By Michael O'Loughlin
Originally published on Advocate.com April 13 2014 10:20 AM ET
The head of a homeless shelter for LGBT youth published an open letter to Pope Francis in The New York Times today, asking the leader of the Catholic Church to change its teaching on homosexuality.
Noting that religious parents tend to reject their LGBT children at higher rates than their secular or less religious counterparts, Carl Siciliano, executive director of New York's Ali Forney Center, wrote, "Jesus Christ is never recorded as having said a word in judgment or condemnation of homosexuality or of LGBT people. He spoke of a loving, compassionate God, and commanded his followers to act with love and compassion. Jesus spoke of God as a loving parent who would never abandon his children."
In an interview with The Advocate, Siciliano said that he is "“less interested in words than actions, and the church's hostilities against gay people haven’t stopped at all," citing the rash of firings of gay people in Catholic institutions and the Catholic bishops continued public opposition to marriage equality efforts.
Still, he said, he admires the pope's focus on economic justice, and said he approached the issue of homeless LGBT youth from that angle.
When families reject their LGBT kids for religious reasons, the consequences include "economic destitution," he said.
Siciliano, a Catholic and former Benedictine monk, noted in the letter that, last year, over 200,000 LGBT youths experienced homelessness, and that LGBT youth make up 40 percent of the homeless youth population, despite being only about 5 percent of the overall youth cohort.
"The teaching that homosexual conduct is a sin has a poisonous outcome, bearing fruit in many Christian parents who abandon their LGBT children to homelessness and destitution. How could a good seed yield such a bitter harvest?" Siciliano wrote.
Siciliano wrote that he has "great respect" for Pope Francis, and invited him to visit the Ali Forney Center, "to meet our abandoned youths and see for yourself how their lives have been devastated and made destitute by religious rejection. I believe that there is no more compelling witness to the harmfulness of the condemnation of homosexuality than the consequent suffering plainly visible in the eyes of our homeless LGBT youths."
In 2012, Siciliano invited New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan to visit the Ali Forney Center. Dolan declined.
In the letter, Siciliano said he wants the church to change its teachings on homosexuality, and for Pope Francis to "prevent your bishops from fighting against the acceptance of LGBT people as equal members of society."
Overall, Siciliano said he is seeking a culture change. He said that the LGBT movement has made progress in overturning antigay laws, but that the lives of LGBT youth are more affected by the culture in homes and schools, both of which can be influenced by religion.
"If we don’t address this, if we don’t take this on, we won’t be protecting our kids,” he said.
“I want to see Catholics, and Southern Baptists, and Methodists and Presbyterians say, ‘we’re not gonna let our kids be hurt anymore,'" he said. "If the message is loud enough and clear enough" the animosity LGBT youth experience will begin to wane.
He said that there are glimmers of hope in the religious sphere, pointing to the work of individual Episcopalians, Catholics, and others of faith who volunteer at the Ali Forney Center.
"I don’t read the gospels and see antigay hatred," he said.
While Catholics in the U.S. support LGBT people at higher rates than other Christian groups, Siciliano said the percentage of Catholics who don't means there are millions of people hostile to LGBT people. In New York City, where he works, a global, diverse population means many of the youths he serves come from families with more narrow views.
Faith In America, which co-sponsored the ad, launched a Change.org petition where supporters can also send a message to Pope Francis.
"Pope Francis has the opportunity to lead faith communities around the world in gifting parents of LGBT youth with an unconditional spiritual embrace, a gift which most surely will bring peace to these lives and these families," Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, said in a statement.
According to the Associated Press, about 4,000 homeless youth live in New York City each night, and nearly a quarter are LGBT. Government and private funds cover only 350 beds.
Opened in 2002, the Ali Forney Center is named after a homeless transgender youth turned counselor who was disowned by his family at the age of 13 and later found shot in 2002 at age 22.
Follow Michael O'Loughlin on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.