A few months ago I posted about an opportunity to lead the organizing of a conference. That conference happened this past weekend. For those who don't know about it, Mormon Stories started out as a podcast. The idea is basically to tell various people's stories that involve Mormonism. If you check out their podcasts you'll see a wide variety of perspectives, beliefs, and experiences, because people from all areas of Mormonism have stories that are interesting, worthwhile, and important. The first MS podcast I ever listened to was the Danzig's story, which is moving and heartbreaking. (Parts of their story unfolded while I was at BYU, and I remember hearing whispers of it in the hallways of the HFAC, but I had no idea who they were or what had really happened, so it was great to hear their perspective on everything.) John Dehlin, and now the others who work with him on the podcast, have done some amazing interviews with Richard Bushman, Carol Lynn Pearson, Terryl Givens, Daniel Peterson, ex-Mormons, believing Mormons, pretty much any kind of Mormon there is. There are so many that I've loved. If I had to pick some favorites other than the Danzig's, it'd probably be Daymon Smith talking about the history of correlation (I cannot say enough how fascinating this topic is) and Lisa Butterworth, who started the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives.
Mormon Stories tries to create a space where all types of Mormons can feel welcome and at some point some regional communities came into being. The Seattle one is pretty low-key. Occasionally there's a potluck type gathering and people will come together to discuss their stories, where they're at, difficult aspects of Mormon history, doctrine, or culture as well as what they enjoy about all those. Just after Ryan and I moved to Seattle, some of the regional groups started having conferences. Since we have a lot of people in the MS Seattle region, but not a lot of people willing to organize big events, it took a while to get us going on a conference. But John Dehlin was going to be in Seattle anyway this past weekend to keynote at the Affirmation conference, so we decided we'd better do what we'd been talking about for a while and actually get a conference put together.
Since they'd done several conferences already the task was much easier than if we'd been one of the earlier ones. The MS organization had figured out what usually worked well and what often didn't, so we had some templates to work off of. One thing those of us organizing learned: book the venue first. We, for some reason, didn't start thinking about venue seriously until a couple months before the conference. And, of course, lots of venues are too expensive and lots are booked more than two months out. So that ended up being a bit stressful, but thankfully members of the community stepped up and helped us find a place.
A few other hiccups happened along the way. Mormon Stories decided that our conference would be the last one sponsored by Mormon Stories/Open Stories Foundation. This meant we got caught up in the transition a bit, which halted planning for a week or so. In the end, John Dehlin wasn't able to make it to the conference and one of our other well-known speakers, Maxine Hanks (of the September Six, recently re-joined the LDS church) ended up experiencing some health issues and had to back out the day before. A couple other bumps the day before the conference made things a bit more stressful than I would have liked, but it all got smoothed out in time.
Friday night I left Ryan with the kids and headed off with some other ex-mormon friends of ours to go to the pre-conference social. We enjoyed socializing for a bit and then I headed back home with another friend. Saturday was the crazy busy day. We packed the kids and snacks for between sessions as well as my clarinet and stand into the car. Ryan dropped me and Malcolm off at the venue. He took Gareth with him to his drum set lesson. Malcolm, surprisingly, was willing to be held by a complete stranger (one of the fellow organizer's wives) for about an hour. This covered some set-up time and the beginning of the first session, which I was conducting.
The first session speakers were Kristine Haglund, who blogs at BCC, and Brent Metcalfe, who edited New Approaches to the Book of Mormon. They provided a nice balance for one another, both shared parts of their stories, and were enjoyable to listen to. One of the local community members provided a musical number and we sang "Love is Spoken Here".
The second session was excellent, with a board member of WAVE sharing how she came to Mormonism from Unitarian Universalism and the struggles she's had and how and why she's decided to stay and be involved in Mormonism. Then we had a panel discussion with Jon Anderton from Modern Mormon Men, Natalie Kelly from fMh, and a couple other local members who I know are involved in various areas of the bloggernacle but I'm not entirely sure where to link to for them. They discussed ways unorthodox members can effect change and create space for authentic membership in the church on various levels - personal, familial, ward, and church-wide.
The third session at Mormon Stories conferences is always a story-sharing session. Ryan came back to pick up Malcolm before this session so that I could play without being distracted by his screams. I performed Erland van Koch's 1975 work, Monologue #3 for solo clarinet. I'd prepared the first movement for my Seattle Phil. audition and really felt that the whole piece spoke my story with Mormonism quite well, hence why I decided to perform it for the third session. I could nitpick the fumbles and mishaps that occurred, but overall it went well and people seemed to appreciate and enjoy it. I thought briefly about trying to re-record it so the version that everyone listens to online would be better, but I think I've decided against it, despite how embarrassed I feel about some of my flubs. It's a live performance and things like that are often going to happen and I think I'll just accept that and move on. After I performed, members of the audience had a chance to get up and briefly share some aspect of their Mormon story. This is where it became obvious how successful we were at drawing in a wide group of people related to Mormonism. Some ex-Mormons got up, some completely believing members got up, some less orthodox but still active members got up. During the course of the day I met a couple who had performed proxy baptisms at the temple before coming to the conference, several heterodox members, several ex-mos, and even a non-member who has stumbled upon the online Mormon community and finds it fascinating. We ended the conference by singing "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing".
Several of us went to dinner at Phinney Market Pub afterward, which was amazing. They prepared a family-style meal for us. Bread, salad with gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, and blackberries, some squash and carrots from a local farm, fettuccine with smoked salmon, halibut baked with cream cheese Dungeness crab and parmesan, and BBQ beef brisket and rosemary potatoes. I'm not much of a fish fan, but I loved the fettuccine. I didn't order dessert, but they looked delectable. Huge amounts of food, so I made sure to take some home to Ryan (I promise, I'd offered getting a sitter so he could come, but he chose not to). The atmosphere of the restaurant was perfect. And to top it all off, it's a super kid-friendly place - they even have a train table in one of the corners! Ryan and I will definitely be going out to dinner there together at some point.
Those of us who worked on organizing the conference ended up very pleased with how things turned out. We had about fifty or sixty people attend, with some of the attendees coming from Spokane, Portland, and southern Oregon in addition to Seattle. While I'm naturally starting to leave Mormonism completely behind (I don't often listen to Mormon Stories or other Mormon-related podcasts anymore and don't read Mormon-related blogs as often, though I keep my eye on them), it was definitely a worthwhile experience to help put together this conference. Not only because it's a big accomplishment to organize something like this and something I haven't done before, but also because I appreciate the goals of Mormon Stories and want to support those who advocate for big-tent Mormonism. Mormon Stories podcast was important to me in my journey and helped slow my exit from the church. It let me know I wasn't alone and helped me take the time to evaluate what was truly best for me and my family. I couldn't stay in, but I support those who choose to. Anyway, it was an enjoyable, if somewhat packed weekend (I had a concert down in Renton yesterday followed by a rehearsal last night). And, while enjoyable, it's a relief to have it all over!