A flustered man with a half-tucked-in, buttoned-up shirt, pit stains on both sides, paced past the church pulpit in the dark chapel, fiddling with equipment that seemed to be glitching. Flashes of livestreamed video were projected onto a large white screen behind him. At the bottom left corner of the screen, we could see a countdown timer announcing the conference session was set to begin in fewer than four minutes.
Cold metal chairs had been set up behind the 20 or so rows of padded benches in the main chapel area, extending all the way through the gym and underneath two basketball hoops. Someone had pulled apart the accordion doors that normally separated the chapel from this space. Another someone (with significant upper-body strength) would be assigned the impossible task of pulling them back and fastening them together once the chairs had been stowed away underneath a stage and the venue had been cleared.
My dad fished out a plastic container of Tic Tacs (the orange kind) and shook it in my direction. His wordless offer was accepted, and I held out my tiny palm to catch a few.
We were sitting somewhere toward the front of the metal chair section, our row full of my uncles and male cousins who had coordinated their joint attendance of this Saturday evening session of 166th Semiannual General Conference. I watched my friends and their dads walk into the room to fill in the last of the chairs not already occupied by white-shirted Latter-day Saints who every six months would spend a Saturday night congregating in meetinghouses across the world to listen to sermons from Salt Lake City geriatrics, broadcast by satellite, and intended only for males ages 12 and up.
This October General Conference priesthood session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be my first, having just turned 12 only five months before.
We watched the screen as prerecorded Tabernacle Choir music that had been playing in prelude was cut and cameras in the Salt Lake Tabernacle moved toward a pulpit decorated with every flower that could be plucked from the Wasatch Front. The background behind the pulpit fell dark and lights illuminated the evening’s designated conductor, who then welcomed us by reading from a teleprompter that scrolled through some simple prepared remarks.
Two hours later, my yawning relatives and I shuffled into a couple of vans to try to beat the religious throngs to the nearest restaurant serving ice cream. It was already filled with white shirts when we arrived.
Then came my mission
This would be our routine, every six months, for years to come. Coordinated attendance. A row stuffed with my extended family members. Ice cream down the street with the other male residents of South Jordan.
Our pack’s numbers would ebb and flow as cousins left for two-year missions and then returned to rejoin our dutiful family quorum who tuned in to listen to church leaders who were periodically swapped out, thanks to mortality. The messages would remain largely the same. Missionary service. Education. Home teaching. The chastity lectures would prompt red-faced teens in the room to put their heads down.
Eventually, I left for my own mission, to Ukraine. I received a letter from my dad a week or two after my first General Conference abroad. “I attended priesthood session with my brothers and your cousins last Saturday,” it said. “But it was lonely. I miss you.”
I returned from my mission after two years and, like my cousins before me, I fell back into the fold. My dad paraded me around the congregation just before the priesthood session began like I was a soldier who had returned from war. He had called me earlier that week and left a message on my phone when I didn’t answer because I was in class at Brigham Young University. “No pressure,” his message had said. “But my brothers and your cousins will be going together this Saturday night, like we always do, and I would love to have you join us if you can.”
Every six months for the next several years, I’d make the drive from wherever I was living on a Saturday night to join the crew in my parents’ church meetinghouse, the same scene on display each time: A flustered man with pit stains fiddling with finicky audio systems. New generations of 12-year-olds watching their friends and dads enter and find their seats on the cold metal chairs. My own dad parading me around to his neighbors. My cousins, some now with their own 12-year-olds sitting by their sides, in white shirts, shaking plastic containers of Tic Tacs to drop a few into their children’s hands.
Eventually, I broke away.
A tinge of sadness
I went to the October session in 2013. Several weeks after that, I told my parents I was gay and that I finally decided it was time for me to step away from the religion of my youth. It was too painful to stay somewhere I really didn’t belong.
A few months later, I got a call from my dad. “I totally understand if you don’t want to come,” he began. “But I just wanted to make sure you knew you were still welcome to go to the priesthood session with us. I don’t want you to feel excluded.”
His voice sounded casual, and I was sure that was a concerted effort.
“I’m not going to go anymore,” I told him. “I appreciate you inviting me, but that’s just not something I’m going to be attending from now on.”
He was gracious, and we changed the subject. I hung up the phone with a pit in my stomach. Then I started a new biannual tradition: Every six months for the past 10 years, I’ve brushed off a tinge of sadness and angst at the vision of my father attending a meeting without a son to parade around to his friends.
A few years ago, on a Saturday night, my husband and I were driving to a gathering as we passed a Cold Stone Creamery, packed with at least two dozen boys and men in white shirts. My husband, a recent transplant to Salt Lake City, suddenly looked puzzled.
“Why,” he said, “is everyone in that Cold Stone dressed like Mormon missionaries?”
I chuckled, and explained that these were fathers and sons who had just gone to a church meeting together — one that happens every six months — and that it’s sort of a tradition to all go get ice cream together afterward.
“Did you used to do that with your dad?” he asked.
“Yes. And with my uncles and cousins. For years.”
We were quiet for a moment as we drove on. Finally, he mumbled “that sounds pretty nice, actually.”
My voice cracked a little when I said it.
“Yeah, it sort of was.”
Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.
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