Monthly Archives: July 2015

30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.

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What it means to be bisexual in the world and in the church (and what LGBTQ equality means to me)

This is evil. This is hate. This is the attitude that drives  LGBTQ people to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the general population. This is not the way of Christ.

This is evil. This is hate. This is the attitude that drives LGBTQ people to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the general population. This is not the way of Christ. Also, I have yet to go to hell.

I remember the first time I really noticed women. I was 11 or 12 and traveling in London with my parents. There were these risqué postcards of late 80’s one-hit-wonder Samantha Fox all over the underground that piqued a little more than my curiosity. So it would go over the years, slowly realizing that I was not only interested in boys, I was interested in girls too. I remember driving around at 17 talking to one of my best friends and  coming out to one another as bisexual. Then we didn’t speak of it again until we were in college and both were dating women. It wasn’t a safe thing to talk about. At that time, in the mid 90’s, it wasn’t cool to be bi, girls weren’t passing around Polaroids (the 1990’s version of Instagram) of themselves kissing another girl for the reaction/titillation of the boys around them. It was considered gross (I actually heard a conversation between classmates that expressed nothing but revulsion at the idea of being bisexual, much less gay). In a world in which one of my high school desks had “Eat meat, drink beers, beat queers” carved into it, I knew that my best choice was to remain silent until I was in a place where I was safe — if that time/place ever presented itself.

I have been out in most of my relationships for some time now. My students know. My family knows. To some of you this might be news, for many of you this is in no way surprising, because you have met me. I have been thinking about writing this for some time now and, well, I guess I am ready. If the above paragraph wasn’t clear, I am bisexual. But this is only in part about me. It’s also about the LGBTQ community, the church, and society. It’s about us.

Travel with me, if you will, to the fall of 1999. I’m out watching a meteor shower with one of my best friends in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains. This friend is a woman with whom I shared a tight bond because of our faith. We were both Christian in an environment where that was, shall we say, unpopular. We had both been raised at church camp. Her dad was a pastor, her mom worked for the church, and I wanted to be a pastor. As we lay there on the hood of my car talking about our futures, our desires, what we wanted out of a relationship, and watching the meteors fly overhead, we came to a realization. This was more than a friendship. We began to fall in love.

We prayed together, went to church together, led Bible study on our campus together. Until recently, I considered this woman the love of my life, the one who I foolishly let get away. It wasn’t lust (at least that wasn’t all it was), it wasn’t confusion, it was a deep and abiding friendship, a romance, a relationship of mutual respect, support and caring, unlike almost every other relationship (with men) I have had — before or since.

And yet this relationship, this relationship that was the ONLY relationship in which I have prayed with my partner, the ONLY relationship in which I attended church, studied scripture and talked theology with my partner was also the ONLY one I ever had to hide. It was the only relationship in which I had to be careful where and how we expressed affection (even/especially in church), the only one I couldn’t talk about in my church circles (and with some friends as well), the only relationship for which I was told I was going to hell. My marriage to an atheist man was far more acceptable in my church world than it was for me to be in love with a faithful woman.

In the fall of 2001, I entered seminary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA was still years away from deciding it was okay for LGBTQ folk to become ordained or to be married in the church. It was still studying it (as Lutherans, we study things a lot). I was the object of study, but not the object of acceptance or unconditional love. Like some monkey in a lab, I was the subject of curious interest: kind of human, but not fully human. I could not tell anyone about my relationship for fear it would get around to my candidacy committee or someone else who thought that, in spite of hearing my call to ministry in the 8th grade and working towards it ever since, because of my sexual orientation I should not be allowed to lead a congregation, to preach and teach and administer the sacrament (never mind our theology that states that the person administering the sacrament played no role in its efficacy). I lived in fear of people finding out, of accidentally mentioning my girlfriend. When I did tell a small group I was in about my sexual identity, I then fielded a dozen really gross and intrusive questions from a classmate that would never have been asked of a straight person.

My girlfriend came to visit me on campus, and we had to keep a calculated distance from one another, emotionally  and physically, while in public spaces (which we had kind of gotten used to while living in the South — the calculating the safe spaces, never being too sure if we might get the shit kicked out of us for being in love — and it never stopped sucking). No one could suspect my secret. For this (and a few other reasons like distance and me being an idiot), we determined our relationship could not continue. There I was, in a relationship with someone I loved deeply, someone I respected and had a ton in common with, someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, to have children with, to grow old and grey and cranky with, but it had to end because it wasn’t going to work this way. We couldn’t have a relationship we would have to hide until the church and the world came to a different understanding of who we were and decided to let us fully take part (and holy shit am I overjoyed that we are coming to a place where this is becoming a real possibility).

In my first year of classes, one of my professors (whom I greatly admire) started talking about LGBTQ issues in our Old Testament class. He said, “You know, I get being gay. That makes sense to me. But I don’t get being Bi. We are only supposed to have one partner, not to have sex with many people at once. I believe in monogamy.”

I was flummoxed. What the hell? That’s not what being bisexual means, I thought. But to correct him meant possibly outing myself. So I sat there and listening to a few more minutes of wrong thinking about what it means to be bisexual.

There were people in seminary braver than I was, but they paid for their bravery. One of my classmates got outed by a supposedly “safe” internship site that interviewed her. They asked for her to be put up on heresy charges. Other colleagues left the ELCA for the Episcopal church, as they were quicker to decide to include LGBTQ folk on their ordained roster. To be gay in the church meant for many, and still means for far too many still, to have to hide who you are for fear of marginalization (at best) and/or outright hate and harassment.

