By Robert A. Rees
“To be in a holy place where love is found, where all are named and where hearts are freed to change the world.”
—Motto of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Hollywood, California
ONE SUNDAY, MY friend David Ballantine invited me to attend church with him. I have known David since the time he visited the Los Angeles First (singles) Ward when I was its bishop (1982–86). David comes from a prominent Salt Lake family, one with a strong pioneer heritage and deep roots in the Restoration. He grew up in the Church and, like most gay Mormons, struggled over a period of many years to reconcile his sexual orientation with the demands of his religious community. When it came time for him to serve a mission, he felt that he should be totally honest and tell the general authority who interviewed him that he was gay. The authority, who was signing a batch of papers at the time, didn’t even look up. “Elder,” he said, “I would rather you had told me that you were dying of cancer than that you are homosexual.” David served an honorable mission to South America but came close to having a mental breakdown while doing so. He returned, finished his education, and became prominent in his chosen field, all the while trying to resolve the conflict between his sexual orientation and his Mormonism.
Not feeling welcome in his own church but nevertheless wanting to find a place where he could worship and find fellowship with other Christians, David began attending St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hollywood. St. Thomas may seem like an unusual home for a Latter-day Saint. Its “high church” style, reflecting the “rich liturgical tradition” of Anglo-Catholicism, is dramatically different from the plain, “low church” liturgy of the Latter-day Saint tradition.
When I arrived at St. Thomas, David introduced me to a number of gay Latter-day Saints who belong to the congregation, among whom were the lay leader of the congregation, the organist, and the organ’s designer and builder. All had served faithful missions for the Church when they were younger. Having worked with a number of gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints over the years who, upon their separation from Mormonism had found no other spiritual home, I was immensely grateful to the St. Thomas congregation for welcoming these six Mormons into their church family. Sitting in the service that Sunday, I was aware of how much the spiritual preparation of these Latter-day Saints, including their service as missionaries in various parts of the world (Japan, France, Germany, Peru and the United States), contributed to St. Thomas’s ministry.
I attended St. Thomas during Lent, the forty-day liturgical season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday celebrated by much of the Christian world. Lent symbolizes the forty days Christ spent in the desert preparing for his atonement and crucifixion. As such, it is a time of repentance, prayer, self-denial, and almsgiving. The primary function of Lent is to prepare Christians spiritually for the events of Holy Week, culminating in the celebration of the Resurrection.
The Sunday I attended was the last Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany, the holy day marking the revelation of Christ to the Magi as well as the revelation of Christ to his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.
As I worshipped that day with David and my other Latter-day Saint brothers, I was struck by how everything in the service focused on the Savior, on his life and mission. It emphasized “great respect . . . for the living message of social justice proclaimed by Jesus Christ.” Although the service included many elements not part of my usual worship experience, everything was meaningful—the organ music (played by a returned LDS missionary), hymns (sung by the choir and congregation), readings from the scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer, and a sermon (delivered by Reverend Loren Ruby, the interim pastor). Through such devotional expressions, I found myself thinking much more deeply about the events of Christ’s last week and their relationship to me.
I paid particular attention to the sermon, which focused on the transfiguration of Christ as recounted in Luke 9:28–36. Rev. Ruby spoke of what a defining moment the transfiguration was for Peter, James, and John. They woke in time to behold Jesus’s glory, but were so dazzled that Peter could only think to suggest that they erect some tabernacles in response. Rev. Ruby asked if our reaction might have been the same: if we “might have missed the experience of God” in our midst. If we had been awake enough to see the light “shining from Christ’s face,” “would we have wanted to tame that light, to institutionalize it, to reduce it, to put it in a box—or to let it shine through us?”
Then, speaking much like a Mormon apostle discoursing on the Light of Christ, Rev. Ruby said, “The light that shines off Jesus suffuses everything and everyone. The light that shines from the face of Christ shines from all the faces around.” I looked at David’s face and saw that light. I saw it on the faces of others in the congregation. I hoped that it shone from my face as well. He added, “We can let that light shine so that the world through our transfiguration can be transfigured. . . . The transfiguring power of God is not something just to be amazed at, but a gift given to us. This is our birthright—to let the transfiguring glory of the Lord shine throughout the world. . . . We need only claim it and thank God and say to the world that it is.”
Worshipping that last Sunday after Epiphany with David and the other gay Latter-day Saints who had been welcomed into full fellowship at St. Thomas the Apostle, I was struck at how their devotion to Christ had helped them find a way to worship and follow him even if they did not feel they could do so within their own church. But perhaps their experience that day was heightened by what they understood of Christ through the Restoration.
In the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas, a compilation of Jesus’s supposed sayings, we read, “If those who lead you say to you: See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father.” Or as Stephen Mitchell says in The Gospel According to Jesus (1991), “The kingdom of God is not something that will happen, because it isn’t something that can happen. It can’t appear in a world or a nation; it is a condition that has no plural, but only infinite singulars.”
Rev. Ruby had begun his sermon by telling the congregation that we should “receive strangers as we would receive Christ, and open to them the fullest hospitality.” St. Thomas is a church that welcomes strangers and foreigners. It was one of the first churches in Southern California to open its doors to those infected with HIV-AIDS, and for over three decades has had an “AIDS ministry” as well as an outreach program for the poor and homeless. As a Latter-day Saint, I was grateful that St. Thomas had welcomed my Mormon brothers, had given them a spiritual home, and had blessed them in countless ways. This is what churches are for.
In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells of how she started finding her way out of an atheistic upbringing and a life of drug and alcohol abuse when she heard singing from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Marin, California. For a number of Sundays she simply stood in the doorway and listened to the singing of this small, black congregation. Slowly she inched her way into the church. “Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart.”
Walking into that church ignited a light in her darkness: “Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated.” But, as she had done previously, on this particular Sunday she rushed out of the church before the sermon began. A week later she stayed for the entire service. One of the songs was “so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.” Reflecting on this experience later, she writes, “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew’s tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—which is where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in.”
That is what churches are for—to create a home for us, to let us in. When they fail to let all of us in, they fail in their fundamental mission, which is to make it possible for us to experience the love of God and the love of others in deep, intimate ways and, therefore, to feel enough love for ourselves that we can allow the grace of God to work its miracle in our lives.
I was grateful to David for letting me into his church, for inviting me to worship with him and other Latter-day Saints at St. Thomas the Apostle. As I sat among other believers of a different tradition, I felt at one with them. As I sang the hymns, listened to the prayers and scriptures, and reflected on the transfiguration of the Lord—and our transfiguration through him—I felt to exclaim, as the reading from Psalms for the last Sunday after Epiphany says, “Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and worship him upon his holy hill; for the Lord our God is the Holy One” (Psalm 99). And, as Nephi reminds us, he is the only keeper of the gate.