AZ FlagToday we are honored to hear from guest blogger, Bryce Cook.

Two of the most moving talks at this month’s General Conference were Sister Linda Burton’s “I Was a Stranger” and Elder Patrick Kearon’s “Refuge from the Storm,” which were about administering relief to the world’s refugees. The Church has even set up a special website to educate people on this issue and provide ways for us to aid in this effort.  Moreover, as Elder Kearon stated in his talk:

Under the direction of the First Presidency, the Church is working with 75 organizations in 17 European countries. These organizations range from large international institutions to small community initiatives, from government agencies to faith-based and secular charities.  

With all the recent attention and resources the Church has given to aiding refugees of political crises around the world, I am struck by the irony of having refugees in our own midst – spiritual and emotional refugees of our Church’s own making – whose plight is mostly ignored by the Church. They are spiritual, emotional and in some cases physical refugees by virtue of being emotionally isolated or cast out of their faith communities and sometimes even by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Like their political/ethnic refugee counterparts, they are minorities in a culture that does not seem to want them, or are casualties of cultural/political wars that make life so unbearable they must flee their spiritual home to find safety.

2011-09-09-18.26.51What are we doing to help them, these spiritual refugees of our own making? As I have listened to and read Elder Kearon’s talk on aiding refugees, it impressed me that his inspired counsel can be applied just as readily to our LGBT refugees, and if followed could make a significant positive impact in their lives (1).  Here are some of the passages from his talk that I thought were particularly applicable.

There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today, which means that “1 in every 122 humans … has been forced to flee their homes,” and half of these are children. It is shocking to consider the numbers involved and to reflect on what this means in each individual life.

Most surveys find that people who self-identify as LGBT make up 3-4% of the population(2). However, because some people who are attracted to the same sex do not identify as LGBT, the true percentage is likely higher. Of the 15 million reported members of the Church, we might expect a half million to a million of them to be LGBT. Surveys of LGBT Mormons have found that the vast majority end up leaving the Church (3). Something is seriously wrong if so many have felt “forced to flee their [spiritual] homes” – the wards and stakes of Zion.

Particularly distressing is the number of LGBT youth who feel such agony and self-loathing for who they are that they are driven to suicide or are kicked out of their homes by their own family. It is truly shocking to consider the numbers involved and reflect on the pain and suffering that so many of our LGBT youth have experienced growing up in a Church culture that has vilified them and made them feel like they were the worst of sinners by their very existence.

There are highly charged arguments in governments and across society regarding what the definition of a refugee is and what should be done to assist the refugees. My remarks are not intended in any way to form part of that heated discussion, nor to comment on immigration policy, but rather to focus on the people who have been driven from their homes and their countries by wars that they had no hand in starting.

LGBT-rainbow-flagSimilarly, there are highly charged arguments in the Church regarding the definition and labeling of homosexuality, the related doctrines and policies, and what should be done with LGBT members. These arguments bring up questions such as: Do homosexuals even exist in the Church? Is it appropriate to be “out”? Is same-gender attraction merely a mortal condition or is it eternal? Is same-sex marriage a threat to the Church? And why would the Church enact a policy that divides families and excludes children?

While there needs to be a constructive dialog around these questions, taking Elder Kearon’s lead, you don’t have to wade into these heated discussions to give aid. Rather, as he says, simply focus on the people – let’s see them as our fellow brothers and sisters and family members who have been driven from their spiritual homes because of a sexual orientation or gender identity that they had no hand in choosing (4).

I saw in action a member of the Church who, for many months, worked through the night, providing for the most immediate needs of those arriving… Among countless other endeavors, she administered first aid to those in most critical medical need; she saw that the women and children traveling alone were cared for; she held those who had been bereaved along the way and did her best to allocate limited resources to limitless need. She, as so many like her, has been a literal ministering angel, whose deeds are not forgotten by those she cared for, nor by the Lord, on whose errand she was. 

Reading this account, I couldn’t help but think of my friends Berta Marquez and Kathy Carlston who have literally been ministering angels to countless numbers of lost and troubled LGBT youth, even opening their own home to those who have none. Berta was there for my son when he was back at BYU, newly returned from his mission, feeling very alone and afraid of who might discover his secret (that he was gay). She became his friend, built him up and introduced him to her circle of friends, a close-knit group of BYU students who shared his situation. I will be forever grateful to Berta for that.

