Recently, I attended my fifth Affirmation Conference. Affirmation is a support group for LGBTQIA Mormons. It is a remarkably diverse space that includes not just inactive/ex-Mormons but active queer Mormons and active allies. It bridges a wide span of both lived experience and faith. Whether people are still active or inactive, most are currently experiencing significant dissonance with Mormonism due to policies, doctrine and the heteronormative culture. Some manage that dissonance well, while others are crushed under its weight.
I attended the newcomers meeting as we came with some family that were attending for the first time. I was amazed that the room was overflowing out the doors. People sat on the floor and stood in the doorway to engage what was happening in that space. The facilitator simply asked people to introduce themselves and if they wanted, speak to why they had come.
As they went around the room, some new attendees were somewhere on the spectrum of LGBTQIA but more significantly in various stages of being “out of the closet”. Many were experiencing extreme distress whether it be from the policies/doctrine of Mormonism or cultural rejection in their individual wards. The most painful rejection came in the home as parents and/or siblings rejected their queer family members.
Many attendees were parents or siblings of LGBTQIA family. In some cases, they had young LGBTQIA children who had been battling depression and/or suicidal ideation for years. Some had youth fighting serious battles with anorexia or other eating disorders. Some had found out that their child was gay less than a few weeks earlier. In all cases, parents were desperate for assistance, having not found healing within the walls of the Church.
A common theme was the cognitive dissonance of reconciling faith with being LGBTQIA. Where is my place (or that of my loved one) in the Plan of Salvation, eternity and most significantly in my immediate family? While there were no answers provided, miracles began to occur.
A few years ago, Fiona Givens taught at Affirmation:
“We as Mormons have made particular covenants at our baptism. In Mosiah 18 they are delineated. The first one is to bear each other’s burdens. Now I’m very visual person, and when Christ says pick up your cross and follow me, I see him out before us dragging his cross. And we’re all spread out behind him carrying our own. There isn’t a single person in this room not carrying a cross. We’re all carrying crosses. As we enter the waters of baptism, we covenant to bear each other’s burdens. Picture that with me. You are struggling along under the weight of your cross, and your friend besides you, or perhaps somebody completely unknown, collapses under the weight of his or her cross. As you bend down to help that person with the burden, of necessity you must touch that cross. It is only then that you understand the nature and the depth of the pain that person is carrying. Platitudes fail. It does not help to say, “Read your scriptures more often. Attend all three services, as boring as they might be, every Sunday.” It is only then when we touch the pain that we are in a position to be able to mourn. To be able to enter that second covenant. To mourn with that person. It is only then that we can truly comfort. That we can be good friends, like Job’s great friends, for an entire week, before they ceased to be good friends and became dreadful friends. They sat with him a week and said nothing at all. Only then, when we understand the pain, can we offer words of comfort that reach deeply. And only then can we take upon ourselves the name of Christ.”
As I sat in the meeting with the new attendees of Affirmation, I began to see the collective effort to touch the cross of others. The spirit flooded the room as a Christ-like ministry began. It was not a doctrine being taught or a “gay agenda” providing answers. It was compassion and empathy. It was the tangible touching of the cross by others who cared and understood. It was a mourning of failed platitudes. It was the expression of pain and sorrow received by others who knew and felt and had lived it. It was the relief of being heard and not judged.
For me it was a sacred space. As sacred as any temple I have ever stepped into. As sacred as any ordinance I have ever participated in. It exceeded all of my previous sacred experiences in that it specifically modeled Christ’s teachings and His life. It didn’t just speak to me through symbols and covenants. It was written on my heart as it broke for those around me.
I attended lunch later in the day and sat by an old friend I see all too infrequently. I mentioned this experience to him. He shared with me how the previous day he had a chance to go to the Encircle House in Provo. The Encircle House is the only LGBTQIA resource center in Utah County. It has been around less than a year and sits across the street from the Provo Tabernacle Temple in downtown Provo.
He arrived early and was able to explore the new house for the first time. He told me of walking through the house and seeing the beautiful and soothing artwork. Upstairs there are several small rooms for therapy and support of LGBTQIA youth and parents in distress. As he looked through the doors of these empty rooms he felt a tangible spirit that reminded him of standing in the temple and looking through the doors into empty sealing rooms. Here was this sacred space just a block away from the temple filling his heart and bringing tears to his eyes. Lives would be saved here. Hearts would be enriched and healed here.
For me, sacred spaces are defined by the ministry of Christ in action. To experience it, you don’t even need a testimony of Christ. An atheist willing to touch the pain of another and lift that cross would be just as richly rewarded in their heart as an orthodox Mormon. It is a truth that exists beyond religious orthodoxy. When Jesus begs his apostles to “feed my sheep” over and over again, He isn’t talking about feeding them orthodoxy or rules. He is talking about hearing them, lifting them, ministering to them, literally feeding them in a very literal way or carrying them the full second mile. He is talking about healing wounds which are not healed through creeds or accountability before a Bishop. He is talking about making everyone around you your brother or your sister in ways that exceed a smile and a handshake on Sunday.
I mentioned that we attended Affirmation with family who had never come before. This first new attendee meeting broke them open right from the start and that spirit continued for the entire weekend. It didn’t contradict or attack their activity in the Church. It is fully possible for an active Mormon to come into this sacred space and feel the spirit and love that exists here. But it is also possible for an active Mormon to come in with blinders on and not see or feel anything. LDS language actually gives very accurate descriptions of this experience. Having a closed heart. Being blinded by the beam in your own eye. Being hard hearted and stiff-necked. Being beyond feeling. Being so focused on the letter of the law that we entirely miss the spirit of the law.
We wept with our family members this weekend as we experienced the beautiful exploration of the sacred spaces within Affirmation. It was true healing; fitting every sense of what modern miracles should look like. Hearts were changed. The experience of this sacred space didn’t come with the requirement of a temple recommend. It also wasn’t something you could experience without giving something in return. You would need to take the brave step and be willing to touch the cross of another. You would, of necessity, experience the pain of those who need healing and support.
For the orthodox believer, this doesn’t require you to put your faith in the Church on a shelf. This should be the embodiment of your Christ-like belief in action. It should give motion and a more tangible nature to faith that far too often is only in “things unseen”.
For those to whom religion has grown toxic or harmful, this is a whole new sacred space that can fill you in ways you thought were lost. It doesn’t have to be Affirmation. A sacred space will exist whenever you are vulnerable, caring, loving and open. It will exist when you listen to and serve others. That feeling of pure love can find even greater expression if you want to find it. The sacred doesn’t need to be abandoned, even if creeds and religion have failed you.
For the active church member, you can be blind to sacred spaces even with a temple recommend in your pocket. You can sleep your way through temple sessions and call it holy. For the non-believer, you can also throw the baby out with the bathwater and throw everything you once found sacred away as you leave religion behind.
Christ and the cross are powerful symbols of an idea that moves the heart. For me, the spirit of sacred spaces is very real. My experiences in Affirmation and in sacred spaces both in and outside of Mormonism are important to me. They tangibly move me. They move me in a spiritual way and they move me to action in very real ways. Whether you define that as the spirt, communing with God, the Holy Ghost or simply connecting with your humanity, sacred spaces make the world better. They connect you with people in deep and meaningful ways that you could never experience otherwise.
My invitation is to find sacred spaces wherever you can. Whether you are inside the Church or outside the Church, sacred spaces are available if you look for them. Be willing to serve and be open and be vulnerable and be Christ-like. The reward is greater than anything I have ever experienced in my life. This is living.