Today the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission meets in Nashville, Tenn., for a conference on "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage." There is neither anything in the printed program nor in the recent history of the church that suggests this will be a pleasant conversation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people or our allies. Even so, we'll be there.
A small but influential group of LGBT-affirming Baptist and evangelical Christian leaders will be joined by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation's Religion & Faith Program because we believe a shift is possible. Despite the intolerance we expect to face, we see movement among many evangelical leaders toward greater acceptance and inclusion, especially among younger generations. And the time to build on that momentum is now.
There are many parts of the country - particularly rural and religiously conservative communities - where coming out as LGBT is not just difficult, but often excruciatingly lonely and even dangerous. In a recent survey conducted as part of HRC's Project One America, more than 50 percent of LGBT Mississippian respondents were people of faith. But 22 percent experienced harassment monthly - or even more frequently - in their houses of worship. Similar trends happened in Arkansas and Alabama. And respondents in all three states spoke of violence and harassment as one of their biggest concerns.
Sadly, church leaders have often legitimized such actions. We heard stories from this survey that chilled us to the bone. Take the Southern Baptist choir director who told a young gay college student that "it would be better to shoot yourself in the head then to come back and corrupt our youth at the church anymore."
Our people are routinely spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes even physically harmed by the rhetoric originating in church pulpits and seeping into playgrounds, classrooms, workplaces and even dinner tables. In a country where youth homelessness is on the rise, nearly 40 percent of young people fleeing their homes identify as LGBT. Many of these are fleeing religiously conservative homes where the levels of rejection have become unbearable.
Despite these stories and statistics, we find hope in the extraordinary change in attitudes we are seeing in many religious communities. Renowned Baptist theologian and Christian ethicist David Gushee is about to publish a new book about how he changed his mind from rejecting to affirming of gay and lesbian people. Reverend John Pavlovitz's recent blog post, "If I Have Gay Children, I'll Love Them," went viral. And we see story after story of young evangelicals rejecting the homophobia and transphobia of their church leadership.
Nobody should have to choose between who they are, whom they love and what they believe. Yet every day young people are told that they cannot be Christian or Jewish or Muslim and be gay or transgender. When our young people are rejected from their faith, they sometimes find their way to a more affirming place of worship. But often the experience is so demoralizing that they leave religion altogether and lose the community that comes with it. It's this community that they once relied on in times of need - the first to respond to a natural disaster, to the loss of a loved one, to a factory shutdown. LGBT people of faith deserve to be part of these communities - helping tend to an ailing neighbor or, when the time comes, having that fellow churchgoer deliver a hot casserole in a time of loss.
While not everyone holds a particular faith tradition or practices a religion, for those of us who seek it out for moral guidance, for comfort and for community, we have a responsibility to help that community be the best it can. That responsibility doesn't stop if you're LGBT.
So, as we brace ourselves for what may not be the most inclusive space, we also go with an open heart - and a belief in a future of true community. A community where we can live out our commandment to love our neighbors as we do ourselves.