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More than 150 gays and lesbians, fundamentalists and feminists, intellectuals, deists, atheists and true believers came together on Saturday to consider one question: What does it mean to be Mormon?
This odd assortment of Latter-day Saints has discussed the idea at length on the Internet, especially at the website Mormon Stories, which features regular podcasts with Mormon writers, thinkers and leaders, but this weekend they decided to meet in person.
It was the first Mormon Stories Conference, meeting at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, and the theme was "Open Mormon Pioneers in the 21st Century."
The participants came from very different places regarding their relationships to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints some were practicing Mormons, some have stepped away from the faith, some have been excommunicated, and some have resigned but they all self-identify as Mormons.
"We are here to celebrate our Mormon heritage, honor different spiritual paths and recognize the confusion and trauma that accompany faith crises," said Anne Peffer, who introduced the afternoon speakers. "We are here to create a safe space to meet and discuss these issues."
But were they planning to start a new church?
Peffer and organizer John Dehlin offered an emphatic "no."
"This is not about criticizing the church, and it's not about convincing people to stay in the church, either," Dehlin said. "It's about finding what to cling to in Mormonism, when your heart is broken by the church and a spiritual, emotional, community and moral chasm opens up. If not the institution, then it might be through identity."
Margaret Toscano, who was excommunicated from the LDS Church for heresy, has grappled for a decade with how "Mormon" to be after that excruciating experience.
"Over the years I realized Mormonism was such a part of me that I could not walk away," said Toscano, who teaches classical literature at the University of Utah. "I wanted some way to express it."
She hasn't returned to the LDS Church, Toscano said, but has continued to "feel called to speak for Mormon women."
Mormon poet and gay activist Carol Lynn Pearson decried the increasing sense of polarization in the world and the church.
"When I grew up in Provo, the only 'them' I knew were the Russians," said Pearson, who lives in northern California. "Now we've got otherness everywhere."
If a young Mormon man tells his parents he's gay, she said, "in about 20 seconds he becomes a 'them.' "
She urged audience members who have left the LDS Church to find some aspects of their upbringing to honor. And, no matter where they end up religiously, she said, each one should "be the most amazingly bright, happy person you can be."
Jared Anderson, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described himself as a "hopeful agnostic, theistic Mormon."
"Our way is not better than a literalistic approach [to Mormon history and scripture]; it is just different," Anderson said. "We can't force our journey on anyone. We need to be tactful and loving in how we approach each other."
Joanna Brooks, a Mormon writer and scholar in southern California with a pioneer heritage and a lifetime of church involvement, stepped away from the LDS Church for about 15 years after watching in horror as Mormon intellectuals such as Toscano were excommunicated in the 1990s.
"I had invested everything in my Mormonism," Brooks said. "I believed it was only a matter of time before I would be told I no longer belonged."
She couldn't enter a Mormon chapel without weeping, she said, while Dehlin was quietly sobbing in the audience.
"Yet I did not abandon my Mormon identity," Brooks said.
In 2007, while watching the PBS series on the Mormons, the California writer and, by then, mother, had an epiphany: Despite her unorthodox beliefs, no one could tell her she didn't belong.
Six months later, the LDS Church launched its support for California's Proposition 8, the ballot measure defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
"I volunteered with the 'No on 8' campaign," Brooks said. "I told them, 'My name is Joanna and I'm a straight, Mormon feminist, representing the Mormonism I love.' "
Meeting Dehlin and the other "unorthodox" Mormons, including those in attendance on Saturday, "has been one of the most healing moments of my life."
Surely, Brooks said, "there's a place in Mormonism for all of us."