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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 22, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I was chatting online with a friend in Seattle this past week as today’s gospel lesson bubbled in the back of my mind.  Joe has had two careers, one professional, the other volunteer.  His volunteer career has included helping with various youth programs that serve lgbt[1] kids and young adults.  I asked him to share a story with me.

I’ll call the boy Juan.  He was living in Yakima, Washington, when in mid-November, his father caught him chatting online with another boy in a gay chat room.  “His incensed father threw him out of his home, with only the clothes he could gather within 30 minutes and stuff in his school backpack.  His father threatened him bodily harm if he remained in Yakima with other family members or friends, forbidding him future contact with his mom, siblings, or other relatives of his extended family.”[2]

Apparently, Juan wandered the streets of Yakima that night and managed to get a bus ticket to Seattle.  Wandering, lost, not knowing what to do, Juan spent at least one more night on the Seattle streets with nothing to eat.

The next day Juan approached Jim Aiken, one of Joe’s friends, who had had an accident that left him disabled.  Jim lives in an Assisted Living Residence and gets around on a scooter, typically traveling with “his trusty mongrel dog Sunny perched on his lap.”  It was a blustery, dreary, wet, chilly day – in other words, a normal Seattle November day – when Juan approached him.   Disabled, “Jim is on a limited income, but is regularly accosted by street people asking for a handout.  As this teen approached, he brusquely said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to give you.’  Juan was taken aback, commenting that all he wanted to do was pet Jim’s dog.

“The fastest way to Jim’s heart is to like his dog, so he melted, and permitted the boy to pet Sunny.  The dog responded with tail wagging and happy sounds – which clued Jim in that the boy was ‘all right.’”  It didn’t take Jim long to sense “something was out of place.  The kid looked tired and haggard, not the normal kid on Seattle’s streets, so as they chatted Jim began fishing for this Juan’s backstory.”

When he learned the details, Jim sprang into action.  He called his caseworker who connected them up with Child Protective Services, and Juan got placed in a foster home with a lesbian couple.  What a difference in environment.  Knowing he was on his way, his foster moms made sure there was a hot meal waiting for him.  “He had a chance to take a hot shower, and was bundled up in robes and blankets. They stayed up for several hours getting acquainted.  Then he had a warm bed, in what was now his bedroom, in which to sleep.”

Juan’s foster moms have created a sea of love for him and he is thriving.  He is enrolled in school and should be graduating in a year.  Things are looking up for Juan, but Child Protective Services has advised Juan that he not reveal his location or his school to his birth family.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”[3]

This is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, one of those sayings one wishes he hadn’t said, or at least that it didn’t get written down.  And I have a tendency to suspect that the harder the saying, the more likely it is to be authentically Jesus (as opposed to the community’s remembering or creation of a saying of Jesus).  It is a saying that I suspect Juan and his father hear quite differently.  How sad that Juan’s father thought his hating the fact that Juan is gay was a faithful act that led him to reject his son.

The sword that Jesus brings is not a literal sword.  When Jesus is arrested and a literal sword is drawn, he tells his disciples to put away the sword.[4]  This sword is figurative.  It represents the conflict that discipleship can create – be it discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message or somehow corrupts it.

Leaving Juan’s father aside, I want to focus on discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message of love, on ministry that turns social norms on their heads and embraces the outcasts and the marginalized.  As one commentator put it, “Readiness for this kind of ministry requires a fair amount of fire in the bones.  Decisions about parlor carpet only require us to be practical.  The ministry … encompassed by Jesus depends on resolve that can sustain a person even from the bottom of a well.”[5]

If you’ve ever been at the bottom of a well, you know what you want.  More than anything else, you want the people who are supposed to love you.  You want the community and the family that you have called home.  Jesus is saying that if you really follow him, if you really allow your first allegiance is to him, you may not have that home any more.

