Creating the Voices of Hope Project: A Personal Reflection
In May 20, 2012, I came home from running errands and, there, among the stack of mail, was a copy of LDS Living magazine whose cover featured a smiling young couple with one of the cutest little boys I had ever seen. There was something riveting about the man in the picture. I thought at the time that he looked kind. He looked happy. He looked genuinely good. As my eyes shifted to the accompanying headline, I remember literally feeling so shocked that I stopped breathing for a second as I read the words, “Our Story: Living with Same-Sex Attraction.” I dropped the mail in a heap onto the floor and immediately sat down to read the cover article.
As I worked my way deeper into the article, my heart started to beat really fast. Much of this man’s story was my story—but no one knew it. How could this man know so much of my story? I felt an immediate connection with the author, a man named Ty Mansfield. Though I had a ton of work to do, all of it was forgotten as I went to Google this man and see what I could learn.
To my surprise there were over two million hits for someone who, before that day, I had never heard of in my life. One of those links led me to the website for Deseret Book where I discovered that he had written a book called Voices of Hope: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on Same-Gender Attraction. I starting reading the reader reviews which went on for pages. I was glued to the screen until I had read them all. Near the very end of the reviews, written not long after the book was first published, I came upon this entry:
“As a 24 year-old who struggles with SSA personally, I know firsthand the pain, loneliness, self-hatred, and feelings of inadequacy that come with this trial. After reading Voices of Hope, I now know that I’m not alone in this. Ty has truly been guided and directed in compiling this masterpiece that allows new venues of hope, peace, self-love, and competency. For the first time in my life deep, deep wounds are starting to heal. Although I know it’s just the beginning, and many, if not most, of my feelings of anger and inadequacy reside, it was this novel that has sprung me on the road to recovery. A sense of worth and purpose, although still a seed, has finally been instilled in my being, and for the first time, I have heard a Voice of Hope.”
It was signed by a young man at a nearby university whose name I recognized but wasn’t sure if it was same person or simply another person with the same name. Through Facebook, I reached out to him with the following message, including the above referenced quote in its entirety:
“Taking a big leap here, would it be correct to assume this post was from you? If not, never mind the rest of this message. If so, let me say that reading it literally brought tears of sadness to my eyes. To think that, even for a second, someone who appears to be as kind, thoughtful, funny and a great brother as you do would ever feel ‘the pain, loneliness, self-hatred, and feelings of inadequacy that come with this trial’ because of others is tragic. I hope that, as you continue along your life’s path, you will find a niche that brings you the same level of happiness, fit and fulfillment that Ty has found, regardless of your own personal circumstances.”
It took him three days to respond. I remember that, as a member of a bishopric at the time, I was actually sitting on the stand during sacrament meeting when I saw the notification on my phone that his message had come in. As he poured out his heart to me, I saw his pain, his shame, and his loneliness. For most of his life, he had kept it all bottled up inside him until he was faced with one of two choices—either talk about it or end his life. As I felt his anguish, the Spirit prompted me to respond back, unloading the burdens of my own heart that had been locked up for decades in a jumbled stream-of-consciousness tale that began:
“I wondered at the time, if you DID write the review I asked about, would it change how I felt about you? Your reply did indeed change that. I went from casual interest because of shared connections to this overwhelming feeling of love that I can’t explain. Odd, I know. Maybe it was because the conversation went straight from superficial chatter to you trusting me with your innermost personal thoughts. Now, I am going to trust YOU with mine…”
With that as an introduction, I spent the rest of the night pouring out my entire story to him in a private Facebook message. I eventually hit “Reply” and fell into a fitful sleep, exhausted. The next morning, I awoke early, nervous about what his response would be.
“What was I thinking?” I wondered to myself. I had kept this all a secret for almost four decades and I had just blurted it out to someone I hardly even knew. But, on the other hand, I felt this euphoric lightness—as if finally relieving myself of this secret burden after all these years had somehow caused a physical transformation. I finally felt authentic.
I shared my story with Ty and, after that, the dialogue between us continued. Becoming truly authentic led to an increased desire to share the story of my journey with others. As Ty and I talked about the competing emotions of desire and fear surrounding that effort, especially given my visibility in both religious and professional worlds, he likened the situation to the Savior beckoning to Peter to step out of the boat and come to him on the waves of a turbulent sea and then remarked, “The only thing that will keep you walking on water is to first step out on the water only to see and experience that a miracle is happening as you walk forward. I would suggest that the same is true for standing out and being a voice of hope. The only thing that builds faith is faith.”
Not long after that, I felt compelled that, if the original book had motivated me to share my story with others in the hope that it would help others, perhaps there were others like me around the country—or around the world for whom Voices of Hope had inspired a similar desire—but there wasn’t then available a good avenue for that to happen.
