How Christian Theology is contributing to Queer Homelessness / A.J. Hendry

About four years ago I sat around the table with a mix of advocates, youth champions and activists. We’d done a series of interviews with young people seeking to understand their experiences of homelessness, and – unsurprisingly – the experiences of queer young people were highlighted.

Internationally, it is recognized that Rainbow Youth experience homelessness disproportionately more than other groups of young people. As few resources have been directed into understanding the size and scope of youth homelessness in Aotearoa it is hard to get solid numbers here, however the experience of youth services locally would seem to indicate that New Zealand is no different.

I don’t remember everything from that hui, but one moment in particular stood out to me. A key insight we received was that many queer young people avoided getting support from faith-based organizations, even those that weren’t overtly religious, and yet had a faith tradition from which they had grown from.

The reason was largely down to their experiences of discrimination from people of faith. The heart-breaking reality being that many queer young people are made homeless due to their gender identity and sexual orientation. This is often because their parents or caregivers cannot reconcile who they are within the framework of their faith tradition.

As we wrestled with the stories our young people had shared with us, I remember the question being asked of faith organizations and what could be done to address this concern raised by our young people.

One lady, a queer activist and community leader, leaned back and said words that have stuck with me to this day. “They (the church, Christians) will never be able to Love or serve us, because they will never accept us”.

The mix of pain and truth in her statement hit me.

As a person of faith it broke my heart, and yet as much as I wanted to deny the reality of what she said, it was hard to get away from.

I constantly meet and am aware of young people who have been made homeless due to their sexual orientation.

It’s a common story, whānau believe being Queer is sinful/wrong, they struggle between their concern and love for their kid, and the fear they hold for their young person’s eternal salvation. The journey may vary, but the result is too often the same. Instead of receiving love, care and support they are turned out onto the streets.

Most Christian leaders would want to distance themselves from these situations. Many would rightly condemn the idea that any young person should be made homeless due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and though they might hold a traditional Christian perspective on the matter of queer inclusion and liberation in the church, they would want to affirm that all people should be treated with Love and respect.

With Christian leaders taking such a position it would seem reasonable than to place the blame upon the individual families in these situations. And yet, in most situations (I’ve witnessed) the whānau are genuinely trying to navigate a situation their theology, and worldview hasn’t given them the tools to process.

It’s not as easy, or in most cases even truthful, to say these families are just homophobic or transphobic and hate their kids. Most would affirm wholeheartedly that they Love their children, that they want the best for them, and yet love for them means thinking about their life in eternity. And within the theology and faith they have inherited they fear the eternal wellbeing and salvation of their kids.

The decision to turn their child over to the streets, to make a young person homeless, is one that comes with the hope that in doing so that young person will realize that they have sinned and be saved. They fear that allowing them to remain “under their roof” would risk condoning “behaviour” that would lead them to being condemned to eternal torment in the fires of hell.

And so they do what they believe is best for their kids. The results are obviously heart-breaking, and I do not believe that most parents realize how traumatizing and harmful an experience of homelessness is for a young person. Young people who experience homelessness are at increased risk of sexual assault, they are more likely to have their mental and physical health negatively impacted, to become victims of violence, exploitation, and abuse, not to mention the psychological and emotional harm that is done by being so utterly rejected by one’s parent’s or caregivers. The experience of homelessness is, in and of itself extremely traumatizing with consequences that may be with that young person their entire lives.

Alongside that, services and supports for young people experiencing homelessness are extremally limited with no guarantee they will be able to access housing or support at all.

And yet, these whānau place their children in this situation because the theology they have inherited has placed priority on saving a child’s soul, regardless of the cost to that young person’s physical, mental or emotional wellbeing. And there is a sense that you can understand where these parents are coming from. If you believed that being gay was a sin, and believed that if one didn’t repent, they would spend eternity tortured in hell, than saving the one you love from an eternity of suffering is worth what little suffering one might experience here on earth today.

The problem and responsibility cannot solely be placed upon the whānau, but rather upon the theology our religious communities hold and those who teach it. Regardless of what we want to believe as faith communities about how we love and care for our LGBTQ whānau, something about the communities we create, and the theologies we construct, is leading to our rainbow rangatahi being further marginalized and at-risk. That whānau can feel so fearful of their children’s sexuality or gender identity that they would make them homeless in order to save them, speaks to a level of toxicity within Christian culture and community that must be addressed.

At the centre of the Christian faith is the core value of Love and care for the most marginalized and oppressed. When the church acts as an agent of oppression, we are not following the teachings of Christ, in fact we corrupting the very Gospel we say we hold so dear.

The Good News that Jesus proclaimed was a message of Love, overwhelming grace, and inclusion. It was a message of Hope, a message of Liberation, a message that sought to embrace rather than exclude. That some parents feel they have to harm their child through forcing them into homelessness, rather than accept and love them as Christ has taught us, shows a level of disconnection between the core values of our faith and the practice of it.

And it is here that Christian leaders, pastors, and theologians hold responsibility.

Those who take on the responsibility of governing, caring for and constructing the theology of Christian community are responsible for the poor communication of ideas that cause harm and oppress our people.

Christian leaders have a responsibility to both develop and learn to communicate a theology that their people can live out of.  Regardless of whether one has a traditional or progressive Christian theology regarding sexuality, there is a way to teach and hold that theology that does not allow for the abuse and oppression of our most vulnerable whānau members. In order to prevent this harm from continuing to occur it’s vital that leaders within the Christian community make it clear that Queer young people are loved, accepted and cherished within our community.

The journey towards a fully affirming and inclusive Christian theology is a continued debate within the church. And yet regardless of our theology, we should all be able to agree on at least one thing. No young person should ever be made to feel other, to be shamed, rejected, and subjected to abuse, exploitation, and homelessness, due to the faith we hold.

At the end of the day those who follow Jesus are called to acknowledge the Divine Image in all God’s children. Ours is to Love, to serve, to stand with those who have been marginalized and oppressed.

When we do the opposite of this, we betray the very faith we hold dear.


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.

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