The following is a transcript of my remarks at Circling the Wagons 2012. Audio of the session is here.
At it’s best and it’s worst, an LDS ward is like a small town. Everyone can really know everyone. The sheer number of hours we spend together gives us the opportunity to know each other’s back story. The ethic of service runs deep. There can be the unpleasant baggage that goes along with small town life too: suffocating conformity, judgement, grudges held for years. But I remain a huge fan of this imperfect yet oftentimes very effective way of building a Christian community. I am indeed an unlikely defender of our congregations. Though I am devoted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ I have never in any other aspect of my life been a joiner. I am shy, I relish solitude, I hate meetings, I often feel closer to God while walking in the mountains than I do on a Sunday in a windowless chapel designed to withstand earthquakes. I am suspicious of hierarchy and patriarchy. But there is something deeper at work in our congregations that keeps me coming back.
I’ve lived in twelve wards in my life. What each experience has in common is that I arrive as a stranger, am embraced by people with whom I only share a geographical boundary and a commitment to the Gospel, and immediately take up the job of working out my salvation with them. This is powerful stuff. I have seen it break down class and racial boundaries I have seen it soften hearts.I have seen it bring about A Mighty Change in myself. People I have judged and disliked have become my friends, not because they changed but because I did. So my message today is that it seems to me we–––and by we I mean straight allies and gay members alike––can harness the institution of the LDS ward to make our congregations safe and welcoming for LGBT people.
Last spring, as I was deciding what exactly it was I wanted to march for in the Utah Pride Parade, I was teaching To Kill A Mockingbird to seventh–graders. This book is such a classic, it has gained such world–wide popularity that it runs the risk of becoming cliché. But I saw it anew, through the fresh eyes of kids on the cusp of adolescence reading it for the first time. It had a profound impact on me.
For those of you who managed to get through middle school without reading Mockingbird or who haven’t seen the magnificent film from 1962, I’ll give you the Wikipedia summary: set in a small southern town during the Depression, the feisty ten– year–old tomboy Scout Finch narrates the story of how her father, a white country lawyer, teaches her and her brother acceptance and empathy as he a defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Not only is Atticus Finch courageous in following his conscience when he knows it will lead to public criticism and personal danger, at the same time he is deeply respectful of his neighbors—even the ones who hate him.
As the weeks progressed I identified three aspects of Atticus’s character that inspired me.
First, Atticus practices empathy.
Early in the book Scout comes to her father for consolation after a disastrous first day of school. She’s smarter than everyone, including her teacher, and doesn’t conform to the culture’s definition of what a girl should be. His advice?:
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you
consider things from their point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Notice he’s not telling her to hide her intelligence or act like a lady. He’s telling her to put herself in the shoes of the person she thinks is her adversary, to try to appreciate the perspective of the “other”.
Second, Atticus has a deep loyalty to his community even though his moral compass sometimes puts him at odds with it.
When he takes on the case of defending a black man who has already been convicted in the town’s court of public opinion, he prepares his daughter for the turmoil ahead without demonizing his opponents.
Come here Scout. remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.
Third, Atticus measures progress in baby steps.
It is interesting to note that although his moral choice is extraordinarily significant within the context of his small town, it is very small in scope when you look at the human rights situation in the 1930’s American South. He’s not making any attempt to take down Jim Crow, the much larger, prevailing evil. His goal is well–defined: to get an all–white jury to acquit an innocent black man. Even in this effort, he fails., and his client ultimately dies violently. Yet, amidst this tragedy Atticus is able to find small reasons to hope. He explains to his children:
There was one thing that made me think, well, this may be the shadow of a beginning. That jury took a few hours. An inevitable verdict, maybe, but it usually takes’em just a few minutes. This time there was one fellow who took considerable wearing
down—in the beginning he was rarin’ for an outright acquittal.
One juror challenging the culture’s racist ideology for just four hours, was, Atticus felt, something worth noting.
Empathy, Loyalty, Hope. Those are the essential qualities of Atticus Finch. Those are the values I wanted to march for. Empathy for LGBT people. Loyalty to the LDS church, Hope for the Future.
That would be the mission of Mormons Building Bridges.
Now I’d like to share a true story of small–town love. If any of you out there are Radiolab fans this may be familiar to you.
In November 2008 while the world was marking the election of America’s first African American president there was a little story out of Oregon that may have represented a milestone just as significant. The town of Silverton, a conservative community of nine thousand many of whom proudly described themselves as redneck, farther from progressive Portland than the actual fifty miles would suggest, in 2008 this town elected America’s first transgendered mayor.
Stu Rassmussen has an interesting story to tell. He grew up in Silverton, his dad owned the local movie theatre. He was an alter boy, a technology geek and one night when he was 27 while running the projection booth for the Rocky Horror Picture show he began to sense another aspect of his identity. He continued to pour his life into the town becoming the local cable operator, an electrician, a firmware engineer , and took over the theatre when his dad retired, but very gradually he began to make some personal changes. At 37 he started having his nails done. To promote the theatre, he would walk up and down main street dressed as the female character in whatever movie was opening that weekend. Then he started wearing a padded bra under his guy clothes and finally had breast augmentation surgery at age 52—his girlfriend of 30 years sticking by him. Things were tough for a while. Attendance at the theatre dropped. Trucks filled with boys would drive by screaming hateful epithets. But the town as whole did not abandon Stu. The mayoral race was a close one, but when interviewed the conservative Republican who ran against him did not criticize Stu’s dressing as a woman–––he just thought his clothing should be more modest than the low cut sweaters and miniskirts he was now regularly wearing to City Council meetings. Stu won by a narrow margin.
