I don’t usually agree with Maggie Gallagher. As the founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a leading opponent of marriage equality, we have very little in common. However, in a Op/Ed piece for the New York Post, Ms. Gallagher made an interesting point. After attempting to absolve herself of any blame for the recent suicides of young people bullied for being or seeming gay, she makes this statement:
“Whether you are looking at their faces or looking at the statistics, one thing is clear: These kids need help, real help. They should not become a mere rhetorical strategy, a plaything in our adult battles. Each of these teens is a child of God. And each one deserves better from all of us than becoming a "teachable moment" in someone else's culture war.”
It’s true. While I don’t think the help Maggie is offering is going to do anything but further destroy the self-esteem of even more young people who are different, she is right. They are not talking points, they are so much more than pawns in the battles for equality. They are children of God. They had stories and pasts and possible futures. They have names.
They have names like Tyler Clementi (18), Asher Brown (13), Billy Lucas (15), Seth Walsh (13), Justin Aaberg (15), Zach Harrington (19). They lived in a world where they did not feel welcome. They took the only exit route they knew. Death is a sad and ugly thing, but it’s even uglier when it’s children taking their own lives to escape the endless pressure of hate directed at them because they were either gay or someone just thought they were.
Where could they turn? At school, they were teased and harassed by their fellow students. Tyler was secretly film in a romantic encounter and had his private moments displayed on the internet without his consent. Asher was forced into mock gay sex acts in Phys.Ed. Billy had homosexual slurs hurled at him and was told he didn’t deserve to live by kids at school, even having hate messages posted on his Facebook after his death. Justin was the 5th student in his school district to end his own life in the past year, where teachers are told to remain neutral on bullying.
Nine out of ten LGBT youths have experienced harassment at school. They are four times more likely to attempt suicide, more than a third of all lesbian, gay and bisexual youth have attempted it. 62% of homeless LGB youths have attempted it, twice as many as heterosexual homeless youth. Nearly half of transgender young people have seriously considered suicide.
It’s not easy growing up different. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender persons know this. Beyond that, whether home schooled kids or racial minorities, whether people who wore the wrong clothes or worshipped at the wrong church or just had something different that people didn’t like most of us felt the sting of our peers’ disapproval. I remember joining in a conversation around the lunch table at Broad Street Elementary in Mechanicsburg about the Stealth Bomber as a third grader and being immediately told that no one wanted to hear what I had to say. No explanations as to why my opinion on military equipment was not needed. Just a simple shut-down, at age 8. I remember it vividly, like it happened yesterday not almost twenty years ago. These things stay with us.
But, over time things do improve. We find our niche in the world, we surround ourselves with people who accept us.
The church is rarely that place, and there are good reasons. God calls us to change, to become holy people. The difference between God and the bullies of the world is that God accepts us as-is. The people of God, who are loved by God while we were yet sinners, are also called to accept people as-is.
Do we? Do we understand our role in the world? Instead of being culture warriors, bent on refashioning the world in our own idea of what acceptable behavior is, do we love and accept those around us and help them on the road to change the habits and behaviors that God doesn’t like and accepting the rest, even the ones that we dislike or find uncomfortable?
The Bible speaks quite frequently to the care and help of the downtrodden. In James we find the admonishment that “religion that God our Parent accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress” and the Psalmist says that “The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the parentless and the widow but frustrates the ways of the wicked.” There is a special place in the heart of God for those who are in need.
In the Matthew, we find Jesus admonishing his followers to not only stop squabbling about who is the greatest but to also become like children. He then goes on to say this: “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in my to sin, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
This is one of my favorite things about Jesus. He doesn’t mind a little hyperbole, and his word pictures are excellent. A millstone is a huge, round disc of stone, often as big or bigger than a man. They were used to grind grains into meal or crushing olives to release oil. They were massively heavy buggers, pulled by ox or mules or more recently by water wheels. These are giant, heavy stones. And Jesus tells his disciples, and in turn us, that if the only way to protect these kids from ourselves is tie one around our neck and jump in a lake then we best get to stepping.
That’s major. And I would posit that if our action and words cause a child to hate him or herself so much that the only way out of that pain and self-hatred is to end their own life, then we are in need of some millstones.
