Listeners heard an uncommon ending to a campus devotional at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, when audience members clapped as Eric D. Huntsman, religion professor at BYU, finished his address.
His message: a call for spaces of love, listening and understanding.
“For so many of us the trial of our faith often includes long — sometimes lifelong — struggles,” the BYU professor said. “I submit that these struggles are necessary to our progression, but they are not struggles that we should ever face alone. While it is true that Jesus Christ and His Atonement provide us strength, healing and salvation, in this life He often succors and blesses us through others.”
Huntsman covered many of the issues facing young adults of the Church today — questions of faith, loving members of the LGBTQ community, equality within the Church — and encouraged listeners to make room for “both struggle and faith” for themselves and those around them.
Whether it is working through a “hard saying” — a doctrine or practice that is difficult to understand, accept, or follow — or showing love and compassion to others who act or think differently than a faithful Latter-day Saint while still keeping one’s faith intact, Huntsman encouraged listeners to help one another through the challenges.
“When I have asked my students what are ‘hard sayings’ to them, although they mention faith issues and historical (happenings) … they have increasingly spoken about faith issues that arise from life challenges, challenges that seem to call into question God’s love for them or struggles that they often feel they must endure alone, without the love and understanding of their fellow saints,” he said. “Such hard sayings include gender disparities, sexual and other identities, and racial and ethnic discrimination. In addition, they include a challenge that is common to almost all of us — the pain of loss and disappointment, whether it comes from the death of a loved one; poor physical, mental, or emotional health; or lost dreams.”
Recognizing many of these challenges mentioned do not go away easily, Huntsman said trials are part of progression, and reminded listeners they never need face these challenges alone.
“As aspiring Christians but still imperfect saints, we may not always understand the struggles of others or know how to help, but we can always love them, creating safe spaces where others — and often we ourselves — can struggle with the ‘hard sayings’ in life.”
Creating spaces for struggle
Recognizing the need to create places of faith where individuals are able to seek and nurture testimony, Huntsman taught safe spaces are much more than that — they include a place for people to safely question, seek understanding and share his or her pain.
“This requires flexibility and sensitivity on our part, requiring that we listen as much as, or more than, we speak. … Sometimes we default to platitudes to avoid uncomfortable situations when we do not know what to say,” he said. “Or, in an attempt to find common ground, we shift the conversation to our own experiences rather than just listening or giving supportive examples or responses.”
Overcoming implicit — and often explicit — biases and prejudices is difficult, Huntsman taught.
“Nonetheless, there is ample scriptural precedent that God loves all of His children, and we need to have that same openness.”
Quoting the words of President M. Russell Ballard, Huntsman said, “Without diluting the doctrine or compromising the standards of the gospel, we must open our hearts wider, reach out farther, and love more fully. By so doing, we can create more space for love, testimony, mourning and agency. We can then find not only peace but even joy in the midst of the struggle.”
Space for love
Using the example of Tom Christofferson, author of the 2017 memoir, "That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family," where Christofferson shared his own experience of leaving the Church and later returning, Huntsman spoke of the love Christofferson’s family, community and congregation showed him.
“We should never fear that we are compromising when we make the choice to love,” said Huntsman. “As Brother Christofferson notes, ‘Accepting others does not mean that we condone, agree with, or conform to their beliefs or choices, but simply that we allow the realities of their lives to be different than our own.’ Whether those different realities mean that they look, act, feel or experience life differently than we do, the unchanging fact is that they are children of loving Heavenly Parents and the same Jesus suffered and died for them as for us. Not just for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers but for many people, the choice to love can literally make the difference between life and death.”
Space for testimony
Sharing the example of Jane Manning James, a pioneer woman of African descent, Huntsman spoke of her faithfulness, despite being denied temple blessings during her mortal life.
“All of us need to cultivate testimonies of our own, and when we struggle, sometimes we need to know we are not alone,” Huntsman said. “This is certainly true for the women of the Church, many of whom desire female role models as well as the often more-talked about male figures of scripture and history.”
Creating a space where testimony gives encouragement and strength is another powerful way of ministering to the one, Huntsman said.
Space for mourning and understanding
“When Jesus wept with Mary, He gave her space to share her pain and then extended true understanding,” Huntsman said. “When people struggle with a hard saying..., healing only comes when we listen and acknowledge what they feel. …
“When we are called upon to mourn with those who mourn — even when it is not an obvious hard saying such as race, mental illness, gender or sexuality — sometimes we simply need to sit with them to listen and love.”
Space for agency
“We have been commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when it comes to neighbors, there are no outsiders,” he said. “Perhaps even more importantly, even when our fellow saints find themselves outside of formal church fellowship or membership, they should never find themselves outside of the fellowship of our friendship and the circle of our love.”
As a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Huntsman was able to go on tour this past June. One of the stops, a performance in Mountain View, California, included a profound experience for Huntsman.
“On tour, we regularly have singers from local groups join us for our sound check the afternoon before a concert,” he recalled.
For this sound check, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus joined the choir in the choir stands.
“Our guests included people who may never become members of the Church and a few who used to be members, but together that night we enjoyed our common humanity and shared love of music,” Huntsman said.
As the choir enjoyed the positive experience, one of the choir members found it very difficult. Huntsman’s friend and colleague in the choir shared how he is a member of the Church committed to keeping his covenants, and he also experiences same gender attraction.
“As we were building bridges that day, he felt, in his terms, ‘like he was still under a rock,’” Huntsman said. “His continued choice to stay in the Church comes at the cost of constant struggle, frequent pain and considerable loneliness.”
As the two sat together, Huntsman’s friend expressed testimony and mourned.
Quoting the words of President Ballard, Huntsman said, “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.”
Space for Joy
“Each of us has nights — and days — of weeping in this life,” Huntsman taught. “We all experience loss and pain in its various forms. Almost all of us have lost a loved one, many of us have lost dreams and hopes. All of us are at the risk of losing health or ability. Yet even in our loss we can experience peace and joy. We are promised ‘peace in this world’ as well as ‘eternal life in the world to come’ (Doctrine and Covenants 59:23).”
For many, Huntsman’s words were an important contribution to an ongoing conversation.
David J. Smith shared this thought on Twitter, “I’m not crying… you’re crying. What a beautiful #BYUdevo by @EricDHuntsman. God loves His children, and we need to do the same. So very powerful. I am a better person for having been here. Thank you, Eric.”
Caroline Bliss Larsen tweeted, “#BYUdevo was so good today, people CLAPPED. Best devotional I’ve listened to in a while.”