"Hey, Lisa, want some coke?"
"No, it's against my religion. Have any root beer?"
And there you have it: my introduction to the Mormon Church. It was the summer of 1977 and the beginning of a journey which would take me several times to Utah as well as to Puerto Rico for a year as a Mormon missionary which I affectionately refer to as Hell. I was 15 when I converted to Mormonism and 29 when I officially left. My years there had a tremendous effect on me-some of it good, some of it bad, but tremendous nonetheless. Would I do things differently now? Definitely yes. The lessons I learned, however, have molded me into the person I am today, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.
If I had to name one thing that influenced my conversion to Mormonism more than anything else, I would have to say it was attending Youth Conference in Farmville, VA in the summer of 1982. My best friend was Lisa's brother, and although he wasn't really spiritual (i.e. obedient), he did think that
Youth Conferences were a hoot. And so we went, accompanied by our devil music, Playboy magazines, a healthy supply of water balloons, and a turkey baster required by the aforementioned water balloons. The weekend was chock full of the traditional events-workshops, dances, testimony meetings, a featured speaker, and other various and sundry activities designed to keep us out of trouble. Was it a coincidence that we were assigned to a dorm suite which just so happened to be occupied by my friend's father, and his roommate the Bishop (who managed to be in possesion of the turkey baster before we left)? Probably wise planning on someone's part. Well, we went to the dances, made fun of the food (which was quite literally icky), managed to skip the workshops, but for some reason (fate, I imagine) got roped in to going to hear the featured speaker-Lynn Bryson-who had to be one of the pioneers of spiritual cassette tapes. To say Brother Bryson had a powerful effect on us would be an understatement of the highest degree; he scared us into obedience. He scared us shitless. From that point on, we behaved ourselves, and attended our meetings-the only ones left were Sacrament and Fast & Testimony. But I knew then that I had felt the Spirit, else why should I be so emotional? We were so moved by his words we even threw away our Playboy magazines and devil music, bought $30 worth of Lynn Bryson tapes, and almost got rid of what was left of the water balloons. Almost. We were lying on our beds, listening to something spiritual, when my friend made the comment, "I'm so glad I'm Mormon." I knew then I wanted to be one, too.
I was the proverbial "Golden Contact" that Mormon missionaries would give their left testicle to find. I read everything they asked me to. I prayed with ferver and humility. I was always on the lookout to feel the Spirit which was testifying of the truthfulness of what they were teaching me. Best of all, and I believe this is the key to a great conversion, I wanted it to be true. Mormons have a great sales pitch, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. My favorite part of the lessons was the fourth discussion about the Plan of Salvation and eternal families. Coming from one of the South's truly great dysfunctional families, this was music to my ears. In Mormonism I found what I had been hoping for-they promised me nothing less than that I could become a god. Our lives here on Earth were the proving grounds for the gods-gods in embryo, of which I was one.
My baptism was on the 5th of September, 1982, at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school; and as it so happens, just before early-morning seminary began for the year. We met from 6:00 - 6:45 am every morning at Sister C's house. Apart from the horrid schedule, I loved seminary class. I guess my enthusiasm was what got me "called" to be vice-president that year, and I took to it like a duck to water. I loved everything Mormon, and I thought meetings were great. The more the better. Of course, the teacher was fantastic and so were my fellow officers in the presidency. We're still friends today even though my life has taken me in a different direction than was previously planned. Sister C taught again the next year, and after that we were taught by Sister N. I consider myself fortunate to have been in seminary those three years-both teachers were among the finest people you'd ever want to meet. And although they contributed to my Mormon indoctrination (I believed every word they said without question, of course), my involvement in the church did keep me away from drugs and sex and got me safely through high school and headed for BYU.
I had visited Utah the year before, but came for a longer visit in Provo for my Freshman year at the Y in August of 1985. I made some friends there-some speak to me today, some don't-and managed to learn some stuff inspite of myself. It was a pretty typical year at BYU-classes, church, family home evenings, dorm life at Desert Towers; you know the drill. I even managed to stay relatively uninterested in serving a mission. I returned to Virginia for the summer, worked through the fall semester, and returned to BYU for the winter semester. I lived off-campus this time, and between all my friends being on missions, and my roommates all being returned missionaries, and everyone doing all in their power to convince me I should, I decided to prepare to go on a mission. As part of that preparation, I finally got my Patriarchal Blessing, was ordained an Elder, and went to the temple.
