I was in Junior High. I remember being fully aware of my attractions, but uncertain of where to turn. While I didn’t know where to go, I definitely knew where not to go- my church youth group. Those around me didn’t realize it, but I understood I didn’t belong. They were the Christians and I was the sin. I was the poison to their pool.
Reinforcing this reality were the words of none other than my own leaders. Maybe it was when we watched a short Christian documentary about how people contract AIDS, with a lengthy portion on the promiscuity of gay men.
Or perhaps it was when,
“that’s so gay!”
was said more often than
“God bless you”
It could’ve been when my youth leaders smirked as students spoke in slurs, only then to offer a few cracks of their own. I remember practicing my fake laugh, while my stomach went sick, as the head of my small group did his best impression of a “homo”.
Later on, as I grew older, I was part of another youth group. It was more mature, but just as disturbing. There was one time in particular. While in the midst of a Bible Study, one of the leaders lamented the fact that the local Christian college granted admission to gay students. He saw it as a slippery slope to Hell, or worse, liberalism.
Strangely, his exhortation took a turn as he noted a statistic he had read recently. He told us that one out of every nineteen people is gay. There were twenty in our group.
What could have been the start of a redemptive conversation regarding the words we use ended with a break and a return to our talk about the evils of Kabballah.
When he threw out those stats, it felt like a warning upon us all. It had the echoes of Jesus saying that one of his own would betray him. I felt the burning crimson begin to cover my face and I excused myself to the restroom… I was barely breathing.
Years later, on the first night in my dorm, in that college on that slippery slope, there was a night I would never forget. We were all gathered in the common area as our RD spent over an hour handing down the house rules. Everything from curfew to cigarettes to shoes in the door was covered. As she brought the night to a close, she said something that totally caught me off guard.
“Hey, just so ya’ll know, gay is not synonymous with stupid, ugly, unchristian or what have you. I won’t be tolerating any of that here. “
I felt safe. For the first time in a setting of faith, I felt safe.
I should have always felt this way in Church.
~ ~ ~
Youth pastors and leaders have such big hearts. Typically, they are the ones that never shed their childhood innocence. The ones still amazed by simple wonders and never lose their silliness. Sometimes they are volunteer college students, other times, they are people with children of their own. These people need not be lectured on the meaning of love because they are living examples of it.
Having said this, there’s something they may need to hear.
I have heard too many stories like my own to know that my experience isn’t the exception, it’s more the rule. Homophobia gets a hall pass in a lot of Churches today. Should it be a surprise that so many gay kids end up leaving the church? The very leaders that they look up to express such utter disgust and contempt for people like them. They make jokes about their pain. They ridicule their insecurities. They teach their friends that gay kids are uncool, creepy and should be kept at a distance. A church youth group is supposed to be a place of spiritual support, not a breeding ground for bullies.
Think, just for a moment, how Christ has been conveyed here. I can only speak for myself but when I was that age… Christ was a guy that couldn’t have cared less about me. He was a knuckle dragger jock who called me creepy and gross. Clearly, he liked my leaders- they spoke about their friendship with him all the time. They talked about how God had told them to come into ministry. How God set them in the position they were in at that moment. He was the one that put them in my life.
My bullies were sent from God.
This is something that is so solvable. So simple that I really don’t need to articulate a long list of recommendations or ground rules, because, really, it’s that simple. If you are in a position of authority in the church, call the youth ministry into your office to discuss homophobia. It may not be a problem for your church, but why not make sure? Especially in light of all the young LGBT suicides taking place over the past few years, why not sit them down anyway?
You don’t have to change your convictions in order to make your youth groups safer.
Tell the leaders that it is unacceptable, in any way, shape or form, to disparage those that are gay. Make them realize how hostile of an environment they create with their crude comments. Remind them of the Christ that chose to chill with the closeted. Read off the names and stories of kids that took their lives in the past year as a result of bullying. Encourage them to get on board with the It Gets Better Campaign. Give them copies of the books by Justin Lee and Andrew Marin. Assign them homework, tell them to go out and learn more from their brothers and sisters in Christ. Let them know that racism, sexism and homophobia are all forms of prejudice and the wounds they inflict can have long lasting implications.
Furthermore, show them what an incredible opportunity they have to be Kingdom Builders! Tell them that being a leader is not about becoming part of the mob, but about guiding them. Reconciling them. Loving them, bullies and losers alike. Make it a priority.
It is so sad, tragic even, that this is a problem in a community based on unconditional love and universal unworthiness,
But yet, here we are…
Folks, it’s time to chase this sin out of the Church.
Because bullying has no place in youth ministry.