Abide with Me — Thoughts on Staying

Christian Harrison generously agreed to respond to Sam’s post. Christian is a longtime friend of the blog, an urban enthusiast, a professional storyteller, and a man of faith—a practicing member of the Church. He’s also gay.

Whether it’s some progressive acquaintance calling me an Uncle Tom or Elder Bednar insisting that I don’t exist, I must admit that I’ve had no shortage of chances to wonder, lately, why I stay.

Why do I lend material support to an organization dead-set on erasing me and countless other queer members? Why do I stay when my very presence defies the wishes of so many of my coreligionists—members of the flock who want so desperately to run off the sheep with different wool? Can’t I see that I’m unwelcome? Can’t I see that God’s love is a tough love—that His love isn’t universal? Why? Why? Why…

Perhaps a story is in order…

On the 25th of October, a member of my stake presidency—under whom I served as Executive Secretary while he was bishop—pulled me aside and asked me to serve as second counselor in the elders quorum presidency. “You know I’m an unorthodox choice”, I said, and with tears welling up in his eyes he replied “I know—you bridge two worlds: we need you”. I accepted. It wasn’t an easy choice—even before November 5th, the Church was struggling to throw off the foolish traditions of its fathers with regards to the queer community—but all indicators pointed me towards hope.

Hope is, after all, my default.

On November 1st, I was set-apart and invited to speak in Sacrament Meeting on the 15th (the hardest talk I ever gave). On Thursday November 5th, the world changed—and not for the better. The following morning, I wrote that I still had hope. And in that post I said:

To my friends who have left and to my friends who are now leaving: I understand; being a part of the Kingdom of God isn’t supposed to hurt this much. You’ll be sorely missed—perhaps not by shepherds who should know better, but by me, at least… and by others, who notice when virtue goes out of them.

And here I am, four months later, a little worse for the wear, determined as ever.

Which brings me back to “why”.

Sam Brunson’s “The Best of All Possible Worlds” resonated with me, deeply. I, too, stay because Mormonism is my mother tongue and a vehicle for my altruism. I, too, stay because I have a duty to those left behind—the tender-hearted and the queer youth who had no choice in being born into a faith community hell-bent on denying them their rightful place in the Kingdom.

But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take this discussion a little further; to wrap the “why” in the warm and comforting blanket of “how”…

First, I’d like to talk about what it might look like to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5) and to live up to our baptismal covenant, to “bear one another’s burdens… [and] to mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8–9) in this difficult time:

1) Reach out to the tender-hearted in your ward and stake. Are you doing your home teaching and visiting teaching? Do you know the families in your ward affected by the Policy of Exclusion—not just the progressive members, but those with family members or close friends who are LGBT? Know them. Love them. Empathize with them.

2) Become a resource—and encourage others to be the same. Introduce quorum, group, and auxiliary leaders to the Family Acceptance Project and, specifically, their materials for LDS families. Familiarize yourself with Affirmation and their work supporting those who find themselves at the intersection homosexuality and Mormonism. And, finally, educate yourself about suicide prevention. People—young people, especially—trapped by the new norm are faced with profound hopelessness. In this regard, The Trevor Project is an outstanding resource.

3) Don’t be silent. Those in the closet—who have no voice—need to know that the people they love and respect are safe ports in this man-made storm…

Learn to use words like “gay”, “lesbian”, “bi-sexual”, and “trans” correctly—and use them in open discussion at church and in church groups when out-and-about. I still remember announcing a stake outreach fireside for LGBT members and their families—and the thrill I felt saying “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans” over the pulpit. And I remember a senior missionary raising his hand and asking if his lesbian daughter and her girlfriend could attend—“Absolutely!” I replied. But mostly I remember being pulled aside by a visibly shaken young man: “You’re so brave”, he whispered. The closet is a lonely, scary place.

Speak favorably of LGBT people you know and speak-up when ward members disparage or otherize LGBT persons or use words like “gay” as pejoratives (a problem, especially, among our youth).

4) Learn more about the Policy of Exclusion (is it too early to just call it the POX?)—and not just as it pertains to the queer community; remember that this horrible policy was first launched as a blunt weapon against children of polygamists.

5) Find appropriate ways to inject the Policy into Gospel conversations: when talking about missionary work, ask how others are able to keep the missionary spirit when the Church is making it so hard; when talking about the allegory of the lost sheep, bring up the Policy and how it flies in the face of our deeply held and cherished beliefs; when tithing comes up, ask how the funds are spent and ask how others navigate the uneasy terrain of loving and funding a Church that is doing so much harm.

And if you can’t lead-out on these discussions, be supportive of those who can—even if it is in the hallway, after class.

Why is this important? Because it makes it possible for people like me—and tender-hearted people like yourselves—to stay. You weren’t there when Joseph Smith decided to lie to Emma about polygamy. You weren’t there when Brigham Young robbed blacks of their priesthood birthright … but you were there, on November 5th. Why is this important? Because this is your chance to make a lasting difference.

Second, I’d like to talk about testimony. This is a hard thing for me.

Not too long ago, I would have answered the question “why do you stay” with a simple and pat response: “because I have a testimony”. Somehow the spiritual confirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic leadership and the divine nature of the Book of Mormon made everything else okay. That day is past, for me at least. My testimony—battered and bloody—still beats within my chest … but it’s no longer enough. I’m on life support, and so are many others.

A couple years back, I created a personal profile on Mormon.org … something I said, then, seems especially important, now:

As a gay man who understands that my orientation is a gift and not a curse, I’ve often been asked how it is that I could possibly be part of a Church that so thoroughly misunderstands who I am and my value in the eyes of my Father in Heaven. It’s hard, I say. I pray for change … but I also pray for patience. I was born gay … and I chose to be Mormon. And being Mormon is a choice I make every day. It’s not always an easy choice—but it’s mine.