In the summer of 2012, I approached Ty with the idea of creating a website, an ever-expanding repository where people could not only read inspirational stories similar to those found in the book, but could watch people literally telling their story in their own words. Thinking that he would think I was crazy, I approached him with the concept of a Voice(s) of Hope website. Enthusiastically, he remarked that such an effort had always been his dream, but that a lack of resources had, to that point, prevented such an effort from coming to fruition. I told him that I felt that this project was something that I had been called to do at this point in my life and that not only would I take the lead in getting it started, but would commit the necessary financial resources to get the site up and running, after which we would solicit donations to help keep the project going.
The first step was to identify and register the domain name, which was later expanded to include a number of similar names. Having had literally no experience producing a project of this kind, I set out to identify a “video guy” that could oversee filming the first round of interviews. After reviewing the creative portfolios of more than 50 teams, Ty offered that his brother-in-law, Adam Sanders, was an Emmy-nominated videographer and, though he was reluctant to use family, suggested I take a look at his work and consider him as one of the candidates in the mix. After reviewing his work, I called him and we talked extensively about the project—how we wanted it to feel, what we wanted it to look like and how limited our budget was for this first phase. As odd as this may sound, during the hour-long conversation with Adam, I felt a spiritual confirmation that said clearly, “This is your guy.”
The first shoot, held at a beautiful home in Murray, Utah, featured 10 individuals and couples. The Spirit was overwhelming. In addition to feeling our fire for the project fueled, we learned many logistical lessons that we would later incorporate into subsequent shoots to improve the process, the product and the experience for all involved. In spite of all the preparations, checklists and plans, what we did not anticipate was the spiritual feeling of the shoots themselves. For many of the participants, this was the first time they had ever publicly recounted the story of their entire journey and it was an emotional experience. There were times when the entire production team was crying. As subsequent shoots got underway, we learned that production team prayer and occasionally giving a requested priesthood blessing to a participant brought a sense of calmness and clarity to each shoot and became the standard practice.
Our production team expanded to include Martin Palmer as sound technician, as well as Reo Garn, better known for his YouTube channel videos as “That Mormon Boy”; Kevin Randall, a former TV news anchor and accomplished video producer employed by the Church; and North Star Leadership Council member, Josh Searle. In the role of Project Manager, Stephan Mueller maintained the database of tasks, deadlines, benchmarks, keeping the entire project team on track.
Later, after reviewing the work of more than 120 web designers, we would pick Canadian-based Juan Rodriguez, an iPad App developer, who had served as a missionary with me in Washington DC and who had been designing websites since he was 10. His enthusiasm for the subject matter and his collaborative approach secured the slot over those with more sophisticated portfolios and track records.
Throughout this project, we felt the Lord’s continued confirmation as He continued to provide volunteers to handle a multitude of tasks that had been hereto unforeseen. Laura Campbell edited essays. Adam Howell, Reed Willmore, Tyler Smith, and Kylee Shields completed the arduous task of transcribing all of the videos for the benefit of those who are hearing impaired. Luis Moreno interviewed the project’s participants and created a special episode of the North Star podcast, “Behind the Voices.” Later, we would add accomplished video producers Neil Bryce and Laron Wilson to the production team. Deserving special recognition is Ty’s wife, Danielle Mansfield, who sacrificed time with her husband so he could attend to various project demands.
As the project’s team expanded in scope and talent, the one constant that continued from the beginning was the synergistic partnership between Ty Mansfield and me. An intensely personal project for both of us, we held a shared vision not only of how people would feel when they visited this site, but that everything about it be professional in every way. In the end, there is not a single component of how this project looks and functions that wasn’t discussed, analyzed and tweaked in numerous ways to ensure that both of us were equally happy with the end product. Ultimately, what you see when you look at this site is a three-way partnership between me, Ty and the Lord because, through it all, we truly felt His hand guiding us in everything that we did. Before the site was even finished, we felt its reach and influence already extending far beyond our wildest dreams as a trusted resource within the LDS community.
This launch is but a start and, to paraphrase Robert Frost, “We have miles to go before we sleep.” We have 21 more shoots already completed and ready to edit with many more who have expressed interest in participating in future shoots—and, when this site becomes public, we anticipate hundreds more who will join our “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). To achieve this project’s ambitious goals for good will require potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. We hope that our efforts to date will earn your support of and investment in this important initiative—whatever it is you can afford.
In spite of whether you feel called to financially contribute to this effort or not, we need your help in publicizing the availability of this site as an important contributor to the on-going dialogue regarding same-sex attraction. We encourage you to share it with friends, family and ward members; to post links to the site on your Facebook page and other social media outlets; to use it as a teaching tool in your quorum and auxiliary meetings as a way to increase tolerance and understanding within the Church and, most importantly, as a resource to individuals you might be aware of who are grappling with how to reconcile faith and feelings. This site will only achieve its ultimate potential if its reach exponentially expands. You never know who is privately trying to find answers to their own intersection of same-sex attraction and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As the director of this project, I want to thank everyone involved for their dedication, passion, and consecration of their time and talents to ensure the project exceeded our original expectations in every way. I have never loved a group of people more than I have grown to love you from this experience. In the words from beloved Broadway musical, Wicked, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”