azure and listening to the chirping of birds. I met up with others at the Nauvoo House, and when we arrived at the temple, there were others still waiting for us. About a dozen of us had arrived for this sunrise meditation at the temple.

We began with an opening prayer, offered by my friend Bob Hoskyns, a beautiful gay man I have known since we were teachers in my childhood ward in Rochester, NY. We began the meditation by remembering our visions for the future from Randall’s workshop, and remembering Carol Lynn’s words about “writing our own blessings.” Then I asked individuals present to share with the group what blessings they wanted to ask God for to help them realize those visions. Those blessings asked for included: to feel whole; to receive guidance from the Spirit; to have more opportunities for service. After several minutes of silent meditation and personal prayer, we closed with a prayer asking God for these blessings.

After breakfast, a group of us were shanghaied into a choir practice to prepare some special music for the final testimony meeting!

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Kathy Carlston conducted the closing testimony meeting at the retreat
Kathy Carlston conducted the closing testimony meeting at the retreat

The testimony meeting was, for me, as always, the high point of our gathering. Kathy Carlston, who conducted, reminded us that all were invited to share whatever spiritual stories or testimonies we desired, and that the one requirement was the individuals speak from the heart and be fully authentic. Individuals told stories of coming out to God and finding peace within themselves; of questioning and wrestling with and reaffirming their faith; they told stories of finding resolution of the apparent conflict between their sexuality and their faith as Mormons; as well as stories of finding no resolution, but learning to dwell in the ambiguity in faith and patience. A mother bore her testimony of the importance of unconditional love for her gay son, and offered to be a mother to those who have lost family in the process of finding themselves. A member of my ward who had traveled to Nauvoo with me stood up and shared his yearning to some day be able to partake of the sacrament with me. John Minagro played and sang a haunting rendition of “If You Could Hie to Kolob.”

Randall Thacker with the President of the Nauvoo Mission after Sunday's testimony meeting
Randall Thacker with the President of the Nauvoo Mission after Sunday’s testimony meeting

The Mission President of the Nauvoo Mission attended the meeting and bore his testimony. Christian Frandsen, during his testimony, thanked the mission president for the grace and courtesy of the sister missionaries who conducted the tour of Carthage Jail, even after they had been a little surprised to learn that they were serving as tour guides for a group of gay Mormons.

Afterwards, I spoke with President Gibbons. I had been so grateful for his presence, and so grateful for his testimony. I was wondering if he might have been put off by some of the  more unorthodox statements in the testimonies shared. But he told me, “I felt the Spirit here this morning, radiating from you. I am so glad I came. There were things I felt here this morning that I needed to feel.”

The opening hymn at the testimony meeting was “The Spirit of God.” The closing hymn was “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,”  which we sang holding hands. It was a beautiful thing to see us all around that sanctuary holding hands together. Of course I cried. I always cry. But so did everybody else. Nobody won any bets on Sunday morning. Lots of hugs and more tears afterwards. The way any testimony meeting in the Church on any given testimony Sunday always ought to be.

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Highlights of the retreat for me included long walks with new friends and heart-to-heart talks about the Gospel Principles that relate to coming out. They included the incredible food prepared by Colby Goddard, which reminded me how spiritual a thing food is, since it brings us together and it nourishes us. They included a late-night planning session including the Executive Committee, Justin Keyes, and others who are helping to plan the upcoming September Affirmation conference to be held in Salt Lake City, September 12-14, 2014.

One of my favorite moments was during the sunrise meditation in front of the temple Sunday morning. I told the story of how I had learned to love coming to the temple, even though, being excommunicated, I am not allowed to go inside. A friend of mine in my ward had pleaded with me to accompany him to the temple when it was time for him to receive his endowments, so I had gone and waited for him in the lobby. My time there in the lobby of the temple felt so sacred, and I had felt so personally welcomed there by the Lord, that I have since loved opportunities to go to the temple, even if it is only outside or in the lobby, because I can feel that it is sacred space. Later in the meditation, John Minagro shared part of his story. John is an opera singer, and one of the great treats of attending the retreat, in addition to Colby’s food, was John’s singing. He came to the meditation (and later sang at the testimony meeting) wearing pentagrams hanging around his neck, and a black t-shirt blazoned with the word “INFIDEL.” He told us that he was a Wiccan (he said “witch,” maybe for dramatic effect!). He said he had been a member of Affirmation for many years, and had never seen the organization so positive toward the LDS Church. “I find it confusing and scary,” he said, though he admitted that perhaps it was a good thing that so many LGBT Mormons were finding it in their hearts to go back to Church. He described his love-hate relationship with the Church, but what was so moving to me was his expressed gratitude that the retreat had offered him the opportunity to acknowledge the love that was part of that mix. I was grateful to be part of a community that didn’t care what you believed or what kind of relationships you have or don’t have, but that was concerned only that all feel embraced and whole and loved and nurtured as all God’s children deserve.

Leaving was virtually impossible. It took forever. Fifty-five of us had gathered that weekend. I had arrived in Nauvoo in a car with Dave and Cindy Sandberg and Beth Ellsworth, and we had to wait about a half hour for Beth to finally stop crying and tear herself away from all the people she had come to love and who had come to love her that weekend. That’s the way it should be.

bethYesterday, a friend of mine Skype’d me. This friend is a member of the Affirmation International Leadership Team, and has played an invaluable role in helping to develop the International section of our web site. He’s not able to be out yet, because of a difficult situation with his family and his ward. But his  love and his enthusiasm and his faith have been such an inspiration to me. He wanted to be in Nauvoo. I had wanted him to be there. But he couldn’t be there. So I told him the story of our retreat in Nauvoo. I felt heartbroken that he hadn’t been able to make it. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s all part of the journey. I’ll make it there some day.”

To all of you out there who yearn to gather with other gay Mormons, to find yourselves and to discover your faith, only so that you can lose yourselves again in love and service, I pray for you to be with us, in body, mind and spirit.

The Affirmation Annual Conference will be in Salt Lake City, September 12-14, 2014.

Reactions of participants to the Leadership Retreat can be found here!

One thought on “Step by Step: the Nauvoo Leadership Retreat

  1. Good write up. Makes me think back to 1992 when Affirmation and RLDS/Community of Christ GALA had a joint weekend retreat at the Nauvoo House. We had a great time together.

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