Kari Jo Verhulst points out, “To follow the one who loved unto death is to embody the one whose radical redefinition of who belongs and what matters denounces all previous sets of priorities.  To hold up this ‘dangerous memory [of freedom]’ is risky business.  By doing so, we are reminded that perfect love takes sides, and that it demands nothing less than our lives.”[6]

Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written to Jewish followers of Jesus, probably about the time these Jesus-followers were getting kicked out of the synagogue.  Following Jesus had real consequences.  Much like Juan experienced for embracing his identity, Jesus-followers could get kicked out of their families for embracing their identity.  We’ve heard about the martyrs of old, people who were killed because of their faith, but we forget about the “lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures.”[7]

Paul writes, “we have been buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[8]  “To be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Paul’s thinking, is to die to one’s previous identity in order to be reborn into the ‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).  The Greek baptizestai literally means ‘to drown.’  It was used in Hellenistic Greek to describe death-by-shipwreck.  For Paul, baptism is a far more radical thing than even the ‘remission of sins’ …  Though we ritualize this incorporation into the body of Christ at a given moment of dedication, experientially we are forever being drawn more fully into the life of God, which, in turn, draws us more deeply into the world.”[9]

Barbara Brown Taylor offers this reflection:  “I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me.  I am Barbara.  I am Christian.  I am a child of God.  That is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it … [Y]ou are God’s child first.  That is no role.  That is who you most truly are …”[10]

Paul’s point, and Taylor’s and Jesus’, is that “claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well.  As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes …, Taylor says that ‘Jesus’ demand remains the same.  We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise:  that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.’”[11]

Jesus invites us into the waters of baptism not just to clean up our act, not just to wash away the residue of sin from our lives.  We’re invited to step into the waters and drown, to drown in a sea of love that will not leave us as we once were.

I can’t imagine the death that Juan has experienced (and probably still is experiencing) by needing to let go of his attachments to his birth family.  Yet I know that the sea of love that his foster family has created for him has led to his transformation.  He once was lost, but now he’s found.  He once was a street kid, rejected, pushed aside, chased out of his hometown.  Now he’s a leader in his school and is thinking about colleges.  That’s what the sea of love can do, if we’ll let ourselves drown in it and allow that love to raise us to new life.

Joe finished telling me this story by reminding me that there are an estimated 1,000 teens and young adults living on the streets in Seattle, doing whatever is necessary to survive, and that about two-thirds of these homeless, mostly boys, are gay, kicked out of their usually fundamentalist Christian homes upon discovery of their sexual orientation.  “This is happening now, it is real,” Joe said.  “Juan was one of the fortunate ones.”

I checked online last night for Bay Area statistics.  “In addition to the 6,436 homeless adults counted during one night last year [just in the city of San Francisco], a separate daytime count specifically of homeless youth found 914 children and young adults living in San Francisco without parents or guardians and without a roof over their heads.”[12]  San Francisco has just 350 beds available for homeless youth on any given night.[13]  I wasn’t able to find statistics about homelessness in the Tri-Cities last night.  I’d like to think that the number of youth living on the streets of Fremont without a parent or guardian and without a roof is miniscule, but I suspect I’m wrong.  And I bet there are kids who are couch surfing because living at home isn’t safe.
Are these readings meant to be reassuring?  I think so, though at first blush they aren’t.  Who wants to lay down their life?  Baptismal death is comfortable if it’s just symbolic.  But to really let a part of ourselves die – whether it’s letting our sense of self that comes from our family ties die or something as basic to the spiritual journey as letting our egos die – that’s scary.  No wonder Jesus keeps saying, “Fear not.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson translates these verses in The Message, reinterpreting “fear not”:

“Don’t be intimidated.  Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.
“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.  There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in [God’s] hands.
“What’s the price of a pet canary?  Some loose change, right?  And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.  [God] pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail – even numbering the hairs on your head!  So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.  You’re worth more than a million canaries.”[14]

“To really lay down our lives,” writes Shelley Douglass, “we risk what is most precious to us.  It is a real risk.  Marriages end, parents and children are estranged, livelihoods are lost or damaged – not to mention jail sentences served, beatings endured, lives lost.  Jesus doesn’t promise to keep our lives comfortable.  He promises just the opposite:  We will walk into the wall.

“The comfort is not that we won’t die, but that if we die for his sake we will live again.  Like Jesus we will live a transformed life.  We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be.  We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves.  And we believe – sometimes barely – that when the dust has settled we will be acknowledged by Jesus, and will regain our lives.”[15]

So step on in to the sea of love with me.  The water’s fine.  Amen.

 

[1] LGBT is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

[2] The quotes I use here are direct quotes from Joe Hopkins’ retelling of the story of this boy.

[3] Matthew 10:34-38, NRSV.

[4] See Matthew 26:47-54, NRSV.

[5] Jennifer Copeland, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 11 June 2014, 20.

[6] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Love Takes Sides,” Sojourner, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/love-takes-sides (accessed 17 June 2014).

[7]Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-22-2014.html (accessed 19 June 2014).

[8] Romans 6:4, NRSV.

