by Bryan Hendrickson
Welcome Address, ALL Are Alike Unto God Conference, April 27, 2013
Good Morning Everybody. My Dad was reminding me yesterday how I once gave a talk and left the last page at home, so now I’m making sure I’ve got all my pages! Really, we’re here today to have a conversation, so I will try and go with that format.
We’re so grateful that all of you are here today. It’s overwhelming to think that one year ago, I didn’t know anyone in this room. I met Bryce and Sara Cook’s son and he said to me something like, “Why don’t we start a group for gay Mormons to get together and build some friendships?” Then, he got a job overseas and had to leave, so I stepped in to try and take on that task! (You can read a little bit more about that experience starting our group here for LGBT/SSA friends and family on the No More Strangers blog.)
Over the last year, it’s been a wonderful experience to meet members of the Church and fellow LGBT/SSA Mormons, to help create a place where we can come together to be supportive and to be there for each other. After such a positive experience in starting this group, we wanted to reach out a little more and started planning this conference. Over the past few months, we’ve had the wonderful experience of getting to know many of you and talking with more people about this. We are so glad that all of you are here today. I feel like more than anything any of us can say today, the fact that all of you are here is probably the most important.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I wish I had known, for all those years that I felt so lonely and isolated, that someday there would be something like this, where people would be coming together. That’s really what this conference is about today. We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to come together.
We have a panel of LDS LGBT/SSA later today. They’re going to be sharing their experiences and it will be an opportunity to better understand what it’s like to be a member of the Church and to have same sex attraction, or to be gay. One of them has been a good friend since high school. We went through so much time not knowing that either of us were sharing this experience. Lately, we’ve been talking and about how it is kind of humorous, now, to think about the time when he told me, “I’m gay” and to his surprise I responded with something like, “actually, I am too!”. (listen to more of that story at Gay Mormon Stories)
This friend was someone I have known for years and years. We were roommates at BYU and had gone to high school together. It is a funny story, to remember sitting there “outing” ourselves to each other, but in some ways, it’s also sad that during some of the darkest times of our lives, before that point, we were so afraid to let anyone know about this or so worried about everything that we didn’t even know that both of us were going through this. I’m grateful that recently, particularly over the past year within or LDS community, that we’ve been able to talk more openly about these issues, that people are coming forward and sharing their experiences, and that we’re having more of a dialogue. I feel like that’s really great.
I know that many of you are here for your brother, or your sister, or your daughter or son, or maybe a friend, or even just a fellow member of the Church, or maybe you’re here for someone you’ve been called to serve as a leader in the Church. I want to say thank you for coming and being here.
Sometimes people ask, what’s the best thing I could do? When someone first learns that they have a family member that’s gay or has SSA, they may be asking questions like, “What should I do?”, “What should I tell them?”, or “How do we deal this?”. Really, I think the most important thing is being together and talking about it. All of you being here today and being willing to walk down this road together with your LGBT friends and family, it reminds me of the scripture where Christ instructs, “If someone asks you to go with you a mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41).
It’s so easy to get caught in some of the conflict and debate on all of this, but I think at the end of the day, people just want to know that you’ll be there with them and that they’ll be welcome in your heart and in your homes. That’s what’s most important.
So, I thought I would share a little bit about what I wrote about our Phoenix LDS LGBT/SSA Friends and Family group.
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 and peace and comfort along whatever paths that we might pursue. It’s hard to summarize in one short paragraph all the wonderful experiences that we have shared since we began this endeavor. In our group, as we’ve been meeting, I’ve found myself amazed at all the wonderful people that come together and at 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 heartbreaks and hopes. We’ve talked about the importance of faith and God in our lives. We’ve talked about some of our fears and our doubts. We’ve visited the temple grounds for the Christmas lights and we were singing primary songs a few months ago. This experience really has been humbling to be in a room together with people that are so kind and loving. I’m grateful I’ve been able to help contribute to that, but also, I feel like it’s had a tremendous impact on my life.
In some ways it’s a small thing for us to just be together, to come to a family home evening together, or to be here together today, but like I was saying before, for someone who once felt so alone, it’s rather significant to be with so many people who have shown kindness and love. To me it reminds me of the scripture in Matthew where it says, “where two or there are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
So, that’s a little bit about where we were before, and what brought this conference together. I’d like to share a message now, to contribute to today’s conference.
The Greatest Commandments
On the Church website, which many of you are probably familiar with, Mormons and Gays.org , there’s a quote at the beginning that says, “This complex matter touches on the things we care about most: our basic humanity, our relationship to family, our identity and potential as children of God, how we treat each other, and what it means to be disciples of Christ”.
