by John Gustav-Wrathall
I recently completed an incredible 12-day trip to Colombia, attending Affirmation conferences in Bogotá and Calí, and meeting with Affirmation leaders as well as LGBTQ community leaders and politicians in Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, and Cartagena.
I met incredible, inspiring people.
I met a lesbian couple in Bogotá who have been together as a couple since 1975! We wept together as we each shared what it has meant to us have made a loving commitment of this nature in times and places where such a commitment was viewed as a radical act, with little social support and no legal recognition.
I met Venezuelan refugees and heard first-hand accounts of the tribulations of the Venezuelan people right now.
I met a Methodist pastor and mom of a trans kid who decided to become a founding member of a new Mama Dragons organization in Colombia.
I met an adorable seven-year-old, purple-haired trans girl named Luna and her fierce Mama Dragon mother, and was so moved to see Luna receive unconditional love and acceptance from the Affirmation community, something she receives less of outside of Affirmation. I thought, “A seven-year-old child deserves nothing less than fierce protection and love from every human being her path crosses in life.”
I met an ex-Mormon trans activist in Barranquilla who is joining with others in standing up to anti-trans violence and murder that has taken the lives of too many trans Latin Americans, and who is working to empower the Colombian trans community in the areas mental and physical health and education. She is an inspiration to so many! I want to bring her to the next Affirmation Conference in Utah because I believe everyone in our organization needs to hear her story.
I met with Colombian politicians who are standing up against the tide of racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, homophobia and transphobia that seem to be engulfing the politics of so many countries right now.
I met with government officials in Bogotá to tell them about what Affirmation is, about our mission and about the programs we’re developing to support that mission. I met with the director of LGBTQ community service organizations in Cartagena, a northern city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and in Bogotá, the capital, and learned more about the incredible service they provide to thousands of LGBTQ Bogotanos.
I met with therapists who provide support to LGBTQ Colombians struggling with family and community rejection.
I listened to Colombian Affirmation members talk about what Affirmation means to them. In testimony after testimony, it was possible to summarize in a single word: “Love.”
Affirmation in Colombia has become a refuge for Colombians from a variety of religious backgrounds. Though the majority of participants in Affirmation Colombia are Latter-day Saints, or from LDS backgrounds, in Colombia, Catholics, Evangelicals, “non-denominational Christians,” and Jehovah’s Witnesses choose to participate too.
A young Venezuelan refugee who is also a Jehovah’s Witness experienced total expulsion from his family. Right now there is no group in Latin America for LGBTQ Jehovah’s Witnesses, so they’ve been showing up at Affirmation in Argentina and Colombia. This young refugee is talking about starting an organization for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Affirmation is committed to giving him whatever support he needs to make that happen.
Regardless of one’s particular creed, the basic principles of Affirmation apply, and Affirmation is blessing the lives of non-Mormons, especially those who come from religious backgrounds that are extremely homophobic. Affirmation is blessed by them too. At our final “testimony meeting” in Bogotá, it was beautiful to hear queer Catholic, Evangelical and Jehovah’s Witness testimonies of love and faith intermingled with the testimonies of queer Latter-day Saints. For me, it was a beautiful foretaste of the Celestial Kingdom that left all of us, regardless of creed, weeping tears of joy!
I want to tell you what Colombian political and LGBTQ community leaders told us across the board. They want to see an Affirmation that remains fully engaged with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that persistently pursues its mission of fostering dialog in and around the Church, and that’s doing the spiritual work that will enable LGBTQ people within the unique context and belief-structure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to find ways to affirm themselves that are unique to members of that church. The executive director of Caribe Afirmativo, an international LGBTQ rights organization, was eager to meet with us to tell us how important a role he thought spirituality plays in the emotional and mental health of LGBTQ people, and to encourage us to keep doing work in the spiritual realm. It’s hard work! It can be painful work! But it is the work we are called to do.