Jesus gives us another word picture, of a man who owns a hundred sheep but one wanders away. He leaves the flock, probably in the care of his hired helpers and few sheepdogs, and goes in search of that lost lamb. “In the same way, your Parent in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
Have we been diligent in searching for that one lost sheep? Are we keeping these little ones safe and sound?
We cannot blame ourselves for the suicides that are becoming rampant among LGBT youth. Every person has a choice, and some will choose that dark end to their path. But we do have a duty and an obligation to help those who may be heading that way to see the light of God‘s love and acceptance.
One of the simplest but also extremely difficult ways to do this is live an authentically real life. Being open about being LGBT or a straight ally and a Christian in your everyday life. I’m not saying that you have to wear a nametag that says “Hi, my name is Paul (and I’m a gay Christian)” but the less you hide about your relationships the more people will realize that Gays are not the big scary other but the guy that bags their groceries and the lady that does their taxes.
Rufus Wainwright, out singer/songwriter said this in an interview with Details magazine: “It’s true, it’s tougher career wise if you come out, but this is a human rights issue and it’s important to keep putting dents in it. It’s about two teenagers being beheaded for holding hands in Saudi Arabia. It’s bigger than someone’s music career.”
It is bigger, and it’s something we can do everyday. Don’t sit by as people demean others for their sexuality, their race, their religion, their accent, their place of origin, their financial status, their IQ. Let people know that you don’t feel the same way. Let people know that God doesn’t discriminate, and we shouldn’t either.
It’s important to understand that our words have power. In James we are reminded that “The tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” “With our tongue we praise God and also curse people who have been made in the God‘s likeness. This should not be.”
No matter how many times I have been told that “stick and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me” I never believed it. But while harsh and hurtful words can hurt, true words of comfort and praise can heal. Always keep in mind that what you say has the power to influence others minds, hearts and lives.
There is an exciting online movement called the It Gets Better Project. It’s a video series in which pop stars, politicians and regular people remind teens that while being an young gay person is no easy road, it does get better and it is worth it to stick around and revel in the exciting things the future may bring. Gay celebs and allies have lent their voices to this video series, from President Barack Obama to pop singer Kesha to LGBT employees of Google to pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts’ grandson.
Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said this in his recent “It Gets Better” video: "Sometimes the words of my Christian brothers and sisters have hurt you. I also know that our silence causes you pain...You are a beloved child of God. Your life carries the beauty and dignity of God's creation...There is a place for you in this world, and in this Church."
He understands that words have power. That we have a duty and an obligation to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the rest of the world, to use our words wisely.
On the flip side, one should also always take the time to listen. Talking only takes you so far, you have to listen to truly understand and help others. Pay attention to the signs:
Increases in alchol or drug use
Expressing a negative attitude towards self, hopelessness or helplessness
Changes in regular behavior or interest in usual activities
Giving away valuable possessions
Expressing lack of future orientation like saying “It won’t matter soon” or other suicidal feelings
Signs of depression, even after the depression begins to lift
Describing a specific plan for suicide
Even before these signs manifest, listen. It’s so easy to brush past people without paying them any mind. Keep an open heart and ear, you never know when you can make a new friend and increase the amount of love in this world by listening.
Other ways to protect these little ones is to donate time and money to groups that help at-risk young people. Common Roads, the Central PA LGBT Community Center, Equality PA are great local groups and the Trevor Project provides a national suicide phone hotline and online support.
The Trevor Project also provides a guide for helping someone who is considering suicide with the acronym “Y-Care”
Y is for You - you are never alone and you are not responsible for anyone who chooses to end their own life. All you can do is listen, support and assist the person in getting the help they need.
C is for Connect
Connect the person to resources and to a supportive, responsible adult.
A is for Accept
Accept and listen to the person’s feelings and take them seriously.
R is for Respond
Respond if the person has a plan to attempt suicide and tell someone you trust. If they do have a plan, try to get them to a hospital or police station if possible.
E is for Empower
Empower the person to get help and to call the Trevor Lifeline 1-866-4-U-TREVOR
In fact, program Helpline numbers into your cell phone so you have them available in a moment of crisis.
Last, but most definitely not least: Pray. Pray for guidance when interacting with people. Pray for the people you interact with. Pray for wisdom to see when someone needs your help. And follow up your prayers with action. Take it outside the church.
God is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. Are you?