The Community of Faith
Talk delivered Sunday, February 21, 2016, at the first annual Affirmation Colombia conference, Chinauta, Colombia
By John Gustav-Wrathall, President, Affirmation
I have many fond memories of the LDS wards that I grew up in, the Rochester 2nd and Pittsford wards. Most of my close friends were other kids I went to Sunday School and later Priesthood quorum activities with. Because my family was active in the Church, it meant that if we needed help moving, or if one of my parents was ever ill, or if we kids needed rides to some activity, members of the Church were always there to help out. My parents’ friendships with other members of our ward meant that there were always other wise, loving adults in our lives, of whom we could ask questions or seek advice and guidance, something that became more and more important to me as I began maturing into adulthood. When I was sixteen years old, my seminary teacher noticed that I was struggling with big questions and concerns, and he became a friend to me. We would meet to talk one on one after Church or seminary. He loaned me books, and I would read them and we would talk about them together. One book that he loaned me, Stephen R. Covey’s Spiritual Roots of Human Relations, was a particularly important book, and changed my life. Ward parties, youth activities and service projects were all opportunities for me to learn and grow and create and strengthen friendships. And then of course, our weekly church meetings — Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School and Priesthood meetings — formed the backbone of my spiritual life. It was in those meetings and through one-on-one talks and interviews with Church leaders that I felt the Spirit, learned about the Gospel, and was challenged to put what I had learned into practice. At the age of sixteen, I started going on regular splits with the missionaries. I admired their maturity and commitment to the Gospel, and they became important role models to me as a young man. Later I served my own mission, which was an important part of becoming a man. Many of the best parts of who I am today, I am because of my activity in the Church.
The scriptures describe the Church as a body of Saints who teach and serve one another, who rejoice together and mourn together, and strive to love one another perfectly until they are of one heart and mind, until they live in the perfect unity that the scriptures refer to as “Zion.” The Church has been and continues to be all of that to me.
But while the church was a source of friendship, fun, learning, service opportunities, and emotional, social and spiritual formation, it was also a place where, as a young gay man, I experienced deep injury, and even emotional and spiritual abuse. That injury and abuse were so profound, they almost drove me to suicide at the age of twenty-three, a few years after my mission. In order for me to be healthy and safe, it became necessary for me to distance myself from the church for a very long time. I do not believe that anybody in the Church harmed me intentionally. I believe those who hurt me the most had very good intentions. Nevertheless, I believe that in very significant ways my church failed me, and I know many other LGBT individuals who have similarly been failed by their church. How was it possible, in light of all the wonderful things that the Church has done for me in my life, that it could also fail me so tragically? How and why, specifically, did my church fail me? What should we do if we no longer feel safe at Church? How can LGBT individuals participate in the church so that we are protected from harm or abuse? Can we even, by building a strong spiritual foundation for ourselves, be in a position to come out and engage with members and leaders of our church, and help the Church live up to its ideals of perfect unity and love?
How was it possible, in light of all the wonderful things that the Church has done for me in my life, that it could also fail me so tragically? How and why, specifically, did my church fail me?
The church I grew up in was a church steeped in the deeply homophobic culture of the surrounding society. Nobody in the church really questioned popular myths about being gay, such as that it is a sickness, or that being gay is the result of immoral thoughts or bad choices. There was a profound taboo against speaking about homosexuality in the culture that I grew up in, so as I began to mature sexually, starting about the age of 10 or 11, I had no way to talk about or process or understand the very natural feelings of attraction I was experiencing toward members of the same sex. The few statements of Church leaders that I heard or read about homosexuality reflected those myths of homosexuality. So I began to internalize very harmful attitudes of shame, feelings of unworthiness, and blaming myself for being gay. Also, I came to believe that this was something I had to deal with all on my own, because if anybody else knew about me, they would condemn and reject me. These feelings of shame and isolation left me very vulnerable to the kind of depression that almost led to my suicide.
