Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Coming to Hearken

Acts 12:12-16 tells a story that I originally thought was funny (and an odd choice to be included in the Bible), but has since taught me a profound lesson.

Here’s what happened. Peter is in jail and is miraculously released by an angel. He goes to a house
Me convincingly knocking on a door
where some of the disciples are praying together and knocks at the gate. A damsel, named Rhoda, goes to answer the door, but when she recognizes Peter’s voice she’s so excited that she runs in to tell everyone that Peter is there (I can’t tell you how many times people have failed to answer the door when they realized I was the one outside). They tell her she’s crazy because, obviously, Peter is in jail. Rhoda sticks to what she knows to be true and “constantly affirmed” that it was Peter. The disciples continue to dismiss her by basically saying, “Okay, if you’re so certain you heard Peter then it’s probably just his ghost.” A very logical explanation, right? While they are having this argument in the house, Peter is still outside knocking, probably yelling, “Hellooooo! I’m still out here!” They open the door, see Peter, and are shocked he’s there.

The story of Rhoda presents a clash of beliefs. She knew through personal experience that Peter was at the door. On the other hand, the disciples knew that it couldn’t be Peter because, based on the information they had, he was still locked in prison. They initially thought Rhoda was crazy; then they came up with alternative explanations to what she was saying (“It’s just his angel”). But it wasn’t until they experienced it for themselves that they knew what Rhoda knew all along. 

The whole story might have been different if all of them “came to hearken,” as Rhoda did, the first time Peter knocked on the door. But she had been the only one who went out to listen and attend to the person knocking at the door.

I’d just like to share one quick example from my own life of me “knowing” something that I didn’t actually know.

Growing up I firmly believed that people were poor because they were lazy. If you work hard and apply yourself you won’t be poor, I thought. Prosperity resulted from thrift, labor, and righteousness. If you were poor, it was your fault. I served my mission in Mexico and interacted with many poor people (Is it more polite to say impoverished people?). However, I failed to realize the systemic causes of poverty in that country. I continued to believe that if people just worked hard they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and prosper. I mentioned these thoughts to my Mexican companions and was often reprimanded and told that I was an arrogant American. I didn’t listen. Even though I knew poor people, I didn’t understand them or their situations. My companions were right. I was arrogant.

A year after my mission I did an internship with LDS Employment Resources Services in Bolivia. Part of my work included teaching workshops to church members who were applying for Perpetual Education Fund loans. These low interest loans would allow them to get vocational training. For the first time, I spent hours talking with people about their dreams for the future and the barriers to those dreams. I learned that at the time the minimum wage in Bolivia was about $50 USD a month, but tuition cost around $40 USD a month. It was nearly impossible for most people to afford tuition without a loan, and loans were not as easy to obtain in Bolivia as they are in the US. It finally sunk in that there were systemic causes to poverty. Some people were basically trapped. 

Me in Bolivia back when my hair
was almost exclusively brown
I remember one particular night talking with a group of these loan applicants. Many for them expressed gratitude for “the church’s money.” I told them that this wasn’t the church’s money, per se, but that people that didn’t even know them had donated money so that they could go to school. After the class a young woman named María came up to me in tears. She said, “Thank you for telling me where the money comes from. I had no idea that it came from my brothers and sisters. Whenever you get the chance, will you thank anyone who sacrificed their money so I could go to school?” I promised her that I would.

I returned to BYU after that internship realizing that I wasn’t as poor as I had thought. I started noticing all the disposable income I had and how María didn’t have $40 to go to school. So I decided to donate $40 each month to the Perpetual Education Fund. It wasn’t a lot of money to me; about the amount I’d spend on a date I was trying to impress (and boy was I impressive). But it was enough to send a Bolivian to school each month. I did that every month for six or seven years.

There was a real problem in the world that I had been explaining away, and because I failed to see the problem I did nothing to mitigate it. Once I “came to hearken” to the knocking, I realized that I could do a very small thing to make the problem just a little better.

That’s all very fine and good, but what does it have to do with being gay? Well, let me tell you. I have often felt like Rhoda. When I have shared my experiences as a gay Mormon I have been called crazy, and people have explained away the realities that I’m trying to share. Some people, however, believe me from the very beginning. Here are three examples of the kinds of interactions I’ve had:

Me: I’m struggling with feelings of same-sex attraction.
Person who doesn’t believe me: No you’re not. A loving God wouldn’t do that to anyone.

Me: I have SSA.
Person explaining away what I’m telling them: Well, that must be because you had an overbearing mother and a distant father. Or you were sexually abused as a kid. You’re probably just addicted to pornography.

Me: I’m gay.
Person who believes me: Really? Okay. Thank you for telling me. What has this been like for you? How can I help you?

I still tell mine and María’s story whenever it is relevant. I’ve told it dozens and dozens of times. I got emotional telling it to my Spanish classes back in February. I tell this story because it taught me about my blind spots and my privilege, but mostly I tell it because she asked me to. I always feel the Spirit, even 11 years later, whenever I comply with her request to thank people who have donated to the Perpetual Education Fund.
María is in the front on the far right. I asked if I could take
their picture to show who receives PEF loans.

I’m not saying you should agree with everything I say. I mean, my opinions shift and change all the time, and I’m wrong a lot. And I’m not asking you to even believe the things I say I know. But what I am asking is that when I talk about my personal, lived experiences, that you believe me—just as Rhoda knew that Peter was there because she recognized his voice. You could call me crazy and explain away my same-sex attraction, or you could just believe me.

Now I have an invitation for you. Whenever someone mentions that we need to love and support our LGBT brothers and sisters in a talk or lesson at church, will you please thank them? And when you hear people explaining away the existence of gay Mormons, will you please gently correct them? María has no idea that I’m still honoring her request to thank people and that I still donate to the PEF. I won’t know if you honor my request either. But if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll feel the Spirit every time you do.

Rhoda knew that Peter was at the door, and she did not back down, even when people said she was crazy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all “came to hearken” to the people who are currently knocking at our door, and even better, opened the door to really see who’s there? We may be astonished to find out the realities of their existence. And we’ll all be better for it.