Monday, October 6, 2008

"Camp Out": Churches and LGBT Youth

This weekend Steve and I watched “Camp Out,” a 2006 documentary by Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi. The film tracks the experiences of a group of upper Midwestern gay and lesbian teens at a summer camp sponsored by the ELCA—the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

I found the documentary fascinating; I recommend it to anyone working with adolescents. At the same time, I found aspects of the story disturbing. I’ve spent the weekend trying to put my finger on what bothered me about this movie.

On the one hand, it is absolutely wonderful that any church is providing a safe space to teens coming to terms with their sexual identities—a sanctuary in which to learn to accept and celebrate themselves, a secure space in which to ask questions, including religious ones, about their lives and futures, an untroubled place in which to form bonds with other youth who share experiences similar to theirs.

Because my current situation removes me from the young adults with whom I interacted in college teaching (and, in fact, I haven’t ever taught at the high-school level), I have to stretch myself to remember what growing up is like. The film began with brief biographical vignettes focusing on several of the teens who took part in the summer camp.

In almost all of these, the young woman or man interviewed speaks of having come out of the closet in early adolescence—at the age of 13 or 14. To me, that’s unimaginably young. It’s unimaginably young to have a firm grasp of something so decisive to one’s personhood as one’s sexual orientation.

And yet the data are there, and they’re solid: early adolescents, even children, now have an inkling of being gay or lesbian. The age at which such awareness breaks through, and at which youth begin struggling with questions of sexual orientation, is younger and younger. It’s far younger than it was when I was growing up.

And as I think about the differences, I’m aware that this disparity in my generation’s experience of coming out and that of the current generation of youth has everything to do with information. There’s simply far more information available today to youth about sexuality in general, about the presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in the human community.

But this information—the prisms it provides for someone questioning her/his sexual identity at an early age to frame her/his experience—does not necessarily make the coming out process simpler for youth today. It can, in fact, do the opposite.

When an early adolescent begins to recognize that her attractions are not “normal,” and has a name to affix to these alternative attractions, the burden of coming to terms with the recognition can be well-nigh impossible to shoulder. It is one thing to sense at an early age that one is not “right” in the eyes of mainstream society. It is quite another thing to have a specific name to apply to the non-normative aspects of one’s personhood, and to learn that this name makes one a despised object in the eyes of one’s peers.

And this is a recognition that contemporary LGBT youth come to at ever earlier ages, just as they come to the recognition of their sexual orientations at earlier and early ages: I’m speaking of the recognition that one’s orientation is despised. Just as gay and lesbian youth today have access to a much deeper pool of information about sexual orientation than previous generations have had, so do their peers.

And those peers can use the information to torment, to cut the questioning youth out of the herd and attack him, to exclude and punish. They can and they do.

In such a world, it’s imperative that the churches do something. It’s imperative that they do something for these youth. And it is profoundly disturbing that, for the most part, churches are doing absolutely nothing.

At worst, they are reinforcing the attacks by encouraging these youth to seek reparative therapy or to “repent.” At best, they observe a stony silence that murders the hearts and souls of youth needing to talk about their struggle for identity every bit as much as any adolescent needs such dialogue to form a healthy adult identity.

So I’m bowled over—as a gay adult, an educator, a believer, I’m profoundly grateful—that the ELCA has provided a venue for gay youth to examine and celebrate their sexual identities. This is a ministry all churches ought to beproviding today. But it is a ministry that, to their everlasting shame, hardly any actually provide.

As one of the camp leaders, Rev. Jay Wiesner, who is himself openly gay, says at one point in the film, pastors who have a heart for these youth are sick and tired of seeing gay youth try to kill themselves. Rev. Wiesner says he is passionate about ministry to gay youth because he does not want to see another gay teen commit suicide—not a single one more.

One of the most moving scenes in the documentary captures an evening fireside gathering at which the youth sing a hymn called “Sanctuary.” I have to admit I don’t know the song, though the film suggests it’s popular in churches today.

The lyrics speak of both church and the indvidual believer as sanctuary. As the group of gay and lesbian teens gathers singing this song, one breaks into tears. She weeps bitterly while clinging to her friends, who comfort and minister to her in her sorrow.

It is impossible to witness this scene without thinking painfully of how gay and lesbian teens (of how gay and lesbian persons in general) struggle to claim any place at all in a church that calls itself sanctuary for all wounded children of God. It is not possible to witness this young woman’s intense grief without recognizing how savage are the wounds inflicted by church and society on gay youth—of the struggle of gay youth to feel any sense of self-worth, any sense of belonging, above all, in the church context, any affirmation at all from the church that they can be sanctuaries for the divine presence, precisely as they are. As gay or lesbian human beings.

In my recollection of the film, the preceding scene coalesces with another to form an inspirational diptych that is as central to the theme of sanctuary as is the scene I’ve just recounted. The second scene is a clip from the ordination of Rev. Wiesner to the Lutheran ministry in 2004.

As I compiled this blog entry, I discovered that there’s actually a website devoted to remembering this ground-breaking ordination: “The Extraordinary Ordination of Jay Alan Wiesner” at As the website materials and “Camp Out” emphasize, the choice of Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis to ordain an openly gay ministry candidate in 2004 was, indeed, extraordinary. This action contravened ELCA polity of the time; that polity forbade the ordination of an openly gay man who did not commit himself to lifelong chastity.

