Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"The Eyes of My Understanding Were Opened": A Bishop's Journey

Me, Melody, and Carl (and Jesus in the background)
"Today is one of the best days I've ever had." That's the last sentence of my journal entry from 11 August 2016, and I wasn't exaggerating. Some truly incredible things happened that day, but one of the highlights was having dinner with Carl, Melody, and three of their children. 

Carl found my blog back in May and we exchanged a few emails. He told me that if I was ever in Utah he and his wife would love to have me over for dinner. I took an exceptionally quick trip to Utah a few weeks ago and took him up on his offer. We had never met before and I thought that if they were weird I'd at least get a free meal and a great story. Carl's emails were well punctuated so I knew he couldn't be that odd because good grammar is often a sign of normalcy. I knocked on their door not sure of what to expect. Carl opened the door and I extended my hand to greet him. He ignored my hand and just gave me a hug and said, "It's such an honor to have you in our home." Then his wife Melody came over, hugged me, and said, "You're our hero, Ben." I joked that this was my first time meeting fans of my blog. 

We had a marvelous dinner eating fresh food from their garden, getting acquainted, and just chatting. It was spectacular. And then Carl and Melody told me about the journey they've been on this year and I was deeply touched. They live in middle class suburban Utah and have no gay relatives. At one point I thanked them for all they are doing to make a safe place in their congregation for gay people even though they don't have any skin in the game. Melody responded, "Well, we don't yet, but we might have a gay child or a gay niece or nephew and we want them to know that we love them no matter what." They are my heroes. And now they are my family, too. 

I asked Carl if he would write down his story for me and I share it here with his permission. Please read it because it is so, so important. I hope you enjoy my first guest post. 


My Journey Toward Understanding

When I was called as Bishop of our ward about a year ago, I felt a strong desire to see that every member of our ward felt welcome and wanted.  Regardless of their circumstances of worthiness, financial standing, marital status, etc., I wanted each member of our ward to feel like “there is a place for me in this church and in this ward.”

Several years earlier I served as the Young Men’s President for about 4 years, and worked with several young men and got to know them quite well.  By the time I was called as Bishop (about 10 years later) two of these young men had come out as being gay and had subsequently left the church.  I did not suspect that either of them were gay at the time that I was working with them in the Young Men’s program.  But I thought often about these young men (who are now men) and wondered if I had done or said anything that made them feel unwelcome in the church

I started to think about all the people in my ward and wondered if there were members who were experiencing same sex attraction and were barely hanging on to their activity in the church.  This thought would not go away.  About this time my Stake President forwarded an invitation to attend something called the North Star Conference.  I had heard about this group a year earlier when a North Star member had made a presentation to our stake leaders.  I recalled that the presentation was very good and I felt a greater love and compassion for those who have struggled with same-sex attraction.  In fact, I was so moved by the presentation, that I came home and talked with my wife and daughter about it.  After telling them that we all needed to be more understanding and accepting of those who feel this way, I recall that they both thought that I was crazy and was encouraging acceptance of this lifestyle.

For years, I had the opinion (and I think my family shared the same opinion) that someone who was gay had either done something horrible to make them this way or something horrible had happened to them.  They must have succumbed to evil at some point and were now out promoting it.  The presenter from North Star made me really stop and think about the accuracy of my opinion.  Was it possible that I have been wrong all of this time?  Could people who experience same-sex attraction actually be sincere and authentic about their feelings?  I think this was when I started to have a mighty change of heart.  As this brother from North Star talked about trying to reconcile his very real feelings with what he was being taught in the church and how he had struggled his entire life with this, I started to catch a glimpse of just how difficult his life had been.  Feelings of disgust and disdain for this gay man started to morph into feelings of compassion and love and I recognized that the Savior loves this man just as much as He loves me. 

Based upon this experience and the feeling that there may be someone in my ward that I need to reach out to, I decided to attend the conference.  In March of 2016 I drove to the Provo Marriott Hotel where the conference was being held and I have to admit that I was a little nervous.  I was going to be surrounded by gay people.  I pulled into the parking lot and it was packed.  I had a very hard time finding a place to park.  I was blown away by how many people were there.  I had expected a couple hundred.  It seemed like there were a couple thousand.  I sat and listened to the speakers and realized that I was feeling the Spirit.  These were good men and women who were trying desperately to stay in the church – not trying to leave it.  However, it was not easy for them because trying to fit into a family centered church while experiencing same-sex attraction just does not make sense.  My compassion and love for these good people continued to grow and I came away from the conference with the resolve that I needed to speak to my ward about this difficult and sensitive topic. 

I spoke with my counselors and they were supportive of my desire to address this.  They could see that I had some strong feelings about this topic.  Once I got their approval and we were united, I decided that I needed to learn as much as I could because I wanted to make absolutely certain that I correctly represented the doctrine and teachings of the church.  I also wanted to understand what life was like for those in our church who experience same-sex attraction.  I spent hours reading blogs and listening to podcasts to learn about first hand experiences.  I also personally interviewed three sets of parents who had children who were gay and interviewed three men who had come out as openly gay - two who had left the church and one who was trying to stay active.

