Like Mormon pioneers in the 1850s, gay-rights supporters pulled a handcart through Salt Lake City on Wednesday in what they dubbed a "rescue" mission.
The Foundation for Reconciliation carted more than 2,000 petition signatures to LDS Church headquarters, calling on the church to salvage relations with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their families.
"It's way past time to send out the rescue committee," said Gary Watts, a former Mormon who has two gay children among his brood of six, "and bring these gay brothers and sisters back into the fold."
The group, comprised of present and past Mormons, contends that LDS policies on homosexuality have had a harmful effect on many Mormon families with LGBT members, contributing to estrangement, suicide and homeless youths.
About two dozen people joined in the two-hour, downhill walk from This is the Place Monument to City Creek Park for a short rally, where attendance grew to about 40. The group then delivered a trunk, filled with the signatures and other materials, to Mark Burton, a member of the church's public affairs staff, outside the Church Office Building downtown.
Participants, singing the LDS hymn "Love One Another," dropped white carnations on the trunk to pay tribute to gay Mormons who have committed suicide. LDS officials denied a request that a general authority meet with the group -- which last month scored a meeting with Gov. Gary Herbert -- to accept the petition.
"The church meets with responsible groups all the time on a variety of issues -- but we don't do it to garner publicity," church spokeswoman Kim Farah said in a phone interview after the event.
"It is confusing that this group felt the need to tell the church about love and compassion," she added. "Church leaders are keenly aware of the various challenges members face around the world -- both collectively and individually -- and countless hours are spent every week helping them ... The collective experience of millions of members is one of being part of a loving, compassionate faith."
The Foundation chose Wednesday for the event to mark the one-year anniversary of California's Proposition 8, the successful ballot measure -- supported by the LDS Church and many of its members -- that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in the Golden State. The trek also came one day after voters in Maine overturned gay marriage in their state, by a 5 percent margin.
The vote was "another victory for fear in our country," Foundation for Reconciliation trek leader Peter Danzig said. "Remember that love is what will conquer that."
His three young daughters, dressed in pioneer-era bonnets and prairie dresses, gave the handcart its first pull. Danzig said he hopes the event sparks conversations among Mormons about the often taboo topics of gay marriage and LDS policies toward gay members, who are expected to be chaste unless they are in heterosexual marriages.
The trek drew its inspiration from the famed efforts of LDS Church leaders to rescue members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies, who struggled to reach Utah late in 1856, suffering from food shortages and cold-weather exposure. Modern Latter-day Saints often hold trek re-enactments to honor the determination of their ancestors.
On Wednesday, Will Carlson, a gay Salt Laker who served an LDS mission but later left the church, also remembered his pioneer heritage before setting out on the journey.
"My ancestors came across the plains looking for the freedom to live their lives according to the dictates of their own conscience and to be free from persecution," said Carlson, who works at Equality Utah as public-policy manager. "I'm here to declare those same rights."
» To view the Foundation for Reconciliation's petition and related materials, visit www.ldsapology.org.