“Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph…”
– Exodus 1:8
Church has been really hard for me this past year. Last November The Policy came out. This was followed by an uncomfortable-to-view video of Elder Christofferson defending and explaining the exclusionary Policy. Then in January Elder Nelson gave a talk in which he seemed to elevate The Policy to revelation. His defense made it into the seminary/institute curriculum and then was taken out, put back in, then taken out again. On top of this, my public criticism of The Policy caused some tension between me and stake leaders. At my request, I’ve since met with my stake president on a regular basis and found him to be very well read, compassionate, and thoughtful. Regardless, my conflict with my stake leaders came around Christmas and it was exhausting and hurt my spirit. I began to wrestle with the real possibility of resigning from the Church.
Earlier this year my bishop extended to me a wonderful calling. He asked if I would be our scout troop’s Pastor. I was intrigued. My job would be that of Young Men’s Secretary and specifically my charge was to help with the Duty to God Award. I accepted. My call came over the pulpit as “Pastor of the troop,” and my bishop explained to the congregation what that meant.
Bishops in our ward tend to hold that calling for around seven years. As our last bishop passed the seven year mark, everyone was wondering who the new bishop would be. Everyone’s “pick” as the logical next bishop had moved out and so no one could guess who our next bishop could be. Then a stake high councilman moved into our ward. He and I weren’t friends, just acquaintances. His father and I were friends; his dad being an operating room nurse and me a physician assistant in orthopedic surgery. His brother and I were also friends. We had been in a previous ward together. His brother was a bit of a goofball and we got along quite well. The high councilman that moved into our ward seemed to me to be a bit rigid, the polar opposite of his goofy brother and their dad seemed to be kind of in the middle of his two sons.
The new high councilman became our new bishop, Joshua Wallace. I was, honestly, a little worried that I wouldn’t like him.
Sometime early in his calling, I had a bunch of college-aged young men from church come and hang out at my house. We had pizza and watched New York Doll. It’s kind of a tradition now when these men come home to visit from college that we all get together and I take them out to lunch or something. Somehow my bishop heard about me having these young men over to my house and was impressed. He asked me to be the Young Men’s President in our ward. I accepted.
At about this point I was probably five to seven years into my faith crisis and felt I had all the loose ends figured out. I felt strongly that those younger than me could avoid the same pain as I had if they were told, in a responsible way and at an early age, about some of the complexities of our Church History. My bishop was on board. Many members of our ward however, were not, including one of my counselors. This created quite a lot of anxiety for me. I would later learn that time after time Bishop Wallace defended my approach to teaching when ward members came to him with concerns.
Bishop Wallace, with tears in his eyes, eventually released me from my calling. He assured me it was his decision and that it had not come from our stake president. He would later share the reasons for my release, but that was a private conversation between he and myself and I honor that confidentiality. I won’t lie. The release hurt. I was angry. After my release, Bishop Wallace offered to meet with me every week so we could talk about the “hard stuff” about our theology and history. He explained that he had listened to an old podcast of John Dehlin (this was way before his excommunication) where his stake president would meet with John and how healing that was for John. I took bishop up on the offer.
After our first meeting at my house, I could tell he was exhausted. I was taking him away from his family and I let him know we didn’t have to meet any longer. But it was his honest attempt to understand. It was his defense of me, that won my heart. Now some years later as I look back, I realize that I thought I was at a better place than I actually was when I was the Young Men’s president. I thought I was a finished post-crisis Mormon. I was not. And if I’m completely honest with myself, I’m not totally sure I was coming from a complete place of goodness and mercy and understanding when I took upon myself to “inoculate” the young men. But maybe I was coming from a good place. I don’t know. It’s hard to be self-critical about such things. There is my pride that prohibits me from being honest. There is also the fear that traditional conservative Mormons will take my story and use it against those who are struggling. Regardless, Bishop Wallace trusted in me. He believed in my honesty and my goodness.
You see what he did to me? He wasn’t that rigid man I thought he was. He was a caring man. A man who loved and continues to love deeply.
Teaching Outside the Box
As is tradition with many LDS congregations, the occasional 5th Sunday often has a third hour combined lesson. These lesson’s or discussions are usually lead by someone from the bishopric. I’ve kept a list of these 5th-Sunday lessons:
- Faith Crisis: The time was shared between me and a sister who had her leg amputated due to peripheral vascular disease.
- Race and Priesthood and Temple: Using the Church’s essay entitled Race and Priesthood and the documentary, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, Bishop Wallace lead a lesson regarding this tangled history. I recall one older sister saying as Bishop Wallace talked about Elijah Able, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” And then turning to a sister next to her, “Did you know that?” This lesson would actually lead to the faith crisis of a good friend of mine who eventually left the Church with his family.
- Modesty: Bishop led a difficult discussion regarding what modestly is and isn’t. It was a discussion that even the most battle-worn Mormon feminist would have approved. Yet, even at the end a sister asked, “So if a woman wears (such-and-such) is that modest?” I almost did a palm to my forehead. The whole point of the lesson had been missed. The Saints are good, but we can be a hard lot to teach.
- LGBTQ – Using the old Mormon and Gays website as a guide, Bishop Wallace and one of his counselors led a discussion which challenged many of the member’s preconceived ideas. For many who have left the Church, this lesson wouldn’t have been far enough, but for most people in the pulpits of our ward, this was a challenging lesson.
- Online Sexual Predators: Yep, you read that right. Bishop Wallace had a man who is a Resident Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations talk to the youth and adults about this topic.
