Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend part of the Circling the Wagons Conference being held in Salt Lake City. This is the second such conference that has taken place in Salt Lake City.
Circling the Wagons exists to create "safe spaces for LGBTQ/SSA Mormons, their family, friends, and allies." As many of Circling the Wagons' purposes coincide with my own goals with this blog, such as "inviting LGBTQ/SSA Mormons...to step beyond historic divisions to establish a shared space where all...can speak truthfully and respectfully" and "welcom(ing) all who wish to participate in a spirit of fellowship and openness, with condemnation for none and compassion for all, in hopes that all will...discover a basis for common ground," I feel it appropriate to share my experiences and give a report of the conference.
More information can be found on Circling the Wagons by visiting their website at http://circlingthewagons.org/
I was able to attend the first few hours of the main session on Saturday, as well as the Interfaith Service on Sunday. Throughout the conference, I was impressed with the fact that such diverse views could be expressed, while at the same time showing respect for the views of others with differing beliefs.
The first speaker that I heard was Joseph Bloom. Joseph spoke about the recent controversy around some of the speakers chosen for the conference. He reviewed the purposes for the conference, and stated that each person needs to be able to speak their truth. He spoke of how it can be frustrating to be pre-judged, rejected, marginalized or have others decide one's truth should be. He emphasized that the conference was a place where all are welcome and invited to speak their truth.
He then went on to speak of his belief in Circling the Wagons' mission and how we have an opportunity to step beyond historical divisions to come to a space where all can speak truthfully and respectfully. He then shared his own story.
The next speaker was Josh Weed. I have previously read Josh's blog and met him when he was in Salt Lake a couple of months ago for a fireside, and I was looking forward to hearing him speak again. Josh came out of the closet as a gay Mormon that is happily married to a woman in his blog back in June. As a result, his blog went viral.
Josh started by acknowledging that there were a number of people that didn't want him speaking at the conference, after which he went on to acknowledge that his blog has been misused by (mostly) well-meaning members of the Church to pressure gay or SSA family members to take the same path that he has. He apologized for how his blog had been misused and rebuked those that had done so, clearly saying, "Back off!" He made it very clear that using his blog to reject family members that choose differently is the exact opposite of unconditional love.
He then spoke of the need for authenticity in any meaningful friendship or relationship, and how shallow and superficial they are without it. He also spoke of the need everyone has to be loved. He emphasized that rather than condemning the choices of those we disagree with, we should show our love for them. If we dig deep, tear down our biases and prejudices, and show love, we can build bridges, create safe spaces, and develop a dialogue that is safe and respectful.
The third and final speaker of the first session was Allen Miller. Allen stated that through conversation and discourse we can develop a respectful dialogue. He related Christ's teaching that the spirit of contention is of the devil. Allen emphasized that silencing the voices we disagree with will do nothing to create a safe space for everyone.
He continued by pointing out that many people express love and support on the surface, only to negate most of it by using the word "but" and stating why they believe that person is wrong. He stated that God grants his grace to all regardless of sexual orientation, and that He is no respecter of persons. Allen closed by saying that God does not intend for His children to be alone, and that whether it be a partner or a friend, we all need companionship.
Next at the conference were several break-out sessions. I chose to attend the panel on marriage as I knew the moderator as well as two of the men on the panel. I was impressed by the way the moderator started the panel, emphasizing that it was a dialogue of respect, and not an attempt to change others.
There were four men on the panel, all of whom identified as either SSA or gay. Two of the men were currently in marriages with women, while two were in marriages with men (though one had formerly been married to a woman). There were differences in these men's experiences in the choices they made around marriage and religion. Though there were far more similarities.
Following the breakout sessions there was another series of speakers, the first two of whom I had an opportunity to hear before I had to leave due to other commitments.
The first of these speakers was Steven Frei. Steven is currently the president of North Star and he took the first few minutes of his talk to describe what North Star's purpose was, as well as how he first came across the organization. He spoke of how for him and many others that felt a conviction to keep the covenants they had made in the Church that North Star is a voice of hope.
He also spoke about how maintaining friendships with those that have taken different paths than our own in their search for happiness can be a blessing in our lives. He closed by emphasizing the importance of showing love to all.
The last speaker I was able to hear that day was Erika Munson. Erika is the founder of Mormons Building Bridges. Erika spoke of how an LDS ward can be much like a small town for both better and worse. In building bridges, she spoke of the importance of practicing empathy, loyalty and hope.
She went on to state that meaningful relationships can make a difference in how we see others in our wards and in our communities. She spoke of many in the Church that practice the principles mentioned that want to do know more, and only need an opportunity to do so. She hopes that Mormons Building Bridges does just that.
While I did not take detailed notes at Sunday's Interfaith Service, I did notice a common theme. The three speakers came from varied backgrounds, and each had experience in the leadership of their various churches. But all focused on the importance of faith and spirituality, be that in finding and creating sacred spaces, trusting that God's love changes everything, or finding peace and support from God.
Overall, the conference was a positive experience for me. It also helped me to see that I am not as alone as I sometimes believe in my goal of building bridges of dialogue and understanding. There are a number of people out there who are working toward the same thing.
Although there are some areas that my goals differ from those of Circling the Wagons', I've found that it is an excellent place to find others also seeking the same respectful dialogue around these controversial and complex issues.