Fremont High School seminary teacher overcomes disability

Story and photo by MAKAYLA STOWELL

Jeremy Chatelain wakes up every morning and drives himself to his job at Fremont High School in Ogden, Utah, where he teaches seminary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sounds like a normal day, right? Wrong. Chatelain is a quadriplegic. The simple task of going to his job every day isn’t so simple for him. But he does it anyway because it’s what he loves to do.

Fifteen years ago Chatelain dove off an Idaho bridge into shallow water and broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. The accident happened just six weeks after he signed his teaching contract with the LDS church.

Chatelain and his wife of less than a year had just moved to Blackfoot, Idaho, for his teaching career when the accident occurred.

Instead, the couple spent three and a half months at the University Hospital in Salt Lake City while Chatelain went through physical therapy. He said it was the “worst time of our lives.”

When Chatelain was finished with therapy, the young couple moved back to their home in Blackfoot.

Chatelain had been placed on leave from his job due to the accident. He was not quite ready to begin teaching full time so he decided to do some volunteer teaching instead.

After six years of volunteering and part-time teaching, Chatelain was ready to go back to full-time teaching at Blackfoot High School. The adjustment to teaching in a wheelchair wasn’t easy, but he persevered.

Then, Chatelain’s daughter, Sarah, was diagnosed with leukemia. The family had to travel to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City for her treatment. When the opportunity arose for Chatelain to transfer to a school in Utah, he took it to be closer to the hospital.

Sarah is now 11 years old and cancer free.

During her illness, Chatelain taught at several schools in the Ogden area. The LDS church assigned him to Fremont High School in 2013.

Daren Saunders, the seminary principal at Fremont, said, “I found out pretty quickly how independent he is and how helpful he is to our faculty.”

He knew Chatelain before the accident and knew about his dedication to teaching. Saunders was happy to welcome him to the Fremont seminary staff and have him teach the Gospel of the Church to teenagers.

As the seminary principal, Saunders handles all student requests to switch out of classes. “I have had very few requests to move out of his class, and the ones I have had haven’t even been related to his disability,” Saunders said in an email interview.

“Most of the kids love him and respect him. They find out from day one that his wheelchair doesn’t hold him back in any way from doing what he love to do, and he does it well,” he said.

He added that the seminary staff make sure not to do things that would automatically exclude Chatelain. They carefully plan meetings and retreats and make sure to think about his needs.

“Chatelain is so good to ask everyone for help, trying not to burden any one person,” Saunders said.

The Book of Mormon is the basic doctrine taught by the LDS church.

The Book of Mormon is the basic doctrine taught by the LDS church.

He believes that Chatelain’s disability helps him teach the doctrine of the LDS church. He offers a unique perspective and appreciation of certain beliefs of the church. He helps students to truly understand what it means to endure and persevere, despite life’s challenges and hardships.

“He really is a fantastic teacher. The kids love him and he loves them,” Saunders said.

Kat Flegal, a former student of Chatelain’s, said in an email interview, “I have always greatly admired his strength and great happiness that he has chosen since his accident.”

In addition, she said, “A typical class day with Jeremy wasn’t too much different than other teachers.”

Sometimes students would need to help put papers on the overhead projector, write on the boards or hand out papers. They also had to remember to keep backpacks and coats out of the aisle so Chatelain could wheel his chair through.

“Students were always happy and volunteering to help out,” Flegal said.

She said Chatelain would teach all of his students how to shake his hand at the beginning of the semester. It could be difficult, so he always gave them the option of bumping elbows.

“He was funny and his lessons were always well prepared. I think students like him just as much as any other teacher,” Flegal said.

Because of Chatelain’s injury, he did offer different insight into the teachings of the church.

“I think he applied the gospel to his life to a greater extent than most I know. He could have been bitter about his accident but instead he uses his story and his life to teach and uplift all of his students,” Flegal said.

For some Utahns with disabilities, religion plays an important role in their lives

Story and photos by NATALIE CHRISTENSEN

Religion plays a huge part in many people’s lives, not only those living in Utah, but also throughout the United States.

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The LDS Chapel at 2700 South and Filmore Street. Kirsten Morrise attends this ward weekly.

According to a 2007 Pew Research Center study, about 78.4 percent of the U.S. is of a Christian faith, while 4.7 percent are of other faith, and only 16.1 percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religion.

Some people with disabilities who have faith look toward their deity in a way that people without disabilities don’t. In Utah especially, religion plays a big part in the lives of many people. About 62 percent of Utahns are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Three local LDS individuals who have disabilities have a range of different thoughts toward their relationship with their creator.