After my mission, my Church leaders told me that my number one responsibility was to find a wife, get married, and start having children. As I came to terms with the fact that this was not a possibility for me, that deepened my feelings of shame and discouragement. I felt guilty about my occasional masturbation. In my junior year at Brigham Young University, I confessed to my bishop, and he denied me a calling, took away my temple recommend, and told me that I should not take the sacrament until I had been masturbation-free for at least three months. When I asked my bishop what advice he had to help with this problem, he told me that I should get married to a woman as soon as I possibly could. I walked out of his office feeling that I would never be worthy again, and felt increasingly alienated and cut-off from the sources of connection to God — the temple, the sacrament, and church service. Increasingly I began to think of suicide.
The specific details of the conflict that I experienced are unique. But many other LGBT Mormons have experienced and continue to experience similar intense conflicts between their sexual or gender identity and their faith. Because of these conflicts, and because their families and friends at Church don’t know how to support them, they find that their community of faith no longer provides a context of support and growth. It no longer feels safe.
What should we do if we no longer feel safe at Church?
First, I want to stress that God loves us no matter what. The Church exists to help us grow, and to point us toward God. If we are not finding growth, love and support at our church, we need to find it somewhere else. God will be with us and support us in our paths, so long as we continue to seek him.
Taking a vacation from our home church is OK. It is OK to leave for a while, and then come back when or if we feel stronger and better able to cope with some of the stresses.
Exploring other churches can be an opportunity for us to learn and grow as well. We can find God in many different churches and spiritual communities. For many years I was active in the Lutheran Church, and then later in the United Church of Christ. Members of these churches were less homophobic and more supportive of me and my husband, and I learned much there.
Affirmation is not designed to be a substitute for the Church, but we strive to be a community that is loving and supportive, that embraces Christ-like principles, Gospel principles, while affirming and loving people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Finding support in a community is so important!
How can LGBT individuals participate in the church so that we are protected from harm or abuse? Can we even, by building a strong spiritual foundation for ourselves, be in a position to come out and engage with members and leaders of our church, and help the Church live up to its ideals of perfect unity and love?
In order for us to have a healthy relationship with the Church, we have to have a strong relationship with God. We need to believe in God’s love for us, and we need to trust that God can guide us into the path of our greatest happiness, even when that path seems to run contrary to what our friends and family around us expect.
If it is difficult for us to believe in God, at the very least we need to trust ourselves. We need to believe in our own goodness, and our own ability to discern what is true and what is false, and find the path that is right for us. We need to believe that our experiences are valid and that our lives matter. We need to believe in ourselves.
How do we learn to believe in ourselves? First, by giving up on perfectionism. We can start by accepting that it is OK to make mistakes. It is OK to learn through experience. We are entitled to our own experience. We are entitled to learn things the way we need to learn them. If we try a path, and that path does not work, we can always go back. We can always try again. It is in that way that we acquire wisdom, and we come to know ourselves. This is a life-long process.
How do we learn to believe in God? By seeking to be like God. For me, Jesus Christ, as we see him portrayed in the gospels and in the Book of Mormon, provides the best view of God. Love, humility, patience, kindness and service, as exemplified by Christ, are all virtues that can increase our sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit and help us to believe and feel in tune with God. This is also a life-long process.
As we learn to believe in ourselves, we become less dependent on the judgments of others. We can learn to be ourselves and trust that we are OK, and not worry about what others think about us.
As we learn to believe in God, we become more capable of extending love back even to those who have treated us poorly. We learn to be more concerned about serving others than about being served. As we have learned how to be forgiven by God for our shortcomings, we can learn how to forgive others for theirs.
Over time, I have learned that of course the Church is not perfect. Of course members and leaders of the Church make mistakes. There is not a church in the world that is perfect. If you ever find a perfect church, please let me know! I am not perfect either. I make mistakes all the time! That is why we need communities of faith — whatever community of faith we choose to align ourselves with! It is in community, in our relationships with one another, that we best learn the virtues and the qualities exemplified by Christ.
We need to take care of ourselves. We need to be gentle with ourselves. Especially those of us who have been injured by homophobia in our families and in our churches. We need to be patient and loving with ourselves. We need to trust ourselves and believe in ourselves, and love ourselves. That is the beginning of the path, and I pray that we might all find it.
In the name of Jesus Christ.