Deb and Steve Word have recently been praised by many media outlets including CNN, for taking in LGBT homeless youth. But for Word family it was an easy decision. That's why it's hard for them to understand why the Church refuses to help LGBTQ homeless youth in the first place.
"One of the things I'm confused about is why these kids are not important enough for Catholic Charities. For youth who are 18 to 24 to be in a shelter with older people, and unsafe conditions it just seems like somebody before us would have said 'this isn't safe for these kids and we have a house or we have a wing of this that we can use.' But I don't think Catholic shelters see this as a population who need our help. There are Covenant Houses in some places but for the most part these kids are not on the radar. We look out for battered wives and look out for those suffering from addictions... We have houses for recovery, but this is another population that has some terribly frightening statistics for living on the streets and not surviving. That's something that bothers me. This shouldn't have to happen in somebody's house."
And for Deb, after 12 years of education in schools run by the Sisters of Mercy, the charism of reaching out and caring for those who have been forgotten is exactly how the Word Family lives out their Catholic faith.
"We invite all the kids to go to church with us and most of them have been in and out of the building although some may not have gone to church. We did have a couple of kids who came to services with us. Our diocesan lgbt ministry is potluck, prayer and a program. Most of the kids went with us to the potluck. because who turns down great food. We cook a wonderful dish and say we're taking this with us across the street if you're hungry come with us.Our diocesan ministry a very ecumenical group so everyone is welcome there. I think the kids all got it, that our faith was part of our commitment to the helping them."
Deb and Steve's story gives many hope that the future of our Church is truly going to be a place of welcome, and as Pope Francis often says "where everyone is loved and forgiven."
Prior to Pope Francis, Deb recalls that both church and society had closed it's doors to the homeless youth her family began taking in. Friends and family understood the Word's outreach even before Pope Francis. But for most Catholics, Deb believes that Pope Francis' election allowed for an openness to dialogue.
"Pope Francis has given us the gift of being able to have a conversation. When he said "Who am I to judge" it opened the door to conversations that the Church closed to our kids years ago when saying there is no change possible. But when we begin to have dialogue, we have the opportunity of change and the possibility of hope. These are the gifts he gave us today. He is a special Pope to me, elected on my birthday so I consider him a special 60th birthday gift. And it's been a great present.
Despite Pope Francis' welcoming message, many of the kids that the Word Family takes in have been rejected by their families on the basis of religion. This trend isn't uncommon to hear in the LGBTQ community. Because of the rejection, it's easy for many LGBTQ youth to harbor guilt and anger towards those who have rejected them. But the Word family has always taught a truly christian message and in doing so, a few of the families have even reconciled.
"There have been some success stories of kids who were able to reconnect with their families. One of the things my husband and I did on a regular basis was to tell the kids they couldn't trash their parents in front of us. Often saying 'Yes I know this is difficult, but your parents are acting out of misinformation. It's not that they don't love you. It's that they have been given bad information.' We know the statistics from the Family Acceptance Project, reconciliation if possible, is important!
We were trying to keep a foot in the door so the child didn't walk away completely. It's terribly important for these kids to make some kind of connection. If it can't be with the birth parents then with somebody else as a foster or a surrogate type of parent. If they can reconnect with their families it's wonderful. There is a lot of angst for a child when parents reject them. 'Who can love me if my mom doesn't' love me.' Well if we can figure out a way for mom to be more welcoming then it's good for the kids and his or her mental health."
Although the Word family is no longer actively taking in homeless youth, they still work with some of their former foster kids. They remain mentors and are working with a team planning a shelter for LGBT youth in the area. This example of love and service reminds us all how to really live out the Gospel.
As Pope Francis says so well: "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."