[9] Kari Jo Verhulst, op. cit.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering; quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Heather Knight, “S. F. homeless youth count nears 1,000 despite spending,” SFGate, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-homeless-youth-count-nears-1-000-despite-5307431.php (posted 12 March 2014; accessed 21 June 2014).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Matthew 10:26-31, The Message.

[15] Shelley Douglass, “Walking into the Wall,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/walking-wall (accessed 17 June 2014).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 34:1-6 and Mark 7:24-30
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I can’t help but wonder how Moses felt there on Mount Nebo, looking over the Promised Land.  I wonder how he felt knowing that he had led his people through a desert, through the wilderness, right to the door of the land that they believed was supposed to be theirs, knowing that they were about to enter it, but he would not be.

I imagine him, there on the mountaintop, looking over the Promised Land, chatting with God, learning that he was going to die.  Had discussions with God become old hat for Moses?  I suppose I’d be filled with awe to have God saying to me, “Look over there and over there.  Look all the way to the sea.  Yep, that’s the land I’ve set aside for you.  Pretty cool, huh?  Oh, by the way, you know that part about you not being able to enter that land?  I meant it.”  Well, I’d be filled with awe right up to that last part, then I’d probably be pretty ticked with God.

Moses had one heck of a roller coaster of a life:  Born into slavery at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male infants were to be killed when they were born; hidden in the bull rushes, only to be “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into Pharaoh’s house to be raised as her son; committed homicide when he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled the country to escape prosecution; got married and while tending sheep, had an encounter with a burning bush; called into a special mission and returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves; led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, transforming the people from a collection of freed slaves into a community of faith, a people of covenant; led the people right up to the border of what was going to become their new land.  And then God tells him, “Sorry, but you’re not going in.  You’re going to die instead.”

Jewish Midrash is filled with stories about Moses and God having a discussion about all this.  One goes like this.[1]
God:  “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”
Moses:  “But you killed all the first born in Egypt!”
God:  “Do you resemble me?  I cause people to die and I also revive them.”
I love the image of Moses arguing with God.

But I can’t read this passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.  One of his speeches, perhaps the second most famous of his speeches has been called his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech.  King delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (the Church of God in Christ headquarter) in Memphis, Tennessee.

Most of his speech was about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike.  King talked about the workers and their strike.  He talked about racial justice and civil right.  He talked about the power of boycotts and nonviolent protest.  And he finished his speech by talking about himself.

“And then I got to Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t really matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live  a long life; longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”[2]

The next day, King was assassinated.

Here we are, on the edge of something new.  This is not as momentous as the Hebrews entering the Promised Land.  This is not as earth-shaking as the assassination of one of American’s prophets.  But we are here, just on this side of finalizing a merger we’ve been exploring and considering for seven years.

There have been times when these seven years have seemed like a long time to me.  I’ve felt, at times, like we’ve been going in circles, not making progress.  There have even been times when I’ve wondered if it was worth the effort.  But most often, I’ve watched relationships grow and trust build and vision take hold and hope blossom.

Pardon me for being redundant, but there is something very special about the work we’ve done and this promised land we are about to enter.  All the literature I’ve been able to find about congregational mergers has been about mergers undertaken as a matter of congregational survival.  Neither Niles Congregational Church nor First Christian Church needed to merge into a new church.  But each congregation discerned that we could do more for the realm of God together then we could do separately, so we decided to merge and form Niles Discovery Church.

We decided to create a church that would be known for its extravagant welcome.  We decided to create a church that is united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  And so we’re creating a church[3] where we follow the path and teachings of Jesus to draw us closer to God, even as we acknowledge that other paths work for other people; where inclusivity means welcoming conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and those of all classes and abilities; where we know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe, and where we find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes; where we strive for peace and justice among all people; where we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our earth; and where we commit to each other and to God that we will continue on a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

I believe that this vision we have for our church is a biblical image.  One of the things that’s striking about our Gospel lesson today is the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.  We squirm a bit when Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, tells a desperate mother that she and her little girl are like “dogs.”  “Our discomfort – with Jesus’ humanity and his perspective as a faithful Jew – trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end.”[4]  But Kate Huey suggests that this story might be an expression of one of the challenges the early church faced:  do we allow pagans (non-Jews) to be part of the church?