Jeremy Chatelain is a seminary teacher for the church. Just after he got married, he was on a trip with this family in Idaho because his brother was going to leave on an LDS mission. A tradition in his family when he was growing up was jumping off a bridge near where they liked to vacation. His wife dove in and realized it was really shallow, but she wasn’t able to warn Chatelain. He dove off and broke his fifth and sixth vertebrae, an injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

“Religion is a huge aspect of people’s lives who have disabilities,” Chatelain said. “It (religion) gives you a reason to get up in the morning. I think that’s why I keep going every day.”

Chatelain still doesn’t know why this had to happen to him. He admits he doesn’t always have a smile on his face because of what he has to go through every day. But he still looks toward his religion that believes after this life, his body will be made perfect, and that God has a plan for him.

“My faith has been motivation to accomplish the things I’ve wanted to do, along with my family,” Chatelain said.

He earned his master’s degree in education from Idaho State University in 2005, specializing in curriculum and instruction. He is now working on his dissertation about First Amendment implications in LDS Church history from 1829 to 1844 at the University of Utah.

According to a study done by the National Organization on Disabilities, as reported by Disabilities and Faith.org, 85 percent of people with and without disabilities say that religion is important in their lives. Unfortunately, only 47 percent of people with disabilities can attend their church services once a month because of the struggles of getting to their meetings.

Some don’t choose to worship because they feel alienated by their congregation and don’t like the culture of their religion, not their deity, but the way their religion portrays how a person must always act.

Kirsten Morrise, 20, who attends Utah State University, is an active member of the LDS church and loves her religion. But the culture of the religion is something that has rubbed her wrong.

“There’s a stigma to not being within the status quo, the status quo being happy sunshine,” said Morrise, who suffers from Pierre Robin syndrome. The condition makes breathing hard for her because of the way her jaw is structured. She also suffers from forms of cerebral palsy and depression. “Being disabled, people in the church sometimes like to say ‘God made you this way so you could have this trial’ or ‘God is punishing somebody else and making you this way to punish them for something they did.’”

Morrise said she wishes people wouldn’t see her disability as a punishment or a challenge.

But for other people with disabilities, religion can help not only them, but also those in the congregation.

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Metal cross on top of the steeple at the Wasatch Presbyterian Church, 1626 S. 1700 East, in Salt Lake City.

“I’ve learned the hard way that being imperfect and allowing people to help provides blessings in their lives,” said Jeni Sewell Roper, who lives in Orem. “(It) blows me away sometimes at just how much this happens.”

Sewell Roper, who has cerebral palsy, doesn’t like being seen as a person with a disability. Growing up, she didn’t like people helping her. To her, everyone has a disability — hers just happens to be something that everyone can see.

“Well, I teach and I know that we are all divinely designed to be imperfect,” she said in an email interview. “And I believe personally that I said ‘ok’ to this before I was born.”

Sewell Roper admits that during her teenage years she would have committed suicide if it weren’t for her religion. “If this was all that life had to offer what’s the point?” she said.

She taught herself how to walk and doesn’t have to use a wheel chair or crutches. She now participates in and helps out with 5Ks around the Salt Lake Valley and is a part of the National Speakers Association. She speaks to LDS youth groups around the state about her life. The title of her speech is “Wiggle Room.”

“And I’m learning as I speak that my disability helps me relate to people on a very intimate level,” Sewell Roper said. “Because ALL of us have ‘stuff.'”

A journey of faith: overcoming racial restrictions in the Mormon Church

Story and photo by CHRISTIE TAYLOR

The Genesis Group was formed as an auxiliary unit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 19, 1971, to support the needs of its African-American members.

It was founded by six men — including three church Apostles, a term given to the governing bodies in the church hierarchy, and three African-American church converts.

According to the website, the idea was to develop and support new member growth among black members as well as bring some of the members, who had left the church because of racial restrictions, back into the faith.

The group’s presence was important, because prior to 1978 the Mormon Church restricted African-Americans from holding a high-ranking church position — termed the priesthood — serving Mormon missions and participating in certain temple practices.

Jerri A. Harwell, a Genesis member, isn’t sure why the group was formed then, but said, “Perhaps black members asked the church and started getting some answers.”

Perhaps she was right.

The LDS Church on 6710 S. 1300 East, where the Genesis Group meets from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month.

The LDS Church on 6710 S. 1300 East, where the Genesis Group meets from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month.

Harwell, whose husband, Don, is the current president of the Utah Genesis Group, said her interest in the Mormon religion came while she was watching a church-produced show.

“I was a huge fan of the Osmonds,” Harwell said in a phone interview. She tuned into the show because she heard they would be performing.

