A couple of years ago, transgender students at Black Hills State University in South Dakota were threatened on social media.

“They were friends of some of our students and we tried to provide support,” said Rachel Nelson, director of the Lutheran campus ministry at the university and at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. “We tried to make sure they knew they had a safe place to come. They came in and were part of some of our gatherings. I think they understood from their friends that we had a place where they didn’t have to feel afraid.”

Still, the experience left her feeling she needed to be better educated on how to provide support and a welcoming environment to the LGBTQIA+ community.

She sought to become more knowledgeable by attending the Welcomed & Included retreat put on in February by the Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center in Ashland, Neb., which is associated with the ELCA. The retreat, which was endorsed by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM), was held to help educate ELCA leaders, camp professionals and youth leaders about best practices for ministry with youth, young adults and their families that identify as LGBTQIA+, said Casey Fuerst director of marketing and leadership development at the Nebraska retreat center.

“We see a need in our outdoor ministries, in our camps across the ELCA,” Fuerst said. “We are working with families who are struggling with issues related to supporting people who are LGBTQIA+ members, family members, church members, community members. Rather than all of us operating in a vacuum and creating our own practices, we really wanted to provide access to more qualified help and resources to make sure that we are doing things the best way possible.”

She noted topics surrounding gender and sexual orientation are big in society but avoided in many congregations and camps. “By providing a safe space to educate and create dialogue, church leaders and camp professionals can begin to wrap their heads around what the youth, young adults and their families need and how we can respond with welcome and inclusion,” she said.

Education, worship and dialogue

The retreat was facilitated by Austen Hartke, creator of the YouTube series, “Transgender and Christian.” Hartke is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies, author of the book Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians and a transgender person of faith.

At the retreat, he explained the basics on sexuality and gender. He also led discussions on Bible passages that have historically been used against the LGBTQIA+ community, passages that are more affirming as well as talks on how to create welcoming and inclusive environments and the importance of respecting privacy and confidentiality.

Youth leaders shared situations in which they worked to provide support to LGBTQIA+ youth while the youths’ parents were having a hard time supporting them or accepting them. Questions raised included: How can I support youth in my program while also respecting the beliefs of their parents?

“When it comes down to it, we are all beloved children of God.”

“These are complicated situations,” said Hartke, noting there are no one-size fits all solutions.

One of the biggest takeaways for Nelson was that “people in general whether LGBTQIA+ or not, the biggest thing they need is to know is they are loved, and every person needs to have that core of people that they know support them no matter what,” she said. “I think we forget how important it is that people understand that. When it comes down to it, we are all beloved children of God.”

Another major lesson for Nelson and others was the importance of language—using phrases like siblings in Christ, instead of brothers and sisters in Christ; parents and guardians, instead of mom and dad; and all genders, instead of both genders.

“People need to see themselves in our message,” Nelson said. “If we limit it, we are limiting the image of God that they see.”

Steps toward change

Hartke said it’s important for camps to have a plan in place that provides for such things as nondiscrimination in admissions, gender and sexuality inclusive intake forms, appropriate housing and bathroom accommodations and medical care procedures for LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Among steps congregations can take are making sure greeters are educated on gender identity and knowledgeable of welcoming language and having a gender-neutral bathroom, he said. A church that has a single stall bathroom can make that an all-gender bathroom, he said.

“I want them to know that we are a welcoming space and to be able to relay that to their friends, and I want to make sure that my students become that welcoming face beyond our walls.”

The retreat was “extremely helpful,” said Sharon Taylor, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Raleigh, N.C. and a board member for Agape’ Kure Beach Ministries in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. She’s now looking at how to change membership forms at her church to make them more welcoming.

Nelson said she plans to be “more intentional and proactive” in encouraging discussions with students. “I want them to know that we are a welcoming space and to be able to relay that to their friends, and I want to make sure that my students become that welcoming face beyond our walls.”

“I think the more we can educate ourselves, the more equipped we are to be welcoming,” said Taylor, adding the LGBTQIA+ community shouldn’t have to do all the educating. “I feel like it’s the church’s responsibility and our responsibilities as leaders that we try to be as sensitive as possible and learn as much as possible.”

LOM expects to have finished by this summer a model LGBTQIA+ policy for ELCA camps and retreat centers “to consider as they develop their own policy that’s unique to their own organizations,” said Don Johnson, executive director of LOM, who attended a Welcomed & Included retreat in September. The policy will range from a general statement of philosophy to guidance on overnight accommodations and bathroom and shower accommodations to what should be considered in the design or redesign of facilities for all people to feel safe and secure and welcome, he said.

He noted LOM endorsed the retreat “because all of the camps and retreat centers affiliated with the ELCA are committed to our camps and retreat centers and programs being totally open to and welcoming of all people and especially people who tend to be marginalized.”

Francine Knowles

Knowles is a freelance writer and former religion and business reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times.

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