An excommunication from the church following faithful service as a mission president interrupts our expectations. A mission president is logically considered to be a worthy example, chosen for leadership skills and commitment to all the principles of a dedicated and consecrated way of life. His influence guides the life trajectory of hundreds of young men and women for years and years to come. When that example veers off of a covenant path, questions outnumber answers. One man’s story includes such a detour.
Steve Wright plays the organ. From his apartment in Las Vegas if you lived close or were invited in, you would be treated graciously to a spontaneous concert. His life story would certainly include over fifty years of honing that skill. He could also converse with you fluently in Spanish—another talent perfected nearly as long as his organ skills. Steve has developed people skills, perception skills, preaching skills and a myriad of other laudable impressive life skills which have led him down amazing paths and into impressive circles. But his story is much deeper and convoluted than you might perceive during an organ recital.
His history begins with an idyllic childhood in the Bear Lake Valley of southeastern Idaho where his great-great grandfather Charles C. Rich had been sent by Brigham Young to settle. President Young had originally sent his own son to settle that valley, but that son returned after one winter with these words, “The place is uninhabitable.” The second string sent in with the Rich Company braved the unusually cruel and long winters and paved the way for thousands upon thousands to settle, raise families, farm and eventually enjoy what the New York Times once named as the “Best Shake in America!” in Garden City, UT on the south end of Bear Lake.
Steve’s father was a banker in Montpelier, ID. His three brothers and he played Little League, football, and basketball, took piano lessons, achieved Scouting ranks,—small town America at its best. At one point four cousins became orphaned and joined the Wright family doubling the number of kids and adding two lively sisters to the mix.
BYU, a mission to California and Arizona Spanish-speaking, a courtship and marriage to Harriella Crouch (“Sug” short for “Sugar”), and a masters in Linguistics and English as a Second Language followed. At that point an opportunity to teach Mexican diplomats at the U.S. Embassy Bi-National Center in Mexico City presented in 1976. Despite some in-house protesting because he was a “gringo”, Steve championed on until the rent doubled due to the devaluation of the peso and the necessity of leaving Mexico became apparent. He returned home to Montpelier and defaulted to a bank trainee program in Pocatello, ID.
Providence intervened one day in the form of a call from B.Y.U. with the prospect of a position for Dole Mushrooms in Filmore, UT, teaching English to Laotian and Hmong workers. That was the end of the banking “career”! Children began to join the family, and so began the busy life of an active young Mormon family in earnest. Then another interruption—a call to return to the MTC to serve as assistant director of language training for ten years. He also taught Spanish at BYU during that time and was executive assistant to the president of the MTC as well as a branch president there. On the same day he was released from that he was called as the bishop of his home ward in Orem, UT.
In 1987 Steve Wright was called to serve as mission president in the Bolivia La Paz mission. He was 37, and he and Sug were parents of six children ranging from 14 years to 18 months. At that time 100 missionaries were serving in La Paz, a city then of one million.
Two of those warriors were teaching a female investigator. Unbeknownst to them she was staking them out as part of a Peruvian terrorist group. That association resulted in the heinous assassination of the two elders. In the midst of this tremendous tragedy, President Wright had a dream which Elder Ballard, who had supervised South America at the time of the tragedies and been a true help, related in general conference of April 1989.
With the permission of President Steven B. Wright of the Bolivia La Paz Mission, I share this special experience that came to him in a dream: “I saw these two elders dressed in white, standing at the doors of a beautiful building. They were greeting numerous people, who also were dressed in white as they entered the building. It was obvious from their dress that those who entered were Bolivians. I envisioned the temple that will someday be built in Bolivia. Elders Wilson and Ball were ushering those they had prepared to receive the gospel in the spirit world into the temple to witness the vicarious ordinances being performed in their behalf. This dream has been a great comfort to me and has helped me to understand and accept their deaths.”
This glimpse by President Wright of the work of redemption beyond mortality is consistent with the heavenly vision given to President Joseph F. Smith more than seven decades ago. He declared, “I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel … in the great world of the spirits.” (D&C 138:57.)
Fear now entered the Wright home. A neighboring police station posted extra guards for their protection. Then two months later, President Wright’s two assistants and a son rolled an automobile, and one of the assistants was instantly killed. At this point things began to break down psychologically for this stalwart president. He doubted his own ability to be inspired to keep his missionaries safe. Why hadn’t he been inspired to move those elders—keep them out of harm’s way? He was rocked to his very core. His depression made him dysfunctional.
