I loved doing this interview! Elona Knighton Shelley is the author of You Just Have to Love, published in our Spring 2006 issue. Her essay recounts the challenge she faced as the mother of a gay son and the things she learned about love and happiness. Here, she shares some important tips on how we can deal with our own hard circumstances and really claim the gift of charity.
Lisa: Tell us about yourself and your family.
Elona: I’m an Idaho country kid who now lives in the wonderful City of Orem, Utah. My country roots often call to me, but I am content to be with my “city dude” husband who loves his work as a computer man at BYU. Our garden, which my mother takes care of much more than I do, serves as a frequent reminder of the generosity of God and of our dependence on him for our sustenance. I filled a two year call to the Central American Mission after attending the University of Idaho in Moscow for three years. Sending our children on missions to Brazil, Russia and Japan has been a growing experience for our family. At the moment we have children and grandchildren in Utah, Connecticut and Colorado. Our thirteenth grandchild is due in a few weeks.
Lisa: Your essay, “You Just Have to Love” about your son, David, was very moving. How did you come to write it?
Elona: I had been serving as stake enrichment counselor in our stake for less than six months when the time came to choose a theme for our first stake enrichment meeting. As we considered the women of our stake, we felt we needed to encourage our sisters to have hope in the face of adversity. We chose the line from 2 Nephi 31:20: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope.” We discussed various applications of this theme and who we should invite to address them. As our discussion progressed, we came to realize that among our presidency, we had dealt with quite a broad variety of adversity. Our education counselor had lost her husband the year before, during the first few months of the mission they had for years dreamed of serving. Our president had dealt with many extended family challenges. And of course, as you know from my essay, I had struggled to come to peace regarding my gay son. The stories we shared in this meeting initiated a wonderful bond that we continually try to nurture among the sisters of our stake.
Lisa: Do you have advice for other parents of gay/lesbian children, especially LDS church members?
Elona: I don’t really feel qualified to “give advice” because every situation is so unique, but I can’t say enough about the blessings I have received from turning to the scriptures—the printed words of Christ—for comfort, strength and guidance. I recommend that path to everyone traveling through this mortal experience! The scriptures can be totally individual and personal if we learn how to use them. Although they are static, printed words, I find their messages as changing as the words of the Liahona were for Lehi’s family. I can’t imagine trying to navigate this life without them. I haven’t always felt that way, and I rejoice in the experiences that have brought me to treasure them. I also believe there is value in support groups if you can find one that will help you move in a positive direction. It is so devastating for most parents to learn that they have a gay child. The burden is too heavy to bear alone. It truly needs to be shared, even though it may be difficult to talk about.
Lisa: I believe you have a new website designed to help families in similar circumstances. Tell us about that.
Elona: My website is still very basic, or “under construction”, as it says! I know there is a need for support among people with gay loved-ones, but the e-mail group I started almost a year ago didn’t work out at all. As I invited people to join the group, there seemed to be interest but then there was almost no sharing, so after several months we discontinued the group. After working on my article, “You Just Have To Love”, for publication by Segullah, we decided to try a website. Among other things, I wanted to make a draft of my original talk available to anyone who was interested. Although the talk is somewhat erratic, it gives more background than the essay. Several people have told me that for some reason they connect with the talk in a deeper way than with the shorter essay. My purpose in creating the website was simply to reach out my hand to offer hope, and a way to peace, for anyone who might have struggles similar to mine. (You notice that I use the word “we” when I talk about the website. Actually, “we” refers to myself and my son, David, who is the focus of my essay. He has been a wonderful support in my efforts to share my message of hope. He doesn’t embrace the LDS views, but he is anxious to help both gays and their families increase their love for each other. He is the one who encouraged me to submit my essay to Carol Lynn Pearson for publication in her new book, No More Goodbyes.)
Lisa: Many of us have family members of other faiths—or no faith. How do you deal with that, as a committed LDS woman?
Elona: My most important goal is to be a true follower of Christ. His gospel is a gospel of agency as well as a gospel of love. These are complementary, not conflicting. I often ponder Moroni 7:48. I love its passion, its deep richness, and its clear instruction: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren [Elona], pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart [put some real desire and power into this—even your best effort!], that ye may be filled with this love [I want to partake of more than just a little nibble or small taste of this love, I want to be filled to the very brim, even to over-flowing or bursting!], which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons [daughter] of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him . . . purified even as he is pure.” I love the Lord and I’ve learned that it requires some serious effort to keep my relationship with him foremost in my life. I prayerfully seek his guidance in my daily doings. The two great commandments on which “hang all the law and the prophets” are to love God, and to love our neighbor. I make it a practice to daily ask God to help me give his love to all of his children as I encounter them. There is no need to be argumentative or unpleasant. I live my values and try to be aware of the opportunities the Lord provides for me to share them, but I don’t feel a need to insist that others embrace my values. I am in the business of giving love, which includes respect. I leave the rest to God. I do what I can to keep his Spirit with me so that when I do find myself in one of those rare, difficult situations, I can handle it well. I don’t expect to do everything perfectly. I just ask God to help me and I do the best I can. That has to be enough!
Lisa: You said in your essay that you moved from an attitude of fear and pain to a place of joy and trust. Can you tell us, in a nutshell, how we can do that?
