(RNS) — James Baldwin shook up the literary world in the late 1950s with his novel “Giovanni’s Room,” where he explored the stigma and humanity of gay and bisexual men seeking to live and love in a world that did not recognize that they existed.
Today, however, the real-life stigma, shame and hatred many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people experience regularly continues to play out in news headlines around the nation. One recent incident that stands out for me is the case where a father in Nevada killed his 14-year-old son because — as alleged by the child’s foster mother — “he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.”
The young boy, who had a penchant for taking pictures of himself using the halo of hearts Snapchat filter on his social media, was named Giovanni Melton. I could not help but make the connection between the characters of Baldwin’s eponymous book and this young teenage boy of color in Las Vegas.
Why is it so hard for so many people to love and accept their same-gender-loving, bisexual and transgender (SGLBT) children is the question that keeps weighing on my spirit every time I read yet another story like Giovanni’s. Can and should the church and other houses of worship play a role in addressing this issue, which remains a matter of life and death for many?
I strongly believe that faith-based institutions such as the historic African-American church have a unique opportunity in aiding congregants and communities to a better understanding and acceptance of the diversity of G-d’s creation. Now, I am fully aware that the vast majority of faith systems — Judaic, Christian, Islamic and others — have been among the key progenitors of the very hatred, stigma and misguided beliefs that I hope they can now address.
I know this may sound crazy to those who still harbor deep spiritual and psychological wounds from “church hurt” around their sexuality, but I urge you to trust and believe that although some humans may have harmed you, G-d, however, is still seeking to be reconciled with you through unconditional love.
How do I know this, you may ask?
Well, many churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship may still be loath to address issues of sexuality, gender and identity beyond a theology of fear and regulation, but I have witnessed an ever-growing number that are not. I am a part of that Spirit-led collective of faith leaders working — across the country, across denominations, traditions and backgrounds — to let the world know of the good news that religion need not be a tool of mass destruction against SGLBT/LGBTQ people, but a source of affirmation and healing.
A week after Giovanni’s tragic killing, a group of some 30 members of the clergy, health care providers and folks interested in the evening’s topic, “What Congregations Need to Know! Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation and HIV/AIDS,” gathered in the well-appointed banquet hall of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a small, predominantly African-American suburban city 12 miles north of Manhattan. After participants had their fill of fried fish, barbecue chicken and an assortment of cookies, a lively discussion about the definitions “cisgender” and “transgender,” among other topics, ensued. HIV and hepatitis C testing was simultaneously occurring upstairs in the youth center.
The church, which recently celebrated its 129th anniversary and lists 3,000 on its membership roster, co-sponsored and organized the program with the New York State Health Department’s AIDS Institute. This is actually the second time we have had an “LGBTQ 101”-like program at Grace in recent years. I sit on the health department’s regional planning committee that partners with churches throughout the state to foster the sometimes difficult conversations about sexuality, faith and health care. Getting cooperation and support for this effort is not always easy even in my own church, but G-d’s work is still being done.
People who attend these events often leave feeling more informed and more empowered to break through the stigma and shame that often accompany talk about sex, sexual orientation and sexually transmitted infections. When the tragic killing of Giovanni was brought up during the gathering, I felt that people got it. We are all G-d’s children but sometimes how we read and use religious texts causes many to feel like we are not — and that in turn cause undue suffering.
I have hope that we can change the narrative of Christianity and other faith systems that have long done extreme amounts of damage to those of us in the SGLBT/LGBTQ community. G-d is doing something amazing, and each of us has an opportunity to witness and be part of this miracle of redemption if we choose to.
(The Rev. F. Romall Smalls is associate minister for social justice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y.; the spiritual care counselor at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center; and a senior affiliate chaplain at New York University. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @romall06. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)