The Church is a work in progress. Just like me.

The hope I hear in my voice when I read these words is strange, yet it gives me a semblance of strength—like a blood-doping athlete breathing yesterday’s air. You see, I joined the Church at a young age, of my own free will, so I never really lived on a borrowed testimony … but I’ll gladly do so now.

* * *

This wasn’t exactly the feel-good/kumbaya post I’d planned, when I set out … but in a beautiful bit of poetic happenstance, it is absolutely a kum ba ya post, all the same—a song pleading for God to come to those in need. And who are we but the hands and eyes of God? And who is He but the God Who Weeps?

Kum ba ya Lord … come by here. Abide with me, I pray, tis eventide.

Comments

  1. I’m glad I read this. Church has been too painful for me for a variety of reasons since the POX (brilliant name, by the way) and I have so much appreciation for people who are continuing to work to make it a loving and affirming space. Thank you for staying, for writing, and for loving this fiercely across the borders of Mormonism.

  2. Cynthia H. says:

    Wonderful. Thank you for your honesty. I know people who have left and people who have decided to stay, and neither choice is an easy one.

  3. Thank you for this.

  4. Thanks, Christian, for your generous and valuable thoughts!

  5. Christian, you were created perfect by your Parents, and well named by your parents.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Christianos = “Partisan of Christ.” Well named indeed.

  7. Christian, thanks for your courageous voice. I am amazed by your persistence and I intend to be your ally. You give me hope.

  8. D. Fletcher says:

    Both blog posts are excellent and thoughtful.

    Why do I stay? Because I still feel it (from time to time). If I didn’t feel it at all, I’d have walked away long ago.

  9. I was a bishpp a long time in a Los Angeles area ward. I got to know gays in my ward and my stake. I home taught then, and continue to home teach, a gay couple, now married.

    I learned a lot in that experience, and I confirmed this with my stake president in discussions. About half of gays surrender their will to Christ and live obediently the best they can within the structure of the Church; some in the closet and some not. They don’t advocate for change and they don’t complain publicly about their predicament. They don’t argue about choice versus environment, but they remain deeply troubled and most folks in the ward aren’t much help. Many have spouses who suffer along with them. They don’t voice themselves when things get controversial. I’ve known a bishop and a general authority (now deceased) in these circumstances.

    Then I’ve known a few who want to stay within the church but slip. There was the elders’ quorum president who passed the same public restroom in a park year after year until one day he couldn’t take it anymore, went inside, went home, and called his bishop to resign and left his family. His bishop had been counseling him for five years.

    Then there’s the substantial portion who denounce the church as a hateful place for gays. I met many of them during the Prop 8 battle, even though I opposed Prop 8; but, because I was LDS I was denounced as a bigot.

    So, one cannot pigeonhole gays in the church or former gays, just as one cannot pigeonhole me, a former bishop.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with all of us. I pray for the day when we ALL understand that this life is a test – and it is ONLY a test. We will be judged as to how well we tried to live by the rules we knew – and since church members SHOULD know that to love as God does is the second great commandment, we need to love each other, regardless of our race, height, sexual orientation, eye color or if we are left-handed. That is the test, my friend – and many of us are failing miserably at it.

  11. Thanks, Christian, for your faith and candor. Strong work.

  12. Great stuff. I suddenly love the word “kumbaya”.

  13. I just cried with you as I read what that member of your stake presidency said. This post both breaks my heart and gives me a feeling of hopeful purpose. Thanks.

  14. I love you, my friend. I will always hold space for you.

  15. Thanks for this honest and useful post, Christian. I can’t think of any good that has come from this policy, except for maybe the increased desire within many of us to love better and more unconditionally simply because the hurt is now so much more apparent.

  16. Shawn the Sheep says:

    I’m confused. How is a member with a testimony a controversial choice for a calling unless they are breaking the commandments?

  17. Shawn the Sheep says:

    Pardon me…”unorthodox” choice.

  18. Thank you, Christian. (And your name! How could I not approve?) I have not found it in my heart to argue that LGBT members should stay, for years now and it hasn’t gotten easier. And if not you, then why me? But I respect those who do (and those that don’t). There don’t seem to be any easy roads.
    I’m curious how you would answer the “how unorthodox?” question just above. I think it’s an important and relevant question. My reply would be that it should not be unorthodox, that such callings should be routine and matter of course, but that in too many ways and too many places cultural Mormonism is requiring more than testimony and orthopraxy, is requiring nice gay or quiet gay. Using “queer”, saying “gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans” over the pulpit (there’s even that seemingly banned word “sex” tucked in there!), insisting on ‘born that way’, referring to the POX as a horrible policy, is all so important and valuable especially from within, but it isn’t ‘nice’ and it isn’t aligned with cultural orthodoxy.

  19. Frank W. Hays says:

    Thank You Christian. Like you I am trying to stay… I have a niece that has left.. I keep thinking it might get better and along comes Elder Nelson and now Elder Bednar saying I don’t exist. I think it has been 16 years since Henry Stuart Matis. If only they would read his words…So many suicides of all ages. I lived through the Aids epidemic and took care of Aids Patients. At that time I was still in the closet, a returned missionary and the Aids Organization was worried how a Mormon Nurse would take care of Aids Patients. So glad they gave me the job. I learned so much taking care of those patients. One even asked me to take him to Church. I am glad now I didn’t take him. I have felt and experienced to many negatives, but still hanging by a thread..

  20. Thank you so much for this amazing article I’ve been struggling and asking the same questions.

    Thank you very much!