I also think of Dr. Caitlyn Ryan who has devoted her life and resources to research on how families and communities – including our own LDS community – can prevent suicide and negative outcomes for their LGBT youth (see the Family Acceptance Project). I think of the Mama Dragons who with their fierce devotion to and love of their gay children extend that same love and devotion to LGBT youth who don’t have the same family support. I’ve seen how they send out the “bat signal” whenever a young person is in need, stepping in to rescue that person when no one else will. I think of those who started Mormons Building Bridges and the groundbreaking work they have done to reach out to the LGBT community to heal deep wounds by encouraging Church members to feel greater empathy and compassion for LGBT people. I think of Affirmation and the spiritual/emotional refuge it has provided for a huge number of displaced LGBT members along with their families and friends. I think of our own ALL Arizona group and the many allies who have recently joined because they felt moved by the Spirit to reach out and do something for our LGBT members after the exclusion policy came out.

I have seen many members of the Church who have experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul as they have responded to that deep, innate desire to reach out and serve those in such extreme need around them. … Seasoned members of the Church who have given years of service and leadership attest to the fact that ministering to these people so immediately in need has provided the richest, most fulfilling experience in their service so far. 

I have experienced this “joyful awakening and enriching of the soul” and have seen it happen to many others who have become involved in getting to know and serving our LGBT brothers and sisters. It is truly an awakening because you see with new eyes and are given a new heart. What many thought they once knew – the firm convictions, the doctrinal justifications, the prejudices – all seem to fade into irrelevance once they see someone as Christ sees them. This kind of conversion experience will both enlarge your spirit and refine your faith like nothing else I know.

We have found refuge. Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in God and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Heavenly Father. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love.”

Elder Kearon’s call to come out of our safe places is not without personal risk. Just as coming out of the closet for an LGBT person takes courage, coming out publicly as an LGBT ally in our Church culture takes courage. Because it may be seen as unorthodox or out on the fringes of what is acceptable, for some supporters being an LGBT ally may mean being taken off the potential leadership track (if that’s even a concern) or perhaps losing the esteem and fellowship of some of our fellow members.

The greatest impediment to coming out of the safety of the closet or for our fellow saints to be fully accepting is fear – fear of going against the leadership, fear of stepping out on the slippery slope, fear of losing status and reputation. But when such fear can be cast aside and replaced with the pure love of Christ, the resulting liberation and awakening of the soul described above far outweighs any loss. Once we have taken that bold step, what do we do next? In Elder Kearon’s words:

We must take a stand against intolerance and advocate respect and understanding across cultures and traditions. Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop  and will foster compassion and successful integration. 

After looking into their eyes and hearing their stories, both of the terror they had fled and of their perilous journey to find refuge, I will never be the same. 

Let your support be known. Something as small as wearing a rainbow pin or ring to Church will signal your support and may let that struggling youth who feels completely alone know that someone in their ward supports them. Speak up against intolerance when someone says something incorrect or hurtful in Sunday School or Relief Society. Be sincere and vulnerable and share the stories you have learned from your LGBT family and friends. That is what will soften hearts and open minds. When we as a church begin to see our LGBT members as real people just like us, and not just policy issues or doctrinal challenges, we will never be the same.

Senior Church leadership has signaled its position with the recent exclusion policy. Any positive change, any rescue efforts directed to our LGBT spiritual refugees will have to come from ordinary people like you and me. We don’t need to try to change doctrine, we don’t need to lobby Church leaders and we don’t need to loudly protest. But we do need to come out from our safe places and take a stand, and we do need to care for our LGBT brothers and sisters who, as much as anyone, might be considered “the least of these” among us.

“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

(1) In making this comparison, I do not want to detract in any way from the Church’s effort to aid worldwide political refugees, which is a cause I believe in and fully support.

(2) See, for instance, this recent Gallup survey.

(3) See, for instance, this survey research conducted by Dehlin, Bradshaw and Gallaher.

(4) From “Where the Church stands: The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

Bryce Cook is a founding member of ALL (Arizona LDS LGBT) Friends & Family and a co-director of the fourth annual “ALL Are Alike Unto God” Conference to be held on April 23, 2016 in Mesa. He is married to Sara Spencer Cook and together they have six children, two of whom are gay. Since their oldest son came out in 2012, Bryce and Sara have become public allies for LGBT people in and out of the church. Bryce currently serves in his ward’s High Priest group leadership.