Latest from Mormon Land: LDS Church’s same-sex dilemma makes prime-time TV

Also: More diversity is coming to BYUtv; sexuality issues make headlines; a new book explores the real Joseph Smith; and the church expands in Cuba.

(Photo courtesy NBC Universal) Ryan Eggold as Dr. Max Goodwin in “New Amsterdam.”

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Same-sex dilemma makes a TV appearance

The church and its stance on same-sex relationships played a supporting role in last week’s episode of the hospital drama “New Amsterdam.”

In the television show (season three, episode seven), a Latter-day Saint missionary contracts HIV by sleeping with a man. His ecclesiastical leader, titled “elder,” threatens to send him home.

The missionary yearns to remain true to his religion and live the church’s standard — that same-sex attraction is not a sin but acting on it is. He wants to be “a Mormon husband to a Mormon wife” and have children — a “path” back into good standing suggested by his mission president.

Church leaders are instructed nowadays, of course, against counseling gay members to enter mixed-orientation marriages as a “solution” to same-sex attraction.

Still, one of the doctors sees this avenue as a way for his patient to fulfill his deepest religious desires and have children — which he describes as the “cornerstone of his spiritual community.”

Another physician is appalled, arguing that such an approach would deny the man an “authentic” life and chase him “back into the closet.”

The show essentially frames the dilemma as a choice: Live truth to the faith or true to self.

On another front, although the church’s full name is stated, the characters freely bandy about the well-known “Mormon” moniker, which President Russell M. Nelson hopes to abolish when referring to the church and its members.

More diversity coming to BYUtv

(Photo courtesy of BYUtv) Millie Davis as Amelia, Devin Cecchetto as Victoria, Kate Hewlett as Cleo, Charlie Zeltzer as Charlie and Agape Mngomezulu as Nathan in "The Parker Andersons."

BYUtv is airing two new shows about a mixed-race family, and LGBTQ characters soon could be coming to the church-owned network as well.

Black actors make up half the cast of “The Parker Andersons” and its companion show, “Amelia Anderson.” The writers are Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“The Parker Andersons” is “essentially an interracial ‘Brady Bunch,’” Salt Lake Tribune television critic Scott D. Pierce writes. “Although, in the pilot, the differences are more about nationality than about race.”

Producers say both shows will include LGBTQ characters in their second seasons — if they stick around for their sophomore years. Pierce reports that the Canadian production company behind those offerings are working on another show for BYUtv that definitely “will have LGBTQ characters.”

For its part, the station said that it hopes to “address subjects — including LGBTQ — that are important to our growing and diverse audience,” noting that it has “no policies that would exclude the network from including characters who identify as LGBTQ, and BYUtv is exploring ways to do so.”

This week’s podcast: Sexuality, therapy and church discipline

Natasha Helfer

Latter-day Saint sex therapist Natasha Helfer faced a disciplinary hearing Sunday on her membership status.

She was accused of apostasy for her public stances on masturbation, same-sex marriage and pornography, positions she argues are consistent with the consensus in the mental health community.

Due to procedural differences, Helfer wound up not attending the hearing, so the council took place without her. She ultimately had her membership withdrawn (a penalty that used to be termed excommunication).

On this week’s show, Latter-day Saint therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a friend of Helfer, discusses those sexuality topics and the effect this move by church leaders may have on mental health professionals and their Latter-day Saint patients.

Listen to the podcast here.

Read more about Helfer’s case here, here and here.

The real Joseph Smith

(Salt Lake Tribune archives) Portrait of Joseph Smith. A newly released book, “Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character," offers more insights on the church founder.

Church founder Joseph Smith famously said “no man knows my history.” But Matthew C. Godfrey, Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith come about as close as anybody.

The three scholars worked on the groundbreaking “Joseph Smith Papers” project and edited the recently released “Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character.”

They offered some insights from their research about the faith’s first leader in an interview this month with Kurt Manwaring.

“You see a Joseph that is both the prophet of God and a man with human qualities and emotions. You see someone who could be quick to anger but also someone who was quick to ask for forgiveness,” Godfrey said. “You see a Joseph Smith who could be loyal to people almost to a fault, and a Joseph who was hurt when others didn’t show him that same loyalty.”

As a “real human being who was not without faults or weaknesses,” he added, Smith faced “everyday trials that all of us face: death, sickness, arguments with family members, moments where God seems to be silent, friends who suddenly aren’t your friends anymore. [He] experienced all of these things but was able to maintain an optimistic spirit and a trust in God.”

Church expands in Cuba

Cuba’s ambassador met in 2019 with the governing First Presidency and proclaimed that the church is welcome in his Caribbean country.

Two years later, it’s more than welcome. It’s growing.

The Utah-based faith recently organized its first branch, or small congregation, in a major city outside of Havana, independent researcher Matt Martinich reports at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com. The Holguin Branch now joins four other branches in the Havana District.

“The church has reported rapid membership growth in Cuba in recent years,” he writes. “...The number of branches in Cuba increased from one to two in 2014, three in 2017, four in 2019, and five as of April 2021.”

