Group History – Phoenix Friends & Family

previously posted on No More Strangers (www.nomorestrangers.org)

By Bryan Hendrickson

Last year, in the warm Arizona spring, I found myself standing in front of the door of a faithful Mormon family’s home. Knocking on the door, I was quite nervous. I had never met this family, nor been to their house, but I was there to make a request. A few weeks earlier, I had met a fellow gay Mormon, who had encouraged me to talk with his parents, Bryce and Sara Cook, about starting a group for LGBT/SSA Mormons in the area. So, there I was, standing at their door, not sure what to expect next.

Bryce & Sara invited me in and we began to discuss my hopes for a group. We shared our mutual experiences, mine as a gay member of the Church, and theirs as parents of a gay son. I felt an immediate sense of love and acceptance from this couple. Very quickly, I knew I was welcome there in their home. I then found myself speechless as they offered to open up their home as a place for me to invite LDS LGBT/SSA friends and family to gather. I even asked again as I was leaving, “So, you’re sure you’re okay with me inviting any random gay Mormon I can find to your home?” The answer was a very clear, “Yes”.

Since then, that small gathering of three has grown into a much larger gathering of people connected to our Phoenix Mormon LGBT/SGA, Friends, & Family group.  We meet on a monthly basis, alternating between the Cook’s home in Mesa and another kind family’s home in Phoenix; these are homes where a spirit of love is present, one key part to our efforts.  Each month, we see about twenty people come together to find support, discuss their thoughts and feelings, and to enjoy a treat (in typical Mormon gathering style), in a place where they know they are welcome and loved.

I feel like our approach in starting this group has been unique. We set out to create a group where everyone connected by these issues is welcome, inclusive of everyone along all the various paths that LDS LGBT/SSA take.  We have group members who are in long-term relationships and others who are celibate. Some members bring their children, and some bring their parents.  Some are “out” only to us, placing a sacred trust in this group. Most everyone remarks on the feeling of love and genuine acceptance that they feel after their first meeting.

We have been learning as we go, but I continue to feel strongly that there is strength to be found by all of us coming together, wherever we are in our different journeys.  I believe that together we can find support, peace, and comfort along whatever paths we are hoping to pursue. I have been grateful to have had some experiences to guide our efforts, as well, having been a part of groups like The Gay Christian Network, PFLAG, Evergreen, Northstar, Phoenix Affirmation, and those at our local LGBT One Voice Community Center.

It’s hard to summarize in a short paragraph all the wonderful experiences we have shared since we began this endeavor.  Each month, I find myself amazed at the wonderful people that come and the feeling of love that is present when we are together. We’ve listened to people share their stories. We’ve heard about each other’s heart breaks and hopes. We’ve talked about the importance of faith and God in our lives. We’ve shared some of our fears and doubts. We’ve visited the Mesa Temple grounds to see the Christmas Lights, and last month, we were singing Primary songs. In February, as we went around to introduce ourselves at the beginning of our get-together, everyone began to share what this group has meant to them over the past year. I couldn’t help but feel humbled to see what an impact our group has had for my good friends there and overwhelmed by the incredible gratitude I felt for the impact they have all had on me.

In some ways it’s a small thing to come together, with all of our differences, to spend an evening chatting and munching on some snacks, but for someone like me who once felt so alone in this journey, it’s rather surreal to be in a room full of people that truly have shown kindness, love, and understanding to me and to each other. When I think about my time with all of these people, I think about this scripture, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

It’s now been a year since I sat down with this generous Mormon couple, Bryce and Sara Cook, and discussed plans to bring together people connected by the experiences we share as LDS LGBT/SSA or as friends and family of LGBT/SSA.  I could not have imagined, knocking on the door of their home last year, what the next year would bring.  In many ways, I had almost given up hope that there was a place for me in the Church. As much as I wanted to keep it in my life – I was trying then to attend a ward regularly after a period of not going to Church – I felt so unwelcome, abandoned, and out of place. When Bryce and Sara opened up their door and welcomed me in, I believe they also opened a door to hope in my life with the Church. I was a stranger, and they took me in (Matthew 25:35-40).

Many of us who have come together in this group are now working on the last stages of hosting the first LDS LGBT/SSA conference in Arizona, the ALL Are Alike Unto God Conference, on April 27, 2013 (www.allarizona.org), in an effort to reach out on a broader scale to everyone connected by these issues.  Coordinating the conference and encountering various challenges along the way has forced me to grapple with some of the deep conflicts I’ve felt with the Church.  I am learning that if you’re trying to build a bridge, sometimes you have to revisit some of the depths you once traveled before crossing the chasm. But, thankfully, what we are seeing now with our ALL Conference, especially in the past few weeks, is a tremendous outpouring of support and kindness from local members and leaders in our surrounding wards and stakes.  I feel like perhaps we’re knocking on another door, uncertain of what will come next.  I am hopeful we will find something wonderful with our conference and beyond.