“Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”
“But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
I used to be a guide in a wilderness therapy program, working with teenagers whose hearts were charred and angry and whose parents, pushed to their very limits, had enrolled them in our program hoping that we could find their babies again, that they could be reunited with the children they had known but had lost somewhere along the way. My fellow counselors and I took these teens into the wild for weeks on end, far away from the make-up and music and substances they believed gave their lives meaning, and together we looked for new meaning among the creek beds and the cacti and the tree-studded mesas.
My friends (that’s what you call coworkers with whom you’ve literally climbed mountains and discussed God and goodness and light and hope by starlight) were brilliant when working with these youth. They didn’t always know what to say or do in the face of angst and anger, but sometimes the best moments were just sitting, all of us together, on wool blankets laid over soft earth, braiding bracelets and carving spoons, listening to the goldfinches and the sparrows. These were holy spaces—“thin places,” one friend calls them—places that make you not only believe in God, but believe that God is close by, listening in, taking a seat next to you to bask in the sunlight or the stars, to enjoy His own creations and appreciate the fine company.
Because that’s what we were: fine company. I loved those teenagers. I loved walking with them. Their hearts were charred, but if you were gentle and patient, the ash would slough off as you walked downstream together. You’d quickly see the glint and shine behind the black, and they would, almost always, shake loose the masks they’d worn around their peers and reveal themselves to be just the kind of plain old, ordinary, wonderful, thoughtful people you had hoped they would be.
Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and one-time troubled teen himself, said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” I believe that because I’ve seen it.
Here’s the thing about some of the people I worked with, some of whom I’d count as my dearest friends from that time. They were Mormon. They were gay. I didn’t know it at the time. What I did know was that these friends were spiritually brilliant, people who would pause at the sight of a fallen elf owl, lift it gently, and cradle it in their palms for all of the youth to take turns reverencing its lost breath and stilled heart. They were empathic and caring. These were people who didn’t hesitate to follow after a “runner”—a teenager fresh to the trail and filled with hot blood, who’d had a glimpse of the topographical map and was determined to escape to the nearest road, but without the faintest idea the difference between a kilometer and a foot. My friends would risk their own safety to follow footprints and broken twigs, stepping softly in worn out Chacos until meeting up with the lost youth and, instead of berating the foolhardiness of wandering off in the wild alone, would ask simply, “Mind if I walk with you?”
Together, this dear friend and that hopeless runner would walk, trying to find a way out of the woods. Most of the time, just walking together and talking together would do the trick: gentleness and love unfeigned would be enough to entice the runner to stay. Pretty soon, we would see them walking back into camp together, talking animatedly, our modest fire and our lentil stews cooking in the coals.
My heart has been in my throat this week as I have heard from these same friends. Some of them are now living with gay partners; their Facebook profiles are all smiles, kisses, and big adventures. Some of them are hopeful that one day they will find someone to share smiles and kisses and adventures with. All of these friends were once Mormon, but now most have left, and the few who stay feel like they exist in the fringes. And Zion is not nearly as bright or beautiful or holy without them.
This post is not meant to be a criticism of recent policy changes in the church or even a criticism of doctrines stating that marriage is between a man and a woman. Rather, this post is an expression of my deep grief and frustration that the church at this time is not a place where these dear friends want to be or a place where these dear friends feel needed and wanted.
Hearing from them this week has sent me back in my memory to thin places in the wild where I felt safe and close to God, so it’s no wonder that I find myself taking refuge in another metaphor for what Zion might be: not a ship but a camp. A wide, beautiful camp next to a richly flowing cool stream, covered in watercress, surrounded by columbine and monkeyflower. Birds accompany the sounds of conversation beneath sweet-smelling ponderosa pines and weathered grandmother junipers. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, just like the poet said they would be. It is not a perfect camp of perfect people, but the people are all trying to do good, to be good.
But here are my friends, my beautiful friends, who have felt hurt by what has been said in the camp, who feel that this camp is no longer their camp. I cannot blame them. The wonderful thing about Camp Zion as opposed to Ship Zion, though, is that it is not impossible for me to follow them out, to meekly and softly ask, “Mind if I walk with you?” and to hope beyond hope that they don’t mind my company, in spite of where I lay my head at night.
Maybe Camp Zion doesn’t need to have such strict boundaries; maybe there can be room for some friends to journey out only to journey back in again where our paths meet up. Maybe there isn’t a line at which the camp ceases and the wilderness begins, because it’s all wilderness, and it isn’t necessarily us against the world but all of us searching for God in one vast wild glorious forest. The early church was often literally a group in the wilderness, huddling around collective fires for warmth and companionship. They pitched their tents a little farther out from the fire only to expand the camp. Zion was where the people were, and if someone wandered off, the Saints could follow, bringing Zion with them.
Readers, please be friendly and kind with this post. I don’t mean to insinuate that Camp Zion is not for everybody—my heart and my guts and all of my hopes depend on Camp Zion ultimately being a place of peace for all of us looking to live with God. But readers, I know these friends, and I know they are worth so many billions of sweet sparrows. God knows the number of hairs on their heads as well as God knows my own. I can think of nothing finer than having their companionship as I walk with them through the woods, and talk with them through the woods, even if at the end of the day, they walk home to their own camp and I walk home to mine.
After sharing a draft of this post with her, a friend of mine called my attention to this article I hadn’t seen yet, written by a gay Mormon who also talks about wildernesses and borderlands. It is a worthwhile read.