They weren’t scheduled to perform until the end of the program. While Harwell waited, the church provided a phone number to call to receive information on Mormon principles.

Harwell, who has written a book about her conversion, titled “Leaning on Prayer: A Story of Faith, Perseverance, and Conversion,” was a freshman at Oakland University in Michigan at the time and thought it would be great to get some mail.

The church sent her a brochure on the teachings of the religion. She tossed it in a drawer without looking at it. She said she happened upon it again a few weeks later while she was cleaning out the drawer.

While looking through the brochure, she found a prepaid postcard to get more information on the church. She said she filled it out and mailed it in.

Two LDS missionaries soon contacted her to set up a meeting. Harwell said when they met at her college dormitory, they were surprised to discover she is African-American. Knowing the church’s restrictions, they asked her if she was “really” interested in learning about the faith.

She said she didn’t believe in God then, but was interested in what the missionaries had to say. They gave her a first lesson on the Mormon religion and asked her if she would like to continue meeting with them. She did.

Harwell was baptized a member of the Mormon church in 1977.

While in her sophomore year of college, Harwell decided to get more involved in the church and asked to serve a mission. Her request was denied, because of her race.

The denial tested her faith in the church and she prayed about it. The answer came. “It was a burning that this was where I was supposed to be,” she said.

That steadfast faith in the church teachings pushed her to continue on. But Harwell wasn’t the only one struggling with the racial restrictions.

Nkoyo Iyamba, a KSL 5 TV reporter and member of the Mormon Church, was living in Nigeria when her family first heard about the faith.

In a phone interview, she recalled a story about Anthony Obinna, the first convert to the LDS Church in Nigeria. An article in the Ensign, titled “Voice from Nigeria,” stated Obinna had three dreams at different times of rooms in a beautiful building, shown to him by a man with a walking stick.

A picture he saw of the Salt Lake City Temple in Reader’s Digest resembled the building he was seeing. He wrote to the Salt Lake City church headquarters in 1971 and requested more information, according to the article in the church-owned magazine.

The article said he was sent the information, but was informed the church would not be sending missionaries to Nigeria.

Iyamba said he wanted to baptize his people, but didn’t have the authority because he was black. Obinna organized and baptized his people anyway, she said.

“The true heroes are those who continued to go to church and live the gospel faithfully, despite being discriminated against,” Iyamba said.

While Obinna was forming an unofficial Mormon congregation in Nigeria, Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray and Eugene Orr, the three founding African-American church converts, were developing the Genesis Group back in the U.S.

Bridgeforth was president of the group, Gray served as his first counselor and Orr served as his second counselor.

Margaret Blair Young, an adjunct professor who teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University, has co-authored three historical novels on black Mormons with Gray. They also co-created the documentary, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.

During a phone interview, Young said white male members were being ordained at 12 years old. But black male members of the same age had nothing to look forward to. So, one of Gray’s efforts to improve church membership among young black men was to organize a team to compete in a regional church basketball game.

The game was originally set up for active members only, she said.

Most of the boys recruited to the team were inactive in the church, but Gray made arrangements for them to be able to compete anyway. Being a KSL 5 TV reporter at the time, he also made an agreement with a co-worker to put the boys on TV during a sports segment, if they won.

Young said that partway through the intense game, Gray was informed the boys weren’t qualified to compete because they weren’t active members of the church. Because the church leaders who had made the exception were unavailable during the game, he couldn’t do anything to change the decision.

“We lost all the boys after that,” Young said, referring to their interest in the church. It was a huge disappointment for the Genesis Group and for Darius Gray, personally.

Young said Gray became inactive after the incident. Nevertheless, he continued a close friendship with Genesis President Ruffin Bridgeforth and cared for him during his struggle with diabetes. Bridgeforth continually tried to bring Gray back into the faith, Young said.

All the persistence of faith by Africans, African-Americans and the Genesis group may have finally made a significant difference within the church in 1978.

During the 148th Semiannual General Conference on Sept. 30, 1978, a revelation by the first presidency of the Mormon Church was announced.

The revelation, named the Official Declaration—2, granted “every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords,” regardless of race or color.

This revelation allowed Harwell the opportunity to become one of the first African-American female missionaries for the church. She served in Houston in 1980.

After her mission, she attended Brigham Young University in the fall of 1983 and met her husband, Don, through the Genesis Group, according to her book.

Darius Gray eventually returned to the church as an active member and became president of the Genesis Group after Bridgeforth’s death in 1997. Don Harwell took his place as president in 2003.

Harwell and Gray weren’t the only ones making history after the racial restrictions were lifted.

