Jessika Sessoms grew up in a conservative Black evangelical family, attended Christian schools and often heard that being gay was an abomination, until she understood that she was queer while studying to become a missionary.
The 23-year-old from Florida came out publicly last year and has found healing and a sense of community after joining Beloved Arise, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ youth of faith.
Maria Magdalena Gschwind, 20, from Germany, credits the U.S.-based group for inspiring her to study Protestant theology in college at a time when she had doubts about whether her sexuality would conflict with her faith. Samuel Cavalheiro, 21, a Brazilian living in Mozambique, feels so connected to the group’s members that he calls them his “chosen family.”
They are among hundreds of young people worldwide who have joined Beloved Arise during the coronavirus pandemic to worship, sing and bond virtually. The group celebrated its second annual Queer Youth of Faith Day on Wednesday — the last day of Pride Month — with podcasts, concerts, online panels of teens and seminars on LGBTQ history and churches.
“We wanted to do something that would be there to uplift and honor … queer youth of all faiths,” the Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, program coordinator for Beloved Arise, said during one of the panels.
“Something that would let them know that there’s no contradiction between being a queer and trans person and being a person of faith … that those things can go together.”
Across the U.S., circumstances vary widely for LGBTQ youth seeking religious engagement.
Some major denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, condemn same-sex unions and say all sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. But thousands of houses of worship, including many mainline Protestant churches and synagogues, have LGBTQ-inclusive policies.
“I can tell you how important it is to accept because I’m proof of that. I grew up in a church where LGBT people were accepting and accepted and loved,” said DeTar Birt, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and has worked as a Sunday school teacher and youth pastor. “I came out in college and … I had a lot of trepidation and anxiety around it, but the church wasn’t part of that.”
Beloved Arise was founded in Seattle in February 2020 by Jun Love Young, a former board member of Christian development agency World Concern. He grew up in a Catholic family in the Philippines and kept quiet about his queer identity until his mid 40s.
“And it was due to religious pressure, which is why I created Beloved Arise, so that other kids wouldn’t have to wait until their forties,” he said.
“I was so surprised in my forties to learn that what I thought I knew about the Bible was gravely misinformed, and I just want young people to be aware that in every faith tradition there is a progressive faith that has searched the sacred texts and has created an open space for queer identities,” he said, adding that he felt safe to come out thanks in part to affirming theology.
Young said his nonprofit aims to empower and provide resources for young LGBTQ people, “who often face rejection and shaming at home, at schools and in their faith communities.” He said the group has grown to more than 400 members and expanded its social media presence during the pandemic to tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok.
“TikTok is a platform that has enabled us to reach digital natives, Gen Z,” he said about the generation born after 1996.
“Unlike other youth ministries that exist, we started digital, we were born in the cloud,” Young added. “And we were born during the pandemic, where the only way people had to connect was through digital means, so that really gave us the foresight and sensitivity to pay attention to where kids are hanging out.”
Americans are becoming less religious in the formal, traditional sense, and the trend is more marked among young adults, according to Pew Research Center surveys from recent years. Young people are less likely to pray daily, attend religious services or believe in God.
Still, surveys show younger Americans are just as spiritual as their older counterparts, and many have found other expressions of faith outside formal religion.
Beloved Arise holds popular weekly youth gatherings online where its members pray, sing and discuss scriptures.
“This group is basically my chosen family,” said Cavalheiro, who chats with other members on WhatsApp throughout the week after their virtual worship. The son of Brazilian Baptists living in Mozambique, he still struggles to talk about his sexuality with his family. But he feels understood by other members of Beloved Arise.
“It feels like we’ve known each other for a lifetime,” said Cavalheiro, a college freshman studying computer science in Maputo. “We’ve been through the same pain … (it) binds us together.”
Gschwind grew up Catholic, and her faith was always important to her. But she said she felt unwelcome when she got involved with a Pentecostal church in New Zealand during her gap year.
“I was pretty open about it from the start, but then I realized that queerness is something a lot of Christians see as a sin,” she said. “So I started to question myself a lot.”
Joining Beloved Arise influenced her choice of college major.
“If I hadn’t found this youth group, I would probably not have studied theology … because I would probably be at a point where I don’t want to have anything to do with Christianity and theology,” she said. “Because I met a lot of people who engage in theological discussions and have different perspectives on things … I just realized that theology was something that excites me a lot.”
Sessoms had hoped to become a missionary. But she began to question her path when she felt attracted to a woman while they attended Liberty University, a Christian institution in Virginia with a strict code of conduct forbidding “sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.”
“Reconciling all of that with my sexuality was hard because we were taught that gay people were an abomination, that it’s not God’s will,” said Sessoms, who is now a senior studying marketing at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
“And it’s been really healing. It’s been really nice to be around people who identify as me, have been through the same struggles as me, people who take their faith seriously but also celebrate who they are as an LGBTQ person.”
Associated Press journalists David Crary, Emily Leshner and Jessie Wardarski contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.