WITH GAY MORMONS
The last time I wrote a blog post I was in route to San Francisco to speak to a gathering of gay and lesbian Mormons. The event -- known in Mormon parlance as a “fireside” – was organized by bishop Jeff Wise, whose teenage son recently came out as gay. After an opening prayer, Stanford graduate student Jon Arnell, who is gay, sung “Broken Together,” a song by Casting Crowns that begins with these lyrics: “What do you think about when you look at me?”
Much of the audience – a mix of gay Mormons, local clergy, and Mormon families that had come to show support – already had tears in their eyes by the time Steve Young stood and introduced me. Steve and I have become friends while working together on his autobiography over the past three-plus years. But we became brothers by working together with a growing community of Mormons throughout the church who are committed to making space in the pews for our gay brothers and sisters who want to worship with us.
At the start of my remarks I told the audience that in preparation for my talk I had traveled to Connecticut to seek advice on what to say from my trusted friend Dave Checketts. The world knows Checketts as the former chairman of the New York Knicks and CEO of Madison Square Garden, as well as the executive who oversaw the recent opening of One World Observatory, the observation deck and hospitality suite atop the World Trade Center.
But Dave has done some of his best work out of the limelight, as a member of the clergy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the greater New York area. Here’s an example. A few years ago a distinguished looking stranger showed up at the Mormon congregation in New Canaan, Connecticut. He slipped in a few minutes late, sat in the back, and slipped out a few minutes early. This became a pattern. Eventually, the stranger met with New Canaan’s bishop Bruce Larson and introduced himself as Tom Christofferson, a gay man who had asked to be excommunicated decades earlier and had since been living with his longtime partner. Bishop Larson, an investment banker in charge of Human Resources and the diversity programs at Goldman Sachs in New York, immediately welcomed Tom, invited him to speak in church, and promised to look for meaningful ways for him to participate in church meetings. After a while, Checketts joined the effort and essentially took Tom by the hand and said walk with me. It turned into an inspiring journey of faith, love and acceptance that involved the entire New Canaan congregation. The members fell in love with Tom. And he fell in love with them. Earlier this year Tom was re-baptized, and he has become a lifeline of sorts to so many younger gay Mormons (and their parents) who wrestle with the challenges that come with being gay and a practicing Mormon.
That’s why I went to see Dave. And after spending nearly two hours together, he left me with this to say to the gay members in the Bay Area: “Tell them not to leave. Give them hope. Tell them we need them.”
So, with my 19-year-old son Tennyson looking on, I spent an hour speaking from the heart to the Bay Area audience. We cried. We laughed. I closed by reaching into my jacket pocket and removing a picture of Jesus with his arms outstretched, as if to say: “Come to me.” I explained that my nine-year-old daughter had colored it after I told her that I was going to California to talk to gay members of our church. And I had said to her: “If you were going to make a craft for them, what would you make?”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after I told that story and tucked the hand-colored picture of Jesus back in my pocket. Afterward, nobody wanted to leave, especially me. In one night I had made a whole new group of friends, including Jon Arnell, the Stanford grad student who sung the solo at the outset. I learned that he served a mission in Argentina at 19, studied international relations at BYU, and taught at the Church’s Missionary Training Center. These days, while working on a Master’s in statistics, he attends a Mormon congregation full of Stanford students, where he’s had a leadership role and was asked by the bishop to be the pianist for the children during Sunday school hour. The Mormon faith is full of talented, committed members like Jon. If only more of them felt needed and wanted like him.
I left the Bay Area on a spiritual high. Four days later, word leaked that my church had established a new policy that prohibits children (natural or adopted) of a parent living in a same-gender relationship from being baptized and confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service unless the child is of legal age, no longer lives with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender relationship, and “specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation or marriage.”
I had just checked into a hotel with my family when pages from the Church handbook were sent to my iPhone via text message. I instantly felt queasy. As a writer I wondered whose idea it was to craft a sentence that combined the words “child” and “disavow.”
My nine-year-old who had colored the picture of Jesus looked at me and said: “What’s wrong dad? Did something bad happen?” I hugged her and suggested we talk about something else.