According to the Ensign article, Anthony Obinna and several converts living in Nigeria were officially baptized by LDS missionaries shortly after the 1978 church revelation.

Obinna was ordained and appointed to branch president in Nigeria, an honor that made him the first black man to serve a high-ranking church position in Africa, according to the article. Obinna was also able to baptize his wife, Fidelia.

Nkoyo Iyamba said she immigrated to Utah in 1977 and was baptized a member of the Mormon Church in 1983. She currently sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Genesis Group has continued to grow since its humble beginnings. Young said black membership has grown from 300 to 400 African and African-American members to about 1 million today. Even though the church does not keep official records of membership by race, Young said through demographics, estimates can be made.

Young attributes some of the local growth to the dedication of a monument in the Salt Lake Cemetery to black pioneer Jane Manning James, and a play that Young wrote based on James’ life, titled ”I am Jane.

Harwell said visitors come to each monthly meeting. “People come from out-of-state to attend our events,” she said. Consequently, they are becoming more diverse.

Harwell, who doesn’t think in terms of being a black member of the Mormon Church, said, “I think in terms of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Lord does not see color, He does not see race.”

You don’t have to die alone from AIDS in Utah

Story and slideshow by SASCHA BLUME

Visit the Utah AIDS Foundation.

It was the day after Christmas, and it was 25 degrees outside with an abundance of snow on the ground. The building inside was bare, disorganized and in the middle of re-creating itself, the building was busy using the holiday weekend to install new paint and carpet.

The only room that was intact was the decorated memorial room.

The Utah AIDS Foundation was started in 1985 to battle the then AIDS epidemic and worldwide AIDS pandemic.

Today, the Utah AIDS Foundation, located at 1408 S. 1100 East in Salt Lake City, aims to prevent and eradicate AIDS.

In the 1980s and early 1990s there was a stigma around AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

People thought they could get infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) by playing basketball with an HIV/AIDS-infected person.

People thought that if they shopped in a grocery store with an HIV-infected person they would get AIDS.

In response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the U.S. government provided funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and management for large cities/states.

The horrors of living with HIV/AIDS

The victims of AIDS vomit most of the day, they have continuous diarrhea, and develop purple blotch marks on their skin.

They lose their hair, their ability to eat and the function of their blood.

The intellectual and emotional damage a human who suffers from HIV/AIDS leads to self-isolation and a disproportionally high rate of suicide.

A plan was hatched

“No one talks about AIDS,” said Mario Duran, the MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) and HIV prevention coordinator for the Utah AIDS Foundation.

According to Duran, they want to end that stigma.

In response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, The Utah AIDS Foundation created a five-point program that is designed to educate the general public and HIV-positive men about HIV/AIDS.

The Five-Point Program

(1)  Testing

At the Utah AIDS Foundation, the general public is welcome and encouraged to come in for a free HIV/AIDS test Monday through Thursday. People are also encouraged to get tested for all sexually transmitted diseases while they are at the foundation.

Brianne Glenn, the HIV/STI testing coordinator for the Utah AIDS Foundation, says everyone who tests gets an “anonymous number and they are referred to, as their number” while they receive HIV/STI testing.

“About 100 to 200 people come in a month for testing and one to two people a month test positive for HIV/AIDS,” Glenn said.

When a person has a preliminary positive test, they are immediately given a more comprehensive HIV/AIDS test. This procedure is called a confirmatory test.

The Utah AIDS Foundation’s free testing isn’t just for gay men. Straight males/females, swinger groups, and any other type of sexually at-risk person is encouraged to participate in the free testing program.

(2)  Gays and Geeks

According to Duran, the Gays and Geeks club was started because “there is so much stigma around gay masculinity and hyper sexuality.” The Gays and Geeks program is designed for HIV-positive men to come together in a safe environment for friendship and support.

The program is also designed to break down gay social stereotypes. For example, there is a common stereotype that gay men are only interested in working out, wearing high end fashion and having promiscuous sex with as many partners as possible.

The group meets once a month, usually at a movie, park or somewhere “geek orientated.” The Gays and Geeks meetings typically host five to 20 people per outing.

(3) 3-D Doctors

Duran said the Doctors, Dudes and Dinner program was an idea that was “borrowed directly from a Baha’i tradition.”

The Utah AIDS Foundation and two volunteers from the University of Utah spend a significant amount of time locating a doctor and venue that is willing to host the event. During this program a doctor will give an hour-long lecture on their specialty. The lecture is then followed by a free dinner.

The Utah AIDS Foundation set up this program as a response to the social stereotypes that gay men face. Many of these stereotypes include the idea that gay men are unhealthy and make irresponsible sexual decisions that heighten their risk for HIV/AIDS infection.

