"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Many of us heard this saying as children. It was the way our parents and caregivers tried to help us deal with being teased or bullied. As children, though, we knew that words could, in fact, hurt us. They could make us feel excluded, and they could make us cry. They were used to justify beating us up on the playground. What we knew as children is true: words matter, and it matters who speaks them and who listens to them. For people in positions of power and influence, words can lead to irreparable harm for entire communities of people. That's why Donald Trump and Marco Rubio must be held accountable for speaking at the "Rediscovering God in America" event in Orlando Thursday and Friday.
Their political power and positions lend support to speakers who claim that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people are demonic, who believe that HIV/AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality, and who advocate for outlawing homosexual relationships. Who is affected by this hateful rhetoric besides those within the political echo chamber of this event? People who are already at risk because of their LGBTQ identities.
To make matters worse, this event is being held in Orlando -- exactly two months after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub where 49 of our LGBTQ siblings were murdered, in a space that many considered a sanctuary. This act of violence is one of many examples of how hateful rhetoric directed at LGBTQ people results in death. Words matter, and religious rhetoric is some of the most powerful language we know. The "Rediscovering God in America" event promotes LGBTQ discrimination using religious language and exacerbates the harm religion has done to LGBTQ people on the margins.
There are those who believe the purpose of religion is to create and enforce strict moral codes based on unchanging rules, especially around sexuality. Many progressive people of faith, however, believe that religion is far more concerned with creating a just world for all people, especially those on the margins. We know that religion has the capacity to bind up the wounds that society inflicts on LGBTQ people.
In March, I worked with two other pastors to organize a Christian worship service at the True Colors Conference, the largest gathering of LGBTQ youth and young adults in the country. This gathering draws thousands of teenagers and young adults from around the country. The freedom these young people experience in getting to be themselves for a couple of days is evident in the excited conversations, hugs, diverse clothing, and endless variety of gender and sexual fluidity on display. The conference engages young people in hundreds of workshops on topics like community organizing, creating Gay-Straight Alliances, asexual identities, healthy relationships, and coming out to parents.
With so much competition and a far-flung location, we assumed participation in the worship service would be very low. After all, how many LGBTQ teens and young adults feel that religion has any "good news" for them? And how many would seek it out for their very first session of the conference? We were wrong. We ended up with more participants than chairs. There was singing, a sermon, time for reflection, and we participated in communion together. There were healing, joyful tears. More than one participant said they had never imagined being able to worship in a community that celebrated them as whole people -- including their sexuality and gender. Many had been hurt by religious communities. After the service, we offered pastoral care, hearing one story after another of how religious communities had denied these young people their dignity and worth -- telling them that they were going to hell, telling them to pray away their "sinful desires," and in one case, asking them not to return to the congregation as long as they were "continuing to sin."
Their stories are not unique. Studies and statistics attest to the harm faced by LGBTQ people. One third of LGBTQ youth report that the churches they attend are not accepting of them, and LGTBQ youth are twice as likely as the general population to report being verbally harassed at school. Societal intolerance has a cost. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are four times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Transgender and gender nonconforming people are ten times more likely to attempt suicide. Nearly 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and most are homeless because of rejection or abuse by their families.
Religion can help heal this harm, and not just in welcoming worship spaces. People of faith can speak out. We can counter hateful rhetoric with religious messages of love and celebration, as people are doing in Orlando Thursday and Friday. And we can continue to draw on our faith to push us to elect policymakers and enact legislation that helps create a more just world for everyone.
My Christian tradition teaches, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12, NRSV). Following this teaching is certainly not easy. It requires us to continuously learn and grow past our assumptions about people who are different from us. It requires us to love the most vulnerable and to treat the most marginalized people as if they were Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV). These teachings inspire and challenge me to work for justice.
But for some, personal anecdotes, statistics, and even scripture will not change their hearts. There are those who are accustomed to power, to turning away from people on the margins, and to exploiting religion for their own purposes. There are those who are genuinely afraid of a changing world and of people who are different from them. Their fear causes them to ignore the consequences of the violent, hateful rhetoric that harms the LGBTQ community.
For these people, we pray. We pray that they be given a new heart. We pray that they may truly rediscover God -- on the margins, among their LGBTQ siblings, in their midst. We will not abide the division, violence, and hatred they incite -- be it in politics, houses of worship, or in our local communities. As people of faith, we recommit ourselves to creating the just world we know is possible, a world where sexual and gender diversity are celebrated and where all people are treated with dignity.