Before long my teenage children were on their devices, reading a story about the policy on the New York Times website. The Times story began:
“Children of same-sex couples will not be able to join the Mormon Church until they turn 18 — and only if they move out of their parents’ homes, disavow all same-sex relationships and receive approval from the church’s top leadership as part of a new policy adopted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
This led to a flurry of questions, all of which boiled down to: Why?
At the same time, my phone began vibrating with voicemails, emails and text messages from people – members of the media, colleagues, fellow Mormons, and so on. Other than communicating with family and a few close friends (both in and outside the church), I’ve pretty much kept my feelings on the policy to myself. It’s not my place to explain a policy that I don’t understand.
But here’s what I know. When I served a mission for the Mormon Church at age 19, some of the richest experiences I had took place in a nursing home filled with old people who were isolated and forgotten. I went to the same facility north of Seattle every week for close to six months. I played bingo with the seniors; listened to their stories; dined with them; and held their hands. I still remember the texture of the veins on the backside of their wrinkled hands.
Eventually, I convinced some Mormon families to start picking these seniors up on Sundays for church. It was an ordeal to find vans capable of transporting so many people in wheelchairs. And although they stood out, the presence of all these wheelchair-bound people in the back of the chapel humbled the rest of us.
Next we arranged for these seniors to have dinner with Mormon families on Sundays and on holidays. These seniors became like adopted family.
None of these seniors were Mormons. And I don’t know how much they actually heard during the church services. But I know how they felt -- included. And I know how their presence made everyone else feel – like Christians.
I see gay Mormons the same way I see forgotten senior citizens. In fact, the closest I’ve gotten to the feeling I had when I worked with those seniors in Seattle 30 years ago has been working with the gay community in the Mormon faith over the past couple years. They think I’m helping them, but they are actually helping me experience what it feels like to do the sort of thing Jesus would do.
All of this was on my mind as my family spent last weekend with David Neeleman and his family at their home in New Canaan, CT. On Sunday afternoon I was sitting on David’s front lawn when Tom Christofferson pulled into the driveway. We embraced and my son Tennyson joined us in a three-way conversation. Then the front door opened and David emerged, wearing a blue flight attendant’s apron over his white shirt and tie. He’s the founder of JetBlue Airways and the CEO of Brazilian airline Azul. But he’d been grilling steaks on the grill and at that moment he looked, well, like a flight attendant. Tennyson joked: “Do you have any peanuts?” “We serve blue chips,” David quipped. Then with a huge smile he expressed his love for Tom and invited him to join our families for dinner. That's David, a man who spent the past two weeks reassuring families impacted by the new policy.
Afterward we drove to the New Canaan chapel for an evening worship service. Hundreds attended. We prayed for Paris and the victims of terrorism. Then we listened to Tom Christofferson speak about discipleship and the need to redouble our efforts to reach out in charity to all around us.
A month ago Tom spoke at a similar meeting was held in Palo Alto. Naturally, there was a huge turnout. Just as the meeting was about to start, two gay men wearing suspenders and looking out of place approached the chapel doors. Peering inside and seeing no seats, one turned to the other and said: “Forget it.”
Steve Young was volunteering as an usher that night. He spotted the two men leaving and went after them. “Wait a second!”
The men turned and looked at Steve. They had no idea who he was. All they knew was that he had a nametag that said: STEVE.
“You’ve come this far,” Steve said. “You came here and walked in and here you are. You can’t go.”
“I don’t know,” one of them said.
“Look, we’ll open up the overflow area in the back of the chapel and make room for you. You gotta stay.”
The two men looked at each other.
“Look, you came for a reason,” Steve continued. “You didn’t get in your car not to come. You got in your car to come. You’re here. So don’t leave. We’ll open the doors so you can stay.”
Both men were longtime Mormons who hadn’t been to church in a long, long time. They ended up staying. After listening to Tom Christofferson’s talk, one of them told a member of the congregation: “This was the best night of my life.”
Then his partner said: “We were going to leave, but Steve the usher convinced us to stay.”