About a year ago, there was a two-week span in which my mental health hit an all-time low after losing my identity due to loss of belief in LDS Mormonism seven months prior. Even though I had a job I loved (advocating at the Utah state legislature), I only cared so much. I was so confused about the point of living that I had to get out of the state for the first time in multiple years.
So over a typical, non-long weekend — just two days — I drove from the Salt Lake area to Seattle.
It was only after stopping at a hotel just a handful of hours from the Emerald City that I thought to message Carson Calderwood and ask if I could meet with him and his wife Marisa and also more or less happened upon an event for Affirmation, a group for LGBTQ Mormons. (I had heard the Calderwoods’ story just months earlier on John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories of being excommunicated really for no reason and my heart had gone out to LGBTQ people in full around the time I lost my faith.)
And so made for a very Mormon trip to the Pacific Northwest, as I visited my dear friend Michelle Henich and her husband in Portland afterward — and before that, visited a congregation of Community of Christ, one of the churches resulting from Mormonism founder Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ, in Olympia, Wash. Michelle is a remarkable friend because she sympathizes with my recovery from the Mormon church and has been an incredible mentor in my journey out.
She’s been so good to me, I regard her as an older sister.
Now that I’ve gotten out very-deserved sentiments, back to Seattle. It was a long drive up, as I thought that my nearly 27 years was very well all of the time that I was to have. My object was to determine once in Seattle whether or not I would jump into the Pacific Ocean in attempted suicide. But I was going to give myself the drive first.
Upon arrival there, after that hotel and an extended visit to a McDonald’s on Thursday evening and the first half of the day Friday to complete work obligations, I didn’t feel like I wanted to die. Actually, about 40 minutes outside of Seattle, partially while driving in the shadow of Mount Rainier, I remember feeling utter happiness at having found my link with God again through Community of Christ, while listening to the greatest of television (seriously) on my laptop: the final episodes of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” That very moment, I remember clearly: a winding road surrounded by emerald trees and Rainier in the foreground, as I hummed John Williams’ ascending tune played when Rey is climbing up ancient, stone stairs surrounded by equally emerald grass to meet The Hero’s Journey embodiment, Luke Skywalker.
Carson told me that I should meet them at a gym on an island across from Seattle. So I drove directly to that island. I hadn’t been there for even five minutes, and drove not even a handful of blocks, before there it was: a chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here is a great example of why it’s a matter of escaping mind control: I had disbelieved in the church for seven months and had 40 minutes earlier, thought that my spiritual destiny was in another church, and the thought that it was a sign flashed through my brain.
But then I caught myself. And like the Grinch, I thought of a wonderful, awful (and very mean) idea. I had left my Mormon garments, underwear meant for the most faithful who qualify by church standards for its temples, four months earlier in my nearest dumpster in Bountiful, Utah. But I hadn’t accounted for my “temple bag,” or container of the clothes that the faithful wear in those temples. And then I thought with glee, ‘I can leave a gift for these congregants.’ That’s because I had pulled into the chapel parking lot and seen a clothing donation box outside the front door. I thought with an internal smirk, wouldn’t the Mormons want some clothing?
So in went the hat and sash and other items unique to temple clothing. I thought about the Mormon who would encounter those clothes upon opening the box, expecting only t-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, and trousers, perhaps — street clothes.
Still with time to spare (but not as much as I thought) before meeting the Calderwoods, I drove across the water to Seattle and finished the “Star Wars” episodes before going back to the island and finding the Calderwoods patiently waiting at a coffee shop, since I was late. They were so kind to take interest in my political advocacy job before it was game time. Their son seemed to feel like LeBron as we walked out of the door and to the game.
The Calderwoods were so kind to chat about very personal items in public, during the game, meaning that they really didn’t see their son play all that much that afternoon. I remember our assessment that Mormonism infantilizes its members. I still startled myself in saying that while looking into Carson’s face. But I did because I had come to authentically believe it.
That night, I had the Affirmation meeting with the famous Josh Weed and folks who I came to appreciate as some of the most sincere and kind people I’d ever met, including Kathleen Majdali and Celeste Carolin. (I really wish that I could remember every name.) But before that, I had to hit Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. Both were solidly underwhelming. The Pike employees were nearly the opposite of their presumably usually energetic selves, and it just appeared dreary on that seaboard where the market resides. The Space Needle was just old. But I did experience my first labyrinth walk and meet Darth Vader and Stormtroopers right outside the structure.
