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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Circling the Wagons: Bishop Don Fletcher's talk

The talk given by my Bishop, Don Fletcher, at the Circling the Wagons Mormon LGBT Conference in San Francisco last month, shared with his permission. I'm a blessed man to get to serve with a human who has such an amazing spirit.

Enjoy.
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One of my favorite scriptures is 1 Nephi 11:17.  In this passage Nephi is being grilled/peppered with questions by an angel.  Not personally being a scholar on all points of gospel nuance, I can readily identify with his answer to the angel in this verse: “And I said unto him: I know that He loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Nephi 11:17)

As a human, I certainly don’t know the meaning of all things either--yet I am also totally confident that God loves all of His children.

There are a vast array of challenges that beset the members of my ward – some are very emotionally distressing.  In my calling as a bishop, I love to make use of priesthood blessings – like Peter said in Acts, it is a gift that is very concrete and real that I can offer my ward members. The words of the Lord through a priesthood blessing can often be not only comforting, but sometimes very instructive also.

“Then Peter said, silver and gold have I none; but such as I have, give I thee.” (Acts 3:6)

My ward in San Francisco may have the distinction of having more members that are gay than any other on the planet.  I have had the privilege of meeting with many of these members and they have blessed my life greatly. A common thread that I hear repeatedly is an ongoing testimony of the gospel, a love of the Savior and a total confusion about how a gay person fits into the Lord’s eternal plan. 

In each of the many blessings I have given to these individuals, as I have laid my hands on their heads, I have felt strongly impressed to always start each and every blessing with the simple declaration that “you are loved by the Lord, right now, exactly as you are”.  It has amazed me at how powerfully those words have affected these members.  It may seem simple and obvious but it has had a deeply positive impact for my members to know that.

Bishop Fletcher at the Statue of Liberty
The history of the world is replete with various groups of people not being loved, accepted, or respected.  In a recent trip to New York, I had the opportunity to visit Liberty Island and gaze at that beautiful symbol of our freedom moving forward, even Lady Liberty.  I was interested to hear the story that in the 1896 unveiling party for that strong feminine form, women were not invited, not allowed on the island for that occasion.  The suffragettes circled the islands in boats, protesting their exclusion!
 
I have served as a bishop in 3 different states – Florida, Alabama and California.  Each location has afforded me the opportunity to advocate for the inclusion of sometimes marginalized members.  In Florida, I do not think that my older members were always given the respect and opportunities that they should have had.  (I must admit some bias here being a physician with an almost entirely geriatric practice – I love my senior patients.) 

In Alabama, my wonderful ward in inner city Birmingham was made up of about 65% African American members.  These fine Saints were familiar with the sting of not always being seen as equal.  My first counselor recounted the story of how several years earlier (but after 1978) he had been interviewed for the Melchezidek priesthood.  One evening, while cleaning the Stake President's office while working as the janitor for the stake center, he was hurt deeply to find his recommend with bold red letters scribbled on it proclaiming “THIS MAN IS BLACK.” The culprit was never identified, but the critical lesson was the Christlike manner in which this man responded. Though hurt, he proceeded on with full activity in the church, humbly serving around those who did not see things as the Savior would have had them.

The Bay Ward in San Francisco tries hard to be exemplary of Christ like love and acceptance to all in our diverse congregation – I am honored to be one of its members.  As I have visited as a bishop with our many gay members, I have been overwhelmingly saddened to hear their stories of great emotional suffering.  The feelings of isolation from gay members who have reached the conclusion that they are not worthy of God’s love are the most heart wrenching I have heard.

I have a family member who is gay and is not currently attending church meetings.  He still has a testimony of the restoration.  He knows the Book of Mormon is true.  But with reference to his ward, he simply states, “If they knew who I was, they would not want me there”.  That is his honest well considered perception—and his sad reality.
 
Primary songs bring the spirit into my life with great dependability.  One of my favorite Primary songs has always been the song – “I'll Walk with You”, the words of that song composed by Carol Lynn Pearson.  (pg 140, Children’s Songbook)

   If you don't walk as most people do,
   Some people walk away from you,
   But I won't! I won't!
   If you don't talk as most people do,
   Some people talk and laugh at you,
   But I won't! I won't!
   I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you.
   That's how I'll show my love for you.
   Jesus walked away from none.
   He gave his love to ev'ryone.
   So I will! I will!
   Jesus blessed all he could see,
   Then turned and said, "Come, follow me."
   And I will! I will!
   I will! I will!
   I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you.
   That's how I'll show my love for you.
 Words: Carol Lynn Pearson, © 1987 IRI
 
In the words of Carol Lynn Pearson from her wonderful book, “No More Goodbyes”, Carol Lynn has this to say about the song. In the Children’s songbook there is a lovely picture of one child pushing another in a wheelchair…"but as I wrote it I also had in mind the little children who, as they grow up, will find themselves of a sexual orientation sure to present a challenge for them in our church and our society."
 
I love these words of Elder Jeffrey Holland: "Some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord."  The time has come for us to work diligently to make sure that this admonition is applied to Latter-day Saints who are gay.  I cannot imagine how it would feel; to think you are not were not capable of being loved of God.  The priesthood blessings I have been privileged as a bishop to give many gay members have not only instructed the receivers of the blessings, but me, as well. And that instruction is quite clear: All of us are loved by the Lord.

This church is truly the church of Jesus Christ.  He lives and He loves us - each and every one.  We are loved and we need to love each other as He loves us.  I hope that as a church we can all shed some of the cultural relics that have prevented gay members from viewing themselves as the loved children of God that they are. 

Such is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 comments:

  1. I wish I knew your bishop. He is incredible, and we need more like Him. I imagine that yes, it is emotional, indeed for a gay man, or lesbian woman, to hear that they are loved- just as they are- in a priesthood blessing.

    Every person needs to know this- not that they, themselves are loved ( yes, they are), but that others, no like them, are loved as well. If we all could internalize that kind of love...

    Also, I like the quote from Elder Holland, but I feel it needs to be mentioned, that vomit-aversion, and electric-shock therapy was practiced at BYU while he was president there. Again, it would be wonderful to have seen Christ-like love in that place, during that time.

    I miss you, Mitch!

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  2. Thanks for sharing, Mitch. Thanks also, to Bishop Fletcher, for speaking and allowing you to share his message.

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