Conversion Practices: The bill passed, but Faith Communities, we have work to do / A.J. Hendry

The Bill to Ban Conversion Practices has passed, and yet, the struggle for Justice for our Rainbow whānau has not.

The passing of the legislation is of course a thing to celebrate, and I am hopeful for the message it will send to our young people, hopeful for what it says to those who have suffered due to conversion practices, hopeful that it takes us just that one step further to the sort of Just and inclusive society we all want to achieve.

And yet, for people of Faith, especially those of us within the Christian Tradition, we have a lot of work to do if we are going to ensure that our communities are truly places where our Rainbow Rangatahi can be affirmed, included and Loved. Sadly, Church communities are among the last remaining places where a person can be actively discriminated against due to their sexuality or their gender identity. Where being queer, can mean that you are essentially a second-class citizen within the community. Where your participation can be restricted, not as a result of your commitment, passion, or faith, but simply because you do not fit within the heteronormative framework in which many church communities operate.

For example, in many church communities, even those which are generally loving and accepting of queer people, Rainbow Christian’s will not be allowed to preach or teach up the front, some will be barred from teaching kids in the Sunday School program, others will be informed that they cannot lead worship or in fact, hold any form of leadership or public role within the community.

Banning conversion practices won’t undo this culture, nor will it automatically ensure faith communities are safe places for Rainbow Rangatahi to be.

Christians, an uncomfortable reality for us to grapple with is that many of our environments are not safe for our young people. And the consequences of this are dire. It means that young people are learning to internalize homophobia, self-hatred and shame, within our faith communities. They are being told that they are second class citizens. They are believing that they are hated by God, that they are condemned, that they will spend eternity in Hell tormented and punished because of something they cannot change. The true cost of this is psychological harm, depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of suicide.

My mind goes to those who have been harmed by the faith tradition that I love. Harmed within contexts where people genuinely wanted to show Love, and yet the theology that was taught, and the manner in which it was taught, did the exact opposite. I think of the young man who had been told over and over again that he was a sinner, who had internalized a message of self-hatred and self-loathing, who believed sincerely that when his Pastor said that being Gay is a sin¸ that he was saying God hates you. I think of the countless young people who have been made homeless, because parents genuinely believe that it’s better to kick a young person out, in the hope that they will repent of their sexuality or gender identity and be saved from the fires of hell, than allow them to live as a queer person under their roof. And I think of those people of faith, the queer Christians, the ones who tenaciously hold onto their faith, despite being told constantly that they do not belong, that they are not welcome, that they are not full or unconditional members of Christian community. I think of the ones who stay within church contexts that do not accept them, I think of the ones that walk away, choosing to leave the communities they Love, because they are not truly Loved in return.

I know that the vast majority of Christian’s aren’t comfortable with this. I know that it breaks our hearts that young people who belong to us, who are loved by us, are not safe, are not accepted, and are being harmed as a result of the communities we have created.

This conversation can easily slide into unhelpful binaries, such as if you’re a progressive, you must be affirming and inclusive, and that if you’re a conservative, and hold a traditional theological perspective on sexuality and gender than you must be deeply homophobic and hate queer people. And yet, things aren’t nearly as simply as all that.

There was a time when I would have identified as someone who held a fairly conservative and traditional view of the Christian Scriptures. I remember the tension that I felt during that time. I didn’t hate queer people, my heart only ever wanted to express Love and acceptance. And yet as I learned to listen to the stories of queer people and hear the pain and suffering, they had expierenced as a result of their experience of my faith, I began to recognize the manner in which the theological framework I held, was unhelpful in sharing the Love, welcome and acceptance I desired to express.

My experience within various Christian faith communities is that the majority of people who hold to a traditional theological perspective on sexuality and gender identity are genuinely caring and loving people. People who when confronted with the real harm being caused to Queer Christians, don’t want it to continue, and long for a way for Rainbow people to feel welcomed and included in their midst. And yet, the theology and faith many of us have inherited is creating an environment where young people are suffering significant harm.

And yet, it doesn’t have to remain this way. The mood for change is now.

During the campaign to ban conversation therapy large groups of Christian churches and organization’s – both conservative and progressive – stood in support of the bill. Conversation within Christian circles was generally accepting and understanding of the need to ban conversion therapy. And over the years, I’ve noticed something else. About four years ago I wrote my first article discussing publicly my belief that there is need for significant change within Christian communities in regard to how Queer young people are treated, accepted and Loved. Since than I’ve written countless others and led workshops and conversations on how to engage this conversation within faith communities. And constantly, I have people approaching me and confiding that though they have never said it publicly, they believe something within Christian culture needs to change. That it’s not ok the way Queer people are treated, and that our treatment of Queer people is in tension with our values of radical unconditional Love and acceptance.

I’ve had that conversation countless times and it has led me to believe that there is a growing number of lay Christians, those who don’t hold positions of leadership, perhaps haven’t had the formal theological training, and yet who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the way queer people are being treated within Christian contexts. They may not have all the theology worked out yet, but there is something they do know. That queer people are Loved by the Divine, that they are precious, that they matter, that their existence enriches our lives, and that they should not be made to feel other within our communities.

I often wonder what would happen if all the silent supporters of LGBTQ people raised their voices and in doing so became allies? What would happen if instead of sitting silently in the pews, with love and grace, you informed your Pastor or your eldership that you were uncomfortable with the messages about sexuality and gender identity coming from the pulpit. That you were concerned about the manner in which those messages are received by our Rainbow Rangatahi. That you were worried about the harm it was causing and wanted to begin a conversation about how we could truly ensure our communities lived up to our core value of radical unconditional Love and acceptance.

Some faith communities are already on this journey, and yet the work is far from over. I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a Queer friend of mine. He spoke to me about how many Christians say that they are allies of the queer community, but really they are just supporters. What he meant by this is that silently they express support for LGBTQ Christians, and yet when push comes to shove, they are not willing to risk their reputation, or raise their voices in support of the inclusion and acceptance of queer people. To be an Ally means to stand with Queer people. It means to raise your voice. It means to verbalize your support.

There is going to be countless debates and conversations that arise within Christian spaces in regards to the passing of the Conversion Practices Bill. For the silent majority of supporters of Queer people, it is time to come out the closet. It is time to share with your friends and family that you believe Queer people are loved, accepted, that they matter, and that you believe that the church – of all places – should be a place where our Rainbow whānau can accepted unconditionally, and loved truly, for who they are.

We cannot say we support Queer people and then fail to stand with our Rainbow whānau when it matters.

The change we need within our faith communities cannot be legislated. Nor will it be driven by those in positions of leadership or authority.

It will arise from the people, as we elevate our voices to express the Good News that we know to be true.

That queer people are Loved.

That they are accepted.

And that they matter, not despite who they are, but because of it.

A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

Though we try to keep up with all our comment’s and feedback, we do sometimes struggle to monitor all platforms. If you do want to engage in the conversation join us on facebook and find the relevant post or connect directly with A.J on his facebook page here.


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