I started questioning my sexuality in seventh grade. As a self-identifying atheist at the time, my only obstacle my sexuality presented was the social aspect of coming out. When I entered high school, I began attending a youth group at a local Nazarene church. As my faith started to grow, so did self-acceptance of my sexuality. Although these two processes were separate, looking back, I can see how they were related. As I got older I became more active in the youth group and started attending church services. Several church members took an anti-LGBT stance, but most did not say anything. I always felt safe and comfortable in my youth group. My sexuality was a known fact throughout the congregation, but not something that anyone ever spoke about.
When I became a senior, I learned about a retreat for LGBT Christian youth in the local area and became instantly interested. The camp could not have come at a better time. It was the same time my church began becoming vocal about how they were uncomfortable with my sexuality. I was hurt and amazed at the rejection I received by people that I considered family in that congregation. I left my church for good, packed my bags and drove to the Poconos for the retreat.
The retreat was called "Wonderfully Made Camp." It had five attendees that weekend and was led by a Lutheran minister from Philadelphia. On the first night, we dove right in by talking about our religious identity and personal faith history in order to get to know the other campers on a deeper level. Because we were a small group, the discussions were very personal and allowed each of us to talk more. We learned each other's stories, heard their hopes and fears and got insight into their faith. Through the week, movies, activities and Bible studies created a comfortable and accepting community. The weekend's purpose was to reaffirm who we are in the image of God and to allow us to be open about our sexuality and gender identity.
I have never struggled with identifying as gay and Christian, and I never doubted that Jesus loved me. After members of my church opposed my openness about my sexual orientation, I left on my own, knowing I had Jesus on my side. During that time, I never once doubted Him, and my faith only grew stronger. Wonderfully Made opened my eyes to opportunities I have to minister to others who feel rejected by the church, and consequently have doubts about Jesus's love for them. After my first LGBT Christian camp, I instantly began searching for other camps and opportunities to take action myself. I found "The Naming Project" in Minnesota. It was featured on an episode of "Our America with Lisa Ling" and showed a group of campers supporting one another in their faith and sexual orientation. I quickly sent off my registration for The Naming Project.
In between my two camp experiences at Wonderfully Made and The Naming Project, I was given the opportunity in school to shadow a professional in the field of my choice for my last month of my senior year. I chose a local pastor at a United Church of Christ congregation. During my month shadowing her, I began the conversation at her church about becoming an Open and Affirming congregation and even coordinated my efforts with another local pastor who had already started her congregation on the same process. As I began to broaden my experience with the LGBT movement in churches, I gained invaluable knowledge of the Bible and the various beliefs about LGBT people that Christians have.
During the summer after graduation, I boarded a plane to Minnesota and created a community with about 25 people at The Naming Project. This camp had a whole different feel from Wonderfully Made. It was a larger group, with a wider age range. During the week, we were exposed to a lot of rainbows, a lot of God and a lot of fun. What made the week special was the diverse group of people who had gathered for the camp. We all brought different experiences and personalities to the camp. Some of us had a Catholic background, some of us had clergy as parents, and some of us did not have a church. Attendees identified as gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual and transgender. The point of the week was to allow all of us to feel at home, in the arms of God, and with a community of people who loved us for who we were.
During the week, I created friendships that will last a lifetime. At The Naming Project, I learned about more opportunities to get involved in LGBT-affirming Christian organizations.
The Naming Project and Wonderfully Made both strengthened my faith. Although the dynamics were different, both religious camps provided spaces for LGBT Christians. Not only did the camps allow attendees to feel safe being themselves, I found the environment to be a reaffirming sanctuary. I think that it is so important for LGBT Christian youth to have places in which they can be themselves and explore their faith and identity. I was fortunate to find these two camps and feel it is important to educate people about these opportunities. I pray for the day when LGBT youth can find such acceptance and caring in their own congregations. Until then, I am thankful that these two camps, and the many more like them, still exist.