Steve and Every Kid

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Note: The names in this article have been changed to ensure the confidentiality of our students.

On the surface, November 2 seemed to be another ordinary night of ministry. My team was excited and nervous for the high schoolers that would soon bombard the Parson’s basement. But we were prepared for anything—or so we thought.

Shortly after prayer and preparation for our Western-themed club, a group of over forty high schoolers—faithfully donning overalls, flannels, and cowboy hats—flooded into the room, ready to spit crickets, square dance, and belt campfire classics. We could tell that the night would be a Young Life for the books.

And, just like any other student, Steve showed up to the Parson’s ready for Young Life. But Steve had gone through far more in his own young life than many of the students surrounding him that night.

When Steve first started attending Young Life, he was Stephanie—a girl who had already tried, and failed, to find community at her previous high school. Stephanie had a unique perspective and interests, for which she was ostracized by her peers. Her transfer to a new high school was a last-ditch effort to start afresh.

Within her first year as a transfer student, Stephanie met a few of our Young Life leaders at a football game. They connected instantly. Really, we all found Stephanie’s insight to be genuinely refreshing, and after months of knowing her, we felt like Stephanie was even part of the team herself.

Then tragedy struck her. Stephanie was diagnosed with a neurological disease that affected her short-term memory. She kept attending Young Life; but as her condition progressed, she grew to barely recognize us. Stephanie withdrew and eventually stopped attending Young Life altogether.

After hearing very little from Stephanie for months, her closest leaders confirmed via social media that Stephanie had begun the process of gender transition. We prayed vigorously for Stephanie, now Steve, and continued reaching out to him. As much as I could, I encouraged his leaders to reconnect.

So, when November 2 came around, we were elated to see Steve again. But he seemed like a ghost of the spunky kid we once knew. Behind his eyes were pain, confusion, and heartbreak. We did our best to love him; ultimately, we were just thankful that he was there.

From afar, the remainder of club that night was successful. Students were engaged, and one of our leaders gave a stellar first club talk. But Steve kept to himself. During group activities, he retreated from his peers. He showed very little interest in singing songs or square dancing. It was as though all of the life in him had faded away.

But just like that, the hour came and went. All of the students went home, and out of our team burst a unified sigh of relief. We had pulled off what we felt was one of our most exciting clubs that year.

After we cleaned up and prayed for our students, I headed home feeling accomplished, but unsettled about Steve. Only moments later, Steve’s closest leader called me. She informed me that she had just gotten off the phone with Steve’s mother, who relayed to her that Steve would no longer be attending Young Life.

When the leader asked why, Steve’s mother revealed that Steve no longer believed Young Life to be a safe place for him. Unbeknownst to us, many of Steve’s peers had been trying to “out” him the whole night. I was devastated.

How could we have been so blind?

Steve never came back to Young Life. His leaders lost contact with him. I would presume that Steve experiences the same kind of discrimination and exclusion at a college campus somewhere across the country. I would even imagine that Steve is probably less inclined to be a part of any spiritual community than before.

Now, I cannot claim biblical, sociological, or theological expertise on human sexuality. It’s a complex and divisive matter in church and society, especially as of late. I also cannot claim to be unbiased in my leanings toward inclusivity and desire to simply offer a listening ear to topics about which I would do well to learn more.

But as a minister of the gospel, encountering students like Steve is my reality. I am obliged to create space for them to experience radical divine love, even if doing so means speaking truth to those for whom gender identity and expression are relatively straightforward matters. We have no idea of the complexity of these matters as it pertains to our own sexuality and would do well to remain objective and open-minded in the process of simply advocating for our LGBTQ+ friends as fellow image-bearers of the divine.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus never intended for any faith community to discriminate against the marginalized and brokenhearted. The facts of our reality, however, are that Steve’s experience at our Young Life gathering all of those years ago is likely only one of many tragedies that occur in ministries across the country.

Maybe you know a kid like Steve. If you do, may you do everything in your power to ensure that there would be space for them to feel especially loved and valued. May we cultivate ministries of inclusive ministry in which all people are given the opportunity to encounter a radical good news of grace, peace, and reconciliation.

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