I have watched as friends of mine who identify as LGBTQ get kicked out of their families. I have watched my ex girlfriend fret over her father’s desire to marry her and her partner of over ten years because she didn’t want him to pay a price for love (but they’re married now and I am so happy for them!).  I have watched people I love dearly get excluded from the one place that is theoretically all about love and grace. I have lost two people I care about dearly to suicide because they internalized the message that they not only didn’t fit in the church, but that God didn’t love them.

We have watched as the national spotlight has shone on the agonizing rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth, yet so many in the Christian community insist on continuing with the message that these people must change who they are in order to earn God’s love. This, in spite of the apostle Paul’s writing in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God, in spite of the knowledge that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to redeem the world (Jn 3:17), in spite of my church’s focus on grace and love. Out of fear, we focus on hate and exclusion instead of the sanctifying love of God. We continue to drive people away from the church, away from that which is (in theory) the body of Christ, continue to push people who have SO MUCH to offer away from Christian community. While we worship a God who went out of his way to welcome outsiders (the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, most of the disciples), we instead create outsiders. We push people out of our doors.

Conversely, I have wept in joy at knowing my friends are finally able to marry their long time loves. I have seen those friends weeping as their love is publicly, legally, and sometimes religiously recognized. I have had young people willing to re-enter the doors of the church because of the good Christian folk they met working for LGBTQ rights. I have heard some of the most amazing sermons from colleagues who are members of the LGBTQ community, and know that their inclusion is a gift to us. I have been blessed to be the leader of a community in which many strong, young queer kids are able to find space for themselves and know that they are loved by others and by God.

I am a mixed up ball of angst and joy watching the conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in society and the church. Some of it is so beautiful, some so amazingly vile, fear-based and hate-filled. While I am hopeful about the future for the LGBTQ community, I’m also aware that publishing this could jeopardize my ability to get calls in certain places, but if they don’t want a minister who is a member of the LGBTQ community, I don’t want to be there anyway (aka, mom, don’t worry about me doing this. Yes, I did think it through).

One of the best ways to overcome fear is relationship (I recently heard Walter Bruggemann talk about how he no longer argues theologically for LGBTQ inclusion, because he knows that people’s issues are about fear not theology), but another can be knowledge. With that in mind, I wanted to use this as space to explain a little about what it means to be bisexual (at least for me, but I feel like most of these are pretty good generalizations) as well as to advocate for inclusiveness in the church. So, with that, here are a few things (in addition, here’s a great blog post on bisexuality, bi-phobia, bi-erasure, etc):

Being bisexual isn’t a phase, it doesn’t mean I am into flings or that I am just gay and can’t admit it. While it is true that many gay folk first come out as bisexual because either they are still figuring it out or because it’s just easier to ease one’s way into coming out as gay by first becoming bi, it is equally true that some people are just bisexual. End of story.

Bisexual people are attracted to/ interested in people regardless of gender. It’s just not a factor I consider. Like, were I to fill out a profile for Tinder, I would be open to both men and women and then find folk of either gender whom I find attractive with whom I share interests.

Bisexual does not mean polyamorous, nor does it mean a bisexual person will just sleep with anyone and everyone. Yes, there are bisexual people who are into open relationships, are in committed polyamorous relationships, or who just like to have a lot of sex. There are also straight people, gay people, and trans people who are into these things as well. Conversely, there are people of all orientations for whom monogamy is a chosen way of life. How many people one is in a relationship with at one time is in no way related to or limited by one’s sexual orientation.

Just because I am bisexual does not mean I am into you. Check your ego.

No I will not show you pictures. But now that you have asked, I know that you are not a person I want to be friends with, much less be in a romantic relationship with. Seriously, don’t ever ask this. I am not here for your entertainment, my life is not a porn movie, and I am not bisexual for your titillation. One of the reasons I started dating my now ex-husband was that he was the first person in a really long time to NOT ask me something along these lines.

Being bisexual (this goes for all members of the LGBTQ community) doesn’t make a person a pedophile or sexual deviant. One of the most terrifying things about publishing this is the fear that those for whom I have been a youth director or camp counselor will suddenly think I may have had untoward thoughts towards kids. This is not a fear straight youth workers (or people) have to live with (while we all have a sort of low-grade awareness that we have to be careful, it is very different when one is not straight). Kids are just that, kids. They are not sexual objects. Pedophiles are mentally ill and the psychology for pedophilia is very, very different from the biology of being LGBTQ. If you want some facts on the lack of relationship between sexual orientation and child molestation/pedophelia, check this out.

There is a privilege that comes along with being bisexual that the rest of the LGBTQ community does not have: I can live my life as straight and find partners with whom I can have a fulfilling relationship. I have largely done this for a wide variety of reasons. Make no mistake that one of the reasons is that my life is a hell of a lot easier when I date men, both in my career and in the world. Since publishing this, I have heard from bisexual people for whom not dating women would be a heartbreaking choice and would deny them the love of their lives (or of this time period anyway). I hear this. But I still think it is an easier closet to live in than the closet one lives in as gay, lesbian or transgender. That, however, is just my opinion from my experience. 

We are a church built on Jesus Christ, built on the idea that God came to earth as a human to love us deeply and to overcome hate with love, even to death. Our God looked out at the people torturing him and loved us anyway, forgave us anyway, and asked us to do the same to our brothers and sisters. We worship a God who time and time again crossed boundaries of gender, race, nationality, religion, status and more in order to love others. It’s about time we start doing the same. All the time. Everywhere.