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Gay brother of Mormon apostle shares his spiritual journey

SHARE Gay brother of Mormon apostle shares his spiritual journey

SALT LAKE CITY — Tom Christofferson was certain the breaking news about the LDS Church was just "rumors."

It was Nov. 15, 2015, and Christofferson's phone was vibrating constantly with incoming messages about a new policy announced by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding children in same-sex unions not being able to receive priesthood ordinances and gay marriage as grounds for apostasy.

Tom, a self-described "happy gay Mormon," sent a text to his brother, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The apostle confirmed the news. Tom Christofferson was stunned.

In a phone call later that night, Elder Christofferson told his brother he had just taped an interview with the managing director of LDS Church Public Affairs, a position held at the time by Michael Otterson, and added, "If you feel you need to distance yourself from me, I will understand."

"You have never distanced yourself from me, and I'm sure it hasn't always been comfortable for you," Tom Christofferson told his brother. "Of course I am not going to back away from you in any way."

The tender brotherly exchange is one of many personal accounts shared by Tom Christofferson in his new book, "That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family," set to land on bookshelves Sept. 25. The book chronicles his life and spiritual journey away from and back to the LDS faith.

"For me, being gay is one of the greatest blessings of my life because I came to a point where I felt I really had to know that Christ lives, that his Atonement and resurrection are realities that have impact in my life," Christofferson told the Deseret News. "Other people come to that knowledge in their own ways, but this caused me to seek knowledge. I am incredibly grateful for this path."

Christofferson's story will also be shared in a KSL TV special between sessions of this October's LDS General Conference. The program will feature an interview with Christofferson and his brothers, along with ward and stake leaders who helped fellowship him back into the LDS faith after nearly two decades.

Motivated by a desire to shed light on the loving examples of his accepting family and the open arms of an LDS Ward in New Canaan, Connecticut, Christofferson felt that sharing his story was a way to share their stories. It is a story that demonstrates the way to become a "Zion people," Christofferson said.

"Together we bring a greater ability to understand, to have compassion and empathy, and that’s what really creates the community," Christofferson said. "We can all come together and bring those experiences, understanding, attributes, character traits, talents and everything with us. Out of that diversity comes a thriving community."

Jeff Benedict, an author and friend of Christofferson, said he believes Christofferson and his book will play a key role in creating that community, a community Christofferson believes in because of the Christlike love extended to him by others.

"Tom Christofferson and his personal journey has brought understanding and inspiration to the Latter-day Saint community," Benedict said. "More importantly, his story has been a healing agent and a source of hope for our gay brothers and sisters, many of whom have spent far too long in the lonely shadows at the margins of our faith."

Christofferson first recognized he was different around age 5. Raised in an LDS family, he went on to serve a full-time LDS mission and was married to a woman in the Los Angeles California Temple. Despite hours of prayers, days of fasting and years of service, he was still gay, he wrote in the book's introduction.

Having no concept of how to reconcile being gay and Mormon, the couple's marriage was annulled and Christofferson asked to be excommunicated from the church. He began a long relationship with a partner and was happy, he said.

"I was a very happy non-Mormon and now I’m a very happy Mormon again," Christofferson said. "I think we oversimplify if we simply imagine there is no happiness outside the structure that we understand. There are friendships and the enjoyments of life and everything else, and still a desire to be a good, moral person, to make the world a better place. Happiness comes from all those things."

A major part of Christofferson's story was the acceptance of his family. Christofferson said his parents fasted and prayed for inspiration and received it.

"We don't understand or know how all of this will play out in eternity," Christofferson writes that his parents told one of their sons around this time. "So we are going to make sure we enjoy every single moment with Tom in this life."

They called a family council and encouraged everyone to love Tom and his partner. Their answer worked for him and their family and eventually led him back to the church.

"My biggest counsel to other families is to seek inspiration that is right for their kids and their families," Christofferson said.

Being away from the church was not a dark time for Christofferson, but he missed the higher meaning the gospel added to his life.

"One of the things I was looking for as I came back to church was again that feeling of a higher purpose, or a greater meaning of my life beyond enjoyment," he said. "This is where I find it. There are also people that find higher purpose or greater meaning in other places."

About 10 years ago, he found himself standing outside the front door of LDS Bishop Bruce Larson in New Canaan, Connecticut. He introduced himself, explained he was gay and in a relationship, and wondered if he was welcome at the LDS Church.

"His instantaneous comment was we’d love to have you come and hope you’ll bring your partner. We’d like to get to know both of you. The mission that we’re on in the ward is to become more effective disciples of Christ. You can help us. We all bring something and work on that effort together," Christofferson said. "I think what stands out is that I could be honest about my life and still be welcomed to join the Saints to worship. We talk about the qualifications to enter the temple, and perhaps forget that the qualifications to enter a chapel are simply a desire to know Christ and the courage to show up."

That first meeting was one Bishop Larson will never forget, he said in an email from Hong Kong Tuesday.