Not only was the choice of the church to ordain Pastor Wiesner extraordinary, but the ordination ceremony itself was equally exceptional. As the pastors gathered to lay hands on the ministry candidate surrounded him, the entire congregation got up and participated in the laying on of hands. To someone such as I, someone frequently disappointed by the churches’ inability to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches today—particularly in the powerful voices of suffering brothers and sisters who stand outside church doors asking for bread when they have been given stones—the scene was engrossing. It brings tears to my eyes.

Obviously, this is a film I loved. I loved it because I celebrate the commitment of at least one church to live the church’s mission of providing a safe space to everyone in the world. I celebrate the commitment of one church to hear the Spirit speaking through the needs of LGBT youth today, and to offer sanctuary to these precious human beings who are so obviously in need of this particular ministry.

So what is the “on the other hand” that picks up on my train of thought in the second and third paragraphs of this posting? That’s harder for me to put my finger on. Obviously, part of what bothers me profoundly in this story is something I’ve already alluded to—the stolid refusal of churches to recognize the needs of LGBT youth, a refusal that has, as Rev. Wiesner rightly notes, life-and-death consequences for some gay youth.

How churches can think they are being church at all—in the most essential sense of that word—when they either shut out or remain silent about the gay and lesbian youth knocking at their doors, or about anyone in need knocking at their doors, is beyond me. I just don’t get it. I won’t ever get it.

But there’s more to my discomfort. That more has to do, I think, with the puerile way churches engage in youth ministry, period—ministry to both straight and (all too rarely) gay youth. Too much of the religious rhetoric in this film—the “official” rhetoric of ministers and counselors—was, frankly, cringeworthy. Amidst difficult adolescent struggles, youth, both gay and straight, are asking the churches for solid food. What the churches all too often offer is pablum, predigested sentimentality and wispy, vacuous theology.

I do recognize that it’s important to tailor religious (and other) messages to people’s maturity level. I’m not an expert in youth ministry, and I challenge myself, when I watch a film like “Camp Out,” to remember that some of the exercises that might strike me as a tad on the childish side may be effective ways of dealing with adolescents.

At the same time, I heard the youth in this film asking for more when they spoke outside the earshot of adults: for intellectually challenging and personally stimulating information, responses, dialogue sessions. All too often, they received, instead, canned, formulaic religious responses and encouragement to engage in meaningless diversionary rituals.

Why does this trouble me so profoundly? Both because it demonstrates the church’s inability to listen carefully to what a segment of its population—adolescents—really need, and because it suggests to me that churches in general are frozen in a kind of adolescence, in American culture. Working at church-owned universities, I’ve seen time and again how superficial ministerial initiatives to the young are—but also how superficial the church is in responding to all kinds of needs of the society in which it lives.

I have sat through session after session—particularly in United Methodist settings, but in Catholic ones, too—in which we sang, passed little notes with covenantal promises around, picked up special rocks and dropped them into bowls along with those promises. And nothing changed. Because the rituals were empty and meaningless, exercises in making us feel good when all of us knew darned well that they meant nothing and would change nothing.

Because those mounting these exercises in futility don’t intend for the exercises in futility to mean anything or to change anything. When the retreat is over, the same power will reside in the same hands (at the top, in the hands of the grossly overpaid church-affiliated administrator who makes life-and-death decisions about the lives of personnel under him or her, with no recourse at all to those little slips of covenant promises or those little rocks in the bowl). In retreats of this ilk, we knew not only that any covenant promises any of us made to one another meant not a hill of beans in the dog-eat-dog world of professional life: we also knew that the church-protected administrator at the top of the heap was perfectly capable of taking what we wrote on those slips of paper and using it against us, if we were not careful. With no regard at all for the covenant promises she or he had made in the retreat context.

Church needs to mean more. It needs to offer more. A big part of what youth in general are struggling through in adolescence—and gay youth in particular—is the recognition that adults are all too often phony, empty, hypocritical, ill-informed and yet oh so certain of what we think we know. For the church to offer these youth slips of paper to pin on crosses and burn them, fake baptisms in a lake to remind them of their official baptism, stones to pick up and put at the foot of the cross, is just insulting—as it is insulting for the same churches to offer those who work in their employ the same nonsensical smarm at retreats.

People—adolescents included—are hungry for authentic human encounter, in which those meeting each other at, say, a retreat, are encouraged and helped to let the guard down, to speak from the heart. People are hungry for meaningful dialogue about theological and moral issues, not insipid inspirational pap. People want to know that having something to do with church makes a real difference and not a pretend difference in every aspect of their lives, their economic and professional lives included. People want church and church-sponsored institutions to be safe places, sanctuary—not to promise sanctuary when they have absolutely no intention of offering it.

That’s my grousing about this movie. I love the fact that this particular church group is offering sanctuary for LGBT youth. I can’t overstate my praise for this courageous decision. At the same time, I’d very much like to see the offerings of churches in general to youth in general broadened and deepened. I’d like to see them be meaningful. And real.

I’d like to see churches be meaningful and real, for a change.