Dear Friends from Church. Here is why I can’t walk through your door.

Hey reader!

I wrote this letter to some people in my congregation. I thought that I might as well share it with you.  

Some weeks ago I was at a party hosted by one of my friends from church. As I drove to the party I was aware of a growing uncomfortable feeling. It was the same feeling I have when I attempt to attend worship services at my local congregation. It is a feeling I get when I am confronted by a certain critical mass (10 ish ) of people from church. When I see these people individually I am fine. They are just friends and I enjoy their company. However, when they reach the critical mass then they represent church to me and the uncomfortable feeling is there.

It took a lot of resolve to stay at the party. I found myself needing to leave the house periodically to… breathe (?). And it was with a sense of relief that I left early to go home. I don’t know what words to use to describe the feeling but over recent months I have become aware of its source. In the hope of you understanding my situation a little better, I would like to share that source, that awareness, with you.

Dear friends from church, here is why I can’t walk through your doors.

In recent years I have had some of my own mental health issues. As a part of my journey of recovery I have been helped to face a life-shaping part of my personal history. In my second year of high school I was bullied quite badly by one person. He had a gang of much older boys. I was still a small skinny kid. They were pretty much full-grown young men. They stalked me for a few months. They waited outside my home in a car. They followed me sometimes when I went out, making threats. I was terrified. That was the first time I remember praying in desperation for God to rescue me. I began to doubt whether I could face another day of fear. Finally the bully decided to put me out of my misery. He and his gang caught up with me at a bus stop. They took me behind the bus stop and he beat me quite badly until I fell and curled into a ball. Then he started kicking me.

Here is the thing.  As I was being kicked one of his gang started naming  people who had said that they wanted me beaten up. They were the names of my friends. I found out later that they had been approached and out of fear included their names. As I look back on that rather bizarre scenario I realize that my friends all knew what was going to happen to me and not one of them did or said anything to stop it. They remained silent.

I know there are lots of reasons why they gave their names but… it still sucks. The sound of those names being called out hurt more than the kicks. Even now I remember THAT as the ultimate humiliation. I knew I was truly alone. I think I understand now why I told no-one.. not even my parents what had happened.

As I type this my breath is shortening, my heart racing, my brain is jumping erratically, images, feelings, a knot in my stomach.

That event changed me in 2 ways.

One. I stopped crying. I never really cried from that moment until very recently. I had learnt to lock up my emotions very securely.

Two. I have found it impossible over the years to walk past a situation where I perceived that bullying was occurring. I feel compelled to step in. Sometimes for good, sometimes not as I learn that I had completely misread a situation.

Once I was driving down Safety Bay Road when I saw a gang of perhaps a dozen teenagers  standing around one person kicking someone who was curled up on the ground. I had driven over the curb and pulled the car up just in front of the group and was on my way out of the car when I suddenly realized that this was not a clever thing to do. Quite apart from my own safety, I had put my young passenger at risk. But the action was instinctive, not at all considered. Thankfully, the group just ran off.

But my feelings were the same then as they were on that earlier occasion, short breath, heart racing, thinking erratic, knot in my stomach.

This is the same feeling that I had at the party. This is how I feel when I try to go to church.

In recent months I have come to understand that these feelings from my past, rightly or wrongly, reasonably or unreasonably have become attached to how the church has responded to the very real needs of the gay people under their care.  I could fill pages with how our church continues to hurt gay people in their care.  (In my blog I have filled these pages.) But for the purposes of this letter let me remind you of a couple of the basics.

The church calls the gay people in their care, “sinful”, “disordered” and “diseased”. This church leads them into a life of unreasonable guilt. It forces them onto an emotionally suicidal path of denial of their essential selves. This is attested to by all recent professional mental health studies which show that young gay people in religious organisations suffer depression, self harm, and attempted suicide at far greater rates than the rest of the community.

Through my advocacy work over the last 2 years I have been contacted by gay pastors and teachers who live in secrecy for fear of loosing their ministries and their livelihoods.