Even so, the church — with the latest membership tally, from the end of 2018, standing at 350-plus — remains a tiny speck in Cuba, home to more than 11 million people.

The Tribune’s ties to Mormonism

The first edition of what would become The Salt Lake Tribune, Saturday, April 15, 1871.

Faith is called the first principle of the Latter-day Saint gospel.

It was also the founding principle, in a way, by the founding principals of The Salt Lake Tribune.

In a religious quest, they launched the paper with an eye toward reforming the LDS Church and reining in its second prophet-president, Brigham Young.

At times, though, the paper devolved into an anti-Mormon mouthpiece, openly mocking the faith’s practices and its practitioners.

Eventually, however, The Tribune became a solidly secular publication and strived to be evenhanded.

As the paper celebrates its 150th anniversary, senior religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack explores its evolution and the increasingly diverse religious landscape it covers.

She writes: “The modern Tribune — desiring to enhance conversations and ease confrontations, to transcend boundaries and triumph over tribalism — aims to give ... all a voice.”

Read her piece here.

DI debuts in Texas

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An associate at the new Deseret Industries in Houston helps customers on April 15, 2021.

The DI is well known to Utahns and other Westerners.

Now Texans will become familiar with Deseret Industries as well.

The thrift store — which also provides employment and work training — has opened in Houston, its first outlet east of the Rockies.

“This operation is a gift from God, created to do for others what we individually are not equipped to do for them on our own. It is, in essence, an inn for God’s children, and he is the innkeeper,” general authority Seventy Sean Douglas said, referring to the lodging to which the New Testament’s good Samaritan takes an injured stranger. “Just as the inn on the road to Jericho [in ancient Palestine] proved to be more than a tavern to weary travelers, so does this operation offer more to those earnestly seeking essential skills that will enlarge their capacities and increase their hope to become more self-reliant.”

The new 65,000-square-foot store, located 15 minutes from the church’s Houston Temple, debuted April 15 to a warm welcome from the community.

“This is really a spiritual place, where people’s lives are put back together again by working and getting back into the workforce,” Alex Wathen, one of the first customers, said in a news release. “Lives change here…. This will become a very popular place very quickly.”

Besides accepting donated goods and then selling them at discounted prices, the 45 DI stores throughout Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and now Texas provide employment, skill enhancement, career counseling and help with job placement.

“It’s the worst business model in the world,” Rob Golightly, a regional manager, joked. “We bring associates in, we teach them and help them become better, and then we congratulate them when they leave from us and go somewhere else.”

Relief efforts

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saint volunteers join the landscape crew on the Bromley Family Pearl Haven Campus in Hawaii on March 31, 2021.

• In partnership with the nonprofit group Ho’ōla Nā Pua (New Life for Our Children), the church has donated $400,000 toward the Bromley Family Pearl Haven Campus, a residential treatment center in Hawaii for youths who have been sexually exploited.

“This extraordinary and generous gift from the church made it possible for Ho’ōla Nā Pua to finish the phase one renovation of the Pearl Haven Campus,” Jessica Muñoz, the group’s founder and president, said in a news release. “Together, we are creating bright futures for the youth of Hawaii.”

• The pandemic has halted water installations inside homes across the Navajo Nation, so Latter-day Saint Charities and its nonprofit partner are doing the next best thing: placing storage tanks outside.

Crews are putting 275-gallon tanks near homes that remote residents across the reservation in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico then can tap to meet their water needs.

“We are starting to implement what we’re calling ‘suitcase systems,’ and they’re called suitcase because all of the elements that would go indoors with a regular home water system are going into these compact boxes that go outside of the home,” Emma Robbins, executive director of the DigDeep project, said in a news release. “These will bring people running water to one sink.”

(Photo courtesy of DigDeep) A young girl at the Navajo Nation reservation is cleaned with newly installed running water. The Navajo Nation is one of the hardest-hit pockets of water poverty in the country, where 30% of homes have no running water, and many lack electricity.

Area leaders announced

If you are curious as to which male priesthood leaders have been assigned to oversee which areas of the church, that information is just a click away.

A news release this week shows the new designations, complete with photos of each presidency member.

“There are currently 22 areas,” the release notes, “six that span the United States and Canada, with 16 more outside those two countries.”

The assignments take effect Aug. 1.

Temple updates

(Rendering courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Helena Montana Temple.

• President Russell M. Nelson announced Montana’s second temple just a few weeks ago, but the church already has released a rendering and location.

The single-story, center-spired, 10,000-square-foot Helena Temple will be built on nearly 5 acres at 1260 Otter Road. It will join the Billings Temple in serving Montana’s more than 50,000 members.

• Next week, seven Utah temples — Cedar City, Manti, Mount Timpanogos (in American Fork), Payson, Provo, Provo City Center and Vernal — will join the eight other operating Utah temples in offering baptisms for the dead.

By that date, 53 temples across the globe will be providing that ordinance as part of the faith’s phased reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Quote of the week

“When you get an impression, act upon it, however unusual it seems or however inadequate you feel in following it. Act upon it. There’s a reason. You may not know the reason, but blessings will follow to you and to someone else if you hear him.”

— Dallin H. Oaks in a YouTube video.

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.