Because there is so much focus on gay men’s sexual health, the Utah AIDS Foundation felt there was a need for gay men to receive free health advice concerning other health issues that they might deal with.

According to the Utah AIDS Foundation’s website, “each 3-D event has a different intriguing health topic, (travel health, relationships, self-compassion, nutrition, skin care, etc.).”

The website also states, “3-D is a stepping stone to start the conversation on normalizing health in conversations about the gay community because of the unique way 3D is structured.”

(4) Outreach

Often on the weekend you will see Duran and a group of highly trained volunteers canvass the downtown Salt Lake bars and nightclubs handing out sex kits.

These sex kits include two condoms, one packet of silicone lubricant, and several promotional cards highlighting the work and contact information for the Utah AIDS Foundation. Workers distribute 75,000 kits annually.

We want to “talk about sex openly, we want to get a contact list and we try to get people in to test,” Duran, said.

That is the reason why they canvass.

The Utah AIDS Foundation is not interested in ending gay sexual relations, even if, having sexual relations means an HIV-positive man is involved.

(5) Case Management

Despite the dramatic decrease in HIV/AIDS infectious disease cases, people still get HIV/AIDS. When a person tests positive for HIV/AIDS, the Utah AIDS Foundation relies on a few staff members to help them rehabilitate their lives. One of these people is Zoe Lewis, a case manager for the Utah AIDS Foundation.

“This is a place that fights for people,” Lewis said. Because the Utah AIDS Foundation has been helping people battle the virus for almost 30 years, it’s much easier for people to receive great medical treatment when under the support system of the Utah AIDS Foundation. Lewis explained that many people often get very confused and lost when they try to get medical and insurance help on their own.

Lewis is one of several case managers who make sure the HIV-positive man gets complete encouragement to fight the battle against the virus. Case managers make sure every person is “teamed up with doctors and have a health provider.” They also make sure the individual is introduced to a wide and vast support system. This is why the programs Gays and Geeks and 3-D exist. The Utah AIDS Foundation wants to ensure that all HIV-positive men receive not only physical life management skills but, they also want these HIV-positive men to be emotionally happy and stable.

In Utah, AIDS is not a death sentence

“Most clients are afraid to have sex because they are afraid to pass it on. Abstinence is not necessary for an HIV/AIDS-infected person,” Lewis said. “It’s quite possible to have a good sex life.”

Part of the Utah AIDS Foundation’s objective is to adapt to modern HIV/AIDS medical research and prevention techniques.

“Our programs are always trying to accommodate all people’s needs – that’s why, you always see change,” Duran, said.

Part of this worldwide intellectual change is: gay men who are HIV/AIDS-positive can have safe sex.  The Utah AIDS Foundation has numerous suggestions for safe-sex practice for men who have sex with men. These techniques include wearing condoms, practicing oral sex instead of anal sex and many other techniques.

Despite the Utah AIDS Foundation’s best attempt at getting people to consistently practice safe sex, people in Utah still get HIV/AIDS. Regardless of the modern medical advancement of curtailing HIV/AIDS there still is no clinically proven cure for the virus.

This means people still frequently die from HIV/AIDS.

There is a reason why the memorial room stayed intact during the foundation’s Christmas remodeling. No human dies alone at the Utah AIDS Foundation.

How Mormonism shaped Salt Lake City gay activist Troy Williams

Story and slideshow by CONNOR WALLACE

See Troy Williams in action.

It is difficult to mention Troy Williams without bringing up his experiences with the Mormon Church and his activism in the gay community. But Williams, production and public affairs director at KRCL 90.9 FM, is better known for his role in the Salt Lake City Kiss-Ins.

Williams grew up in Eugene, Ore., where he was raised in the LDS church. Like others, he decided to go on a mission and was sent to England. Looking back, he says there were signs that he was gay.

“I pushed down my sexual desires in such a way that I channeled it into zealotry,” Williams said. “But it would creep out in interesting ways. I was on my mission from ’89 to ‘91, and I still broke the rules so that I could get the new Madonna CD that came out or the new Erasure CD, all this gay stuff, gay music. I remember teaching … and this family let us in to teach the first discussion. So here I am talking about Joseph Smith … and I see for the very first time on the television set the Madonna ‘Vogue’ video and all of the sudden I’m transfixed…. All I could do was watch.”

After returning home from his mission he was an intern with Utah’s chapter of the Eagle Forum. In Utah, The Eagle Forum is a religiously conservative anti-gay organization that focuses on affecting policy. Williams tried to deny his identity while there, but it kept bubbling to the surface. Since then he has maintained a cordial relationship with Gayle Ruzicka, the chapter’s president.

