A young man once recounted to me how, at age thirteen, he told his family that he was gay. His mother got up from the dinner table and, stabbing him with her fork, shouted, “This is a Christian home!” The sharp tines left a row of scars on his arm, and another on his side. His experience was one of many we would hear about; most of these young people are rejected by their families, and often for religious reasons. This is why, nine years ago, my church considered a new ministry: A shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. We recognized the huge need for one here in New York City. I also knew that for most of the congregation I serve, the idea of the shelter would not be a controversial issue; the main concerns would be financial viability and our relatively small space, which was already crowded.
The transgender youth have a particularly difficult time finding acceptance, and it’s also harder to find work; in many states, it continues to be legal to discriminate against transgender people in the workforce. And even though our church and shelter are located in an area that many would consider a bastion of liberalism, the youth are targets of daily demeaning remarks.
Jay, for example, went for a walk in a nearby park after a heavy storm. The ground was strewn with broken branches. He became aware that a group of youth was closing in around him, and felt trapped as they mocked him: “What is it? Is it a guy or a girl?” Then, they threw branches and splintered wood chunks at him. Jay kept walking, and got away.
Nineteen-year-old Nicole’s attackers did not give up so readily; she required reconstructive facial surgery after a beating that left her permanently brain damaged. A young transgender woman who grew up in a Mormon community in Utah came back to the shelter one night and began to play our piano. When I complimented her on the music, she paused, looked at me and said, “This is the only place I feel human.” It was a terrible indictment and indicator of all that is left for us to do . . . and also an affirmation of what we are doing.
So as I’ve already mentioned, I knew that for most, the main concerns regarding the shelter would be financial viability and our already-cramped space: How might we rearrange things to make room for those that many churches have their backs turned on? Most were willing to try. So while financial sustainability persists as a struggle, we managed to turn our small initial “we” into a much larger community of supporters. I was less sure about some of our newer immigrant members, for whom the idea was more controversial. The turning point came when they connected their own experiences of rejection and longing for welcome with those of the youth.
Lupe, for example, is from Mexico. She lives near the church with her husband and two daughters and they attend our worship service in Spanish. Lupe is also on our church council, which holds bilingual meetings. When her father died, Lupe’s grief was intensified because she could not return to Mexico for the funeral. She asked if we could have a memorial service, even though, as she said sadly, “no one but us will attend. No one here knew him.” To her surprise, the pews began to fill. The service was entirely in Spanish yet many of the people there were church members who spoke only English. Their presence was poignantly eloquent.
When dissent emerged after Spanish worship one Sunday as we discussed opening the shelter, Lupe spoke up: “We know what it’s like to be unwanted, yet we have been welcomed here, so we should welcome these young people.” It was like she was quoting Saint Paul to the Romans: Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you. (Rom. 15:7)
And they did. The first night of the shelter, as the youth arrived, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the Mexican women.
Now all churches do not have a respected leader of the church like Lupe, someone who is willing to speak up on what can sometimes be a difficult and divisive conversation. But here is something that all churches do have: LGBTQ youth. It may not be obvious, because they may be fearful of the reaction they will receive, but it is a rare church that does not have such youth in the congregation, or in the extended families of congregational members.
We all know the suffering and tragedies brought on by bullying. We all want our youth to feel that they can come to us for help and support. We all want our youth to know that God is with them in times of trial. These shared values can form a helpful meeting place from which to launch a conversation of how a church can signal its care and concern. It might happen in regular prayers that a young person in church hears. It might happen in a sermon example and discussion. It might be that people agree to disagree on how they think about this for now, but they can agree that every one of God’s children deserves to be treated with love and care. Then they can ask how their church communicates that love and care to such young people (and adults). Sometimes, we can act our way into a new mindset rather than require the new mindset in order to take action.
It’s worth mentioning that many of the youth in our shelter have come to readjust their thinking as well, to trust that some churches can be safe harbors in a sea of hate. Just having the shelter within a church has been a witness that matters. And sometimes it has reached farther. Recently, we celebrated the baptism and reaffirmation of baptism for two transgender young women. Danielle had never been baptized and while Victoria had, it was with a name and gender she no longer claims as hers. I said the usual words while anointing each one’s forehead with oil: Victoria, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. But this time I added: As Jesus said to the disciples, I now say to you, “Rejoice that your name is written in heaven.” Soon afterwards, Victoria moved out after finding work and housing. She now sits on our shelter board and helps lead our monthly Dinner Church worship where we sing: “God welcomes all/strangers and friends/God’s love is strong/and it never ends!”
Heidi B. Neumark is an author, speaker, and Lutheran pastor in New York City, with a heart for marginalized groups. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, which won the 2004 Wilbur Award given by the Religion Communicators Council. Her most recent release, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith, explores ‘outsider’ themes as she reveals a family secret that leads to profound revelations of faith.
How does your church reach the LGBTQ community? In addition to Heidi’s books, Cokesbury Commons recommends the following resources to get the conversation started: