In the days after the June 12 shooting that took 50 lives at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Fla., there were myriad news reports about dramatic phone and text conversations between people trapped in the club and those they cared about.
“It made me reflect how many of our own youth feel ‘trapped,’ really not knowing where to go, or parents wondering how to help or support,” said Rachel S. Gerber, Mennonite Church USA denominational minister for youth and young adults.
She posted a note to the MC USA youth workers Facebook page offering networking and resources to church youth leaders unsure how to walk with youth, asking: “How many youth in our churches silently feel trapped because they believe they have no one — no safe space to share their struggles with sexual orientation and identity? How many youth wish they could be different, question their desires and turn to violence against themselves?”
“That was my response,” she said, “for people who are struggling — they don’t have to struggle alone.”
It is a compassionate and noble effort the church could use more of, but it is endangered by the theological minefield surrounding it. Five years ago, MC USA even stepped back from approving any youth seminars on sexuality at its Pittsburgh convention. Seminars on sexuality and dating had been among the most popular offerings, but convention planners tried to avoid conflict by canceling sessions they said created 90 percent of convention complaints.
In spite of the planners’ efforts, humans persisted in being created in God’s image. Subsequent conventions demonstrated that sexuality and its controversies continue to exist, and the seminars returned.
There is a tension underlying these conversations: How does one talk to youth about sexual identity in a supportive way, when the Confession of Faith describes certain expressions of lifelong commitment as sinful?
Teens deserve respect, especially those in fragile and lonely states. This is not the moment to sweep in with calls to “pray the gay away.” We hope Gerber’s resourcing and networking enable churches and youth groups to be safe spaces where people from all walks feel supported and loved for who they are.
“To talk about homosexuality, we have to talk about our own sexuality and how we are created,” Gerber said. “One way or another, you’re still couched in the larger framework of how we are created by God and what is our goodness and worth.”
She makes a good point about having conversations, and says those talks shouldn’t come out of nowhere. A holistic approach to faith formation begins with equipping parents who already know to begin with love.