I would like to say that I was shocked and appalled by what happened to me, what happens to everyone, when I went to the Salt Lake Temple for the first time; but I wasn't. Although no one ever told me the details, I had a fair idea of what was to take place on my first visit to "The House of the Lord." My preconceptions weren't too far off base. What really surprised me was actually how boring the endowment ceremony was, that is until we began to learn about the oaths, signs, and accompanying penalties. Pantomiming gestures of slitting my throat, my chest, and my abdomen were far from boring. It amazes me now that I didn't realize then that something was drastically wrong. It also amazes me that in spite of the further light and knowledge I was supposed to gain on that, and subsequent trips to the temple, there really wasn't that much information presented. The details of the creation myth were already available in The Pearl of Great Price. The only thing that was new was that I got to see it acted out by three incredibly old men who had absolutely no enthusiasm, nor any great acting ability. When going to other temple sessions in the Provo and Washington temples, it was quite a relief to watch a filmed presentation, which actually had some talent, albeit minimal, put into it. Garments never bothered me. I still wear mine (the two-piece variety, thank you) because I find them comfortable. Hey, whatever works, right?
The Missionary Training Center was quite an experience. On the first day I was filled with so many different feelings. I was excited to be there, but I was nervous as hell; and I was determined to be the best missionary I could be. It took a few days for us to adjust to our new surroundings and lifestyle, but we soon became close friends. We also became quite attached to our teachers. They were our mentors, our examples, and our parents for this two month stay. We were very lucky to have been assigned two of the best. It was more than a job for them; they really cared for us-and grew with us as we prepared to enter the mission field. In retrospect, the very first time I questioned anything I ever learned from the church was at the MTC. We were instructed that our primary purpose as missionaries was to "significantly increase the number of convert baptisms." I raised issue with this, as I felt that our primary purpose was to serve the people of Puerto Rico. However, that kind of nonsense got poo-pooed and I was left with a challenge to gain a testimony of this little bit of instruction. But wonders never cease, I actually questioned something.
I have rarely felt such a wave of emotion like I did as the DC10 approached the city of San Juan, and we looked out the small, oval windows to see the lights running along below us. We were about to land in the mission field. We were about to meet our mission president, who to us ranked just below God, Jesus, and President Benson. In just a few minutes the airliner touched down on the palm-tree lined runway. After taxiing to the gate, we disembarked and made our way to the baggage claim area, where we were greeted by the president, his wife, and two goofy-looking arm-waving assistants. Looking at those two guys through the glass enclosure made me consider again what kind of missionary I wanted to be, or in this case, did not want to be. I suppose it was the first sign to me how leadership positions were filled in the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission.
Saying the words "brown nose" was strictly off-limits for the missionaries. But ironically enough, the practice of it was not. It had progressed to epidemic proportions. I was disappointed, frustrated, and angry at how effective it was. Oh yes, the president denied that he would ever be influenced by this sort of behavior, but that didn't change the fact that he was. He continued to deny the practice existed, and forbade us to ever bring up the subject.
A part of all missionaries' routines is a periodic interview with the mission president. I learned something early on as a missionary-tell the president what he wanted to hear. Any lack of enthusiasm or nuance of a negative attitude ended up in a lecture of how I was not living up to the covenants I made in the Temple. A missionary who conveyed his feelings of depression or dislike for what was happening was quick to be reprimanded for his bad attitude and then given the canned pep talk that always followed. When asked how we were doing, "all right" didn't cut it-we had to be "GREAT!" When asked how we liked our missions, they couldn't just be "good," they had to be "GREAT!" Anything else wouldn't do. So we learned early on what the right answers were, and we gave them.
My mission was the beginning of the end for me, as far as the church was concerned. I was questioning more and more, and I wanted to leave. I tried talking to my zone leaders. I tried talking to the president. I talked to a general authority. I finally learned to stop talking. I tried go get sick, but to no avail. I even went so far as to go to the president, make up some fanciful tales of pre-mission unrepented-of sins in an attempt to get sent home. That didn't work. And so one afternoon while my companion was taking a nap during our break, I quietly made a phone call...to American Airlines.
As the light turned green, I drove through the intersection and turned into the airport entrance at Isla Verde, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was 2:30 in the morning on September 16, 1988 and I had nowhere to hide until my flight left at 7:00. I parked conveniently close to the terminal and got my luggage out of the car. I didn't manage to pack everything, but I was at the airport now, and I wasn't about to risk going back. If I was caught now, the chances of a future escape attempt would be slim to none. The president would never let me near a car again. I would end up in the armpit of the island, if I was lucky. My fate would be worse than the Hell from which I was fleeing.
I locked up the car and went inside. I found the American Airlines ticket counter and put my luggage down in the front of the line, which at this hour was empty. The entire ticketing area seemed void of human existence except for a few stragglers who were also waiting for early morning departures. I began to look around, trying to make the best of the next three hours, which were difficult to say the least. My mind was awash with anticipation, doubt, anxiety, fear, and a faint glimmer of hope. I even considered, every half minute or so, going back before I was missed, but I was so close to freedom that I could taste it. There seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel; I just hoped it wasn't a truck.