Conservative churches do harm to gay people. The Lutheran Church of Australia in its approach to homosexuality is amongst the most conservative of those churches.

My local congregation has individuals and families who have been and continue to be hurt by the churches teaching and practise. But this local gathering is more than just a congregation of the Lutheran Church. It is also an association, a legal entity, that has responsibility for 1000 or so students  and a 100 or so staff members of a Lutheran College. There are gay students in that college who are unable to receive the help that they need because of the church’s teaching. There have been (and probably are) gay staff members who are forced into secrecy.  People are getting hurt.

There is a 15 yo gay kid who feels sick to the stomach at the thought of a new school year. He will be crying in bed tonight and pleading with God to help him because he is not sure that he can face another day. He is sure that he is utterly alone because in his mind, his family, his school and his church hate what he is.

This gay kid is on my mind when I see that critical mass of people at the party and when I go to church on a Sunday morning. I look at these people, my friends from church, and can’t help but think of them as the ones who have the ability to do something to bring change and help for that hurting  kid and who choose not to.

In my mind’s eye I see them standing around that young person. He is in a Lutheran home, a Lutheran congregation, Lutheran youth group or a Lutheran School. He has nowhere to turn. They stand around him… and they do N.O.T.H.I.N.G!

My heart races, my breath shortens, ,there is a knot in my stomach and my thinking becomes erratic.

The erratic/ irrational part of my brain wants to confront them, demand an answer.

“How can you do nothing?”

The rational part of my brain knows that this  party or this church service is not the time and place for such a discussion. At the same time I realize that there probably never will be a time and a place, that the conversation is not likely to happen. In the end I find it easier to leave the gathering. It is physically and mentally too hard to be there.

The thing is, as I think about these friends of mine from church I realise that I genuinely count them as better human beings than me.  I know them to be more compassionate, more giving of their time and resources to people in need, more ready than me to listen and understand in most situations.

And right THERE is my problem. THERE is the thing I can’t handle. These good, good people, when gathered together under the banner of “Church” become at best bystander bullies and at worst active participants in doing harm to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

So, dear friends from church, that is why I can’t walk through your doors.

But the story would be incomplete if I left it there.

In the last 18 months there have been 3 occasions where my feelings about church have changed, if only for a short time. On each of those occasions I have been told that the church was about to seriously look at the question of homosexuality. The most recent of these was in early November.  Each time I have heard those words, that intent, I have experienced an immediate and dramatic emotional shift. Something within me reaches out to those words and the promise that they hold.

At that moment, in my mind’s eye,  the church is no longer a bystander bully and I am no longer an outsider. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my friends and we are all transformed into allies and  advocates. We becomes a group who are eager to address the suggestion that we represent anything less than the love of God that forms basis of our existence.

My immediate and dramatic newfound feeling of connection to the church is not based on an assumption that the church will necessarily change its views. That is, of course, my hope and I believe that any honest and adequate consideration of the topic will bring change. But my feeling of connectedness to and with the church as an advocate and ally  to the gay people is not conditional on such a change. It expects nothing more than the church’s willingness to take a serious look at the question.

It seems however, that this most recent promise of an honest look at the question has, like the previous promises, failed to eventuate.

It doesn’t matter which way I look at it, one central thing remains. The congregation bullies and hurts its gay members and the gay staff and students of the college. Some (very few) do it actively. Most, including all those people I count as friends, passively participate in the harm. They are bystander bullies. They have the power to stop it. They remain silent.

You may think that my teenage experience has distorted my perceptions and that my response to the congregation’s silence is not reasonable. That is possible. I believe, however, that what happened to me has actually served to heighten my sensitivities to the very real experiences of gay people in our congregation and our college. Either way, I find it impossible to be silent on the matter.

I look forward to the day when the promise of an honest and adequate examination of the congregation’s teachings about and practise toward the gay people in its care materializes into action. I look forward to joining with you in that examination.  I look forward to the day when I can, in good conscience, walk through your doors.

Your friend.

Neil.