Here is an article that will appear in the May newsletter of Interweave, a UU affiliate national organization that keeps track of congregational happenings in the area of LGBTQ programs and progress.
Back in March of 2011 I delivered a sermon, “The Uneven Progress of Gay Pride.” I spoke about how, incrementally, gay folk have gained legal status, painstakingly bit by bit, law by law, state by state. On the other hand, the previous fall saw a rash of teen suicides, kids who had been bullied relentlessly for being gay. In researching my sermon, I discovered another alarming stat: fully one third of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ. Many get kicked out of their homes once they come out. Many of these gravitate toward Los Angeles and Hollywood, where they have vague hopes of finding sustenance and affirmation in show business. Most end up on the streets, homeless, perhaps on drugs, prostituting. Thankfully, the LA Gay Lesbian Center, the largest non-profit of its kind in the world, helps these kids with an array of amazing programs.
But my church is not near Hollywood – we are northeast of LA. I knew there was no Gay and Lesbian Center of Pasadena, and there still isn’t. What could my church do that could help these kids? Homeless LGBTQ kids were likely couch-surfing near the Community College. How could we reach them? If we can’t reach them (we haven’t found an effective way to yet), could we still do something to help non-homeless LGBTQ youth, questioning, and their allies, ages 12 – 18? Could a program offering prevent teen suicides?
After my sermon, the LGBTQ Youth Task Force was immediately formed, and we have met monthly ever since. We began with a feasibility study. We researched resources for the homeless in the San Gabriel Valley area, we asked the LA Gay and Lesbian Center for guidance, which they ably provided, along with encouragement and enthusiasm. They told us to go for it, create a program.
We found terrific and experienced facilitators who identified LGBTQ (currently, we have two “T”s, one “B”, and one “Q” who switch off as lead facilitator). Long story short, one year later, we offered our first monthly safe space program, Rainbow Connections, in March of 2012. Six kids showed up. Andrew Montejo, the staff member of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center who offers a similar program in Hollywood, said that was a huge success. “Six kids is amazing!” he cheered.
The program meets in the most comfortable setting of the church, known as the Living Room. We offer great snacks, pizza, beverages, and most importantly, a well-facilitated program that varies. Sometimes it’s games with prizes, or discussion, other times a movie. Adult volunteers who help with the hospitality end of things are not in the same room with the kids and facilitator(s). We just hear their raucous laughter and know they are having a good time. It’s a place for LGBTQ kids, questioning, and their allies to meet, share resources such as good LGBTQ pride models in media (books, movies, music) and be affirmed by one another’s presence. To find kids, we outreach to area GSAs, at pride events, PFlag, word of mouth, and make use of social media such as Facebook.
We observed our one year anniversary of running Rainbow Connections this past March, 2013. We have had as few as one kid show up, and as many as 12. You might say that is varying success, but as a UU minister, I’ve never related to the story of Jesus saving that one sheep better. Several times, we have helped just one or two kids not feel so alone navigating their newfound LGBTQ identity. We do suspect we are saving lives, one kid at a time.
We have recently created an additional program offering – we are able to be e-pals to kids who cannot make the meetings. One of the most important partners we have is P-Flag, who just happened to already be meeting at our church monthly, for years. Through them, we heard by email from a teenage girl who was at the end of her rope. She had come out to her parents as a lesbian, but they did not approve. She was immediately connected with one of our “regulars” of Rainbow Connections, and an e-pal relationship commenced for which the girl is grateful. We offer our e-pal program on our Facebook page now.
The LBGTQ Task Force is happy to consult with other UU churches if you’d like to get your own Rainbow Connections off the ground. Even in a place like the Los Angeles area, there is need for this program, and UU churches are well-suited to take this on. It is both rewarding and fun to ‘own’ this project. A few times, a Latino boy was driven all the way up from South Central LA by his Catholic mother and grandmother. “There is nowhere else for him to go,” they said.
Even though he hasn’t been back in a while, perhaps because they realized UUism has a very different take on Jesus, I know we made a difference in that teenager’s life. He knows there are and will be places for him to be himself, as soon as he’s able to get there.
Rev. Hannah Petrie