"I remember he was nervous, and who wouldn't be? He was there to ask a bishop he had never met the very humbling and frightening question, 'Am I welcome at church?'" Larson wrote. "But he was so sincere and heartfelt in his reasons for being there that it was a wonderful conversation."

Christofferson and his partner were welcomed into a ward where many members worked at larger corporations, traveled internationally and had a strong missionary program, Christofferson said.

"They were attuned to thinking about the experience of other people," he said. "They were aware of who is walking through the door and trying to make people feel welcome."

It was during this time that Christofferson also became acquainted with former New York Knicks president Dave Checketts and his wife Debi. Checketts was then serving as the stake president of the Yorktown New York Stake. As Christofferson increased his church activity, Checketts invited him to his home periodically on Saturday mornings to study the scriptures and discuss gospel topics. Christofferson's genuine search for understanding the doctrine not only touched Checketts' heart, but inspired him as a church leader to incorporate some of the ideas they discovered into his vision for the stake, Checketts said.

Eventually Christofferson's desire to return to the LDS Church resulted in him ending his relationship with his partner, a separation which was grieved not only by Tom but also his family who had come to love the man.

Christofferson's brother, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, also played a role in his brother's path back to the LDS Church. But Tom Christofferson says his brother, Elder Christofferson, isn't one who offers advice freely.

"You really have to beg and plead. I think his sensitivity is wanting to support the individual in coming to their own answers and falling where they feel inspired to go," Tom Christofferson said. "I told him I had started going back to church. ... But when I started back to church I really didn't imagine there would be a circumstance where I could ever be a member again. I really wanted to be in a place where I could feel the spirit more strongly, be part of a community focused on discipleship and to serve. ... I assumed anything else would be for the life after this."

The brothers have shared many discussions that have helped Tom but he has also benefited from his brother's talks, just as other members of the LDS Church have. He was in the Marriott Center when Elder Christofferson expressed "powerful ideas" in his talk, "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread," a talk Tom Christofferson says is still one of the most impactful talks he has ever heard.

"In the book I talk about daily bread, the notion of walking in faith today," Christofferson said. "And it became obvious that a path had been created."

Eventually the day came when Christofferson rejoined the church. Checketts conducted the small baptismal service at a chapel in Salt Lake City. Bishop Larson baptized Christofferson, who was then confirmed by his brother, Elder Christofferson. Each Christofferson brother gave brief remarks. It was a wonderful, spirit-filled and sacred occasion, Checketts said.

"Tom Christofferson is the best part of the story. He has blessed our lives so much with his example. I can't tell you what it has meant to our entire stake to have him go through the journey and be a part of it. It has been one of our choicest blessings," Checketts said. "To read his book gives you insights into his heart. I think it's a masterpiece."

Christofferson's book has the potential to help hundreds of LGBTQ members, their families, along with church leaders and members, Larson said.

"It's about how to accept and love anyone whose life journey might have been different than yours," said Larson, who was released as bishop about five years ago. "In that regard it should be read by any member of the church."

Checketts agreed that the book should have a far-reaching impact on the Latter-day Saint culture.

"It’s an incredible story, number one," Checketts said. "It has all the hope in it that you could possibly ask for. Incredible family, great examples of Christlike love in action and a number of others that played a role in his life as we all struggle to find a place where we can feel good about where to stand on this issue."

John Gustav-Wrathall, the executive director of Affirmation, a group that seeks to provide support to practicing and non-practicing LGBT Mormons, has been a friend of Christofferson for several years. They were in similar situations when they met, having both been excommunicated and were both in same-sex relationships while still fostering testimonies and serving in their LDS congregations. They remain friends today.

Christofferson's story models an unconditional, accepting, loving, non-judgemental and Christlike approach, Gustav-Wrathal said.

"Every human being is at a different place and has different needs so what one person might learn from Tom’s story and experience could be very different from what somebody else might learn from it," Gustav-Wrathal said. "What I admire about Tom’s journey and certainly what I relate to is the sense of trust that Tom has gone through life with, that he didn’t necessarily have all of the answers and he was willing to just kind of take whatever step seemed most appropriate and just trust that doing what felt right would be right."

Christofferson said he doesn't completely understand the Lord's purpose in how things have worked out this way, but he finds assurance in being willing to keep moving forward with the faith that someday he will have greater understanding.

"That's not just an LGBTQ thing, that's everybody. All of us have issues in our lives ... that we can't quite square with our understanding of the Savior and this Gospel," he said. "So for all of us, there are all things where we have to say, 'I am pondering, I'm praying and I'm willing to keep moving forward with the faith that greater clarity will come at some point.'"

Christofferson hopes his story is helpful to readers but also strongly encourages all to seek their own answers to life's difficulties by turning to Jesus Christ.

"Culturally we're fond of pointing to people and saying, 'We should...be like him,' which I don't think is helpful to the person designated to a role model nor the people trying to plot their own path," Christofferson said. "If there's a lesson to draw from my experience, I hope it is a determination to follow where they feel led, follow the Savior."

"That We May Be One" will available at Deseret Book and other LDS bookstores on Sept. 25. Deseret Book is a sister company to the Deseret News, and both owned by the LDS Church.