Inhospitality of Silence
Last week I went as an adult advisor to the sweltering Purdue University campus for Presbyterian Youth Triennium -- a denominational conference for 5,000+ senior high students that comes with much anticipation every three years. Even with the travel and the lack of A/C in our dorm, the experience was a true gift, as I've come to understand most chances to journey with youth are. Between a late-night 90s R&B sing-off as our bus rolled through Ohio and seeing friends and colleagues from all facets of my Presbyterian past, not to mention Cláudio Carvalhaes' sermon that had me Amen!-ing, the week left me inspired and rejuvenated. But the first two days of this Triennium left me baffled and frustrated.
Our denominational powers-at-be avoid discussion of sexuality and queer people at all costs. So it wasn't surprising to hear only silence with regard to queer people at Triennium. Every time I see our cowardice on display like this, it makes me both sad that we continuously allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and incredibly angry that we are unwilling to speak truth into the world, as is our call as the Body of Christ.
Do I think that LGBTQ people need to be mentioned in every prayer, every sermon? No. I work in LGBTQ advocacy and even I don't do that. The Spirit moves as she will and every biblical text intersects human experience in complex and unique ways. Throwing the struggles of queer people into a sermon where it doesn't fit is disingenuous and offensive to straight and queer Christians alike.
But quick-fire litanies of current church, social and political realities that omit LGBTQ struggles for justice are absurdly out of touch and ring untrue. Talking to youth about bullying, identity and loving themselves while avoiding engaging them in any particularities is condescending and a waste of time. After making it through three liturgies, three sermons and three small group sessions where we clumsily danced around the fact that LGBTQ people exist and are in the room, the silence moved beyond awkwardness into marginalization.
I began channeling my anger into dialogue with colleagues and tweets that called out what I was watching (not) happen. Those conversations helped me to clarify what I was experiencing, feeling, and asking for as an advocate with LGBTQ youth. Here are those thoughts beyond 140 characters.
1. Using the number of youth present and the latest US statistics, we can assume there were at least 200 LGBTQ-identified youth at Triennium, and that is a conservative number. As children of God, these youth deserve to have their presence honored. I spoke to one youth who brought up the relationship between queer people and the church in her small group and was explicitly told they would not discuss it. If a queer youth was in the room with her -- a high statistical probability -- they would have known that they, like the conversation, are unwelcome.
2. By consistently refusing to name something, we create a space in which the conversation and identity is implicitly off-limits, and thus, inappropriate and shameful. Silence around human sexuality of all kinds, especially with youth, only creates a dangerous sexual culture in which people feel unable to share experiences, especially negative ones, with those who could help them begin to learn and heal. This unnecessary and stifling sense of sexual shame is compounded for queer youth.
3. I spoke with many youth at Triennium that come from faith communities and regions where they never hear a positive word about LGBTQ people. It is a wasted opportunity to reflect the love of Christ if we do not make it known -- regardless of theological stances on human sexuality and gender -- that all youth are beloved children of God and welcome in the Church. Many of those 200+ youth need to hear that and there is no other opportunity to welcome and, if we are lucky, retain that many queer youth in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Reforming the Silence
Another leader wisely shared on Twitter that bringing up "LGBTQ issues" from the stage may have been pastorally difficult when we didn't know how well other leaders would be able to follow-up. Unfortunately, this may be what happened with the final sermon -- the only one to affirm LGBTQ youth, rather than simply name them -- being on the last day, where youth immediately returned to the theological environments they arrived from. Naming LGBTQ experiences in a large and diverse community like Triennium must be done thoughtfully, not for the sake of showing you know what's up.
But LGBTQ persons are more than issues and it is also pastorally irresponsible to ignore a large part of the community to which you are called to proclaim good news. By artfully bringing LGBTQ lives and experiences into worship, you can shift the church to a space of hospitality to queer people. Preachers, there are many simple ways to do this.
1. When using a sermon illustration that includes a couple, simply shift pronouns to reveal that it is or may be a same-sex couple -- especially when the point has nothing to do with them sharing a gender.
2. Uplift the stories of LGBTQ leaders as examples of people who have done justice, loved kindness, walked humbly with God, often to the point of death -- especially when it has nothing to do with their sexuality or gender identity (e.g. Bayard Rustin's leadership in the non-violent civil rights movement).
3. Stop using heterosexist language. In the first sermon at Triennium, the preacher referred to the boys in the auditorium, insinuating that they all have crushes on girls. They do not and it is oppressive and painful for gay youth to hear this kind of quip. I realize this is the most difficult of my suggestions, because we do it all the time. But for the sake of not inflicting pain, start paying attention and making what may feel to you like insignificant shifts, but have serious psychological effects for youth.
None of these suggestions require you to actually affirm minority sexualities and gender identities. Instead, they simply name that we exist and that God works in our lives as well. If you are uncomfortable naming that there is LGBTQ youth in the church from a pulpit or in a prayer, ask yourself if you truly think they are welcome in God's family.
In the end, LGBTQ youth were named at Triennium... apparently we just needed to work ourselves up to the task [he said with sarcastic gratitude]. The queer Spirit also worked in her subtle and surprising way through the week. We did energizers to Sara Bareilles' "Brave" and Katy Perry's "Firework," both gay anthems. We witnessed a human rainbow on stage, created by the youth drama team, each wearing a different color t-shirt, a la Glee performing "True Colors." And then there was that time we danced to "Y.M.C.A." just before worship. I could only laugh and return home with a full heart of hope.
First published at The Plucky Presby.
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