A reverent silence filled the room as Presbyterian Elder Michael Adee, barely containing his emotions, stood at the podium and solemnly read the names of six young people who in recent months have taken their own lives.
“There are people that didn’t understand that Tyler Clementi, age 18, Asher Brown, age 13, Raymond Chase, age 19, Billy Lucas, age 15, and Seth Walsh, age 13, were children of God,” said Adee, addressing the hundreds in attendance at the Believe Out Loud Power Summit in Orlando, FL, sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Each of the five young people named by Adee was a victim of bullying because they were gay or perceived to be. In 2010, there have been more than two dozen publicized reports in the United States of gay or lesbian young people taking their own lives as a direct or indirect result of bullying.
An openly gay elder at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, N.M., Adee is the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a national organization that supports and promotes the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). He sees bullying and the deaths of these young people as nothing short of a national disaster.
“This is an epidemic and it has to serve as a wake-up call for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other denominations,” said Adee. “We need to see this as another disaster that we need to respond to as quickly as possible. Presbyterians were among the first to arrive in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. We responded quickly following the earthquake in Haiti and provided as much relief and support as possible to a damaged and grieving country. This is no different. Are we willing to step up collectively and respond in the same way as we watch our children dying because they believe they have no hope?”
Adee believes that it is time for all denominations to act urgently and send a message of universal acceptance.
“This problem is not about sex,” he said. “It is about individuals with real emotions and real feelings who are being turned away by friends, parents, teachers and the church. They literally feel as if they have nowhere to go to find understanding, compassion and love. We need to open a dialogue of understanding and do some real work to see what the Bible really says in regards to Christ and the church accepting all people.”
On Oct. 18, in the wake of the large number of gay teens taking their own lives and anti-gay violence, Elder Cynthia Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly, and the Rev. Grady Parsons, stated clerk, joined other national faith leaders in signing a Clergy Against Bullying statement. The statement called for “the Church Universal to join us in working to end the violence and hatred against our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.”
Adee said he was pleased with leaders of PC(USA) taking a stand against bulling and anti-gay violence, but he is quick to point out that it is only a beginning.
“As a denomination, we have to set the tone and standard at a national level by addressing the issue, not just about bullying in general, but about homophobia,” he said.
A place to turn to
20-year-old Aiyisha Hassan never hid the fact that she was a lesbian from her father, the designated pastor of Sojourner Truth United Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Calif.
“She did not trumpet (her lifestyle),” said the Rev. Kamal Hassan. “She simply lived her life. She would often tell us ‘I don’t feel as if I am doing anything wrong.’ Her mother and I supported her in any way we could. She was accepted and loved by her family.”
On Oct. 4, the former Howard University student took her own life. Her death came days after the partner with whom she had been living ended their relationship. Several of Aiyisha’s friend have stated in published reports that they felt her suicide was related to “struggles with her sexuality.”
Hassan said his daughter had been diagnosed with clinical depression but had not been taking medication.
While his daughter was not the victim of bullying, Hassan said that he wants people to know that the church must be accepting of all people.
“We have to encourage people to openly discuss sexual identity,” he said. “The church must have an open declaration that people who are different are still welcome. Pastors must emphasize this in the pulpit. We have a savior who associated with all people, particularly those who were looked down upon and oppressed by society. The love of Christ extends to all people. We should be able to say to people that, “If you need help, here is a place you can come.’”
A concerned father
The news of young people taking their own lives hit home with the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, the father of three daughters. The moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008) was so moved that he sat down at his kitchen table and taped a message to be posted on YouTube.
“We have failed our young people when we don’t create communities where they can feel safe, where they can experience the ups and downs of life and not feel like their only out is to kill themselves,” said Reyes-Chow, pastor of San Francisco’s Mission Bay Presbyterian Church, in the video. “If we have done that as a society, then we have failed. We have responsibility to our young folks to raise our children in a way that builds community, that strengthens the world and that increases the hopefulness of humanity.”
Reyes-Chow said that while society as a whole must become more accepting, the church can take the lead by setting the example.
“We have to take our baptismal covenants more seriously,” said Reyes-Chow. “We must be there for our children, no matter their age or their circumstance. If they cannot reach out to us in a time of need, then who else can they turn to? That’s the problem.”
He said the problem will continue until it is addressed.
“The longer we keep silent, the longer this will continue. It has to be brought out into the open.”
In our churches, in our homes
Adee said that while bullying and anti-gay violence can be addressed on the national level, the problem will not go away until action is taken in churches and in the homes of church members.
“We have to begin with frank and honest conversations with our youth about gender identity,” he said. “This has to happen on the congregational level. We don’t have those conversations now, and that is a large part of the problem. Many of these kids do not believe they have the same value and for some reasons believe they have second-class status in society. Their sense of self-worth is missing. Until we let them know that they are no different than anyone else, that we are all God’s children, this problem will not go away.”
Reyes-Chow agreed, saying that the beginning of the solution is open dialogue with young people.
“We have to converse with our children,” he said. “We have to instill in them a better sense of acceptance and community. We have to show them how to resolve conflict in ways other than hatred and vindictiveness. We need to show them how we are supposed to treat one another.”
Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., is one church that is attempting to be part of the solution.
“We regularly talk about sexual gender and sexual identity with our young people,” said the Rev. Ann Diebert. “We see it as a matter of teaching acceptance. We have both gay and straight youth who attend and it is important to teach them to see past differences, no matter what they may be.”
She related one particular story that she feels relates directly to the current situation. One high school youth invited a gay friend to come worship at Central. That friend said he wasn’t welcome at his home church because of his sexuality, but the Central youth said he would be welcome there.
“As it turned out, he heard a witness that morning from gay man who had come to Central Presbyterian because he had been turned away by several churches and that we were the only one that opened its arms and extended its love to him,” Deibert said. “That is God working directly through us to make an impact on a life.”
Adee is willing to take the bullying issue a step further — he sees bullies as also being victims.
“They are doing what they have been taught,” said Adee. “In that sense, they are victims as well. Until young people are taught to be accepting of all people, no matter how different they may be, there will always be bullying. It is going to take teaching Christ’s message of universal love before bullying of any nature will end.”
Bob Sloan is a freelance writer from Hartsville, S.C., and a member of First Presbyterian Church of Hartsville.