Fred and Marilyn Matis stand in the foyer of a Lehi church meetinghouse on a Sunday evening, greeting each person who walks through the door. More than 50 people trickle in over the next 15 minutes, and each receives a hug.
The occasion is a monthly fireside the Matises organize. An opening song – “How Gentle God’s Command” – is sung, an opening prayer is given and Fred Matis introduces the speaker, who spends the next 45 minutes discussing the importance of music in worship. His topic is one not uncommon to firesides, but his audience is.
Most of the attendees are male, and many deal with same-gender attraction.
For the countless Latter-day Saints struggling with the challenges associated with same-gender attraction, there are questions without answers. Many suffer in silence, feeling ashamed and hopeless. For six years, the Matises gave hope to countless attendees at their firesides.
“We want those who come to the fireside to know that they’re loved and that there’s purpose in life,” Marilyn Matis said.
Fred and Marilyn Matis have worked hard over the years in hopes of making those with same-gender attraction feel loved. In 2004, they published the book “In Quiet Desperation” about experiences with their son, Stuart, who had same-gender attraction and committed suicide at age 32. They said they knew nothing on the subject when their son first told them about the secret he’d kept from them for years.
“I felt completely lost and alone, and I really did not know where to turn for help,” Marilyn Matis wrote.
Following the death of their son, the Matises credit their faith for making it through the tragedy.
“At Stuart’s death, we felt the Comforter strengthening us and carrying us in our time of need,” Marilyn Matis wrote. “Our understanding of the Atonement became more clearly defined, and our love for our Savior became more reverent and profound.”
Unlike some other efforts by religious individuals, the Matises don’t worry about the cause of same-gender attraction, “just the care” as Marilyn puts it, or making sure they know they’re loved. They said many who come have yet to tell their families and are scared to be open about their secrets, even in a safe environment like the fireside.
“When they come for the first time, they’re petrified,” Marilyn Matis said.
They began the firesides almost six years ago in their home after their nephew asked them to host it. He had been to one in Salt Lake City but felt uncomfortable attending and wanted a gathering that was more Gospel centered.
“We held it in the family room,” Marilyn Matis said. “Six people showed up.”
What began as a small informal gathering began to grow. Soon, the Matises invited speakers and moved to a nearby banquet room once they outgrew their living room. They eventually began meeting in a chapel near their home, and the meetings received supervision by local priesthood leaders.
The Matises welcome friends and family to the firesides, and hope those who attend will leave with more understanding and compassion.
“We’re hoping when friends and parents come, they can understand,” Marilyn Matis said. “Really kind people can say cruel things when they don’t understand.”
After six years, however, the Matises have decided to end the firesides.
“It has been been a hard decision for us both, but because of our aging years, declining health and family responsibilities, we have decided to step away,” Fred Matis said in an email. “This hard decision has been compounded by our growing love we have developed for all of you.”
Fred Matis said he believes recent statements by Church leaders will help change peoples’ misconceptions.
“We feel that all the recent additional statements by the Brethren, as well as the changes in the new Church Handbook of Instructions, should continue to sustain the effort by priesthood leaders to reach out, love and support young men and women who experience same-gender attraction,” he said.
In October, Church spokesman Michael Otterson said the Church condemned “acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different.” Otterson also urged people to be sensitive to “the vulnerable in society” and speak out against bullying and intimidation whenever it occurs, including “unkindness toward those who are attracted to others of the same gender.”
Although the monthly firesides have ended, the Matises won’t stop their personal efforts to educate people and encourage compassion. Marilyn said the only way misconceptions will change is if people aren’t afraid to talk about it.
“If you’re in a Sunday School class and someone says something and you know what they’re saying is incorrect, open your mouth,” Marilyn Matis said.