Speech delivered by Ellen Sims at Medal of Honor Park in Mobile, AL, as part of the Progressives in the Park rally on June 11, 2017

At the invitation of Equality Alabama, I am happy to share why the church I pastor, Open Table UCC, explicitly welcomes, affirms, and advocates for LGBTQIA persons and why we founded Mobile’s support group for LGBTQIA teens. But I’m also here as a Christian minister to confess the harm churches have done to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people and to make this explicit appeal to other Christians: since the Church has been the main cause of condemnation and prejudice, we church leaders and members should be working actively to atone for and stop this harm.

Surely you know what harm I mean, but I’ll spell it out with just one set of statistics. The CDC reported in 2015 that 8% of all teens attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. But when you separate the stats for gay versus straight teens, you learn 29.4% of gay, lesbian and bisexual teens attempted suicide that year–while 6.4% of straight teens made such an attempt. When we isolate the suicide attempts of trans teens, the stats are much higher for them.

The reason for much higher suicide attempts among LGBTQ teens is believed to be social stigma. Of course. Interestingly, a correlation was noted between a drastic decline in LGBT teen suicides in states that passed marriage equality laws prior to the Supreme Court decision in 2015. This suggests the individual states that granted marriage to same gender couples created a climate for their teens that was less stigmatizing. As social disapproval lessened, LGBT teens, it’s conjectured, felt less threatened.

What’s the source of all this condemnation of LGBTQIA persons? Churches mainly.

In our culture it’s the churches—not all, of course—that have been the main purveyors of condemnation against LGBT persons. Even political arguments against gay marriage or trans-friendly bathrooms often use religious rationale.

Therefore, as a Christian minister, I cannot be silent. My congregation and I actively oppose prejudices and the spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse that continues to target non-heterosexual, non-cisgender people.

The Bible has been misunderstood and misapplied to shame young people. Church leaders have condemned vulnerable souls in their care out of ignorance. Churches and church members who know better must try to counteract the damage that has been done.

As a Christian minister it’s part of my job description to support the moral development of people in my congregation and promote ethical systems in our society. Unfortunately, some assume from my pro-lgbtq commitments that I’ve abandoned my moral principles and am colluding with the devil to lead lost sheep into perdition. I don’t care what they think. I’m thinking of despairing teens and adults.

That’s why Open Table created a welcome statement that appears on our website and worship bulletins. It begins: “Open Table affirms lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in particular and assures them full inclusion in the life, leadership, and ministry of our congregation. . . . “

But Open Table also carries these commitments outside the church. We engage in political activism. For instance, we fought hard with many of you for marriage equality.

And exactly one year ago we learned on a Sunday morning of the horrific massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and by early that afternoon we were working with community members to help provide a prayer vigil downtown. This morning in worship we held silence in memory of the 49 lives lost in that tragedy in Orlando.

And in January of 2016 we created Mobile’s LGBTQ teen support group, Free2Be, that meets every Saturday to provide safe space for high school students to be who they are and know they are loved just as they are. This group is facilitated by well screened and trained adult facilitators—and it is saving lives. If you know of 14-to 18-year-olds who could use this kind of support, I’d love to talk with you.

We all need to speak out to dispel prejudices. Talk to your religious leaders if you are a member of a faith community. Tell government leaders that you are a person of faith who demands that all citizens be treated equally, respectfully; that same gender couples deserve to adopt children; that LGBT persons should not be subject to job discrimination; that public restrooms must be safe for transgender persons.

Speak out. Speak out. Because lives are at stake. Especially the lives of our children.

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