As a youth leader, you live for the “Aha!” moments when students make connections and finally “get” what you’ve been talking about. Seeing a student come to understand new concepts and ideas about God and the way He loves us is enough to keep any good leader committed, no matter how many times those connections fade away and never seem to be applied. Knowing that they can really think about and understand God on such a deep level provides the hope and encouragement to withstand the internal questioning of the validity of the work.
The same is true of any good tutor or teacher- we live for the moments when students are able not to think outside the box, but to make connections between the boxes. These kinds of connections are especially necessary when working on English papers. Every year, I work with students reading the same classics- Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Into the Wild, etc. Each book has its own theme and purpose, but all explore deep concepts of human nature, including love and relationships, the human need to explore limitations, and of course the cycle of prejudice and ignorance. Every year, there are students that I wish could go a little deeper, and there are students who surprise me by thinking about the themes in ways I wouldn’t expect. Those are the moments I live for, and I am deeply encouraged by the connections students and parents have been able to make regarding my current situation.
At summer camp this year, the speaker talked about how we all wear a mask, and how a relationship with God is the only relationship that allows you to take off that mask and be yourself to find unconditional love and acceptance. The speaker encouraged students to share about their masks, promising that no matter what it was it would never bee too much for God or Christians to handle.
After I came out, a freshman boy sent me this text: “Congrats on coming out man I know that stuff is tuff to do and that’s why we all look up to u cause u arnt that guy that wears mask all day. Happy for u” The same student was dumbfounded when he heard that my coming out resulted in termination. He had really believed what they had told him- that God’s love and acceptance is truly unconditional, and he didn’t know this was even a condition. I’ve read this kid’s papers for years, and this is the deepest connection I’ve ever seen him make.
Another student sent me this text: “I don’t understand. Like even if someone really believed being gay was a sin and was a bad thing which I do not believe then they would still be judging a person based on a single thing, and its not as if before coming out there was any issue you were considered a great leader. It’s like if a black man painted himself white during segregation and made friends with a white man then he washed off the paint and the white man hated him. It just makes no sense” This one was pretty profound too. Another “Aha!” moment where students are able to make deep connections between the many boxes of human nature and action.
To Kill a Mockingbird chronicles the story of Tom Robinson, a black man in the South accused of assaulting a white woman. Although Tom is physically incapable of inflicting the wounds the woman bears, the all-white jury overlooks the evidence and convicts him anyway. When students struggle to find a good quote for their papers, I point them to this one: “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s word, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but these are the facts of life.” I have felt the same way about this whole process- trying to prove I’m the same person I’ve always been, that I can still do what I’ve always done, and that I should have the same rights that I’ve always had. But I knew from the start it was futile; I knew that when it’s a gay person’s word against a Christian’s word, the Christian always win. They couldn’t be fair if they tried, and that’s just an ugly fact of life. But just like Tom’s lawyer, Atticus, I also knew I wasn’t fighting to win; I was fighting to educate. After losing the court case, Atticus teaches his children, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” I felt it was important for students and families to see someone stand up for themselves and prove their only “sin” is being who God created them to be- not black, but gay. It’s equally important for students to see that this is simply, inexplicably unacceptable to some people for reasons that they don’t fully understand themselves.
In The Bible, there is a story similar to Tom Robinson’s. In Matthew 26, the religious leaders, who had become threatened by Jesus because of the way he loved and served people rather than emphasizing religious piety, plotted to capture and murder Jesus. After capturing him, the lead him to the High Council, which had the authority to sentence him. Desperate for a reason to silence teachings that disagreed with their own, they compromised their own values and bore false witness against him. Verses 59-60 say, “Inside the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death. But even though they found many who agreed to give false witness, there was no testimony they could use.” Despite finding no credible reason to punish Jesus, they proceeded and eventually had him brutally beaten and crucified on a cross- the most agonizing and humiliating punishment available. The reason for his crucifixion was written on a plaque and nailed to the cross above his head: “Jesus- King of the Jews.” Jesus was killed for being who God created him to be; Tom Robinson’s only fault was being black; my only fault is being gay. If some of Jesus’s last words after enduring all that pain, humiliation, betrayal and injustice can be “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” then I can forgive as well. Even though some cannot forgive me for being who God created me to be, that doesn’t have to affect the way I forgive. Many pastors have told me that the worst sin is unforgiveness. Their actions have shown me that it’s being who you are, if you’re anything but straight.
The connections students are making give me endless hope, and I’m really proud of them. I know that fighting generations of deeply ingrained prejudice, bigotry, ignorance and homophobia is a losing battle, especially when the opponents are using God’s name in vain to protect themselves. It is so much more productive to allocate time, energy and resources toward educating the generation that is already “getting it.” These students and families are world changers, and I trust that they will really change the world. There couldn’t be a better group to witness the reality of prejudice, bigotry, ignorance, homophobia and discrimination than this group of people, because they are the ones who will actually do something about it. The results might not be immediate, but they will come.