Affirmation is currently organizing five chapters in Colombia, with the probability of organizing two more after that. We have established chapters with official presidencies in Bogotá, the capital, and in Calí, a major city in the southwestern corner of Colombia. Affirmation also has a fledgling chapter now in Ecuador, in Guayaquíl, that was founded with the help of Affirmation leaders from Colombia, that will probably continue to have close ties with Colombia and will, at least until Affirmation is better established in Ecuador, be supervised by our regional presidency in Colombia.
We have informal groups that meet and do fun stuff together in Bucaramanga, in Cartagena and in Valledupar, where we are working at getting a more formal organization in place. On this visit, Carlos Castillo Casas, the outgoing president of Affirmation Colombia, and I met with potential leaders in Bucaramanga and Cartagena, and met individuals we felt could provide the right kind of leadership in those cities.
We have contacts in Barranquilla and Medellín. Medellín is a major city in Colombia, but it is also a difficult place for LGBTQ community groups to organize because of its extreme social and political conservatism. Social conservatism both in and out of the Church is a challenge in many parts of Colombia outside of the capital. A member of our group in Cartagena, and a potential president of Affirmation Cartagena, told us he knew at least 50 LGBTQ members of the Church who needed Affirmation’s support in Cartagena alone, but the vast majority are still very much in the closet.
Affirmation Colombia was founded in 2016. At the time, we had only one group organized in Colombia, in Bogotá. The president of “Affirmation Colombia” was also the chapter president of Affirmation Bogotá. Now that chapters of Affirmation were forming in a number of different cities, a couple of months ago I met with Carlos Castillo Casas, then president of Affirmation Colombia, and told him we needed him to let go of his role as a chapter leader in Bogotá so that he could focus on fostering leadership in cities across Colombia. At our conference in Bogotá, the national Affirmation leadership was officially separated from the Bogotá chapter leadership, and a new Bogotá presidency was formed. But Carlos went one step further and better… He had cultivated a new group of leaders to take his place, so a new Affirmation Colombia presidency was formed. One vision that we have for Affirmation leadership is that we want individuals to be able to step forward and lead for a time, cultivate their own replacements, and then step back and let others lead.
As of a reorganization instituted in February 2019, Affirmation now has three area committees specifically organized to oversee the establishment and nurture of regional presidencies, which in turn are charged with overseeing the establishment and nurture of local chapters. The three area committees are USA/Canada, Iberoamerica (or Latin America) and Europe/Africa/Asia/Pacific. Each member of the Executive Committee of Affirmation oversees and is president of one of these area committees: Nathan Kitchen in USA/Canada, Jairo Fernando Gonzalez Diaz in Latin America, and Laurie Lee Hall in Europe/Africa/Asia/Pacific.
Carlos Castillo Casas has recently been invited to join the International Board of Affirmation and will be assigned to the Latin America Area Committee to help us strengthen and organize regional and chapter presidencies across Latin America.
Earlier this year, a beloved member of our Calí Affirmation chapter died by suicide. Calí chapter members and leaders, as well as Affirmation leaders and members all across Colombia who knew Leonardo, were heart-sick. They all naturally wondered what more they could have done to save him, and some blamed themselves for not saving him. In fact, Leonardo had made a previous suicide attempt, and Carlos Castillo Casas had met with Leonardo’s bishop and with his family who were all doing everything they could to save Leonardo and were grateful for the support Affirmation provided him.
One of the things we learn in our QPR suicide prevention training is that suicide is very preventable. I and other leaders of Affirmation have been involved in situations where people today are alive because of timely support they received from us or other members of Affirmation. But we still occasionally lose people. We lost Leonardo. Affirmation Colombia chose as the theme of this year’s conferences in Bogotá and Calí, “Elijo quedarme. Elijo luchar. Elijo vivir.” Translated, “I choose to stay. I choose to fight. I choose to live.” Both conferences and all of our meetings included significant teaching about principles of suicide prevention that have been proven to save lives.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with thoughts of suicide, I urge you to reach out to someone. (Helplines are posted at the end of this article.) If you haven’t taken the QPR suicide prevention training yet, I urge you to do so at your first opportunity. This basic, simple training that anyone can master is now available at every conference that Affirmation organizes.
