“Called to Serve the Salt Lake South Mission
Jello, roast beef, mashed potatoes too!”
Those are the beginning words of a joking ‘mission theme’ that the elders of my mission would sing to each other, certainly out of earshot of the mission president. I was called to, where I served honorably for two years, the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission. It’s funny, perhaps not humorous as much as just strange, but my mission, in a way, was exactly what everyone told me it would be. It changed everything for me. An LDS mission brought me out of my social shell, forced me to talk with complete strangers, get along with even stranger missionary companions, and brought a lot of personal strength while demolishing a bit of my naivety about the world.
I was told that my mission would forever be a source of strength, a pillar I could rely on the rest of my life. To be honest that’s still entirely true to this day. My mission was a huge turning point in my life, and psychological well being. Somewhere around five or six months into my mission, I was serving in the Midvale, UT, area. My last companion had just been emergency transferred because of inappropriate relations with a single mother in the area, something I didn’t find out about until months later. The area was in shambles, we had very few investigators, none that were progressing. My new companion was someone who had a reputation in the mission for being an amazing scriptorian, excellent with words and a great teacher. He proved to be all of these things. He also proved to be someone that I was unable to not butt heads with. However he also proved to be someone who to this day has earned great deal of respect from me.
On one of our preparation days (once a week missionaries get half of a day ‘off’ to do laundry, go shopping, play games and otherwise ‘unwind’ to prepare for the coming week, ours was on Tuesdays) we were shopping at Deseret Book (an LDS bookstore) when a book at the bottom of one of the shelves caught my attention. To be honest it caught my initial attention because the guy on the cover was attractive. I reached down to pick it up and read the title, “In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-gender Attraction.”
I stared at the book cover for a good minute or two, unable to believe what I was seeing. Mormons didn’t talk about this subject, certainly not in a way that would seek any kind of ‘understanding.’ I looked around, suddenly afraid someone would see me, a missionary with name tag and all, looking at a book that had to deal with homosexuality. I read the back of the book and I got more and more intrigued. I sandwiched the book between two other books I was buying and mustered up the courage to go to the counter. The nice, older lady at the counter didn’t seem to notice anything strange about the book I was buying, or if she did, she didn’t say anything about. I’ll love her forever for that.
I took the book home and absolutely devoured it. I read it all the rest of our P-day, read it during dinner, and read it into the night when our appointments were done for the night. I read more in the morning during personal study, during breakfast and lunch, in every spare moment. My companion had to have taken a look at the book at some point and knew what it was about. I made up some flimsy story about it being for a good friend back home that I have to imagine he saw right through. The amazing thing, though, is that he let me have my space and read to my heart’s content. I will always respect and appreciate how he handled that situation, knowing how much we often disagreed or bickered, when it mattered he did the truly Christlike thing. He could have spread rumors throughout the mission, and to my knowledge he never did.
I must have read the book four or five times in the first three days of owning it. I simply couldn’t put it down, couldn’t keep myself from it. The book is told in two parts. The first part is written by the parents of a gay man in Salt Lake City who killed himself on the steps to his church building and had left his parents a note explaining his struggles with homosexuality. The parents, mostly the mother, recount their story and the process they went through to deal with it.
The second part of the book is written by a young, gay man, returned missionary and active member of the church. He spent quite a few chapters dissecting homosexuality through the eyes of actual church doctrine, not member-driven fear and rhetoric. He talked about the scriptures of Paul, the teachings in Leviticus and how the Plan of Salvation could be applied to gay people.
While there are a few things in this book that I now disagree with, I still keep it on my bookshelf at home because it marked the first moment in my life when I felt that I wasn’t broken, that I wasn’t evil, that this was simply another part of me. One of the best object lessons the parents talked about in the book that they would use with people is that they would hold a piece of paper right in front of someone’s eyes and ask them what they could see. Obviously the paper filled every portion of their vision. When the paper was pulled away, the rest of the world came into focus, allowing the young man to see all the rest of the room they were in.
They helped me to understand that homosexuality is just a word that describes one aspect of my being. An important one, true, but just a part. I’m not first and foremost a gay man, or at least not just a gay man. I was a brother, a son, an uncle, a Christian, a temple-worthy member, a nerd, a gamer, an optimist, a Jayhawks fan, an avid reader, a writer, a musician, a student, and a human being, who also happens to be gay.
To say this changed my life is an understatement. Of course I had challenges after this, but this was the beginning of the journey back to self-love, self-confidence, and self-respect.