When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.
My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.
The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.
We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.
The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)
My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.
The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.
But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.
I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.
Advance in love. Do not retreat.