Josh was great. It was apparent that he believes, but he can think of his faith critically. He joked about the First Vision, a fundamental in Mormon origins and doctrine, once in a way that he understood church history issues. The elders quorum president of a ward – a leader in a congregation – was there and I was fascinated by a new revelation: local church leaders were overlooking church-attending congregants’ same-sex relationships. (Things in the LDS church are apparently very different in Seattle!)
Kathleen and Celeste just cemented to me how natural it is to be gay. I saw the authenticity and sincerity in their faces and knew that as they believed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they also knew how they felt sexually. It was this beautifully tragic conflict.
And if I remember correctly, that’s really why the Affirmation event was held in a studio overlooking a street very much like the one in the picture of this blog post. Everyone there was still reeling from the church’s gay policy announced just three months earlier that seemed to make clear that the church wasn’t too interested in having its own members who lived a gay lifestyle a part of them. Conversations at the event were saturated in chat about the policy. Everyone, even the elders quorum president, appeared opposed.
A woman opened the door to me to that studio (after I spent so long trying to get into the complex itself that I was intercepted by a homeless woman who walked me through town for several blocks, offering to… arouse my faculties for food (she took me to an ATM)). I would get to know Darci McPherson more that night simply because she was so kind to me — she recognized that it was a little strange that I had driven all the way to Seattle from Salt Lake on a non-long weekend. After Affirmation, she took me to a cafe just blocks from the Space Needle and bought me dinner. She said she was a Mama Dragon, one of many in a group of mostly Latter-day Saint women who look out for young gay people. She offered the most encouraging and supportive words after I told her that I came to Seattle with the intent to jump into the Pacific Ocean if I still felt suicidal upon arrival in the city. She had returned to church after a period of inactivity and I saw how good of a person a Mormon could be if they led with love. I had spent a lot of time with another Mama Dragon and her husband for the prior month-and-a-half in an effort to stay in a safe place while fighting suicidality, and it really made me think at the time that there couldn’t be a kinder organization than the Mama Dragons.
It had been a wonderful day, physically ridding myself of the Mormon church and connecting with such good people. But I needed to get to Portland and my big sister. I was also happy to have learned at the same hotel where I messaged Carson and learned about Affirmation that my Utah Jazz were playing the Portland Trail Blazers, led by a college hero in the state of Utah in Damian Lillard, in Portland the following day as well. It was going to be a great second day.
Feeling mountainous strength in Community of Christ, I located the Olympia congregation. Finding it was an adventure in of itself, as it was on a day with near-freezing temperatures and the chapel was worn down and nestled between neighborhoods. So Williams’ music from Rey’s adventure in finding Luke once again came to mind. And it was hardly a congregation — it was three older women and a teenage male from a recovery center next door who was leaning toward converting. And that was wonderful. They were so kind and it was nice to have a gospel message in an intimate setting.
What was even more stunning about the weird look of Portland (which was cool!) upon arrival Sunday afternoon was that Michelle and her husband were so accommodating to me even though it was her birthday! We ate burritos at an eatery before they showed me around downtown, with its, by comparison, bizarre animal statues and eccentric art and offices of Nike (the company is headquartered in Portland), and Michelle relating to me in helping political campaigns, and my needing her to tell me again about her resignation from the church following the gay policy. And the entire time, I couldn’t believe that I was looking into the face of someone who had been there for me on so many occasions the prior four months on Facebook. And then she was off with her husband to prepare a room for me at their house as I headed off to watch my game. Unbelievable kindness.
The Moda Center, where the Blazers play, apparently confused me in leaving it, because I spent nearly 40 minutes trying to find my car. That turned out to make it surely impossible to reach Michelle and her husband’s house since I got a surprise email that night, after the game ended, about a work meeting relatively early the next morning. (I otherwise could have arrived back at Utah’s Capitol for midday and afternoon committee, House and Chamber sessions after a good night’s sleep.) So it was with deep regret that I had to inform Michelle, meaning that she had spent her birthday preparing a room for me, complete with clean, fresh sheets, for no reason. This woman has continued to talk with me on the phone since I left, and it is clear that her patience runs deep and her heart is gold.
So I made the overnight trip and arrived exactly on time for the meeting.
The trip proved to be therapeutic for me until events two weeks later that I couldn’t have predicted would mean that I again tripped across a significant part of the country.
Photo: Getty Images