For the past three days, I did something that would blow the socks off of a younger version of myself: I spent three days at a conference dedicated entirely to Mormonism.
Not only that, but I went willingly. I don’t mean willingly in the “I probably should because it’s the right thing to do” sense that people in LDS Mormonism use it. I honestly mean that I genuinely wanted to go and was actively excited about it in the weeks leading up to this conference.
And I wasn’t bored for a single second of it.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I know a lot of LDS faithful talk about General Conference like it’s the most amazing event in the world, but let’s be honest: How many faithful Mormons can honestly say that they’re still excited about Conference after they’ve sat through ten straight hours of talks? How many people get distracted, lose interest or find something else to keep them occupied while watching Conference?
That’s not how the Sunstone Symposium was for me.
By my estimates, I spent almost thirteen hours in Sunstone sessions this weekend. On top of that, I brought home ten hours of audio from sessions that I wasn’t able to attend in person. That’s almost a days worth of discussions on Mormonism, and that doesn’t account for the two lunchtime sessions that I attended.
Not once this weekend did I think “I’m bored, I wish the next speaker would get up” or “I sure hope this guy has a good airplane story to share.” I dreaded the end of almost every session because I wanted to keep learning. There was always a mountain of useful information to glean from each presentation.
I never realized just how badly I had been craving something more from my church experience.
Whoops. 😬 (Source)
Think about when you’re out hiking for a long time in the heat. Maybe your water runs low. What little water you have is warm and only somewhat satisfying because you can’t drink very much. Eventually, you make it back to the car where you have a cooler filled with ice-cold water. How good does that cold water taste? Sunstone was like a drink of cold water after a long, dusty, sweaty hike.
“But Sunstone is purely intellectual! Spiritual substance is the buoy that you need to keep afloat in this horrible, evil world!” you might say!
I spent an hour listening to Roy Jeff’s (son of infamous polygamist Warren Jeff’s) talk about his experience growing up in the FLDS church and his eventual escape from his father’s abuse. What I felt in that room touched me on a deeper, more human level than anything that I’ve experienced in the LDS church in years. It may not fit the traditional mold of a “spiritual experience” as used by the church that I grew up in, but it was spiritual to me. In fact, it was spiritual on a whole level that I’d never experienced because it didn’t stop at the “good, happy feeling” of LDS Mormonism.
The breadth and depth of what I saw and experienced this weekend blew me away.
I walked into a panel of two moderators from the ex-Mormon Reddit group and heard stories of people who were on the verge of taking their life, only to be rescued by complete strangers whom they had never met personally. When I went up to introduce myself afterward one of the panelists excitedly told me that they were excited to discover my real identity because they recognized my Reddit username and loved my posts.
I sat in a room filled with people discussing the pain that they experienced when friends and family labeled them for leaving the LDS Church. We talked about techniques for dealing with that pain, moving past it and even reclaiming the label of “Mormon” when and if the time became right.
I talked personally with Bill Reel, a fully active member of the LDS Church. I thanked him for his podcast on spiritual trauma (which you can listen to over here if you’re interested.) I confided in him and expressed how lonely my own spiritual journey has been at times. He validated my experiences and told me that he’d always be willing to listen if I needed to talk. He understood my pain in a way that no bishop or priesthood leader has.
I listened to people talk frankly and honestly about the issues in the LDS church. No topic was whitewashed, inappropriate or taboo. The lack of archeological evidence for the Book of Mormon was discussed impartially, issues with the priesthood ban were brought forward openly, and LGBT issues were tackled with love rather with cold, corporate policy. (Ahem!)
I met Polygamists, ex-Mormons, scholars, and believing LDS members alike. We bumped into each other as we moved between panels, talked after sessions ended, and ate lunch together. It didn’t matter if you were a first-time attendee like myself, or Lindsay Hansen Park, the organizer of the entire event. Everyone felt equal. No one person was above another.
Sunstone is what I wish my LDS experience was like every week. There was life, excitement, and enthusiasm that I wish I experienced in church. No question was inappropriate, no concern off-limits and no person more important than the rest.
What I came to understand this weekend is that every Mormon experience is a legitimate experience, regardless of what sect of Mormonism you belong to (if any) or where you are in your personal faith journey. The corporate Mormon Church may not like me suggesting that the term “Mormon” applies far beyond their own narrow definition, but I don’t care. They don’t have a monopoly on the word.
Every Sunstone attendee was given a tag with “I’m a…Mormon” written on it. There was room for each person to write your own descriptor in the middle. Many people came up with creative things to write on theirs. It took me awhile to decide what to write on mine, but by the end of the symposium, mine read “I’m a…Recovering Mormon.”
This weekend I was happy to call myself a Mormon.
If you would like to learn more about Sunstone, please visit their website at sunstonemagazine.com