Nonbinary Youth and Choosing Abundance
The following statement was at the More Light Luncheon at GA 223.
Jess Cook

There was once a town in the midst of a severe drought. Every day, a group of well-intentioned church folk would walk up and down the steep road to the church in the center of town and pray for rain. And every day they would pass by the house of an old woman in town who, though she lived only fifty feet or so from the church, never went inside. Each day, as the church folk would walk by, she would pause whatever she was doing, look up at the group, shake her head, and return to her activity. This went on for several weeks, while the ground remained dry and cracked. After some time, one of the well-meaning church folk, fed up and frustrated by this woman’s judgment and the lack of rain, stopped in front of her porch, hollering up to her: “Who are you to judge us? At least we are doing something to try and bring rain. If you have better suggestions, please do let us know.”

The woman paused her sweeping and turned to the group:  “I’ve seen you all walk up and down this hill for weeks now, each day you hold your head high, saying you are going to pray for rain, that you are sure God will answer.

And yet, never once have I seen anyone carrying an umbrella.”

As I am sure we can all attest, conversations about the death or decline of the Church are part-and-parcel of being involved with a mainline denomination today. Sometimes it seems we gather together only to bang our heads against the wall in collective frustration. For some folks, the Church feels as dry as the cracked and hardened ground of a land too long in drought. We may pray for rain, look for that magic fix or perfect congregational model that will revitalize the denomination. We may be tempted to look for that easy fix. To say we forget our proverbial umbrellas is an understatement; it’s more like we forget what it has ever felt like to have rain.

We look around and we see scarcity. We want to clamp down own what we know, on models we have seen work in the past, and we try the same formula again and again, often at the expense of living into the potential of who we can be as the Church.

Coming from a place of scarcity and looking only to the past can often lead us to neglect the voices of those who will carry the church into the future. We know young people are going to church in smaller and smaller numbers, but we seem reticent to stop and listen to them about why church doesn’t feel like home.

Yet, as those who’ve been part of More Light throughout its 40 year history can attest, the Spirit seldom moves in a way that fits within the Church’s often too rigid structures. We are baptismal people, called to remember the grace that has been freely given to us. And in remembering our baptism, we should always be ready for rain. I don’t need to tell anyone here – at least – not most of the people here – what a big deal it is that yesterday not one, but two – overtures affirming the identities of LGBTQIA+ people and their place in the life and witness of the church throughout its history – passed through committee. Through all of the struggle and slogging and debates over the last several decades, we have seen such tremendous change. I also don’t need to tell you that More Light’s prophetic witness and creative imagination, in partnership with Covenant Network and others who’ve tirelessly worked so we could make such progress, have been the engine that has driven that change.

I’m acutely aware of the reality this organization has helped make possible – it’s the work of those who have come before me that make it possible for me to stand here in front of you today in a newly created staff position, an out, queer, non-binary person, recently certified ready to seek a call in the Presbytery of the James.

The subject for today’s discussion is caring for LGBTQIA+ youth. However, it seems impossible to discuss LGBTQIA+ youth without talking about the LGBTQIA+ elders and saints who have paved the way to where we are today, who have looked to the past not for structures that upheld the rigidness of the Church, but for the ways in which the Spirit has broken through those structures when they served only to uphold tradition for the sake of tradition, or they restricted the opportunities for people to live into the beloved children of God they were created to be. When David Sindt stood up on the floor of General Assembly, he was doing so from a place of abundance. Refusing to give into scarcity, he saw the dry, cracked ground and trusted that, as we live collectively into who we are as baptismal people, the Spirit would bring the rain.

Because of the work of our LGBTQIA+ elders and saints, young people today are asking questions about their identity in ways that are wholly. As visibility has grown and public acceptance has increased over the last half decade, youth today have the safety to explore parts of their identity in ways previous generations likely couldn’t even imaging. I know for me, it wasn’t until I was working with LGBTQIA+ youth that I was able to finally find words to define my own gender identity, because when I was growing up the word didn’t yet exist. And I’m not that old. It seems every day there is a new way to describe someone’s identity, or vocabulary is expanding in ways that can be quite dizzying. Sometimes when the ground feels like it shifting under our feet, it can be helpful to remember that plants have to break ground in order to grow.

A 2015 study of 1000 youth from around the country showed that over half of youth ages 18-24 do not see gender identity on a binary of male and female. Another study showed that 10% of people 18-34 do not identify as cisgender, meaning their gender identity, their internal sense of self with regard to their gender did not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. Young people today are asking questions around their gender identity in ways that are wholly new to us. Youth are also coming out younger and younger.