“I love Gayle Ruzicka and Gayle Ruzicka loves me, and she’ll tell anybody. Gayle always says ‘I have gay friends’ and ‘I’m not a homophobe’ … Well she’s talking about me and other people that she knows,” Williams said.

Although Williams cares for her, he acknowledges the negative impact she and former Utah State Senator Chris Buttars have had on equal rights. Both have succeeded in striking down legislation that would give the gay community more rights.

“Make no mistake, I don’t trivialize the damage that she’s done to LGBT families because it’s been horrific,” Williams said. “But on the flip side of that I think that Gayle and Chris Buttars and all these homophobic adversaries in Utah have really helped the LGBT community congeal to become stronger, to become more weathered. We’ve organized so much and a lot of it is due to the fierce opposition that we’ve had.”

Williams also points out that not only does this opposition help to make the community stronger, but it also helps each individual to feel more wanted.

“Salt Lake City is one of the easiest places to be a gay person,” Williams said. “It’s so easy to plug in to the community here. We just kind of take you in.”

After his time at the Eagle Forum, Williams reevaluated his life and became more entrenched in the gay community. He eventually landed at the local nonprofit indie-music radio station, KRCL, which debuted in 1979. It was one of the first to put gay people on air when it introduced “Concerning Gays and Lesbians” in the 1980s.

Williams has used KRCL as a type of conduit to help not only the gay community, but also the Salt Lake City public as well. “RadioActive” is a set of community features that explore the different issues concerning the Salt Lake Valley. “RadioActive” has moved from being a one-hour show on Sundays to a segment that is played each hour.

Vicki Mann is the general manager of KRCL, located at 1971 W. North Temple. She said Williams is vital to the station because he oversees the community connection features, fills in as a DJ when needed and is a hard worker.

“He really does whatever he needs to do,” Mann said. “He’s a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy.”

In 2009, Williams took the activism out of the radio booth and onto the doorstep of the Mormon Church. Two gay men were arrested for kissing on Temple Square. In response, Williams helped lead three Kiss-ins there. Although the events were in protest, one of the Kiss-ins ended up bringing him together with his current boyfriend.

“I had to lead the Kiss-ins but I didn’t have anybody to kiss until I scanned the crowd, and there was this adorable guy there. I actually just went down and grabbed him and pulled him up with me, and then the pictures were shot and then it ended up in the [Salt Lake] Tribune and then three and a half years later he’s been my boyfriend. When I go in and meet with [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], I’m always like ‘I want to thank you guys for helping me to hook up with my boyfriend because if it wasn’t for you arresting those two boys on the plaza I never would have met Josh,’” Williams said. “It’s fun to tease them about that a bit.”

Williams was in the spotlight again soon after his role in the Kiss-ins. He received a part on the “Colbert Report,” a satirical news show. He was also in “Tabloid,” a documentary about a woman who tried to seduce a Mormon away from his religion, and even met another famous Utahn.

“That was like the craziest week for me because I went and and shot the Colbert piece, and then I went to L.A. and did the … film the next day, and the third day I met with Roseanne Barr in a coffee shop and developed this deep friendship that I still have to this day,” he said.

Brandie Balken, director of Equality Utah, was a former co-host of “RadioActive” with Williams. Equality Utah is a civil rights organization that focuses on improving LGBTQ people’s lives through political action and educating the public about issues facing this community. Balken points out that there are more similarities than differences between Mormons and LGBTQ people.

“We share families, we share workplaces, we share neighborhoods, our kids go to the same schools,” Balken said. “There’s a lot of interface between these supposedly separate communities.”

Williams agrees and points to the group, Mormons Building Bridges. Members of the organization marched in June 2012 with Williams and Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award-winning writer of the movie “Milk,” in the Utah Pride Festival Parade.

“We marched at the front of the Pride Parade with 300 active Mormons who, in their Sunday clothes, were marching to show their support for the LGBT community. That’s unprecedented, and it sparked Mormons marching in 10 different Pride parades across the summer, across the country,” Williams said. “This is such an exciting time. You can actually see the nation shifting on an issue and it’s happening so rapidly.”

Troy Williams continues his advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community and his work to improve relations with the LDS Church.

“I think without folks like Troy,” Balken said, “we are more likely to leave people behind.”

Affirmation helps gay and lesbian Mormons reconcile faith and attractions

Story and slideshow by JAKE GORDON

Take a photographic tour of this story!

In many opinions, society as a whole is slowly becoming more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Organized religion, however, is almost the complete opposite. Most religions do not accept gays and lesbians, and often opposes them in many of their actions.

