02/18/2013 11:42 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Finding Common Ground Between Sexuality and Spirituality

The scene opened on a grey and misty evening in Simi Valley. As I whipped around the darkened hills, leaving highways and traffic lights far behind, the sun set behind the valley's western wall, and so began Shabbat. I had arrived at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, one of two campuses of the American Jewish University and the site of a weekend Sexuality and Spirituality Retreat in which I would be participating.

Shabbat hadn't occurred to me until I saw the tiny plastic cups filled with purple liquid on the dinner plates. I was early, having left work around 3 p.m. to avoid the interminable traffic that plagues the 405 after 4 p.m. This allowed me an hour and a half of alone time in the bare but warm cafeteria, soon to be filled with the voices and laughter of about 30 college students excited for a weekend away. I relished the calm moment, as I always do, before an anticipated influx of energy. It gave me the opportunity to meditate on Shabbat, as well, something I seldom do but always enjoy. With no reception for texts or email, there was nothing to do but sit and think on what was about to transpire.

I learned about the Sexuality and Spirituality Retreat a year ago, at that point still in its nascent state. A college senior at the time, I was deeply involved in religious life, a permanent fixture both on the Interfaith Council and in the Office of Religious Life where I worked. The news that our office was teaming up with Hillel and JAGS (the Jewish Alliance for GLBT's & Straights) to run a retreat on two such compelling topics thrilled me. Where do we begin?! Tantra? Ancient fertility festivals? Native American two-spirit people? After the initial high, I settled into more personal reflection. How do I even define my own sexuality? Straight is too confining; bi makes no sense these days; can I just say "sexual"? Spirituality is whole other set of questions, so I often avoid both subjects altogether for fear of being (unlovingly) labeled "hippie," "tree hugger," "witch," or just plain "crazy." Now would be the time, though, to face some of these questions head on.

The bus pulled up around 6 p.m., and a pack of weary but smiling college kids spilled out and hurried to dump packs and sleeping bags in bunkhouses. We convened back in the cafeteria to kick the weekend off with introductions and sacred text sharing and, finally, kiddush and the evening meal. Here was a group of young adults, many from the LGBT community and many from religious backgrounds, who had come together to engage on a topic rarely discussed in the mainstream. How often do religious communities gather to address the joys and struggles of sexual expression? How often, for that matter, do LGBT, activist and sex-positive communities discuss faith and tradition? There is common ground, without a doubt, but it's the obscured and often awkward path to get there that makes us wary.

More and more people are traveling that road, though, with the founding of many LGBT-friendly religious and spiritual organizations, not to mention the painfully slow but steady progression toward marriage equality around the world. (Most recently, on Feb. 12 France's Parliament passed a bill allowing marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples.) This is our world and our future. What's more, this is our youth, and these are your children. During "cross the line" -- an activity in which facilitators read statements and people stepped forward if the statement pertains to them -- my heart ached to realize how many of my peers have suffered for their beliefs and lifestyles.

"Cross the line if you have ever been discriminated against for your sexual orientation... if you have ever been called 'fag,' 'homo,' or 'dyke'... if you have ever been discriminated against for your spiritual beliefs... if there are aspects of your sexuality or spirituality you feel you can't discuss with your family." As lucky as I have been, coming from a liberal, inclusive background, I found myself crossing that line over and over. It was overwhelming to see how many of us crossed the line that night.

By the end of the weekend, though, something else stood out to me. At that point we had participated in workshops, asked questions, played games, hiked the hills, climbed a ropes course, put on skits, and danced along to a gay Hasidic hip hop artist. Leaving the retreat I was convinced not only of our brokenness and the struggles that lie ahead, but of our resilience and collective power, as well. If religious, spiritual, activist and LGBT organizations, alike, are invested in nurturing a sustainable and fulfilling future, they have only to gain from providing the fodder for common ground.