- Mourning With Those Who Mourn: This was a beautiful lesson. He had members of our ward share their struggles. Our Stake Relief Society President spoke about the outpouring of love she felt when her mother died. A friend of mine spoke about his struggle with cancer and our ward’s ongoing love and support of him. Two other friends of mine talked about how hard it is to be a divorced man in our Church. Another friend of mine, who was away for college, had Bishop Wallace read a letter about how difficult it was for him to return home after being in the MTC for just a few weeks.
- Holy Week: With the support of our Ward Council, our ward celebrated Holy Week twice. Bishop Wallace put me in charge of this.
For the 5th Sunday lesson I explained what Holy Week is and how it is celebrated within different traditions. We did Palm Sunday, Maudy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday with the Candlelight Vigil. For Thursday, we had a Rabbi lead our ward in a Seder Meal.
- Not a 5th Sunday lesson but I couldn’t leave it out: Bishop held an entire sacrament meeting dedicated to the Relief Society in which only women spoke.
My ward is not a normal ward. My bishop is not a normal bishop. I’m sure there are many more bishops like him that we just don’t hear about. But this is part of the difficulty. In my heart there are two Churches. There is the Church I attend on Sundays – the Medford 4th Ward – and then there is the Church from Salt Lake. The latter is becoming less and less relevant to my spiritual life. That’s a hard thing to write down and to realize. It causes me anxiety. And yet, things still get more complicated.
This past summer I met my gay sister, Quetzal, for the first time. She did not grow up with me but with our mother. We have two different fathers, but share the same mother. I flew to North Carolina for her marriage to her wife. This was seven months after The Policy came out. I did not know it until I met her, but she healed a deep wound of mine. As she did this, I loved her more and more. As she did this, I had to let go of my Church more and more. As I loved the one more, I had to love the other less. I can’t love the Church like I used to. I can’t.
But my bishop…
He’s been bishop for almost seven years now.
Self Reflection – Am I Selfish?
This past week was not my best week. Meaning, I was not my best. Last month was the one year mark of The Policy. It was also the launch of the Church’s new website, MormonAndGay.org. For me, The Policy nullifies anything the Church tries to do that is good. Lately, I just feel apathetic toward the Church. Although I was initially exuberant about my unique calling in my ward, I have lost my zeal. I am not sure why. Summer comes with a lot of traveling for my family. Between that and having to be on orthopedic trauma call on some weekends, I missed some church. So I’m not sure if me missing my ward has led to my declining commitment. I’m not sure if my lack of commitment is because of the real pain I feel. I’m not sure if my lack of commitment is because I am lazy, selfish, and would rather do “funner things.” I don’t know. It’s a constant dialogue I have with myself. It’s hard to be self-critical because it can sometimes be damning.
It’s hard to take some of the criticisms I have of the Church and use those same critiques against myself. Am I sexist? Am I homophobic? Am I racist? Are my critiques of the Church really my critiques or am I just echoing what others say? Am I giving enough to the poor? Am I in love with money? Is my lack of service really due to me not having time or am I making excuses and justifying that large missing part of the Christian’s life? “Lord is it I?” These are hard questions. And then on Sunday morning I read this in Acts chapter 4:
“Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,”
And during Sunday School I read this from 4th Nephi:
“And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.”
One of the things that made this past week so hard is that I unjustly completely lost it on one of my friends who is in the bishopric. This wasn’t just a disagreement. I went beyond that. I completely unloaded on him. He didn’t deserve it. He had nothing to do with the real pain and struggle I’m in the middle of, yet he received it all including my profanity – and they weren’t just the “damns” and “hells”. He didn’t say anything. I was angry for most of the week. Today I apologized to him. I appolize a lot these days.
This past Sunday, I picked up my wife after choir practice. Bishop Wallace happened to be in the foyer and asked my wife if he could chat with for a minute. We talked for 30 minutes. He asked how I was doing. I let him know I wasn’t doing well. I told him of my difficulty with commitment to the Church. I told him everything. He listened. We joked. We talked about friends and family who have left the Church. Then I told him that he is one of the reasons I still come.
“Well, I don’t think I’m deserving of that.”
Then my eyes welled up. I put my hand over my face and I wept. I tried to control myself, but I couldn’t. I never finished what I meant to tell him.
“Bishop, I love you. You’ve stood next to me when I wasn’t deserving. You’ve done what you could to make our ward loving and accepting. I know if we had an openly LGBTQ member in our ward, they would come every Sunday to be with us and worship with us. I know this isn’t easy for you. I am aware, in a small way, of the sacrifices this has required of you and your family. Your goodness is felt.”
And now as Bishop Joshua Wallace, a high school Spanish teacher and a high school cross-country coach, closes in on seven years I worry. I look out across the congregation and wonder if the man who replaces him will have his vision. Will that man be good? Will that man love me? Will I be safe with my doubts and real struggles? Will he be okay with my wife’s feminism and public discontent with The Policy? But then I also realize that for many people in my ward the simple narrative works. The older mother in our ward who was a stay at home mother her whole life because she was taught that was most important for women and that gave her meaning – the Church is for her too. The brother who doesn’t know there are so many versions of the First Vision – the Church is for him too. The sister who sees no gender inequality in the Church – the Church is for her too. The older brother who is just getting his head wrapped around what being gay means and now he has to understand what transgender means – the Church is for him too. The sister who knows nothing about Joseph’s more than thirty polygamous wives – the Church is for her too. The Church is for all of them and right now it might be working for them. Do I want that taken away from them?
I would feel selfish if I said yes. And yet I worry. I worry about who our new bishop will be. I am reminded of this verse in the opening chapter of Exodus:
“Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph…”
– Exodus 1:8