She points out, “Just before Jesus leaves on this little break from the crowds, he has shocked the religious authorities by declaring all foods clean and by focusing instead on what lives in our hearts.  Now, whether he wants to or not, he encounters a tenacious, determined mother in search of healing for her little girl, a woman who will not be turned away from the table of God’s grace, even if all she gets is the crumbs that fell to the floor.  She uses her wits in a culture that values riddles for figuring things out, and she wins both the argument and the healing she has requested of this teacher from another religion and another land.  Borders are crossed, hearts are opened, and so is the Christian mission, as Gentiles (and women) embrace the good news of the gospel.  Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declares all people ‘clean,’ acceptable, included at the table.”[5]

Take in this moment.  Be aware of this day.  Right now, we are on this side of the border, and in a few moments we will take the votes that are necessary to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s so we will become a fully merged church, a new church for a new day, Niles Discovery Church, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exception.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 1585.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm (8 September 2012).

[3] Based on the 8 Affirmations of ProgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/8-points-flyer-2011-version/ (8 September 2012).

[4] Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ, commenting on this Gospel lesson, emailed 31 August 2012.

[5] Ibid.

You’ve probably seen the news, but I have to make sure it’s included on my blog.  Sadly, the bullying and deaths continue.  With the start of a new school year, many young students are vulnerable and those of us who are supportive need to stand up for justice, inclusion, and affirmation.

Today was a Day of Silence at schools across the country.  According to dayofsilence.org, “On the National Day of Silence hundreds of thousands of students nationwide take a vow of silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in their schools.”

Earlier in the week, a high school student at my church invited me via Facebook to join in the day of silence.  I wondered how I could do it.  I knew my day would include an appointment when I would be interacting with someone and some shopping.  Of course, the phone would ring and I would have phone calls to make.

I thought, too, about what it was like for me 35 years ago to be a teen who was struggling to accept my sexual orientation and the fear I had about being found out.  Fear forced me to be silent.  35 years ago, that fear may have been well founded.  I’m certain there are schools where it is still well founded.

Earlier on my blog, I’ve written about the devastation of suicide and of the disproportionate numbers of lgbt kids (and kids thought to be lgbt) who use this permanent solution to what in reality are temporary problems.  The “It Gets Better” campaign was an attempt by people now launched into adulthood to speak to teens who are struggling with fear, who are feeling like their world is a living hell.

Today, teens are doing their own work in schools across the country to make it get better now.  Holding silence for a day both brings the issue to the surface and strengthens teens, emboldens them, gives them the courage to stand up.

It does get better.  But there is so much work to do – and not just in schools.

Just this week, people were making a fuss about a J. Crew ad that included a mom and her 5-year-old son having some fun that included neon pick toe nail polish.  If you missed the story, check out Jon Stewart’s wonderful reporting and reaction at http://www.hulu.com/watch/232385/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-toemageddon-2011-this-little-piggy-went-to-hell.  Once again, Jon Stewart is right on target.  (Wish I could figure out how to drop videos from The Daily Show into my blog.)

Today, instead of holding silence, I’m speaking up.  Here on my blog and via Facebook and Twitter, I’m inviting you to find ways to stand up against homophobia and all forms of bullying.

Three posts on the web were all brought to my attention yesterday, all relating to attitudes toward sexual minority people.

First, the Southern Poverty Law Center, probably the most important organization monitoring hate and hate groups in the United States, released their winter Intelligence Report in late 2010.  In the article, “Gays Remain Minority Most Targeted by Hate Crimes,” reminds us that the Christian Right actually blamed the victims of anti-gay bullying and the organizations that seek to protect them for the bullying gay kids receive and for the suicides that much to frequently follow:

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said gay rights activists “pressure these students to declare a disordered sexual preference when they’re too young to know better, [so] they share some culpability.” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a key critic of anti-bullying programs, said gay activists were “exploiting these tragedies to push their agenda.” He said that gay kids may know “intuitively” that their desires are “abnormal” and that the claim, pushed by gay activists, that they can’t change “may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.” Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel said those activists want “to use the tragedies to increase pressure on the real victims: Christians.”

However, the Report concludes that, in fact, lgbt people and people perceived to be lgbt “are by far the group most targeted in American for violent hate crimes.”

The bottom line: Gay people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.

The second posting is an essay by Mark D. Jordan on Religion Dispatches (posted on March 22), “Who Wins When Bible is Blamed for Gay Bashing?”  The thrust of Jordan’s essay is not what concerns me today (you can read it if you’re curious).  Instead, I was shocked to learn about the news story that sparked his writing.  Quoting from the essay:

[A] young man is accused of killing an older man for making sexual advances. The weapon was a sock filled with stones; the young man told police that he had been instructed in prayer to apply the Old Testament punishment of stoning.