There are so many opportunities with these complicated issues for us to find conflict. There’s a lot of fear, there’s misunderstanding, there are different viewpoints, and there’s a lot of passionate feeling on every side of every issue you can think of. For me personally, up until recently, every time this subject has come up in any setting, there’s always been this tension of “Us vs. them” or one side being threatened by the other.
A few years ago I went to a Gay Christian Network meeting, a group that’s been around for a while throughout the United States. My friend had been going to their group meetings in San Diego. I was visiting and went with him to an activity, wondering what it would be like. He explained to me they have this thing called, Side A and Side B. Basically, it comes down to some people believe God blesses same gender relationships and other people believe they should be celibate and walk that path. When I got there, people just sort of identified as Side A or Side B and that was it. There was no more conversation about that debate, and the rest of the night they were talking about their friendships. Some of them did a lot of activities like hiking together. Some of them did Bible studies together. They talked about their GCN conference that was coming up and I asked them what it was about. They told me it was about their faith in Jesus Christ and that was the focus of them coming together. I thought, “Wow, that’s really a different approach than I’m used to!”. They set that first issue of Side A or Side B aside and focused on what they have in common, their faith in God and what that means to them. It really taught me that maybe there’s a way to focus on our shared beliefs, our shared experiences and on love, instead of some of the conflicts.
I’ve been thinking in the past few weeks about the mission of Jesus Christ, and what we know about it from the scriptures. Much of his mission was to come here and care for people, to heal people, to teach people and to show people the way. I was then thinking about how it was that his own people would have crucified him, especially with all of these good messages and his kindness. I wonder if perhaps it was this intense focus on who was right, who was wrong, what was the doctrine, what wasn’t, who was holy, who wasn’t, who was a sinner, or who wasn’t? We read that the pharisees came and asked Christ, “What was the greatest commandment?”. There are different versions, but the one in Luke is, “And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself”. (Luke 10:27).
The message that Christ brought was that love, love for God and for our fellow man, was the most important thing. We need to find a way to make love the defining feature of whatever interactions we might have on all of this. There’s room to show kindness and room to be understanding. The rest will sort itself out.
Here are some examples of how we might do that.
The Good Samaritan is one story we all know. There was a man in the road. He had fallen among thieves. He was left wounded and half dead. A priest walked by, a Levite walked by, and then a Samaritan, someone who was an outsider, someone who was not very welcome himself, he was the one that stopped and went to this man and bound up his wounds “…pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.” (Luke 10:30-35). This stranger, stopped and took care of the man, and also made sure he’d be cared for in the future.
As I’ve had the opportunity to meet other gay Mormons, or those who have SSA, I have yet to meet one who hasn’t encountered some measure of sorrow and pain in their life. I feel like all of us face incredible challenges, whatever choices that we make. I hope that we can find ways to find these people, wherever they are. Maybe they’re in your own family. Maybe they haven’t shared with you how much they are feeling those wounds or that pain. Please know, that you can be there for them and bind their wounds. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a debate about principles, focus on healing and hope.
Another parable, we know, is of the ninety and nine and leaving them to go look for the one. I once asked a certain Bishop for counsel. I was really struggling with what to do and what direction to go. I felt like I just couldn’t find any answers. I asked him, “What do I do?”. His answer to me was really honest. He said to me, “you know Bryan, most people don’t make it as long as you have. I don’t really know what to tell you, because most people just leave before they get to be your age”.
I feel like it’s incredibly tragic that so many people feel like there isn’t a place for them in the Church, or that the conflicts are so great, or that for whatever reason, they’re gone and they’re not with us. They’re not in our fellowship, they’re not in our community, and sometimes not even with our families anymore. I hope that we can find a way to reach out to people and let them know that we want them to be there, with us. Maybe they are sinners, maybe they’ve made choices we don’t agree with, maybe they don’t necessarily agree with that perspective, but whatever our perspective is, Christ said let’s leave the ninety and nine and go after that one. Hopefully we can find ways to do that.
The last story I want to share, is the about the prodigal son. This was a son who took half of his father’s property and squandered it. I’m sure he must have done some terrible things, but it seems very poignant that after everything he had been through, he was happy to just be back near his father, as a servant. I think, he just wanted to be home. When the father discovered that he was there- perhaps, there was a time when he sat him down and gave him counsel and instruction- but, in that moment, he embraced him and celebrated his return. He made it very clear how happy he was that they were together. This is an example of how I think we can find a way to put love as our first reaction to some of this.
We need to make sure that people know that there is love. I feel like there is room for understanding and I feel that as we have opportunities to listen and learn from each other, that we’ll be able to find how to work out whatever questions we have or whatever conflicts there might be. I want to say thank you for being here. Thank you for coming to listen. Thank you to everyone that’s going to be speaking. I hope that what everyone will take a way is an experience they can carry forward to reach out to more people and to be closer together.
Thank you very much.