Elona: I believe the scriptures are the key! As members of the Church, we’ve heard this all our lives, so until we develop our own love affair with the scriptures, that may just seem like a trite answer easily offered to many of the questions frequently asked in the Church. If the words of Christ haven’t become our life’s anchor, we need to plead with God to help us find a way to immerse ourselves in them. Colleen Harrison’s book, He Did Deliver Me From Bondage, provided my passage to my love affair with the scriptures. Some of my friends’ love affairs came through practicing the principles discussed in the Scripture Literacy Manual that our stake president developed. This manual largely consists of addresses by prophets and other general authorities imploring us to learn how to apply the scriptures in our lives. It teaches the principles of asking, searching, pondering, writing, and thanking. There are many ways to internalize the scriptures. The important thing is that we find a way that works for us and then do it regularly. Wendy Watson (now Nelson) has a wonderful book called Rock Solid Relationships that has reinforced my efforts to anchor myself with the scriptures.
Lisa: You also wrote that your happiness is your own responsibility, that you’ll just “have to be happy, no matter what.” Do you have tips for how to be truly happy, no matter what our circumstances?
Yes, I sure do! First off, spend a little time with God each morning before your day gets underway. It is so much easier to keep our baptismal covenant to remember him always if we have recently spent some time with him. Even if all you can manage is a single verse of scripture and a two minute prayer in the morning, it can work wonders if done with the right spirit. Of course we are better able to appreciate the richness of the gospel as we make time to diligently ponder and pray over the words we are studying. The principle of writing my thoughts has been almost magical in drawing me closer to the Lord. I treasure those moments when I feel truly encircled in the arms of his love as he reveals himself to me. I know it is not easy to find the time to study, especially for mothers with younger children. However, I’ve found that as I honestly seek ways to spend more time with the scriptures, opportunities have come. There is power in simply asking God to help you when your heart is soft and open to him. I wasn’t a diligent student of the scriptures as a young mother, and I regret that I wasn’t a better example to my children. However, I am often joyfully reminded that God is merciful. He continues to offer me various opportunities to share my testimony of the power of the scriptures with my children and with my grandchildren. I just have to keep on the look-out for them.
My second tip would be to have (or develop) a grateful heart! Continually focus on the good in your life—from the beauties of the earth, to the comforts of life you enjoy, to the goodness of people you interact with, to the little serendipitous things that happen as you go about your day—and thank the Lord for each of them in specific terms. Many of us miss the power of gratitude because we have difficulties that consume our attention. We have to discipline our minds and constantly refocus our eyes (and our hearts) on God and his goodness. He knows we have trials, but he asks us to rejoice! The weight of our burdens is lifted as we rejoice in the certainty of God’s love for us. This certainty is developed through on-going scripture study and writing, coupled with earnest, joyful prayer.
Lisa: What are you looking forward to in your life, in the next five to ten years?
Elona: Lots of good livin’, learnin’ and lovin’! Our thirteenth grandchild is due in a few weeks. This will be our fourth new family member since April. I love spending time in our children’s homes, helping with the “new baby transition” in whatever way I can. Three of our four married children live far enough away that when I visit them, I am usually gone for several days if not a week or more. Our oldest grandchild is getting baptized in Connecticut in December, so we will be traveling there to share in that landmark event. There is no end to the possibilities and joy that go with being a grandmother! I have been involved in scouting for many years and this summer my involvement included serving on a Wood Badge training staff with my husband. The preparation is quite demanding, but it was an amazing experience, and I would love to do that again if the opportunity presents itself. My calling as stake enrichment counselor provides me with many opportunities to love and serve. That is a high priority for me. I also just went to my first family history meeting last week and although I am just a beginner, as we organized ourselves into groups, I agreed to be a team leader for our area. It is going to take some serious training to get me on track there, but it feels like this is my season to begin. I look forward to dedicating a good chunk of my time to that work. I’ve also dabbled with writing some of our family history. I find that could consume an unlimited amount of time! One goal I do have is to go to the Tegucigalpa, Honduras Temple dedication, whenever that happens. I started my mission in Tegucigalpa and served there later in my mission as well. I have put out the word to others who served in our mission and we are talking about going as a group. I’ve been heavily involved in tracking down address for our mission reunion this weekend and anticipate putting more effort into reconnecting with many former missionaries.
Lisa: Will we get to read more of your writing sometime?
Elona: This question makes me smile! I am such a grasshopper—great on distance but not so great on direction! I truly appreciated Segullah’s help in getting my essay, “You Just Have To Love” to a publishable state. It was challenging for me to stay focused enough to bring that to fruition, and I don’t know that I ever would have done it without your encouragement. My son was also a dedicated support in that effort. I often feel a great desire to share my experiences and feelings with others, especially as I serve in my Relief Society calling. Some of the topics that are especially close to my heart are enjoying marriage, developing confidence in the Lord, rejoicing in the Lord, the sweetness of forgiving, and leaving the world behind. I hope to tame my grasshopper ways enough to have another essay ready to publish—sometime! I am confident it will happen, but just when it will be is another question. We have chosen the theme of “Rejoice in the Lord” for our next stake enrichment meeting. I’ve loved the insights I’ve been given as I have pondered and written about “rejoice scriptures”, so maybe I’m already on my way to my next essay!
Lisa: Any final words on love and happiness?
Just do it! It is a choice—not always an easy one, but well worth the effort. If it is really hard, just take baby steps. Don’t be discouraged by set-backs or slow progress. By small and simple things, great things are accomplished. Study, write, ponder, and pray about your concerns. Ask, plead, even beg for Christ’s help and companionship. He is your best friend and your best cheerleader. He’s on your side! Rejoice in that knowledge and draw on his support—his amazing grace!