Combined with the article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, this news is depressing – both for lgbt people and for progressive Christians.

And then, I came upon a third posting on The Christian Science Monitor website.  The opinion piece by Jonathan Merritt posted on March 24, “Evangelical shift on gays: Why ‘clobber scriptures’ are losing ground” brings some good news.

Merritt notes, “The truth is that the vast majority of evangelicals – approximately 7 in 10 – still say they believe homosexual behavior is ‘morally wrong.’”  Nonetheless, he (and I) see a shift coming.  The shift is coming from the younger generation.  Jay Bakker (son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, yes that Jim and Tammy Faye) is calling for a re-evaluation of the Christian right’s stand on lgbt people.  Merritt writes:

Brian McLaren, bestselling author and founder of the emerging church movement, moved toward affirmation of gays and lesbians in his 2010 book “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” He condemns Christians’ obsession with sexuality and urges them to construct “a more honest and robust Christian anthropology.” Christian music icons Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz came out of the closet this past year and asked their fans to reconsider their views.

Apparently the sociological data support this conclusion:

Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), says the data he’s collected bears this shift out. For example, PRRI’s research found that a majority of young evangelicals (ages 18 to 34) now support recognition for some sort of same-sex union. While PRRI’s president Robert Jones is hesitant to predict the future, he notes that the trends among evangelicals on same-sex issues all point in one direction and the group can expect “sea change within a generation.”

The news for lgbt people (and for progressive Christians) isn’t always good.  Lgbt folk are still the primary targets of hate crimes.  People still use the Bible to justify murder.  But things are changing.  Even conservative Christianity may be catching up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

There’s a thin line between words and wounds.  In keeping with my recent blog posts about bullying, I offer this short video (TV ad length).

Update, March 20, 2011:  The YouTube that was here has been taken off of YouTube.  However, you can see this short video at http://community.athinline.org/Video/Tattoo/055D1FFFF01C54EFD001700D70286.  Please check it out.

Billy Lucas was a 15-year-old freshman who had spent less than a month at Greensburg High School in Indiana, but that was long enough to get the message that he wasn’t welcome.  He wasn’t welcome because his peers perceived him to be gay.  The pain of this bullying was enough to make him feel like he had only one option and so he hanged himself.  His mother found her son, hanging, in their barn.  On Billy’s Facebook memorial page, he’s remembered with comments like, “Everyone made fun of him.”

I write about Billy Lucas – and I could be writing about over a dozen other teens who recently killed themselves for similar reason – because I spent two hour yesterday and the corner of Mowry Ave. and Fremont Blvd., in Fremont, holding a sign with his name, age, and picture.  I was there with some 20 to 30 other people, each of us holding signs or candles, asking people to be aware of tragedy of teen-aged suicides and the importance of ending bullying.

As I stood there, watching cars drive by, I wondered about what impact we were having.  Were the parents who drove by with kids in their cars using this as a “teachable moment,” an opportunity to talk with their kids about the damage bullying can cause, giving them the opportunity to open up about any bullying they are experiencing, or empowering them to stand up for the kids that get picked on?

Friends keep posting videos on their Facebook pages from Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project,” videos that fill me with hope, videos with messages that LGBT kids need to hear, like this one.

And yet, as important as it is to get this message – that it gets better – to the kids who right now are in crisis, and how important it is that they get help (like connecting with the Trevor Project, 866-488-7386), it is at least equally important that we work to end bullying.

Bullying can take many forms.  It can include:

  • Exclusion – starting rumors, telling others not to be friends with someone, or other actions that would cause someone to be without friends.  (This can happen as cyber-bullying, too, through email, social networking sites, or texting.)
  • Harassment – racial, ethnic, or sexual name-calling or other modes of harassment.
  • Teasing – name-calling, insulting, or other behavior that hurt others’ feelings or make them feel bad about themselves.
  • Physical Bullying – pushing, slapping, grabbing, flicking, poking, pinching, tripping, or other violations of personal space.
  • Severe Physical Bullying – punching, kicking, and similar behavior that could result in injury to others.
  • Threat of serious violence – threats of using a weapon, etc.  [Note, in the case of these last two, we are probably talking about criminal offenses (assault, battery, or threats of the same) and they should be reported to the police.]

So, what do we do?

Well, I suggest that we start by examining and changing our own behavior.  How have we participated in any of these forms of bullying?  I know that I find exclusion to be the form I am most likely to participate in.