In the Gospels, Christ promises us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you.” I can offer you my personal witness that Jesus was there with us in Colombia. At every stop along our way, as Affirmation members shared stories, prayed, sang, laughed, Christ was there in our midst.
My last day in Colombia I was privileged to stay at the home of the new president of Affirmation Colombia, Miguel Ángel, and his husband, Iván. I had an opportunity yesterday morning to hear Ivan tell me his story. For about two hours he poured his heart out, unfiltered and unexpurgated. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a young age and served a mission in Chile. The Church brought so much good into his life. That part seemed ordinary enough. But then I listened to him tell a story that at points was heart-wrenching and at points terrifying. Without sharing a lot of specific details of his story, I can say is that one of the truly evil things in this world is poverty because of the ways it makes people so very vulnerable. I can also say is that there were forces of evil surrounding this young man that conspired to ruin and destroy him. And unfortunately, because he was gay, and because of homophobia in the Church, the Church failed him at important points when it might have been there to protect him and to lift him up.
But then… (and thanks be to God there is a “but then”…) He met Miguel Ángel. And then… He found Affirmation. And he learned from Miguel Ángel that love could be pure. And he learned from Affirmation that nothing, absolutely nothing, could separate him from the love of God. And those two things literally saved him. Saved his life, saved his soul. Saved him in every way it is possible for a person to be saved. As he told me his story, I wept. And when he finished his story, he threw his arms around me and hugged me tight and wept and said again and again, “Thank you for Affirmation. Thank you for bringing Affirmation to us.”
Miguel Ángel was actually converted to the Gospel by his husband Iván. They actively attend their ward and have testimonies of the Church. Iván was very concerned about the fact that my work for Affirmation sometimes takes me away from my husband for long periods of time, and he wanted to find some way to say thanks to Göran. He gave me a brand new triple combination in Spanish, which he had just bought for himself, to give to my husband. I almost couldn’t accept it, knowing what a sacrifice this was for him. But you can’t say no to these kinds of gifts from the heart.
Miguel Ángel and Iván let me sleep on a guest bed in their tiny apartment in the Engativa in Bogotá. They fed me one of the most delicious meals I ate in Colombia, a very traditional Colombian vegetable and chicken soup, served with rice and some freshly squeezed juice from some citrus I’d never heard of. They invited me to pray over the meal. And then before retiring that night, I was invited to be a part of their family prayer. We knelt and prayed, and I felt Christ there, in our midst in that very humble but very hospitable home, while Iván poured out his heart and thanked God for Affirmation and pleaded for God to bless us in the work that we do.
So many of us have been hurt and traumatized in the church. This much is true. But we must never let anything or anyone, not powers, not principalities, not thrones, not dominions, ever make us believe that anything can separate us from the love of God. That fact, that testimony, can save us. And it can save those around us whose lives we touch.
I will never try to do this work that we do without prayer and without the Spirit of God. I have a testimony of the Church. People ask me how I reconcile that with being gay. And I think the simplest answer to that question is that the Saints aren’t perfect and they don’t know all things. That’s reflected in the 4 missions of the church, which includes “perfecting the Saints,” and in our articles of faith, that teach us “many great and glorious truths” are “yet to be revealed.” I know God. And I know there’s a place for me in God’s reign, so there must be a place for me in the church. I plan to stick around and look forward to the time when we all figure that out together.
In the meantime, there’s Affirmation.
If you are feeling suicidal and you don’t know who to turn to, please call:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or IMAlive at 1-800-784-2433.
The Trevor Project offers suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline offers referrals for substance abuse and mental health treatment at 1-800-662-4357.