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Knowing, Loving, and Building Zion

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

As I passed a local Lutheran church on an early morning walk, I was cheered by what I read on the sign in front. They had switched the words in a Christian children’s song to “Jesus Knows Me, This I Love”. This simple transposition of “love” and “know” was significant to me. The original version, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” is one of the fundamental aspects of my faith. But this comforting phrase doesn’t explain how Jesus loves me. My problem-solving brain wants to understand the mechanics of this experience. So when I walked past that church marquee, just before the sun cleared the Wasatch Mountains, the Spirit spoke to me of the truth of that message. Yes! Jesus really knows me, that is how His love works! And it feels so good to be known. In a world where distortion is the norm, where reality and artifice are often indistinguishable, it is wonderful to know that the Lord sees us as our authentic selves. He doesn’t rely on our Instagram feed, our resume, or the image on our family Christmas card. He sees us as we really are and (imagine that!) loves us for it.

But this gift comes with a responsibility.

A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you....By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples; if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34)

If we are to love as Jesus loves, we have to know our sisters, our brothers, our siblings as He does. This goes beyond immediate family relationships: love for our neighbor is the second greatest commandment. But we’re a weak egotistical bunch, often functioning in fear, quick to judge, busy being the stars of our own bio-pic like the priest and the Levite on the road to Jericho. What tools do we have to counteract the natural man and woman? How do we know each other as we are known by God?

A congregation in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the potential to be a laboratory, a workshop, a boot camp, where we learn how to love.

I have lived outside Utah for most of my life.The wards my husband, children, and I landed in were places where we felt comfortable as seekers: valuing questions as well as answers and confident in our right to personal revelation. When messages from General Conference or in the Ensign were difficult for me I had examples of thoughtful, faithful, Saints all around me who managed issues of ecclesiastical authority and individual agency with nuance and grace.

Erika is in a green jacket with a rainbow pin standing in the LDS Conference Center with the organ in the background.
General Conference. Spring 2019

Then ten years ago our fortunes brought us to Utah. I expected we’d settle in one of the little pockets of progressivism in Salt Lake County and find a ward that had the kind of Mormons we had always gravitated to. But when the perfect house went on the market two blocks from the school where I teach, we jumped at it. Thus we found ourselves in the suburbs in a pretty conventional ward with a whole lot of conservative Iron Rod-ers. Hmm. How was this going to work?

It wasn’t easy. I came face-to-face with an attitude that I knew existed but hadn’t personally experienced at church: a strong sense that “out there” was the enemy and “we” had to stick together or risk spiritual dissolution. Sadly, the list of the world’s woes I heard recited at church often included LGBTQ people.

Why I was prompted to reach out to my gay and trans siblings at that time, I don’t know. Maybe I hadn’t been asking the right questions. Despite my testimony, my deep satisfaction with life in the church for so many years I would periodically ask the Lord if the heartbreaking dilemma of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints was something that I should separate myself from the church over. The answer was always “Stay.” But now the message was somewhat different -- it wasn’t about me staying in the church, it was about me making a place in my church for LGBTQ faith in order to strengthen my own. Maybe that faith-versus-identity dilemma was a false choice.

So just as I was getting to know (remember, knowing is the road to loving) my new ward, and they were getting to know me, I started my public LGBTQ support: working in the larger community, speaking up in Sunday School, elevating queer voices. This could have been a recipe for disaster: newcomer alienates the old-timers by calling them to repentance, pushing too hard for change. But the Lord had my back though blessings of an LDS ward.

Erika and her cousin Gigi hold a poster reading "Love Casteth Out Fear"
With my cousin Gigi at the Utah Pride Parade. June 2018

Time and commitment have everything to do with it. The ways one is called to serve in the church brings multidimensional connection. I’m not just Erika the LGBTQ ally, I‘m Erika the Primary counselor, Erika the ministering sister, Erika (gulp) on the missionary committee. Likewise when I struggle with members who say hurtful things, who see LGBTQ support as a threat to their testimonies, I try to see them as whole people. I remind myself of their struggles, or when they’ve served me. I start a conversation with them, sharing stories of queer members and why they’re important to me, creating opportunities to hear from gay and trans members themselves. These experiences of knowing create durable relationships: the building blocks of Zion. I have learned how to love in the Pinehurst Ward.

But to everything there is a season. I honor each individual’s right to personal revelation about how to do church. I want the LGBTQ folks and their families in my ward to know that I value their spiritual journey wherever it may take them.

In, out, or distanced from a ward, I have an abiding testimony that the relationships we foster in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can have everything to do with LGBTQ ministry. Sure, I can’t connect them to any doctrinal or policy change but maybe that’s the point. While I watch and pray for revelation I serve and minister as best I can. Committing my deeply flawed self to a faith community of profoundly imperfect siblings in the gospel is an excellent spiritual practice. If His eye is on the sparrow, it surely is on me and my ward.

Two masked male missionaries and Erika and four of her friends in the ward stand outside their stake center.
Conference Saturday 2021. Me and my RS sisters and our ward missionaries outside the Sandy East Stake Center.

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Thank you Erika for being a pioneer and leading the way with your courage, wisdom and strength. I've learned so much from you over the past few years. I miss the Retreats, Hugging Booths, and Parade. I hope they can continue post-covid and that you will help lead those. The more of an ally I become; the more I KNOW my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, their goodness, their hearts, their joys and pain - the harder it has become for me "to church" with my fellow Latter-day Saints. I have tried to heed a call to "stay" and somehow be a force for change from the inside. It's uncomfortable, discouraging and often maddening. I'm not gonna lie, Pandemic Church [being…

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