LGBTQ Youth of Faith Pray and Bond with “Beloved Arise” Group
By LUIS ANDRES HENAO
Jessika Sessoms grew up in a conservative black evangelical family, attended Christian schools and often heard that being gay was an abomination, until she realized she was gay while studying to become a missionary.
The 23-year-old from Florida went out publicly last year and found healing and a sense of community after joining Beloved Arise, a non-profit Christian organization dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ youth of faith.
Maria Magdalena Gschwind, 20, from Germany, credits the US-based group for inspiring her to study Protestant theology at university at a time when she doubted her sexuality was in conflict with her faith . Samuel Cavalheiro, 21, a Brazilian living in Mozambique, feels so connected to the members of the group that he calls them his “chosen family”.
They are among hundreds of young people from around the world who joined Beloved Arise during the coronavirus pandemic to worship, sing and bond virtually. The group celebrated their second annual Queer Youth of Faith Day – the last day of Pride month – on Wednesday with podcasts, concerts, teen online panels and seminars on history and churches. LGBTQ.
âWe wanted to do something that would be there to uplift and honorâ¦ gay youth of all faiths,â Reverend Ashley DeTar Birt, program coordinator for Beloved Arise, said during one of the panels.
“Something that would let them know that there is no contradiction between being a queer and trans person and being a person of faithâ¦ that these things can go together.”
In the United States, circumstances vary widely for LGBTQ youth seeking religious engagement.
Some major denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, condemn same-sex unions and declare all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman to be sin. But thousands of places of worship, including many major Protestant churches and synagogues, have inclusive policies for LGBTQ people.
âI can tell you how important it is to accept because I am proof of it. I grew up in a church where LGBT people accepted, accepted and loved,â said DeTar Birt, who was ordained Presbyterian minister and worked as a Sunday school teacher and youth pastor. “I graduated from college andâ¦ I had a lot of trepidation and anxiety about it, but the church wasn’t one of them.”
Beloved Arise was founded in Seattle in February 2020 by Jun Love Young, a former board member of Christian development agency World Concern. He grew up in a Catholic family in the Philippines and was silent about his queer identity until his mid-forties.
âAnd it was because of religious pressure, which is why I created Beloved Arise, so that other children didn’t have to wait until their 40s,â he said.
“I was so surprised in my forties to learn that what I thought I knew about the Bible was gravely misinformed, and I just want young people to know that in every religious tradition there is a progressive faith that has probed sacred texts and has created an open space for queer identities, âhe said, adding that he felt safe going out thanks in part to the assertion of theology.
Young said his nonprofit aims to empower and provide resources to LGBTQ youth, “who often face rejection and shame at home, in schools and in their religious communities.” He said the group has grown to over 400 members and expanded its social media presence during the pandemic to tens of thousands of Instagram and TikTok followers.
âTikTok is a platform that has enabled us to reach digital natives, Generation Z,â he said of the generation born after 1996.
âUnlike other youth ministries out there, we started digital, we were born in the cloud,â Young added. “And we were born during the pandemic, where the only way people had to connect was through digital means, which really gave us the foresight and sensitivity to pay attention to where children hang out.”
Americans are becoming less religious in the formal and traditional sense, and the trend is most marked among young adults, according to Pew Research Center polls in recent years. Young people are less likely to pray daily, attend church services, or believe in God.
Yet polls show that young Americans are just as spiritual as their older counterparts, and many have found other expressions of faith outside of formal religion.
Beloved Arise hosts popular weekly online youth gatherings where its members pray, sing and discuss the scriptures.
âThis group is basically my chosen family,â said Cavalheiro, who chats with other members on WhatsApp throughout the week after their virtual worship service. Son of Brazilian Baptists living in Mozambique, he still struggles to talk about his sexuality with his family. But he feels understood by the other members of Beloved Arise.
“It’s like we’ve known each other forever,” said Cavalheiro, a freshman studying computer science in Maputo. “We’ve been through the same painâ¦ (she) binds us together.”
Gschwind grew up in the Catholic religion and her faith has always been important to her. But she said she didn’t feel welcome when she got involved with a Pentecostal church in New Zealand during her gap year.
âI was pretty open about it from the start, but then I realized that homosexuality is something that many Christians consider a sin,â she said. “So I started to question myself a lot.”
Joining Beloved Arise influenced her choice of university specialization.
âIf I hadn’t found this group of young people, I probably wouldn’t have studied theologyâ¦ because I would probably be at a point where I don’t want anything to do with Christianity and theology,â he said. she declared. “Because I have met a lot of people who engage in theological discussions and have different views on things … I just realized that theology was something that excited me a lot.”
Sessoms had hoped to become a missionary. But she began to question her path when she felt attracted to a woman while attending Liberty University, a Christian institution in Virginia with a strict code of conduct prohibiting “outside sex. of a marriage ordained by the Bible between a born man and a woman by birth. “
âReconciling all of this with my sexuality was difficult because we were taught that homosexuals were an abomination, that it was not God’s will,â said Sessoms, who is now a marketing student at the University of North Florida to Jacksonville.
âAnd it really healed. It was really nice to be around people who identify as me, who have gone through the same struggles as me, people who take their faith seriously but also celebrate who they are as well. than LGBTQ person. “
Associated Press reporters David Crary, Emily Leshner, and Jessie Wardarski contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from The Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.