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My Bishop, the Father of My Ward

It had been a while since I endured a sacrament meeting with tears streaming down my face. But this time was different, they were tears of gratitude. My bishop was being released. In that moment, I felt how deeply his leadership had healed my broken heart. And I realized how much I would miss his kind face watching over me and my ward each week.

I have wanted to write him a letter, I don't think he knows of the impact he had on my life. He didn't really do anything out of the ordinary, he simply treated me like any other member of the ward. But that, you see, is precisely what was different this time. He didn't see me as someone who had strayed, who needed to be taught or prayed over. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I want to share a story I wrote about the first time I met my bishop, the father of my ward.

I was excited to move into my new ward. The members had been very welcoming when my UHaul pulled into the neighborhood. The truck that took me two days to load was unpacked in less than an hour. I couldn’t begin to remember everyone’s names because there were so many of them. That Sunday at church, I recognized some of the people who had helped me unload and I didn’t feel so alone, even though I attended by myself. Finally, I had found a ward that felt like family.

However, there was something they didn’t know about me: I am a lesbian. I had come out publicly a few years prior, but now nobody in my new ward family knew this part of me. Over the next few months, I began to feel worse and worse while attending church. Being gay is a part of my life that I have made peace with. God held me along the journey, so I knew He was okay with me. Where I lived previously, I learned to live with integrity. Not keeping the secret anymore had lifted such a weight and allowed the spirit to flow more freely. Now, it felt like I was keeping secrets again. Going to church without sharing this part of me was causing me to feel unwelcome, depressed, and even shameful.

I remember sitting in the pew one Sunday and suddenly feeling tremors rattle throughout my body. I was having a panic attack, for no other reason than it felt like I was unnecessarily hiding something about myself. I was not afraid of being gay anymore, but I was afraid of how people would respond to me. We don’t talk about LGBTQ people as being part of our congregations, so members often don’t realize that they say hurtful things about something that is tender and vulnerable for me. My body was feeling a war within, one side saying it was safer to stay quiet and let everyone assume I am straight, the other side remembering how heavy and deceitful it felt to live that way. At this point it had become intolerable to not live my life with integrity.  Even though part of me wanted to become inactive so I wouldn’t feel so bad at church anymore, instead I made an appointment to meet with the bishop. I knew that if I didn’t come out again to these new people, I wouldn’t survive here.

I anticipated how coming out to my new bishop would go. I didn’t know him at all, so I could not prepare myself for how he might react. Would I need to educate him on LGBTQ experiences, that being gay is not a sin or a deception from Satan? Or was he up to date on the statements leaders have made in the past few years? Would he try to discipline me or would he receive me with love? I feared that his response would make or break my activity in this new ward, which I wanted desperately to be part of.

The next Sunday afternoon, I sat trembling in his office as he welcomed me to the ward. I told him a bit about my background and my family. Then I suddenly heard myself exclaim, “I am gay…” Before he could respond, I followed by expressing that I wanted to be part of the church and that I would like to be a resource for him or any other member LGBTQ families. I had taken a journey with God and had experiences to share that might offer light and hope to others. His response caught me off guard. He said, “I'm so glad you moved here. In ward council this morning, we discussed having our next fifth Sunday lesson be on LGBTQ inclusion, but we do not have anyone in the ward that feels qualified to teach it. Would you be willing to help us plan and organize this?”

Out of all the responses I imagined, this was not one of them. I thought at best I would be tolerated. But I actually felt valued, that my voice and experiences matter. It was a moment that literally healed my soul. In my previous ward, I taught Relief Society. And although they were supportive when I came out and allowed me to keep teaching, they also asked that I not talk about being gay at church. I didn’t realize that being silenced had affected me so deeply until this moment. This bishop wanted what I could contribute to the ward through my unique experiences in life and with God. It was a moment that I will never forget, and it dramatically changed the course of my future activity within the church that I love.

Since that first meeting with my bishop, I have felt like a valued and respected member of my ward. The fifth Sunday lesson gave me an opportunity to share my LGBTQ identity openly with ward members. Many of them thanked me for my courage and some even asked questions seeking to be a better family member to their LGBTQ loved ones. They commented that it seemed like a taboo topic at church and there weren't many answers out there, and it was refreshing to hear someone talk about being LGBTQ in a church setting. After that, I felt comfortable and welcome where I had previously felt scared, unsure, and alone.

That Sunday morning, as I watched my bishop share his final testimony as the father of my ward, my heart rejoiced for the seemingly small things he had done to heal me from many detrimental experiences with the church that made me feel abnormal or less than. Over the span of 40 years, I internalized hundreds of comments made in church and statements from the pulpit about homosexuality to mean that I had little or no worth. It surprised me that a handful of good experiences with this kind man could undo a lifetime of hurt.

What would I say in a letter to my bishop? You have reflected Christ in my life. You have healed my broken heart. You have restored my relationship with the church. The words "thank you" seem wildly insufficient.

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Sytske I love this post! I always pray that my LGBTQ+ friends and family members will have an experience like the one you've described with your recently-released bishop. I'm so glad you've felt healing within this ward.

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