WARNING: Controversial Waters Ahead!! Enter at Own Risk!!
I've wondered lately at all the protest against Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church members for their picketing of the funerals of military persons killed in war. The outcry spread even further when Phelps recently announced plans to picket the funeral of Heath Ledger because he had played a gay man in the excellent film "Brokeback Mountain." Curiously, I do not recall so many people speaking out so loudly when all Phelps was doing was protesting at the funerals of gay men and women. Case in point: It wasn't until Phelps began picketing at military funerals that some states started passing laws to prohibit such behavior. When he was only picketing the funerals of gay people, it was apparently a nuisance but not something to legislate against.
I reflect on this as I think back to the sexuality retreat with my youth last weekend. When the topic of homosexuality came up with the boys in the group, it was clear that times have changed. They talked about students being "out" at school and being completely accepted. How different things were even a few years ago.
I was reminded of this when I recently made contact on Facebook with a young man who had been a peripheral participant years ago in my first youth group. In his message to me he recalled how, years ago, he'd asked to meet me one afternoon at the school where I was teaching. We'd never had much interaction so I wondered what he might need to talk about. We were only a few minutes into the conversation when he shared concerns about his sexual orientation, his parents' insistence that it was only a phase, and asked what he was to make of the condemning messages he'd received from the church. He was looking for me to explain what possible future there was for him as a person of faith if he was gay. And all I could share with him was what for me is the deepest truth of the gospel message: "God loves you. God has created you, just as you are, in God's image. You are one of God's blessed children. People will judge you throughout your life no matter what you do or who you are. But God's love is unconditional." And now, these many years later, he shared with me how important that simple talk had been in his young life in helping him accept himself and respect himself. He's since gone on to get an education and devotes much of his time to working on justice issues in his community.
I share this knowing that those who read this blog have many different opinions, and we will not all agree on what the Church's stance should be on issues of sexual orientation. But surely there is always room to treat our young people with respect, to share with them the message of God's abundant love. We can never know how much of an impact we are having on the young lives entrusted to us. It is our responsiblity to treat each young person we serve with the utmost care and grace. So often the Church sounds more like Fred Phelps and the message "you are a sinner and must change." I wish we spent at least as much time spreading the equally valid bibical message "You who others have placed in bondage, you who are oppressed, you who are the outsiders: know that God desires for you release and freedom. God desires you to be all that you were created to be. God cherishes you as God's beloved."