Nearly 40% of this nation’s homeless youth are lgbt. That is no accident. Family rejection is the leading cause, which means that when young lgbt people come out to their families, they are far too frequently kicked out of their homes, and left to fend for themselves in the streets.
I have never been without shelter myself, but I submit that the homelessness that besets the lgbt community, especially those of us raised in the church, runs far deeper than we are comfortable to admit, and that the staggering number of our homeless youth is one symptom among many.
In my sophomore year of college, I participated in the Emmaus Scholars program, a residential year-long exploration of the intersection of faith and justice. It was also an experiment in Christian living, where we aimed to recreate the beloved community enjoyed by the early disciples.
One of the most valuable lessons I gleaned from that year is that poverty takes many forms. It is from a mask of privilege that we think and speak about poverty as only referring to material or monetary lack. Far more affecting, perhaps, is the devastation materially disadvantaged people experience in their psyche. When I learned this, I suddenly saw two things: I was reminded of my own privilege as a middle-class college-educated white American, and I was struck with how exactly this insight gave language to the internal anguish I experienced as a gay man in the evangelical church. More on that specific intersection later.
As I learned to take better notice and care of physically homeless people, I began to see all the ways in which so many of us are victims of “homeless hearts,” as Jay Emerson Johnson says in Peculiar Faith. Specifically, I realized the depth to which I personally felt unmoored, without a home, especially as I fought my way out of the closet.
It’s difficult to express, but absolutely essential to communicate, this hard truth: exactly as much as I have had the courage to come out, so I have felt alienated and distanced from the evangelical church.
I say difficult to express, not only because it is painful and I avoid confrontation like the plague, but also because it’s difficult for me to point to specific moments when I was actively rejected by the Body of Christ. My family never kicked me out; I enjoy intimate and honest relationships with both my parents. My home church never kicked me out; Mosaic LA is a vibrant and diverse community of artists and visionaries, who embraced me when I came out to certain people in the congregation. Nevertheless, the distance is real. And it was certainly not because I walked away.
I say essential to communicate, because the church needs to understand its position in regards to lgbt people. As Christians, we know what is at stake: the flourishing of humankind, the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, the salvation of souls. But I posit that we’ve had the picture upside-down this whole time: lgbt people are not in danger of eternal damnation just because we live sexually gendered lives that are different than most people. Christians, however, should consider their eternal fate when perpetuating theologies of exclusion, lest we become those who cry “Lord Lord,” and hear in return “I never knew you.” It was the Pharisees, the religious right, whom Jesus called white sepulchers, a brood of vipers, those who heap on burdens, and misuse the law.
To my great sadness, whenever I reenter evangelical spaces, I immediately strike against walls. Previously, these were the closet walls, and I had erected them myself, and they were small enough to fit inside me, so that I could fit inside Christian spaces without damage. But now that I have dismantled the closet, at least enough for me to climb out and breathe clean air again, I have come up against more formidable walls.
I have to sit through bible studies where we breeze through Romans 1, as if it doesn’t carry centuries of violent weight, where I look around and no one seems to notice that I’m sweating, my heart rate is up, and I’m just waiting for someone to say “and that’s why homosexuality…”
I have to struggle through times of worship, where we listen to the same songs that have molded me since childhood, and while I no longer substitute “gay” for words like “broken” and “sin” and “healing,” I still feel a sinking in my gut that says something’s wrong with me, and if that boy on the guitar stopped singing and looked over, he would see right through to my gay self, and be filled with disgust.
I have to watch other people touched by the Spirit; speaking in tongues, or moving trance-like, or praying with great passion, what I used to call “fire,” and remember how easy it used to be, to slip into those moments, recreate those feelings, feel the euphoria. Now my mind goes on checklist mode, I go over all the times I’ve still successfully communed with God on my own, thinking “yes, I’ve still got it,” I can still pray, I can still worship, I still have my Christian card, I still belong.
The fact that those questions and fears run through my head and cause me anxiety during times of worship and study is absolutely unacceptable.
I keep coming back, however. I keep returning to the altar, taking communion with the Anglicans next door, visiting friends’ churches, watching podcasts from my home church. It’s still home for me, even though I feel homeless at home.
So my goal is to formulate a theology of home-making, where the insights and lived experiences of lgbt people take center-stage after being pushed to the margins for so long. We cannot simply be let in through the backdoor; we cannot whitewash the damage done, or downplay abuses of power. If lgbt people are going to be fully grafted onto the Body of Christ (as we already are), the rest of the church needs to repent.
And if we can successfully navigate this grafting, this transformation in the body, then I believe whole new vistas will unfold, not only for lgbt people of faith, but all of us, in all our sexual and gendered experiences, of all walks of life.