I read every word on mormonsandgays.org and watched all of the videos.  My eyes of understanding were continually opened and I realized that the church leaders were ahead of me in this journey.  Elders Cook, Holland, Oaks and Christofferson had all given talks and other presentations regarding our need to be Christlike and more understanding and accepting of those who were experiencing these very real feelings.

When I discussed the idea of presenting this topic in a 5th Sunday lesson with the Ward Council I got a variety of feedback.  Some thought I was truly crazy and strongly recommended that I not do this.  Others were open to the idea and some were neutral.  We came to the decision as a Ward Council that we would move forward even though there were some who still felt like this was a big mistake.

As I was working on my presentation one evening, the name and image of someone I had worked with over 20 years ago came to my mind.  His name was Steve and he was openly gay.  This would have been in the mid 90’s when being openly gay was not very well accepted.  I recalled talking about him with some of my work associates and Steve was the object of many of our jokes.  The first time I met him he had come to my work area to work with me on a purchase order.  I was a purchasing agent for the company and he needed something ordered.  After he left, an associate told me that Steve was gay.  Partly in jest but partly for real, we went to the janitor’s closet and grabbed some disinfectant to spray down the areas that Steve had touched.  As I thought back on this experience I was ashamed of the way that I had acted and wondered if Steve knew that I had done or said things to disparage him. 

It was at this moment that I thought, “If my heart has truly changed, I need to try to find Steve and seek his forgiveness."  It took a few weeks but through social media I was able to track him down.  He vaguely remembered who I was but agreed to meet with me.  A few days later I met with him at a Starbucks near Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah.  We met and shook hands.  I bought a cappuccino for him and a hot chocolate for myself.  I was nervous.  After we sat down I said, “You probably are wondering why I wanted to speak with you.”  He said, “Yes, I have no idea why you want to meet with me”. 

I then told him that the reason for our meeting was so I could apologize to him for things I had said and done many years ago.  I told him I was not sure if he ever knew what I had said but whether he knew or not, I knew and I needed to ask for his forgiveness because I was not at all acting in a Christlike way.  Steve said that he was not aware of me saying or doing anything unkind and then he instantly forgave me.  He got teary eyed as he thanked me for reaching out to him.  I was impressed at how quick he was to forgive and for the first time, I looked at Steve with new eyes -- as a valued person who had done much good in his life.  I thought this would be the extent of our conversation but Steve then opened up and shared his life experience with me for the next hour.  I was absolutely BLOWN away at some of the challenges he had faced.  He was born into a good LDS family but as early as age 6, he knew that he was attracted to other boys.  During his growing up years he tried to live as good as he could so God would take these feelings away from him.  The whole time growing up he was terrified that someone would find out his secret so he kept suppressing his feelings deeper and deeper.  At times he felt depression, had thoughts of suicide, and told himself that he was a bad person for having these feelings.  With all of this inner conflict, he kept going to church and seminary and outwardly, was the perfect kid. He went on a mission and served faithfully.  He returned and the feelings were stronger than ever.  After a couple of years he came out to his parents who did not know what to do.  They arranged for him to see a counselor.  In the first counseling session, the counselor made a sexual advance at him which further confused him.  He finally decided that there wasn’t a place for him in the church and eventually left the church and pursued a relationship with another gay man.  They have been together for almost 30 years now.  At the end of our visit I gave him a hug and told him how much I appreciated his forgiveness and hearing his story.

I drove away from that visit with a much greater understanding of the challenges Steve had encountered and how difficult life can be for people like Steve.  He was not some fruitcake, or weirdo.  He was a good man and was living life the best he could in a way that felt normal to him.  It was not my place to judge, but I could love him and respect him the way Christ would.  This visit was another life-changing experience on my journey.

This quote goes along well with Carl's story
I continued to read and study and prepare for my presentation.  My daughter-in-law Annie learned about what I was doing and pointed me to the blog of a college acquaintance of hers, Ben Schilaty, who is gay.  I started reading some of his posts and learned further of the struggles that gay members of the church go through as they try to reconcile church doctrine with their own realities and experiences.  I was particularly impressed with his post called “A Line In The Sand."  In this post, he writes about the news of the church in November of 2015 when the policy on gay marriage and children of gay members was announced.  This was hard for a lot of people to understand both in and out of the church.  But the thing that impressed me the most was how Ben’s friends, family and church associates surrounded him with love and support and helped him through this difficult time.  Rather than give him every reason to leave the church, his circle of friends reminded him that he knew the gospel was true, and they embraced him and showed true Christlike love at a time when he needed it the most.  THAT was the message that I needed to hear and I think my ward needed to hear.  Christ would always be welcoming and accepting of those who feel this way so if I truly wanted to be like Christ, I needed to model how he would treat them.

I now had a clear message for my ward.  I would teach the exact doctrine found on the official church website and then talk about how this applies to us.  Moreover, I wanted my ward to be open and loving to any person that joined us and give them every reason to stay with us. 


I prayed sincerely for direction and guidance as I prepared my message for the ward.  I decided to share the message with the adults first and then share it with the youth the following week.  This way the parents would know what was being taught and I could avoid surprising any of them.  I also shared my notes and slide deck with my Stake President and got some good input from him.

