On June 12, 2016, 49 beautiful lives were taken in the city of Orlando. It's a day that will remain fixed in my memory forever—one that was filled with some of the deepest sorrow and feelings of helplessness I have ever experienced. In the days and weeks that followed the Pulse tragedy, I continued to grieve with my community.
The outpouring of love and support I witnessed during that time was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I saw labels stripped away and walls falling down, and I couldn't help but wonder what life would look like if we treated one another like this all the time. I found hope in the swift response by so many local churches, but I couldn't let go of the thought that it shouldn't have taken a tragedy for the church to finally invest in this community. I wrestled with the fact that Christ spent so much of his earthly ministry investing in the lives of the marginalized, but for some reason, the church had all but ignored this one population. Why was this the case, and where did this division come from? What would it look like to truly love those in the LGBTQ community the way that Christ would?
These questions haunted me daily for a few weeks, until I finally decided that it was time to address them head-on. I began by inviting members of my community and Summit leadership into regular conversation about these topics, as I tried to better understand this new tension that I was experiencing. It was at that point that I found myself at a crossroads. It would have been easy to pat myself on the back for just engaging in these discussions and continue on with my life, but I knew that I was being called to act. I didn't know what that would look like initially, but after a lot of prayer and research, I found Zebra Coalition. Zebra Coalition is an organization that provides essential services for LGBT youth, such as temporary housing and free counseling, while fostering a safe environment for youth to engage in community with one another. Common struggles among LGBT youth include family rejection/displacement, bullying, homelessness, and high suicide rates. I fell in love with this organization and their mission to provide a refuge for these young people, and decided to get involved right away.
After a lengthy screening process, I was finally given the green light to start volunteering at the facility. I walked in with no agenda or ulterior motives, merely to love and serve as best I could. I didn't really know what to expect, but I was confident that this was the place God was calling me in that moment. What I wasn't expecting, though, was the immediate sense of acceptance and belonging that I felt upon entering that first event. I was worried that my introversion would hinder my ability to connect with the kids, but they didn't seem to mind that I wasn't the most outgoing person in the room. In fact, I think it was especially comforting for a select few who migrated to my table to play a board game or have a quiet conversation. I also noticed their interactions with one another, as it seemed many of them displayed a heightened sense of empathy in their conversations and actions. When conflicts did arise, there was always a staff member available to help diffuse the situation calmly. It truly felt like a refuge, not only for the kids, but for me as well. While I wasn't looking for safety from homelessness, bullying, or rejection from my family, I do struggle with loneliness and feelings of inadequacy at times. As I was experiencing such a strong sense of relief that day, I wondered how much stronger it must feel for the young people who have few, if any, places where they truly feel comfortable to be themselves.
Since that day, I've had the opportunity to volunteer with Zebra Coalition a number of times, as well as co-lead a niceSERVE project there this past May. I'm honored to have had the opportunity to invest in this organization, and I hope to continue to use these experiences to further bridge the gap between the church and the LGBT community as a whole. I'll be honest—this hasn't been an easy journey, and I won't pretend that this isn't a complicated subject to bring up in church. I will say though, that you don't have to abandon your beliefs to take the time to listen to someone who is different than you. This isn't about politics, hidden agendas, or forcing our beliefs on one another—it's about treating other people like people. In many cases, whether intentional or not, the Church has perpetuated a message of exclusion toward the LGBTQ community, and as members of the body of Christ, it's time we began to recognize this truth. The "hate the sin, love the sinner," mentality is flawed when we are all sinners, and true love never involves putting an entire population in a category that we never engage with. Real love is sacrificial; it's uncomfortable and downright painful at times—but it is always worth it.
Last May, I spent a Saturday morning deep-cleaning Zebra Coalition's youth center with members of my Summit family. It was a small gesture, but one that I hope carried meaning for the youth and staff there. At the very least, I hope two messages came across that day: We see you. And you matter.
If you would like to get involved serving in our community, reach out to our Community Development Coordinator, Liz Cronlund.
Sarah McDonald has been attending Summit for 9 years and has volunteered in Base Camp, as a Connect group leader, and a niceSERVE project leader. She loves anything involving water (she's an aquarium diver at SeaWorld, which is really cool), music, and writing (check out her blog here).