Just to give an example, prior to working with More Light, I was the Youth Programs Director at Side by Side, working with LGBTQ+ youth ages 11-14, in addition to their families and communities. One evening at group the youth were discussing ways to visually represent their gender identities, and decided plotting them on an x-y axis graph was the best way to go (though they would’ve loved to have had a z-axis as well). This is a picture of what they plotted.

Where we used to think of gender as male or female, youth are identifying in ways and with words that are wholly new.

These statistics are often glossed over by well-intentioned church folks who are sometimes desperately grasping to understand why millennials don’t want to come to church. And yet, given the ways in which the assumption of a binary gender identity has been so fundamental to the history of not only our society, but Western Christianity, anyone working with young people in the Church would benefit from spending time digging into it. These well-intentioned church folk hear youth asking to be referred to as “they” and grammar comes up and how is the singular they a thing and, well, it kind of goes downhill from there.

Young people’s understanding of gender beyond a binary presents a seismic shift to the way we understand identity and, by extension, community and theology. The fact that our churches play a different role in our daily life than they have over the last fifty years compounds the impact of this shift on faith communities. If a young person finds church as a place where they are constantly questioned about their identity, or where they have to defend their use of the singular they as a gender pronoun; or, where worship is only inclusive of brothers and sisters and pays no mind to a young person’s non-binary sibling, youth will simply opt out of going to church.

Often, when young people share the questions they are asking about their gender, they are told they are either too young to understand their own identity, or that their questions are merely indicative of a phase they will certainly move through. It’s important to acknowledge that the often harsh responses young people get in response to disclosing questions about their gender have more to do with the lack of self-examination done by the adults on the other side of these conversations than they do with the youth.

When we baptize children into our community, we promise to nurture them in the faith and support them as they grow. As a church, the promises we make when we baptize someone bring with them a commitment to take the journey with young people as they mature in their faith. And I have looked and looked, and I can’t find anywhere that says that this commitment is conditional. For people working with youth in the Church, or who are committed to investing in the future of the Church, we have a unique opportunity to ensure LGBTQIA+ youth experience their faith communities in ways many of us and many of our LGBTQIA+ elders and saints did not have, but which they worked for and knew was possible.

In terms of specifics, it is essential that we trust young people when they say who they are. Also, that we celebrate that young people trust us enough to share with us who they are, or even that they are exploring questions around their gender identity or sexual orientation, especially in the midst of a world that is still largely unkind. This means respecting pronouns young people use, even if they are unfamiliar to us. It is also important that we examine how our faith traditions and society have impacted the ways in which we understand our own identity. If you’ve never asked yourself to seriously consider what it means to be a man or woman, or neither (or both!), I would encourage you to do so. Additionally, spend some time examining the ways in which some of the Bible’s most celebrated characters defied gender norms (i.e., Deborah, Ruth, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Jesus, to name a few).

40 years ago, when David Sindt stood up on the General Assembly floor, he did so because he knew the Church wasn’t living into its potential to be the living, breathing presence of God on earth. I see a similar parallel with young people today, and their understanding of gender beyond a binary is one way they are showing the Church that our rigidness around identity and sometimes stubborn refusal to examine our own assumptions is one way we are failing to live into our potential as the Church. Yesterday, as we listened to discussion around Overtures 11-12 and 11-13, the only amendments made to the overtures was to add Intersex and Asexual to instances when the acronym LGBTQ+ appeared. It now reads LGBTQIA+. It’s no surprise to me, and likely to many of you, that it was a YAAD who made this suggestion.

During my time working with LGBTQIA youth at Side by Side, again and again I witnessed young people who saw the gaps in the world around them and then filled those gaps in. In thinking about the story of the church folks in the drought, these youth not only carried umbrellas, but they worked the ground to such an extent that, by the time the rain fell, the seeds they planted had already come to life.

Reverend Sindt, these youth, our LGBTQ elders and saints, many of you here in this room – are all leading from a place of abundance. When we come from a place of abundance, we allow ourselves to see change not as a threat, but as an opportunity – a chance to grow and to learn. Difference is no longer a burden to carry, but a way to see the myriad of ways in which creation reveals itself. For 40  years, More Light has strived to lead from this place of abundance, refusing to give in to scarcity. May we continue to see the fruit of those burdens grow forth, even as we continue to work the land.

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