A while back I had the incredible opportunity to deliver a talk at TEDx RVA. It was an incredible opportunity for many reasons – the biggest of which was to talk to a group of people about the things I’ve observed and learned in my experience working with LGBTQ+ youth at Side by Side/ROSMY. I’ve included a roughly followed transcript below.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time a teenager asked me if they were going to hell.
I’d been in my job as the Youth Programs Director at ROSMY for a few months, working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, and was visiting a local high school’s gay-straight alliance to tell them about ROSMY. My goal was to let youth know about our support groups and our leadership program. And, I mentioned in passing that I had been to seminary and that I was in the process of becoming a pastor – so, the youth could talk to me if they had any questions about things they may have heard in the church.
Without realizing it, I had sold myself as someone who had the authority to answer questions about the state of their eternal souls.
While I believe without a doubt that people are not condemned to hell for their identity, I was totally taken off-guard by the question.
I wish I could say that this first time was the only time someone has asked me about hell. I wish I could say that I’m even surprised to hear it anymore.
To put that kind of question out there takes a lot of courage.
I know this because it’s a question I never had the courage to ask.
Like many queer youth today, I spent my high school years trying to navigate a system that was constructed for someone else. School dances were exclusively male-female couples, girls wore makeup and talked about their crushes, bathrooms and locker rooms were spaces where gender norms and expectations were reinforced. Though I never really felt like I was betraying any aspect of my identity by doing all of these things, it wasn’t until years after I graduated that I recognized how much the shame and fear I carried about my identity kept me moving forward – taking the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to life. I thought that if I could try hard enough, work long enough, at being the right kind of girl, then eventually, I would be.
One of the places I did feel safe to be myself – even within the relatively limited confines of my personal closet – was church. It was at church that I learned that it was ok to ask questions, that it was ok to be my goofy, awkward self. I learned what it was to be cared for by adults who weren’t my parents. I was challenged and taught to live into my beliefs as it was shown to me in the lives of the people who took the time to teach Sunday school, direct youth choir, to lead trips. The people in the congregation took the time to listen, to ask tough questions – they showed me what it was to be loved.
As a teenager, I was hard-working, did well in school, had a core group of good friends, active in all of the typical extracurricular activities. On the surface, I played the part of the typical American teenager very well.
Underneath, I carried a deeply-buried sense of shame over my identity.
The funny thing about shame is that it’s very easy to hide.
So, while I could smile through just about anything, I can remember thinking that I would rather be dead than have anyone know I was queer.
I carried that shame and fear with me even when I started seminary. I had been out for years by that time, but I still stood in a closet of my own fears about what a theological education would bring. I stood in a space somewhere between exhilaration and terror, excited about all that I would learn, and afraid that once I began digging into biblical texts I would find that my fears were right – that my queer identity relegated me to the margins of grace at best or at worst, outside the bounds of grace all together.
Imagine my surprise – and delight! – when I found the opposite. I didn’t find condemnation in the texts of my tradition, but a message of hope and liberation for those who’d been told they were impure or outcast. The issue wasn’t the texts – the issue was with the ways they’d been misused, utilized to reinforce structures that made very clear lines between who’s in and who’s out. Those boundaries that are so often set between ourselves and others, the clean and unclean, the holy and the damned – they are human-made, not divinely constructed.
In the summer of 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination of which I am a part, ratified changes to their constitution, which made it possible for LGBTQ people to be ordained. As you might suspect, many people left the denomination when it became possible for LGBTQ people to fully participate in leadership roles – including 75% of the members of my home congregation. Among this 75% was the bulk of the people who had been most formative in my faith formation.
The same people who taught me what it was to be loved by God, and who showed me the love of a church community, left the denomination because LGBTQ people – people like me – could be ordained.
Though I started working at ROSMY in 2013, I interned there during my final year of seminary – the same year the PCUSA changed its ordination standards. The same year my home church split up. It seemed especially poignant that the place that I’d found the most comfort as a teenager – even while I was never able to fully be myself, was breaking up as I was beginning an internship working with teenagers, many of whose stories from church were far more damaging than my own.
So, while I heard second-hand stories from home about things people said – about LGBTQ people being an abomination, fundamentally impure – or about the terrible move the denomination was making in offering space for queer folks in the leadership of the church – I was also hearing stories from the youth I met who’d been told they were going to hell, or that they were an abomination, or were kicked out of their homes, cut off from their families – all in the name of God.
Though there was no direct overlap in these communities, it was almost as if the youth I met had had the ground pulled out from under their feet, and the people who taught me what it was to be church were the ones pulling it out from under them.
I’d be lying if I said I’d never had my heart broken by the church. There are some days when I feel as if it might crumble under the weight of the things said and done in the name of God. In these times, it is easier for me to give in to the hurt and weariness that comes with the things that have been lost, with the struggles ahead, and the feeling of futility that we might be able to live authentically in community with one another.
In the same way, there are times when I get bogged down with the work I do at ROSMY, with the struggles the youth face and conversations about suicide, or bullying – with the frequency with which teenagers ask me if they are going to hell. The distance between where we are and where we need to be is just too much. The work is too hard.
It always seems that on those days when the burden of it feels particularly heavy, that I am reminded of the awesomeness of the job I get to do. Sometimes it’s in a call or text message from a youth telling me that their paperwork is done and their name is legally changed, other times it’s in a youth who’s been busy and unable to come to group for a few weeks, stopping in because he felt homesick. Some days it’s in having a pastor of a local church call because a youth in their youth group has recently come out, and they want to know how to make sure they are educated and the space is safe for that youth.
I could focus all day long on the 75% of people who left, or on the overwhelming circumstances many LGBTQ youth face. However, in doing so, I am turning my gaze away from the connections made, from the love that is offered and shared, from the investment people make in themselves and in their community. I risk missing the excitement shared by the 25% who have remained in my hometown congregation, who have banded together beautifully to work and love, and who are in many ways bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure. They know the ground they stand on and who they want to be in the world.
In a similar way, many of the youth who come to ROSMY have bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure. In the midst of a world that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth the opportunity many of them don’t have anywhere else: the opportunity to belong. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. They, too, know the ground they stand on and who they want to be in the world.
A few weeks ago in group, the youth designed symbols to represent who they are, and then attached the symbols to capes. At the end of group, they all donned their capes and stood together, proudly sharing their superhero identities, standing in their best superhero poses. There was nothing particularly profound about it – the capes were made of donated fabric, the mis-matched symbols kinda of clumsily cut and ironed-on. And yet, looking around at the room of youth wearing capes – it was almost magical. It was magical not because they were wearing capes, but because they were able, if only for a moment, to feel good as they are – to be seen as they are, and to stand proudly in that identity.
I often wonder what faith communities might be able to learn from places like ROSMY. What would happen if faith communities focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – where they could be fully themselves and know that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? What if we celebrated our individuality, and saw it as the opportunity to be part of something more? What if we actually lived into the notion that we are all worthy to be loved – that we can be messy and unsure – that we don’t have to have it all figured out? Would giving each other the space to bring whatever we’ve got give way to empathy, trust, accountability, and community building?
Might we then realize that we are all, in our imperfectly beautiful humanity, superheroes?