The problem is, many inside the LGBT community still hold on to their religion beliefs that they grew up with. Affirmation is a national not-for-profit organization with a chapter in Salt Lake City that helps provide much-needed support and belonging for gay and lesbian Mormons.

Affirmation President Joshua Howard Behn expresses the importance of having the group for gays and lesbians who still feel the need for their spiritual side.

“Affirmation essentially is a group that provides a safe place for those that are trying to reconcile their faith with their orientation and that is within the context of the LDS Mormon faith or heritage,” Behn said while sitting down for an interview in front of Café Marmalade in Salt Lake City. “For those who are just coming out, it gives them a place to talk to people who have been there and done that. It also gives them a safe environment where they can ask questions and not have to worry about the faith itself, because that can come later.”

Behn said there are other resources for the gay and lesbian community in Salt Lake City, but they are broader in scope. Affirmation specifically helps gay and lesbian Mormons with the spiritual aspect.

“We understand our people and we can speak the language,” Behn said. “When you are talking to somebody that is having a very difficult time, it helps to hear from somebody who relates to you directly and knows your story.”

The history of Affirmation goes as far back as 1977, when a group of gay Mormons quietly met at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, talk about faith and their same-sex attractions. Matthew Price was at those first meetings and became enthused at the idea of a national organization of gay LDS people. Although it hit its fair share of speed bumps of not being able to meet regularly, the meeting in December 1979 marked the real beginning of Affirmation as a national organization.

Currently, 11 regional chapters of Affirmation exist in the United States and the first official chapters started in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

As the president of Affirmation for 2012, Behn admits that the group has hit a crossroads after nearly 35 years of existence.

“Historically, we have tried to have a big tent model where we don’t care if you are in the church, we try to maintain everybody,” Behn said. “But now, there are needs that really aren’t being met because things are changing. The church is becoming more open.”

The crossroads of the organization is its struggle to define itself.

“There are those in the group that still want their faith very much and so it comes down to whether to define for those that want their faith or do we define it for all,” Behn said. “Personally, I don’t think that we can’t be everything to everybody as a group because we don’t have the resources for that.”

Chapter members range in age from 18 to 60-plus.

The group informally gets together as a chapter, but Affirmation also has national parties and events that all members are encouraged to attend.

Behn has noticed that church membership is changing more toward acceptance far more drastically than the leadership is. Those living in a ward would be hard-pressed not to find a family that currently doesn’t have a member that is either gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, he said. A ward is a neighborhood of church members who meet together for worship.

Mark Packer, who has been a member of Affirmation since he came out in 1991, has found comfort in the group. He was introduced to Affirmation that year by his partner. Packer at first was admittedly scared out of his mind to socialize with a group of gay and lesbian Mormons.

“I have a lot of friends in Affirmation,” Packer said during an interview at the Salt Lake City Library. “Early on, it was critical for me because I was early in my coming-out stages. To hear other peoples stories and to hear what they have gone through and what they are going through helped me to be able to survive at the time.”

Packer admitted that he thought occasionally about suicide during the coming-out process. He said it is also helpful to tell his story to fellow members, and he likes to be there for others who are coming out and need the same support that he received.

“It’s the old thing where I had a position in the church,” Packer said. “I had a wife and I had kids and at first I was scared to be found out. I was just scared of other gay guys.”

Before coming out, Packer was heavily involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and even held callings of elder’s quorum president and ward executive secretary, both of which are responsible leadership positions.

“Looking back now I chuckle because it was complete chaos for a while and very unpleasant,” Packer said about his active life in the church.

Packer said he hasn’t attended church services since 2010, but he hasn’t really left the church.

“I was excommunicated (stripped of membership) in 1999,” Packer said. “The way I look at it is the church left me because that was not something I was looking to do.”

One of the last times Packer attended church was in November 2010, when he came out in front of his ward in fast and testimony meeting, where members share their spiritual feelings.

“I didn’t think it would cause trouble but it did,” Packer said. “I just felt like I needed to do it. It caused trouble with the leadership, not with the ward members.”

Like Behn, Packer has noted more willingness among younger Mormons to accept gays and lesbians. However, the church leadership is much slower when it comes to accepting gays and lesbians.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been firm on its position of what marriage is and who is supposed to get married. As part of a message given in the General Relief Society Meeting in September 1995 titled, “Family, A Proclamation to the World,” Gordon B. Hinckley, who was president of the church, said, “The Family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.”

Utah voters mirrored this sentiment in 2004 with the passing of Amendment 3, a same-sex marriage ban.

Two years later, Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, shared his thoughts of the homosexual lifestyle in a press release.