The Wrights returned from Bolivia in 1990 at the completion of this mission. From his past, Steve’s continual same-sex attraction reared its head. He had never discussed this attraction—never verbalized it with anyone. Steve had married and served worthily. He had been commended for his character and accomplishments over and over, but in the back of his mind he always thought, “If you only knew…” Questions arose about his self-identity, and he began to actively explore that side of himself.
In 1991 Steve was excommunicated. He and Sug struggled to stay married, but after six years of struggle, that ended as well. Finding himself now a returned mission president, single, exiled from his social circle and extensive friend base, he was also jobless. Drawing on his vast Spanish experience he secured a job with Word Perfect translating documentation into Spanish. That extended into expertise in certification development and took him into Novell when it bought out Word Perfect. Other employment opportunities took him around the country.
Four years later he petitioned for re-entry into the church, but it was denied. Steve felt rejected and very angry. His brothers vividly recall witnessing their brother shake his finger at them and saying, “I will never return to the church.” His former wife and family continued to include him in their lives. His mother and siblings remained steadfast supporters.
Finally in 2008, Steve and his partner returned to Salt Lake City for employment. They purchased a home and were semi welcomed into the neighborhood. At this point Steve suffered a heart attack. In the mail came a note from Elder Russell M. Ballard, “I heard you had a heart attack. Call me if you’d like.”
Steve decided to take him up on his offer. The meeting was warm and cordial. Elder Ballard told him, “The road back into full fellowship with the church will be long and hard. We need you. You need us. Seek the Lord’s spirit.” He offered his help and also somewhat comically added that he (Elder Ballard) wasn’t getting any younger! At one point in the conversation, Steve expressed an emotional question as to why he had been called as a mission president given the personal challenge he had carried so silently throughout his life. Elder Ballard’s simple profound answer was, “Heavenly Father knew who you were when he called you.”
Of this turning point, Steve said, “I knew I couldn’t come back if I still had a partner.” His partner moved out. One evening the bishop of the ward pulled up on his Harley and introduced himself as Bishop Hymas. He asked Steve if he’d be willing to play the organ in church because the current organist was losing her sight. He accepted the informal call with reservations because of his non member status and requested that the bishop call Elder Ballard to clarify. Permission was granted. Bishop Hymas stood before his congregation, explained the situation, and invited them all to join in welcoming a new organist.
Soon Steve made a second request for re-baptism. His former wife and her husband attended the meeting to testify in his behalf. Silent months passed with no word. Once again his request was denied. Of this discouragement Steve said, “I was angry. I determined that I would just go it alone!”
Retirement took Steve to Las Vegas. His first Sunday in the new ward he noticed a man unobtrusively straightening chairs and picking up discarded programs after the meeting. This man turned out to be Kurt Teshima, the stake president! He asked Steve to be the organist in this new ward and thus began a healing collaborative relationship resulting in a third request to regain membership. A third rejection.
At a family gathering at the cemetery in Bennington, ID, the husband of Steve’s former wife followed a prompting and petitioned him to “listen to the voices of your ancestors here at this cemetery.” He trusted this new friend. The prayers on both sides of the veil continued to ascend for hearts to soften and covenants to be restored.
Finally, on December 26, 2016, following setbacks, petitions, and repeated closed doors, Steve Wright was baptized in Orem, UT, in the same building in which he was excommunicated 25 years previously. Family members, friends, and former Bolivian missionaries rejoiced in the day.
One year later his priesthood blessings were restored by Elder Stephen Snow whose great-great grandfather, Erastus Snow, had been ordained an apostle on the same day as Steve’s progenitor, Charles. C. Rich. Returning to the temple with sons and his former wife, Sug, and her husband, Keith, brought a specific “personally customized” sacred tender mercy of which Steve said, “A loving Father taught me that day: I remember you. I welcome you back. I love you.”
Of his experience with same-sex attraction Steve offers the following counsel applicable to all:
- Regardless of the choices of your loved ones, don’t reject them. If alienated from them don’t give up hope. Always take the high ground.
- Establish values you believe in. Whatever they are, stick with them. Don’t sell yourself to follow the crowd.
- Love yourself above all things. Learn to trust that God will help you make right choices.
The story of Steve Wright’s journey for over 70 years might never be deemed newsworthy and chronicled on national television or radio. The quiet players in his play will never step foot on a public stage to read their parts for all to hear. The heroes and heroines will never take bows or hear thundering applause. The screenplay won’t receive nominations for prestigious honors. But in the honesty of one pilgrimage lived in pain resulting in ultimate sublime joy, we can all see the guiding artistic hand of God.