Strangers No More: The Affirmation Leadership Retreat, Missouri
May 22, 2016
At this year’s annual leadership retreat, Affirmation members and allies discussed the fault lines within the LGBT Mormon community — those things that threaten to divide us against one another — and imagined ways to foster resilient, diverse community. We explored ways to engage in more meaningful dialog with the Church while also providing safe spaces for those who need to disengage from the Church.
Held near Independence, Missouri, at Lake Doniphan, a retreat center owned and operated by the Community of Christ, the retreat consisted of community meals, talks, storytelling, workshops, and group activities (including a tour of Liberty Jail). Retreat participants were joined by recently released LDS area seventy Don Deshler, Community of Christ historian Lach McKay, Darius Gray, a leader in the African American Mormon community, Bill Evans, formerly of LDS Church Public Affairs, Sharon Groves of Auburn Seminary (formerly of HRC), Mormon feminist historian Andrea Radke-Moss and Community of Christ president of the Council of Twelve Apostles, Linda Booth.
Don Deschler participated in the social and dinner at the beginning of the retreat on Friday, asking questions and listening to people’s stories. In his talk, he acknowledged the pain and fear faced by members of the LGBT Mormon community, and delivered a message of God’s tender parental love. After the conference he described being “deeply touched” by the stories he heard, and his sense that Affirmation members were “pioneers” whose presence the Church “desperately needed.”
Lach McKay described the Community of Christ’s process for accepting the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers, which included developing a set of principles of “faithful disagreement” and a “statement on sexual ethics.” Affirmation members saw these as principles that could be useful models for us in our efforts to sustain a diverse, mutually supporting community.
Building on a tradition of the last two leadership retreats (in Palmyra and Nauvoo), a number of presentations were designed to help us reflect on and learn from our history. Lach McKay and Andrea Radke-Moss delivered lectures on the Mormon war in Missouri, Lach focusing on the sources of mutual misunderstanding and how they fueled escalating violence, and Andrea discussing the effect of the Missouri violence on women, and the way that discourse about community and family had the effect of erasing women’s stories. Darius Gray gave a talk on his family history, beginning with the story of a grandfather born into slavery, and subsequent generations’ struggles to find their rightful place in America in the face of intense adversity.
A workshop on engaging in dialog in the Church about difficult issues featured Rod Olson, a gay man who has been involved in the MormonsAndGays.org 2.0 upgrade, Darius Gray and Bill Evans. They talked about how ordinary individuals can build relationships and engage in dialog at the local level, and then shared their observations about what is most effective when engaging in dialog at the church-wide level. They emphasized patience, engagement, and positivity. In speaking about his work to educate about racism in the Church, Darius Gray said: “When people ask me if I ever served a mission, I tell them I’ve been serving a 52-year mission.”
Sharon Groves and Randall Thacker led a discussion on the ways we can heal our community and rise to the challenges that we face with solidarity and resilience. Much of the discussion focused on the impact of the November 5 policy change. Discussion participants had observed individuals depleted and fault lines exacerbated within the LGBT Mormon community. Discussion about how to strengthen Affirmation members and leaders focused on communication, inclusion, and reaching out to those who are most isolated and marginalized. We need to recognize that what is strengthening to different people may be different. We need to foster self care and healing, finding our sources of spiritual strength — whatever those may be — and learning to accept ourselves.
Saturday afternoon the group went on an outing to Liberty Jail, and then continued on to the Community of Christ temple in Independence, Missouri where there were talks by Andrea Radke-Moss, Darius Gray, Linda Booth and John Gustav-Wrathall. Sunday morning there was a devotional with talks by Helen Bengtson, Ray Cook, Taliatha Palmer Holmes, and Jon Arnell, followed by an open mic with story-sharing.
Some of the most important things that happened at the retreat were the connections and conversations that happened around the edges of the scheduled activities: traveling to and from the conference in cars and “the party van”; meals on Friday night, Saturday breakfast, lunch and sack dinner, Sunday breakfast and lunch, team-building and socializing activities after the Friday and Saturday evening programs. As usual at Affirmation, that is where some of the real substance of conference happened, as individuals forged bonds and connections, shared stories and visions for the future.
A number of retreat participants afterwards observed that there were very important connections made during the retreat that went a long way toward healing stresses, injuries and disconnect of recent months. We came away with a clearer vision of how to continue unfolding Affirmation’s work in months ahead — together as a diverse, unified community.