Then we need to look at the social institutions we are part of – our workplaces, our faith communities, our social networks – and work to eradicate bullying there.

Next, we need to stand up to bullying when we witness it.  Call it what it is and make it clear that the behavior is not acceptable.

And finally, we need to engage our political leaders.  We need to connect with school boards and state legislatures to see that anti-bullying policies and legislation are adopted and enforced.  And we need to connect with our congress members and the President to make sure that our foreign policy is not based on bullying.

We have work to do, so let’s get to work.

Just before I left on a three-week trip to Europe, by one of my goddaughter’s high school friends killed himself.  I don’t know the details about what happened.  I don’t know that anyone knows why this handsome, athletic, friendly boy decided that killing himself was his only option.  What I do know is that he tried, was found, was rushed to the hospital and put on life support, and that only days later his parents had to make the hard decision to end life support and let their son die.  And I know that there are many grieving people, including my goddaughter.

I returned from my trip yesterday and started going through the emails and Facebook messages that accumulated while I was gone (it’s good to be disconnected from the cyber world and the news for a while, but that’s the content for another blog posting).  I was shocked to find out that while I was away, some people had started to notice that in the days leading up to my trip, there had been a rash of suicides and that many of them have been the result of anti-gay bullying.  In particular, people noticed that there had been at least four suicides within a three-week period in September:

  • Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., hung himself Sept. 9 from a barn rafter on his grandmother’s farm.
  • Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Calif., was removed from life support 10 days after hanging himself from a tree. He died Sept. 27.
  • Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from Cypress, Texas, used his stepfather’s gun to shoot himself to death Sept. 17.
  • Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey on Sept. 22.

I am not suggesting that my goddaughter’s friend’s suicide had anything to do with anti-gay bullying or internal conflicts about his sexuality.  As I said, I know nothing about the details.  What I am suggesting is that we need to do something to prevent teen suicides.

One concrete step we can take is to address anti-gay bullying in our schools and through out society.  This is how the officers in the national settings of my denomination, the United Church of Christ, expressed this sentiment on October 5:

The culture of anti-gay bullying that persists in academic and other institutions is an aspect of the broader issues of violence and harassment LGBT people face in the United States and around the world. It is experienced in a variety of ways from the invasion of privacy and taunts in school hallways to being beaten and tied to a fence; from the enactment of laws that criminalize sexual orientation and extra-judicial killing of people believed to be gay to the failure of elected officials to pass legislation that ensures the full equality of every citizen.

The reality of anti-gay harassment and bullying creates environments of fear and intimidation that not only have tragic consequences for those who are targeted, but also for the communities in which they occur. Even when anti-bullying policies are in place, without effective implementation peers, teachers and other adults can still be intimidated into silence and inaction. Studies continue to tell us that this is more often than not the reality in the vast majority of our schools. Nine out of 10 LGBT youth report being verbally harassed at school; 44 percent say they have been physically harassed; 22 percent report having been assaulted; and 60 percent say that when they report abuse, no one does anything to help or protect them.

All people of faith must recognize the God-given worth and dignity of every person that human judgment cannot set aside. Together we must work in solidarity to stop the bullying and violence against LGBT people and ensure the safety and protection of all our children. This is a baseline call to action grounded in the commonly held values of the Golden Rule, which every household of faith should be able to embrace.

Beyond this, we need to create the safe spaces – in our families, our schools, our faith communities (churches, etc.), and beyond – so children who are harassed can talk about it and have the harassment addressed.  We need to create safe spaces – in our families, our schools, our faith communities, and beyond – so children who are considering suicide can talk about it and find the support they need so this permanent solution to temporary problems (that’s what suicide is) will not be chosen.

We need to get messages like this to all youth.

We need to offer, as Ellen DeGeneres puts it, a wake-up call to everyone that teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in our country and the death rate is climbing.

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in and of itself is not a risk factor for suicide.  Rather, the negative treatment that many GLBT teens endure can lead to suicidal feelings.  We have a responsibility to take action.

As bizarre as it may seem, this will not be a simple task.  Getting school systems to take the problem of bullying, and especially anti-gay bullying, seriously, is difficult.  In fact, some “Christian” groups (i.e., the Family Research Council) are claiming that the gay community is the bully because the anti-bullying cause is really a front for the “gay agenda” (click here to see a news story).

Let us not allow lies like these deter us from the sacred duty.  Let us lift up and celebrate “the God-given worth and dignity of every person that human judgment cannot set aside.”

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