By Derek Penwell
When I got to the office one time, I had a voicemail from a young man I’ve never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one of your colleagues referred you to me.”
He went on to say that he’d done some research on DBCC, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.
Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.
He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—”pray away the gay.” The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s assiduously avoided church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.
Over a very short period of time, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.
Then he said something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”
I started thinking about the Suicide Prevention Workshop we held a couple years ago. Turns out LGBT young people are two and a half times more likely to contemplate suicide than their straight counterparts. More frighteningly, I found out that those same LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.
Why the significantly higher rates?
Bullying, of course. But bullying is something that frequently happens … to a lot of kids. Perhaps even more deeply than bullying, though, LGBT kids experience rejection and isolation at the hands of the very people kids are supposed look to to love them and keep them safe.
Their parents kick them out of the house at alarming rates, making homelessness among LGBT youth twice as likely as among straight youth. The churches they attend often brutalize them in the name of “love.”
Young people are dying at an alarming rate, in order to allow some folks to retain the purity of their personal sense of integrity. That this integrity costs the lives of children is apparently a price they are more than willing to pay.
I realize that the motive for this stringent vision of purity is rooted in what its possessors would term love. And, I should point out, there is something to be said for saying “no” in the name of love—addicts, for example, often require the love found in “no.” And those who affirm reparative therapy, I suspect, would prefer to see same gender sexual orientation as an addiction to be conquered.
Unfortunately, though, reparative therapy is not “AA for the gay.” For one thing, AA actually works, whereas reparative therapy, at least according to the medical and scientific community, does not.1 But the problem has less to do with the fact that reparative therapy is ineffective, than with the fact that it does damage.2
LGBT young people having to find their way without the people and institutions charged with caring for them struck me today as I spoke with a pastor about his church. It seems there are some young adults in the church who would like to have conversation about how the church can become a place of welcome to LGBT people. Apparently, the older people in the church think such a conversation would be dangerous, afraid people will get angry and leave. After all, there are so many more important things in the world.
As the pastor spoke, I thought about Benjamin. I thought about all the LGBT young people going through hell because the people they trust to watch out for them have belittled and abandoned them. And I wondered how life would be different if there were churches around that loved these kids for who God created them to be, instead of trying to change them from what church people fear they represent.
I pray to God we find out.
To wit: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association, National Association of Social Workers, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO): Regional Office of the World Health Organization. ↩
See above note. ↩
By Derek Penwell
Let us imagine that you live in a circle of eight houses, seven of which have fertile gardens in back -- enough to feed a family. Unfortunately, however, the eighth house has a patch of swampy land that makes growing a garden impossible. Consequently, the people that live there spend their lives on the edge of starvation.
In the middle of this circle of houses is a commons that everyone uses to supplement their own gardens. But the gardening done in the commons, split eight ways, is only enough to give each house a little extra produce to sell for “nice things.”
The sharing of the commons is a tradition that has been passed down to homeowners in the neighborhood for generations. Nobody even questions it. The commons arrangement is just the way things are.
However, one-eighth of the commons doesn’t give the family with swampy land enough subsist on.
But that’s the way it goes, right? Life isn’t always fair. There has to be winners and losers.
Then one day, you’re having a cookout at your house with the bounty harvested from the commons. You’ve invited over a friend, who just happens to be a surveyor. She’s interested by the layout of the neighborhood, and the almost perfect solution of a commons. She thinks this is a great idea.
On her way to the bathroom, however, your surveyor friend happens by an antique survey map of the neighborhood hanging in your study. She begins to inspect it closely, as supper is being prepared. As she looks, she notices that the commons isn’t really a commons at all. In fact, the land that the neighborhood has been using freely to supplement each one’s income is actually a tract that legally belongs to the house with the swampy land.
