"Love him for me."
That was what a Southern Baptist pastor's wife said about her gay son to Stan Mitchell, senior pastor of the LGBT-accepting GracePointe Church in Franklin, Tenn., when she encountered Mitchell at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in mid-June.
Mitchell was part of a group of volunteers organized by Faith in America and partner groups who went to Phoenix for the Southern Baptist confab with the goal of engaging attendees on LGBT issues as part of the "Save yOur Kids" campaign. By deeming it a sin to be LGBT, the denomination -- the largest Protestant body in the U.S. -- is hurting children and teens, Faith in America officials say.
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Mitchell, who's also Faith in America's national director of religion, learned that the woman's son had recently come out to her and her husband. They did not disown him, but they told him that by being gay, he was not living according to God's plan.
"She wept and said, 'He is the best of our four children, and we have failed him,'" Mitchell says. Since he's going to school in Nashville, she suggested that he attend services at nearby GracePointe, a Christian congregation that has made a declaration of full LGBT inclusion and equality.
"We had a lot of those kinds of encounters," Mitchell continues. He doesn't know if the conversations will make a difference immediately, "but some seeds were planted," he says. He notes that he didn't always come from a place of acceptance, but he evolved. "I know that there are pastors out there like me," he says.
The Faith in America volunteers were, for the most part, unable to get inside the meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center. Faith in America cofounder Mitchell Gold, cochair Robert Hoffman, and a few others got into the venue and were asked to leave. But mostly the volunteers they spoke with attendees outside and handed out pamphlets detailing the harm that religious condemnation does to LGBT young people -- heightening their risk of homelessness and suicide.
The activity felt similar to one familiar to fundamentalist Christians, says Stan Mitchell, who comes from that background. "I swore I'd never do street evangelism again, but here I was, doing street evangelism," he says.
The "evangelists" included not only many LGBT people but straight and cisgender allies like Mitchell and Jane Clementi, whose gay son Tyler committed suicide in 2010 after a fellow student at Rutgers University used a webcam to spy on Tyler having a romantic encounter with another man.
"My voice was the voice of a mother," says Clementi, who has gone on to found the Tyler Clementi Foundation (with her husband, Joseph) to fight bullying. "I was using my voice in sharing Tyler's story and our story."
Tyler had come out to the family shortly before starting school at Rutgers, and he apparently found the response lacking. "I was most upset that he did not think he could be a Christian and be gay," his mother recalls, noting that at the time the family attended a church that was not accepting. "He viewed that statement as judgmental, I think."
Jane Clementi, who has another gay son, James, has become a strong advocate of acceptance and inclusivity in religion. "We need to stop teaching that someone is broken or worthless" because of being LGBT, she says.
"I believe that God's will is to become open and affirming," she adds. "When Jesus was on earth, it was all about being open and welcoming."
Most of the attendees she spoke with were "cordial," although "entrenched in their beliefs," she says. But like Mitchell, she notes, "Hopefully, some seeds were planted." For changing hearts and minds, she says, "I believe it takes a personal encounter with someone and hearing their stories," and that's exactly what the volunteers set out to provide.
"I actually feel we do a great service to these communities," says Hoffman. "We model loving, even Christlike behavior for these people of faith."
Liz Owen, director of communications for PFLAG National, attended the Phoenix event and says it confirmed that LGBT acceptance is a value that religious people can embrace. "PFLAG's work in faith communities across the country continues to reinforce what we know: that to be a person who is LGBTQ or a supportive ally, and a person of faith, are not mutually exclusive," she says. "My week in Phoenix bore this out, as I watched volunteers -- many of them people of faith -- engage in meaningful dialogue in a truly PFLAG way, meeting attendees where they were and finding our common bond in our concern for all children, moving everyone closer to acceptance and affirmation by sharing personal stories. We look forward to our continued work with Faith in America."
Gold says one of the most compelling encounters he had during the meeting was with a white Southern Baptist pastor who had adopted African-American children. "He has become more sensitive to the prejudices of his denomination," Gold says. (The denomination even originated as a pro-slavery one, splitting off from antislavery Baptists in the northern U.S.; the Southern Baptist Convention has apologized for its support of slavery.) At the Phoenix event, some of the church's leaders didn't want to present a resolution denouncing white supremacy, and although the resolution was eventually presented and approved, some attendees opposed it. In speaking with the pastor about various types of prejudice, "you could see his wheels turning," Gold says.
Gold, now head of the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture company and a member of what he calls the "be nice to people" faith, comes from a Reform Jewish family. Reform Judaism has evolved into one of the most LGBT-affirming religions anywhere, but Gold recalls that as a gay youth, "I grew up believing that homosexuality was a sin. I grew up believing I was broken. No teenage kid should have to believe that about themselves."
In addition to sharing stories, another factor that may make religions more accepting is generational change, according to some of the Faith in America volunteers. "I think the demographic change ultimately will change most groups," says Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist who attended to provide scientific evidence that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is not a mental illness -- something mental health professionals recognized decades ago. He notes that younger people are significantly more LGBT-friendly than older generations. "It won't happen overnight, but I believe change is inevitable," he says.
Hoffman agrees. "Part of [change] is seeing some of the baby boomers age out and some of the millennials assume greater roles of responsibility," he says.
However, there's also the possibility that those accepting millennials might just leave less-than-accepting faiths, and at any rate, Faith in America and groups like it don't intend to just wait around for change to happen. "We're going to do more of this, going to more anti-LGBT religious groups," Gold says.
The volunteers hoped to get a meeting with members of the Southern Baptist hierarchy; they didn't during the Phoenix meeting, but a group of them do intend to visit the denomination's leaders in August, Hoffman says. They also plan to have a presence at a large Catholic convention in August.
For a long time, Gold notes, LGBT advocates shied away from talking about religion, but it's actually incumbent on them to do so. "We not only can do it but have to do it," he says.
Faith in America's partners in the Phoenix event were the Trevor Project, Nomad Partnerships, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Soulforce, the Reformation Project, Campus Pride, Equality California, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Auburn Seminary, PFLAG, and two Phoenix churches, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church and First Congregational United Church of Christ. Find out more about Faith in America here and about the "Save yOur Kids" campaign here.