“To remain silent about oppression is to further the hate. It’s as bad as doing the killing yourself.” Alex Odya-Weis, age 14.
“Mom, what’s hypocrisy? I know we discussed it in class, but I just want to be sure,” my 14 year-old son asked before he started his English assignment.
“It’s when your behavior does not match with your beliefs. If you say you believe one thing and act another way, that’s hypocrisy,” I answered.
“Oh, like our church,” he responded, referring to the RCA church where we had been members for 13 years.
“How so?” I asked.
I thought I knew what he was going to say. Alex is gay. He’s also Black, Latino, bright, adopted, talented, perceptive, gifted artistically and simply an awesome creation by God. Alex had felt shunned by our church for a variety of reasons relating to his unique, God-given qualities. But most of all, he felt shunned for being gay.
Youth-group friends told Alex that being gay was disgusting. Loving pastors preached anti-gay hate messages in sermons (where we’ve also heard the “wrongs” of using anti-depressant medication). Alex recalls plentiful examples of subtle racism and gender stereotyping and other kinds of hate – all amidst strains of “Jesus Loves Me.”
I guess I thought the anti-gay messages went right over our kids’ heads…. or that the love of church friends would counteract the hate. I have since learned that my child felt hate and gay-bashing in subtle ways when he was still in Junior Sunday School. Alex’s unique God-given traits signaled to some church friends that Alex might be gay and as “one of those types” he deserved a cold shoulder – even at age 5.
“Let the children come,” says Jesus in the gospel message reported in Luke 18:16.
“Keep them away from my kid if they’re gay or gender variant,” was the message from many at church; not only in words, but in other subtle messages from adults and youth.
When Alex was six, another mom heard some kids telling Alex he walked like a girl. The mom did nothing to stop the chatter, but, rather, told the kids to stay away from Alex. When we talked about it later, I assured Alex that he walked fine, that God made everyone differently and that the other kids could learn from the diversity his gait demonstrated. The kids did stay away from Alex – except to tease him more.
When Alex, age nine, wanted to wear leather pants and jacket and a shiny shirt to church, I told him he looked great – a bit like a performer. He was singing a solo that day and he chose his outfit carefully. The youth group leader gave him a “funny look,” according to Alex. Another adult scowled as he eyed Alex up and down. Kids told him it was a girls’ shirt. (It wasn’t, but actually, in my experience, few shirts have genders in this decade.)
Alex felt left out when the youth group was divided by gender – he thought he’d rather discuss the “girl” topics. He had no interest in discussing sports or playing wild games.
By the way, the outfit drew rave reviews at social gatherings and at another church where Alex was invited to sing. The “girl walk” born into Alex developed into an awesome turnout as Alex is a ballet dancer who also excels in jazz and tap. Alex found love and acceptance in many groups – outside of the RCA.
“Let the children come,” says Jesus in the gospel message (Luke 18:16).
“Not to my church,” was the message for a family whose relative had an intersexed baby, one born with ambiguous genitalia. They didn’t ask for the usual new baby prayers at church. They were worried about being shunned. The baby boy/girl might seem like a “gay freak,” they said, and they did not want to take the risk of anyone knowing. It wasn’t right. God made that baby with a special message and purpose to bring into the world, yet the baby’s family felt they couldn’t mention the baby in God’s house. But they told me.
“Let the children come,” says Jesus in the biblical book of Luke.
Keep them away from anyone with long locks and facial hair, according to a church elder’s family. They told of a neighbor’s house guest who appeared “scary” with long hair and a beard. They thought he’d scare their children, so they limited contact. When they told the story at a church family gathering, everyone laughed and squealed. I wondered what their kids would do when Jesus came again – perhaps with long hair and a beard. Once again, Alex got the message that “different” was bad, especially in the case of gender-variant coiffures. Again, a hate message from those who are called to love.
The Psalmist reminds us in 139:13-14, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Alex thankfully acknowledges his special gifts and skills. He works hard at developing his gifts and he succeeded in earning a full scholarship to The Milwaukee Ballet pre-professional program at age 14. The same year, he also had lead roles in the opera and dance show at his Arts High School. When I told the Sunday School teachers about Alex’s reward for working hard to best use his unique gifts and skills, one man squirmed, looked confused, asked about sports.
No wonder LGBT kids commit suicide at three times the rate for other kids. No wonder they use drugs to self-medicate. Other kids learn to cope through faith. With messages from churches like ours, a meaningful spiritual life is withheld. Maybe our LGBT kids are not overtly excluded, but the subtle messages about who “belongs” in the kingdom of God magnify their pain.
Yes, it is the subtle messages of uninformed people, along with the subsequent interaction patterns, that shun LGBT teens and anyone who is different. Even in a loving Christian environment, children who feel “different” absorb subtle messages of hate. Those subtle patterns and messages almost killed my child.
Members of the “church family” added the welts and dug the grave. Not speaking up against oppression is as bad as being the murderer.
“Spread the gospel to ALL the world,” said Jesus to some of his first followers in Mark 16:15. “But be sure to put up a barrier between the gospel and the gays” says the church, and the gender-variant children or anyone who is different.”
Alex grasped the concept of hypocrisy just fine, thanks to his experiences at church. He felt hate from those called to love. He felt shunned by those who taught the classes on welcoming visitors. Alex learned that everyone’s gifts were different and then, from the same people, he learned that there was something wrong with his special gifts.
Alex wrote his essay on hypocrisy and poured out his heart about injustices. He got an A+ but that’s not all. The teacher wrote a full paragraph on the need to find an affirming faith community. She promised to pray for him. Other teachers were alerted and expressed concern. Some told me they were praying for us. They cared about my child, a freshman in this public school.
While Alex is ready to give up on churches, he remains strong in his Christian faith. He’s learned the gospel message that Jesus loves him and God made him wonderfully. He’s proud of who he is and he knows that the gift of salvation was his for the asking. He thinks that the churches have the problem. I tend to agree.
Cyndie Odya-Weis is mom to three teenagers and is a college teacher and free-lance writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with articles published in several magazines including Roots and Wings, Stepping Stones and Faithwriter’s Challenge Books. She frequently addresses groups and conducts workshops in southeastern Wisconsin, leads a Christian writers’ group and writes lyrics for Christian songs. Cyndie and son Alex are members of PFLAG (Parents Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays). Cyndie also worked in social work in adoptions and with abused and neglected children for 25 years.
Cyndie was a member of the RCA for 13 years and is currently a member of Underwood Baptist church, a welcoming and affirming congregation in Wauwatosa, WI. Cyndie developed and taught Sunday School classes, participated in the small group ministry, led the children’s messages, developed children’s missionary awareness activities and taught children’s Sunday school at the RCA church and prior to that at an inter-denominational church where she was a member.