Proposed name change exposes divisions in Mormons Building Bridges, spurs creation of new LGBTQ support group

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Members of Mormons Building Bridges march in the 2018 Utah Pride Parade.

It was intended as a simple nod to LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson’s vow to vanquish the term “Mormon.”

Instead, the short-lived move to change the name of Mormons Building Bridges, an LGBTQ support group, to “Saints Building Bridges” signaled subtle but serious differences for the prominent group and prompted some notable departures.

At its core, the conflict is about how, when or whether to approach gay rights issues in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which considers acting on same-sex attraction a sin — as insiders. It's also about whether to publicly call out the faith and its policies.

Should Bridges appeal to active churchgoers who respect their leaders as mouthpieces for God yet yearn for more LGBTQ understanding in the pews and from the pulpit?

Or should the group at least acknowledge that church policies and teachings have harmed these believers, no matter how kindly they are treated within the faith?

It’s not a question of end goals — both factions hunger for a better future for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints — but of methods and priorities.

Such distinctions prompted Bridges co-founder Erika Munson to step away and start a new group, Emmaus.

Munson, a straight married Latter-day Saint mom of five from Sandy, launched Bridges in 2012, and shortly thereafter engaged Kendall Wilcox, a gay Latter-day Saint filmmaker, in the effort to ease some of the tensions between the LDS and LGBTQ communities.

(Tribune file photo) Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, appears on a "Trib Talk" episode.

They began in 2012 by amassing more than 300 church members dressed in their Sunday best to march in that year’s Utah Gay Pride Parade.

The purpose: Send a message of love to the state's gay community, a message they believed was compatible with their religion.

It marked the beginning of a grassroots movement to heal wounds and build relationships. By year’s end, Bridges was chosen as The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahns of the Year.

The group’s participants were not out to debate doctrine or politics, organizers said, but to promote love and listening. Still, their simple yet potent gesture echoed around the globe, setting an example for fellow believers who then took up the style, if not the name, in many other Pride parades. They also attracted national and international media attention.

Some gay activists were wary, of course, given that the group declined to weigh in on the issue of the day: marriage equality. But a lot has happened in the Utah-based faith and in the United States since then.

Rulings and rules

Same-sex marriage is now legal across the country, though the LDS Church remains opposed to the practice.

“The [Supreme] Court’s decision does not alter the Lord's doctrine that marriage is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God,” it declared in July 2015. “While showing respect for those who think differently, the church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine.”

The faith did give its blessing earlier that year to statewide nondiscrimination protections in housing and the workplace for LGBTQ individuals in a compromise that also provided safeguards for religious liberty.

Then, in November 2015, the church instituted a policy that deemed same-sex couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from church rituals like baptism until they were 18. Latter-day Saint leaders reversed that edict in April 2019, leaving many LGBTQ members and their allies hurt and angry that it was established in the first place.

A new road

By 2020, Munson feared Bridges’ fragile balance had tipped too far toward those who see mostly harm in the church’s position on homosexuality.

She wanted to continue to reach out to those who believe in the faith’s inspired leadership, she says. “We need to be both LGBTQ-affirming and church-affirming.”

So Munson enlisted the help of John Gustav-Wrathall, former executive director of Affirmation, a support group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and their families, and together they have created Emmaus, named for the road where two biblical disciples walked with the resurrected Christ.

Emmaus is a community of heterosexual/cisgender and LGBTQ Latter-day Saints,” the group’s vision statement says, “who are called to ministry for the safety, well-being and happiness of LGBTQ people in and adjacent to the [church].”

The new group believes that “there is a place in Christ’s church and in our Heavenly Parents’ plan for every single one of us,” the statement adds, “and our hearts ache for the anguish caused by misunderstanding and lack of knowledge.”

They maintain “the way forward lies through relationship, connection and listening,” organizers say. “… We recognize that real change takes time and requires patience. We know from experience the power of relationship to transform understanding. We are committed to a process that fosters connection, communication, learning and empathy.”

(Courtesy photo) John Gustav-Wrathall.

This approach “will be most compelling as we have conversations with church leaders,” says Gustav-Wrathall, an excommunicated gay Mormon in a long-term same-sex relationship who nonetheless, before the coronavirus clampdown, regularly attended weekly Latter-day Saint services in Minneapolis. “The voices and presence of those who are currently active will be critical in helping the church to understand how to do better ministering in our wards, which would dramatically increase the percentage of LGBTQ folks who feel sustained and strengthened and able to participate in the church, and help raise awareness so that family members and friends of those who leave the church will be more loving and supportive of those who have left.”

That’s also why he and Munson thought a name change would be a smart idea.

“If we were serious about continuing to engage with the church,” he says, “we had to use language that wouldn't mark us as alien to the church.”

Emmaus will not likely march in any parades, he says.

That was a particularly “potent moment and symbol that was outwardly focused,” he says. “What’s needed now is more inwardly focused, a more internal healing ministry.”

‘Divine discomfort’

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Kendall Wilcox, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges.

For its part, Bridges’ mode of operation has no single leader or group hierarchy. Wilcox, who has been openly critical of top Latter-day Saint leaders for their sermons and positions on LGBTQ issues, is one of several fellow volunteers to have stepped forward to maintain the community that now has thousands of participants.

It is “a movement centered around a sense of ministry and mission,” according to its mission statement. “It is not a formal organization, and there are no formal members.”

Wilcox argues that believing Latter-day Saints should stay engaged with Bridges and with the LGBTQ community, even when some challenge church doctrine and leaders or simply express their pain and anger at the faith.

“They may experience what I call ‘divine discomfort’ about how their church treats LGBTQ people,” he says. “But we want to have a community in which both sides learn to build spiritual skills for responding.”

What is the “tolerance threshold,” Wilcox asks, for active Latter-day Saints “to truly listen to the lived experience of the LGBTQ members in their midst?” And why should these members “be coddled in the status quo?”

He wants to reach people anywhere along the spectrum of belief and practice, creating a safe place for all who have ever been a part of the church.

That is why, he says, the “Mormon” name will remain.