One of the ways I've seen lives cut too short is through suicide. I had known that the suicide rate for gay men is higher than average (three times higher, in fact), before coming home here to Michigan. But I hadn't encountered that fact in my life or in my ministry. Since coming home to Michigan, I have seen way too many deaths, deaths which come all too early in the lives of the gay men in our communities. If I count them on my fingers, they're still on one hand. But the fact that the suicide rate of the gay men in my community is so much higher than the average suicide rate is alarming to me. It says to me that we're still not, as a community, embracing these young men and telling them that they are loved children, of God or any other religious system. It says to me our community, in particular, needs to be doing some major work learning to live a message of love and acceptance.
And we're not. In Jackson, Michigan, we're still denying that gay and lesbian relationships matter, through denying them marriage or "any similar union." We're denying that they deserve equal access to employment, housing, and fair treatment in numerous ways through refusal to pass an equal rights ordinance. If you go to any PFLAG meeting, you'll hear stories of people who are LGBorT facing discrimination in their employement if they have employment, and in their ability to find employment, if they don't. You'll hear struggles for housing. And yet, despite this, our City Council members want to pretend that there is no problem. And there is religious discrimination aplenty. We're routinely shutting them out of churches through not being willing to take a stand and become inclusive, open and affirming, or welcoming congregations. I hope our local UCC churches, congregational churches, and maybe Westminster Presbyterian, and some UMC and Lutheran churches are getting closer and closer to the point of making an official stand, but to my knowledge none have yet. Our little UU church remains the only *officially* welcoming congregation to people who are LGBorT in our county, as far as I know. I hope I'm wrong. I'd love to see a day when we can no longer claim to be one of even a few welcoming congregations because there are so many. Even churches in Jackson County with denominations that support a more open stance have yet to take official stances to welcome people who are LGBorT.
One of the frequently asked questions for congregations going through a process like our denominations "Welcoming Congregation" program is "Why do we have to do this? We're already welcoming!" Well, there's two main issues here. The first is that if you're not officially welcoming, since MOST, really, sadly, churches are not welcoming, the natural assumption is that you're not welcoming. People who are LGBorT look for that official sign of welcoming before sticking their neck out only to get hurt one more time by a religious community. The second part of this is, if you're not willing and able to yet go through a program like this, perhaps you're not as welcoming as you think. There are often hidden fears and stereotypes lurking. I say this as one who, despite being raised in a liberal, inclusive community, had some fears and stereotypes until I confronted them and did the work of dragging them out and dismissing them and learning about the truth. I had fears about AIDS in the 1990s, so I sent myself on a one-week trip doing service work for the Mobile (AL) AIDS Support Services, and then volunteered at my community's AIDS support center. I had misgivings about transgender identity until I did the work of going to conferences in seminary and listening to my colleagues who identify as transgender, and reading books such as Transgender Warriors. Most congregations have some fears before they go through a process to be more welcoming. The most common one: What if our church becomes a "gay church"?
Becoming a more welcoming church, becoming a more welcoming community, isn't just something nice we could do. Ryan's death reminds us that it's an urgent necessity.
In Ryan's eulogy, his pastor called on his congregation and any reading his words to:
May we do so here in Jackson, too.1. change ourselves, to become more loving, giving, and compassionate2. change our churches, that no more would die rejected from ministry for having the courage to be who they are, and3. change the world, to become a more just place where all are welcomed, have what we need, and know the love of God, others, and self.