For the last couple of weeks, I have been processing an experience that I had at work. It was one of those clarifying, focusing moments that don’t come along all that often. It feels right now like the ramifications are huge, not just for my work, but for the church at large.
I was invited to attend a meeting of a group of peer navigators. Peer Navigators work in clinics and community centers to accompany those who are living with HIV. They help people to maneuver through the health care system, get connected with basic needs, and provide a basic emotional support system. They are on the front lines, in the trenches, or whatever war metaphor you’d like to use. They are doing the dirty work of loving people at close range.
My invitation came from a staff person at the health department so that I could share information about the work that HopeSprings does. The plan was for to take 10 to 15 minutes explaining our programs, talk about the referral process, and answer any questions. What actually happened took about 45 minutes. After explaining the programs, I got peppered with questions. While a few were about logistics, the bulk of the questions had one overriding theme:
How do we protect our clients from the church?
This theme presented itself in many forms.
“Do churches know that most of our clients are LGBTQ+?”
“Will you make them sign a profession of faith?”
“Are you going to try to change their sexual orientation?”
“Are you trying to convert them?”
My answers to most of the questions were clear; we do this work because we believe our faith calls us to care for the most vulnerable. We’re not trying to change anyone. We’re here to love people as they are.
After about a half hour of these kinds of questions, the room settled. I think people felt comfortable with the answers I gave and seemed to genuinely look forward to working with me.
It was a first step.
I walked away feeling a deeper sense of obligation than what I had come in with. For the last nine months I have been desperate to get volunteers from the faith communities in and around Baltimore. I was reminded though that my desperation for volunteers cannot come at the expense of the very people we are trying to serve.
What I was hearing both implicitly and explicitly was that the church has hurt a lot of people. The capacity for the church to do damage (or further damage) in the lives of people living with HIV seems high, particularly to those who walk beside this population everyday. I heard distrust, skepticism, and wariness, all of it justified. I know a bit about the church’s ability to do damage, both by being on the receiving end and, as a leader, doing damage myself. I will never know, however, the levels of hurt that those in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced, less known those living with HIV. What I heard was a protectiveness. “How do we know that you don’t have more of an agenda than what you’re letting on?”
The church has earned this distrust. No, not every congregation, but the institution as a whole. It’s a hard thing to admit. Decades of shaming, judgment, false pretenses, and hypocrisy have created situations where people are willing to say “thanks, but no thanks” to the faith communities offers of help.
It reminded me of the importance of humility in walking into these situations. We have to have the patience to absorb the hurt we’re hearing without being defensive. Spaces like this room to which I was invited are Holy ground and have to be treated as such. The burden of building trust with the people in that room falls on me as the burden of building trust with any group who has been hurt or traditionally marginalized from the church falls on the church. It requires that we confess how we have been a source of pain and work to be a source of healing wherever we can. This is complicated by the fact that there are still many places where the church continues to do damage.
I take hope in knowing that there are people out there doing the good work of restoring trust and creating spaces of healing. One of the peer navigators mentioned my friend Emily Scott. She recently began a faith community called Dreams and Visions that is working to create spaces of restoration rooted in the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals. I was happy to know that there was someone in the room who was familiar with her work, happier still knowing that there are people like her in the world making the critical spaces for healing. The church needs more of such spaces.
We have a lot of work to do…