May 7, 12-year-old Savannah from Salt Lake City, Utah, stood up in her monthly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-sanctioned fast and testimony meeting and shared with the congregation that she identifies as lesbian and has a testimony that those who are gay deserve acceptance, love and equal rights to fulfillment within a partnership.
Partway through her testimony, a man Savannah identified as her “stake president,” asked her to stop talking and to sit down, according to a podcast from “I Like to Look for Rainbows.”
In no way will this column voice an opinion on whether or not her comments were doctrinally correct. What strikes me most about this incident is that the world has chosen to take offense at the relatively peaceful actions of the leadership in a small congregation during a faith-based meeting. Because supporters chose to record and broadcast the video to make a statement, it has become a matter of politics.
As students of a private, Church-owned university, many of us can probably recall similar scenes playing out at the pulpit, spanning from hostile, anti-LDS speeches to uncomfortable confessionals or simply running overtime.
It’s likely that some of us have seen a well-meaning bishop act to remove the speaker or watched as leadership allowed a speaker to give a cringeworthy, albeit harmless, “thank-imony.”
The differences between the minimal-to-nonexistent exposure of these stories in comparison with Savannah’s are a video recording and a few people with agendas.
Savannah and her mother, Heather Kester, prepared her message beforehand and invited several friends to witness as she bore her testimony on May 7. According to the podcast, Heather shared that Savannah had been preparing for months, saying, “She asked to do it in January; we finally agreed in May.”
According to Handbook 2: Administering in the Church, a book available to anyone that details how the meetings and organizations of the Church are run, “Church buildings … are to be used for worship, religious instruction and other Church-related activities. Church property should not be used for commercial or political purposes. … Making video recordings in chapels is not permitted. Meetings and other events that are held in the chapel may not be broadcast over the Internet.”
LDS testimony meetings are completely unplanned and open to all present in the congregation, active members of the Church or not.
Why does this have to become a battle between those who want freedom of speech and social rights and those who want the right to attend their religious meetings with the assurance that they will be in an environment that is uplifting and bolsters their faith? The answer is that it shouldn’t be.
According to the testimony webpage on lds.org, “A testimony is a spiritual witness given by the Holy Ghost.”
A testimony is also based on foundational doctrines: That Jesus Christ is our living Savior, that Heavenly Father loves us, that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that Christ atoned for our sins, among others, according to the LDS webpage.
Simply put, a testimony meeting was neither the time nor the place for a prepared speech or a recording, and people on the outside looking in might be judging the situation unfairly if they don’t understand the purpose or the sacred nature of such meetings.
Maybe even those of us within the Church who might have taken offense when we first heard about the story don’t fully understand.
I would hope that moving forward, we as a church and as a nation might be a little more forgiving, respectful and less prone to take offense. Let’s value our right to speak freely about issues that touch and affect us—but in the right time and place.