My daughter in law suggested that our entire extended family fast on the day of my presentation.  All of my children, their spouses, my own wife and I all fasted that the right spirit would attend the meeting.  I rehearsed my presentation a couple of days ahead of time to my wife and she helped me reorganize a few things to make it more personal.  As I got up to speak, I felt very emotional and I could feel that the Spirit was already with us.  I attributed this to the fasting and prayers of my family.  The presentation lasted 45 minutes and I know I was guided.  I shared my own personal journey toward understanding and invited the ward members to join me on this journey.  I invited every member of our ward to participate in creating an atmosphere of love and acceptance so if someone in our midst was experiencing same-sex attraction, they would know that there is a place for them with us.

At the end of the session I was exhausted but I felt like it had gone well.  Following the closing prayer, I had many people come up to me and thank me for approaching a delicate topic with love and understanding.  Some came up to me and said that it was a very difficult topic for them to think about but they were going to try to change their views.  Two members of our ward came to me in the following weeks to talk about their own experience with same-sex attraction and thanked me for being approachable. 

A few months after my presentation, we were able to meet Ben Schilaty in person.  He came to our home for dinner and we had a delightful meal.  He is openly gay and my kids were just fine with that.  They enjoyed hearing his stories and learning from someone who has had a much different set of experiences than us. 

As I have gone through this experience, I have felt guided by the Spirit and my eyes of understanding have been opened.  I invite any other church leader who feels so prompted to start a dialogue with their congregations so we can all get better at showing Christlike love.  I am a better person today because people like Ben and Steve have shared their experiences with me and in Steve’s case, has shown me what Christlike forgiveness looks like.  

Okay, this is Ben again. Isn't Carl's story just great?! In a recent email to me, Carl wrote, "Isn't it interesting that many of my most deeply spiritual experiences this year have been learning about or speaking with gay people?" In case you missed it, let me tell you what the moral of the story is. I don't think the moral of the story is to make a safe place for gay people in your congregations (even though I hope you do), but to me the moral of the story is to courageously follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Carl was prompted to do a number of hard things and he did them with amazing results. So if you feel prompted to do something difficult, I hope you'll have the courage to do that thing. Because people who courageously do what they feel is right are happy, successful, and they change the world. That, my friends, is the moral of this story. 

10 comments:

Nathan Kitchen said...

Great article Ben! Point of correction: Carl has a cousin who is gay and an advocate for the LDS LGBT community and their families. ��

Cris Conerty said...

Thanks for sharing! I love passing your blog posts on to others. Thank you Bishop Carl and family as well!

Carolyn Severson said...

Thank you for posting. My ex-husband is gay and came out in the late 1980's, when we were in our 40's. We were raised in traditional Christian homes in the Midwest and have two daughters. Bottom line is that he and I are best friends. We are both involved in the lives of our children and grandchildren. I am thankful that churches are becoming more accepting and supportive of all people, regardless of their lifestyles.

Carolyn Severson said...

Thank you for posting. My ex-husband is gay and came out in the late 1980's, when we were in our 40's. We were raised in traditional Christian homes in the Midwest and have two daughters. Bottom line is that he and I are best friends. We are both involved in the lives of our children and grandchildren. I am thankful that churches are becoming more accepting and supportive of all people, regardless of their lifestyles.

Becky Mackintosh said...

Great article Ben! The only thing I wished you would have done is tell ME you were in my neck of the woods. I would have loved to have seen you again. Next time.
You have a big following of people who would love to meet you.
Keep smiling and shining your light my friend.

Norman J Sawyer said...

Long but wonderful story appealing to one's honor which is not found in anyone else but the single divine source within.

~Crystal~ said...

Thank you for sharing!
My Stake President shared this link on his blog and it is exactly what I needed to read. God has been encouraging me to involve myself in this type of dialogue, and your ending line about following the Holy Ghost and changing the world was very encouraging! Thank you!

JS said...

What a champion you are Ben!
My name is Joseph Allen Stith. I'm currently the President of North Star International and I am the North Star presenter Bishop Hull referred to in this remarkable story. Why do I feel like I'm coming out to the world on your blog? :-)

This is what I thought you should know. Your blog has facilitated a string of events much bigger than anything you might have imagined. Other church Leaders have been so impacted by what you and Carl have shared that countless more lives are being changed as a result. In fact, this story is now being reviewed by my friends in the public relations department of the LDS Church and there is no telling what might result from that. What I do know is that good men like you -like us, who experience same sex attraction, and have reached that point in our journey that we can share our experiences with others is changing hearts and minds All over the Church. How does it feel to know you that the pebble you tossed has created ripples that are changing the world for good? It is an honor to know men like you Ben. Keep changing the world. We are all better christians as a result of your courage.

Joseph.Stith@northstarlds.org

Xavier Curia said...

Love the story! We need more bishops like him.

Unknown said...

Ben (and Bishop Hull), thanks for this post. It gives me courage to do the same kind of work with my bishopric, ward council, adults and youth.