On the day when Stu was ready to be sworn in, representatives from The Westboro Baptist church in Kansas showed up to protest with signs like God Hates Overton and Your Mayor’s Going to Hell . Stu’s inclination was to completely ignore them, but two or three of the mayor–elect’s friends decided they would mount a counter–demonstration across the street by appearing in drag. Then quite spontaneously more town members showed up, grandmas, moms with babies in strollers and more guys in skirts. They had grabbed their old yard signs and on the back hastily painted slogans like We Love Stu and Hate is Easy Loves Takes Courage. There were soon 150 people out there supporting their native son, vastly outnumbering the Westboro group. The swearing–in went off without a hitch. Stu was re–elected in 2010 and is running again for another term.
This story was thrilling to me. This is small town life at its best. This is Mockingbird re–written with a happy ending. The multiple ways people connected in Silverton facilitated a degree of harmony even for those who couldn’t completely empathize with Stu. Many of his supporters did not try to grasp his gender identity, they didn’t have to because they knew him in so many other contexts. One friend said: “I grew up with Stu—he was an alter boy at church with my brother—he is the town computer geek—he’ Stu the mayor—and then he’s just Stu”.
The opportunity that exists in the fictional Maycomb Alabama and the very real Silverton Oregon for those formerly marginalized members of the community to be embraced by it, to in fact lead it–– is one we have in our LDS wards and branches. We are organized on a small enough scale that it makes meaningful relationships possible. The fact that we have no paid clergy or staff on the local level and that those positions are continually rotating is democratizing. Right down to testimony meeting there is a strong tradition of egalitarianism, an acceptance of the fact that everyone will take a turn and we will all be patient with one another. Think of all ways an active members can connect with another: we visit each other in our homes once a month, we teach and care for each others’ children, we sing in choirs together, we move each other in and out of apartments, we work in temples together, we bear our testimonies to one another. I believe the bonds we forge in these activities are strong enough to withstand the push and pull that will result when we start conversations about LGBT support.
OK– I hear you saying: what is this unitarian universalist/quaker–y mormon experience this woman is describing? Doesn’t she know the LDS church is one of the most top–down centralized churches on the planet? Has she not seen those fold–out organization charts in the Ensign: a skyscraper of thumbnail photos, all indistinguishable old white guys? Has she never heard a bishop preach on unquestioning obedience?
Well, of course I have, and first I would like to say that I understand that the grassroots route to change that I am proposing today is not for everybody. For some who have been deeply wounded, there is no coming back. For those who feel they are compromising their principles by putting aside laudable lofty goals in favor of humble ones, I get it, my hat is off to you. But as Mormons Building Bridges has grown we have discovered that there are thousands of Saints out there who up to now have remained silent when they have seen the church turn it’s back on LGBT people but are looking for a way to reach out to their gay brothers and sisters and still remain loyal to, as Atticus Finch would say, “their friends”. You know, I think it is my experience as a woman working within a patriarchy that makes me oddly optimistic. I’ve never been to a bishopric meeting or a high council tribunal, but I see so much good christian stuff happening outside of these venues that I can’t help but want to use it to make the church more inclusive. Think about it, if you are known to your bishop as a faithful home teacher and you ask to be assigned to an inactive gay couple in your ward, might he be receptive? If you and the Sunday School teacher were the only ones who showed up to clean the meetinghouse on Saturday morning, might he in church the next day support you when you point our how hurtful someone’s homophobic remark is? If you wrestle with a sister’s unruly toddler for two hours every Sunday in the nursery, isn’t she likely to listen when you share your experience of being a gay Mormon? If you share with a visiting teaching companion your experience at an LGBT support event, might not she be willing to open up about her son coming out to her? If we are model ward members in traditional ways and at the same time are marching in parades, coming out, bringing our gay brothers and sisters to church, working on LGBT firesides with our Stake President–––In all these small, humble ways can we not prove the larger point that acceptance of LGBT people is a logical extension of gospel principles?
Maybe. I am under no illusion that at any time fear can win out at the top and result in suppression at the bottom. Furthermore, I have no clear picture of where this will lead. The great story that all our individuals’ stories add up to has not yet played out. But the daily person–to–person work and heart–to heart conversations that I so admire in small town stories, are beginning to happen in our church and they are valuable in their own right. They are the building blocks of change. The words to Lead Kindly Light have always given me great comfort. They describe the lonely journey of the pilgrim following Chirst’s Light through the encircling gloom. But is there not strength in looking to your right and to your left, realizing that you are not alone. I hope when we look back at this Mormon Moment we will not only remember the national spotlight that descended upon us, but we will mark this as a time we were looking, patiently and carefully, for the light within each other.