“This is much bigger than just a question of whether or not society should be more tolerant of the homosexual lifestyle,” Oaks said. “This is more than a social issue – ultimately it may be a test of our most basic religious freedoms to teach what we know our Father in Heaven wants us to teach.”

Scott Trotter, media spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined an interview request for this story.

Behn and Packer do hope for change in the church, but both men know that change won’t come swiftly.

Affirmation President Behn knows that members in the church hold a lot of power for change inside and outside the church as well.

“Once the membership is ready for it to change on a massive scale, then the leadership will be ready,” Behn said.

Utah Dream Center: providing much needed education

Story and slideshow by COLLIN McLACHLAN

Last time you were around Thanksgiving dinner and you had to go around the table and say what you’re thankful for, did you say “a chance to go to school and get an education”? If you did say that, did you really mean it?

For refugees who attend the Utah Dream Center’s Open Door reading classes, anyone can see that they mean it.

The Utah Dream Center is a nonprofit organization that operates on the west side of Salt Lake City, near an area of refugee housing. According to the Center’s website, its students are devoted to “transforming their neighborhood into a thriving community.” The Utah Dream Center “holistically provides physical, educational and Christian programming to strategic neighborhoods throughout the state of Utah.”

The Center has a number of different programs that are designed for the benefit of people who are living on the west side of Salt Lake. Some of these programs are: Open Door, an after-school reading tutor program; SierraAlta Bible College; Arts Academy; Urban Flow, a multicultural dance class; and a clothing outreach program. Most of the programs that are offered at the Dream Center are free and open to the public.

The Dream Center works with refugees who come from all over the world. Volunteers from the Dream Center will go recruiting by knocking on doors of the apartments near the Center and inviting residents to participate in the activities.

“One of my favorite things is when we do the reading part of the program,” said Susanna Metzger, 27, director of the Open Door after-school reading program, in an interview. “Just reading books with the kids, I can see them learning and improving. I think that’s really awesome.”

The Dream Center focuses on a faith in Christ to effect change in the community. Its website states, “Jesus Christ’s transforming power compels us to emphasize compassion, hope and restoration in each of our programs.” The Dream Center, however, deals with immigrants from all over the world, some from areas with state religions.

“We do not try to force a religion on them,” Metzger said. “Once parents realize that we’re here to just help with their education, or feed them dinner, then I think they start to be more at ease with us.”

Metzger directs the Open Door program. It meets every Monday for reading or math tutoring. Metzger says anyone is allowed to come and receive free tutoring. A Dream Center volunteer will either help a child with their math or reading homework, or will read a book with them.

“It’s loosely structured at the beginning,” Metzger said. “So when the kids show up we’ll play with them and hang out, build relationships.” After the building relationships portion, the students will split up into two groups according to their age. These groups will rotate between reading or homework and doing crafts.

Metzger has been a part of the Open Door program for about four years. Being the director of the program, she leads the 12 to 15 regular volunteers the Dream Center has in personally tutoring the 40 to 50 kids who come in every Monday, which she says is a challenge. She says that what she loves most is seeing a student learn something. “A concept will catch in their heads and it’s one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Metzger said. “I get to experience that with them. I love it.”

Shalom Boutwell, 20, has been volunteering at the Dream Center for nearly a year. In an interview, she talked about why a lot of kids love the Center. “It’s easy for a student to become comfortable because all the other students are ones they go to school with,” Boutwell said. “They’re growing up together and learning together at the same time.”

Boutwell says that her favorite thing to see is when students are excited for the opportunity to learn. “They look forward to it every week, they run to our cars as we pull up, they’re sitting on their porches waiting for us to come knocking,” Boutwell said with a smile. “They love it, and I love building those relationships, to have the students remember your name every time you come, best feeling in the world.”

Marien Niwenshupi, 13, has been a student at the Dream Center for about two years.“My favorite thing is coming and talking to the ladies,” Niwenshupi said. “They really help a lot with your homework. That’s what I really like.”

Volunteers for the Open Door program found Niwenshupi by knocking on her door. She is from Zambia, and is very grateful for the opportunity she now has to attend school.

Niwenshupi said that in Zambia, “it’s really hard because your parents have to pay money, and in Africa, that is hard because they don’t have jobs. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to pay for their students.” If parents, like hers, can’t afford to send their kids to school, they are never able to go.

“But here, it’s really nice. They pay for your school,” Niwenshupi said, with optimism in her eyes. “I wish I was there right now, because I would say ‘Yeah, I’m going to school!’”

Niwenshupi said the Center offers a lot of fun activities. “It’s a good place to be on Mondays,” she said.

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