You immediately realize the implications of this discovery: For years, because of a longstanding tradition, everyone in the neighborhood has been fattening their pocketbooks at the expense of the family that lives on swampy land. In other words, you realize that you’ve been getting rich on the back of the neighbor who can least afford it. You have an epiphany: Your neighbor’s family has been starving, while the rest of the neighborhood has taken the proceeds for itself -- the proceeds that rightfully belong to the starving family.
You feel awful. But it was tradition. Nobody knew any better. That you probably should have been more compassionate toward your neighbor all along is beside the point. Now you know.
The moral question is: Having finally realized that you’ve been treating your neighbor’s family unjustly all these years, what are you going to do about it?
- Stay quiet about it and keep the arrangement the way it is. It appears to be in your best interest economically just to keep your mouth shut. Why say anything at all if it’s only going threaten your otherwise comfortable existence?
- You could privately admit to one or two neighbors that -- if it were up to you -- you’d just restore the commons to its rightful owner. You’re humane, after all, you don’t necessarily want to see anyone starve. But then you might continue by telling your friends that, though you’re personally pulling for the family with swampy land, you’re afraid that if you say anything publicly about the injustice, one of two things might happen: 1) your other neighbors might get mad and vote you out of the neighborhood association; or 2) they might just think the whole arrangement is falling apart and vote to disband the neighborhood association all together. And boy howdy! You could never live with yourself if you were the person who submarined such a great arrangement, which seems to meet the needs of so many people.
- Or you could say, “Now that I know an injustice is being committed, I can’t keep quiet about this practice that threatens one of my neighbors, even if speaking up about it makes everyone else angry.”
Whatever you do, though, now that you know your neighbor is suffering unjustly at the hands of people among whom you live and work, morally you occupy a different place than before the surveyor pointed out the inequity.
So, let’s bring this home for the church folk:
If you happen to be a follower of Jesus who believes LGBT people have suffered injustice at the hands of the church, your response to that injustice -- whether you stand up publicly to speak against it or not -- (as difficult as it is to think about) is a moral question.
If you come to believe as a result of your faith that disproportionately imprisoning and killing young African Americans is an epidemic that is just a public manifestation of institutional racism, how you respond to the shooting of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, et al., makes a difference.
If in the course of your life as a Christian and a participant in the great American commons you become convinced that people arriving to participate in that commons from other countries deserve to be treated with dignity and hospitality, whether you choose to stand beside them in the face of hatred is not a matter of moral indifference.
“What will my congregation/denomination think if I publicly name this injustice?” is certainly a question worth asking. But the more pressing moral question has to do with thinking that that question is more important than “What’s my moral responsibility to people facing an injustice that threatens their dignity, their careers, their living arrangements, their ability to be parents -- and in some cases -- their lives?”
True moral knowledge of injustice without action makes you part of the problem. If you don't think so, ask the folks in the swampy land.
"Jesus’ point is this: No matter what bible passages you use to excuse yourself, no matter how many televangelists tell you that God only wants a new Cadillac for you, no matter how insulated you remain from the cries of Lazarus one simple reality cannot be changed: The reign of God does not exist where some do not eat.
"We want to welcome everybody to the table—but we’d sure appreciate it if they'd clean up some before they get here.
"We like the idea of welcoming, of being in solidarity with those beat too far down to get back up—but we’d feel a whole lot better about everything if we could tell whether they genuinely deserve the help or if they’re just trying to scam the system.
"It’s tough. We don’t have riots in the streets at this point, but we know that we live right smack-dab in the middle of a world where some have and some do not."
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So how can we hear what he has to say? How can those who earnestly seek to be his sheep know what his voice sounds like?
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a hungry child being fed.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like an undocumented worker being treated like a human being—with kindness and dignity.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like the hand of an old woman being held as she struggles to take her final breaths.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a gay teenager being treated like a normal kid in a world intent on treating him like he’s got something wrong with him.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a poor mother finding medicine for her sick children.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like an eight year-old boy holding a sign that says, “No more hurting people. Peace.”
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