The minutes ticked by, one after each painfully slow one. After what seemed to be an eternity, the airline counter opened. I bought my ticket, but wasn't on my way just yet. They had a little surprise for me-I had to have my luggage inspected for fruit flies. Was this some kind of sick joke? Didn't they realize what they were doing to me? I was forced to wait another incredibly long half hour outside the airport where the inspection station was, still fully expecting the president's entourage to come sailing up and whisk me away to my doom.
The bags were inspected, and on their way to New York City. If only I could hop onto the conveyor and follow them into the safety of the awaiting craft. I immediately started down the hallway which led to the security checkpoint; once past there, those who would be pursuing me would not be allowed to pass. I was certain of that; well, almost certain. I approached the glass door which led to security, and found it locked. My heart sank. A sign nearby indicated that the security area would not be open until 6:30 a.m., another fifteen minutes. It might as well have been another day, for all I cared. The later it got, the more likely my capture. I had made arrangements to delay the discovery of my disappearance, but this was no ordinary trip to the airport. I was running away from my mission, for god's sake. Surely the president would be having a vision by now and dispatching the assistants. He's supposed to be inspired, right?
To take up some time, and to look less conspicuous, I went into the gift shop. How grateful I was that at least something was open. I browsed the souvenirs, but bought nothing. I had no cash. My ticket to freedom had been purchased with a credit card I wasn't supposed to have-it was against mission rules. I looked at magazines until the security checkpoint was open. Beyond that were the gates.
I felt a rush of adrenalin as I passed through those doors. Each step brought to mind the freedom which lay ahead. Sitting near the gate, I anxiously awaited the boarding call. I held a first class ticket, and was one of the first on board. I found my seat and the attendant wasted no time in offering me a drink. Yes, champagne would be fine. Celebration was truly in order, but not enjoyed yet. As I sipped my champagne I just knew it couldn't be this easy. What if the president stopped the plane? What if they let him come on board to talk to me? What if God made the plane crash?
Three hours later in New York City I had to dodge a couple of missionaries that had been sent there to bring me back. The airline had squealed and informed the president of my entire itinerary. After an hour or so, I gave up and let them talk to me. No, I didn't want to go back to Puerto Rico. No, I didn't wan't to go back and talk to their president, either. No, I didn't want them to sit with me until my connecting flight boarded. No, no, no.
"Hello, Mom, guess where I am?"
"Well, if you're not in Puerto Rico, I don't know."
"I'm in New York City. My flight get's into Richmond around eight."
So I managed to last until I was almost at my hump day. I had almost served half of my two-year tour. I think I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I did the only thing I could to survive-took the car, headed for the airport, and jumped on the first plane off the island. For the next few years I struggled to put my life back together and reconcile my experience with my religious beliefs. And guess what? After a couple of years I went back and started attending my local singles branch. I even got a temple recommend again. And I converted one of my friends in the process. What a swell guy I was.
The summer of 1993 was another turning point for me. I have been overweight since about the age of seven or so. I had tried every diet known to man, but couldn't stick to any of them. I knew that one day the perfect one would come along, but until then I continued to have my weight go up and down, but mostly up. Then one day at our local library, while looking for a book I wanted to read, I saw an interesting book on the shelf right next to it called When Food Is Love. Interesting, I thought, so I checked it out and left the other one there for another day. What a move that was. I learned one very important thing that day-that it wasn't what I ate that was the problem, it was why I ate. And over the next several months dealt with a lot of issues that I never wanted to face. Among them was a critical piece of information that I had never consciously accepted before-that I, the best little Mormon boy in the world, was gay.
That realization finally made, I stopped going to church and became completely inactive, except for my involvement with a group called Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons. They were there for me when I desperately needed it. They held my hand and supported me as I came out of the closet and really experienced life for the first time. They are some of the kindest, most sincere people I have ever met, and I count them among by very best friends. One thing they didn't give me, however, were easy answers. I had much needed support, but I still had to reconcile my religious beliefs with my sexual orientation, and the church's treatment of those of us who are "that way." During my search, the church made the decision for me when they became an active participant in the Hawaii gay marriage legal battle. I knew that no matter what my beliefs were regarding Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration, I could no longer tolerate being a member of the church. I sent in my letter asking for my name to removed from the records of the church on April 6, 1996. Perfect timing, no?
And then in January of 1997 a wonderful thing happened. I bought a new computer and started surfing the net for the first time. Now at my fingertips I had access to virtually everything I had ever wanted to know about the church, and a whole lot more. In the course of just a few months I not only gave up my Mormon beliefs, but all religious beliefs. I traded in my scriptures for a copy of Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World. I traded in my CTR ring for a fully-functional shit detector. I turned in my arrogance for an open mind. I learned that I know a whole lot less than what I used to think I knew.
You know, my friend was right-Youth Conference was a hoot.