by Cathy Pankiewicz, St. Joseph, Missouri Companion
Years ago in college, I signed up for a comparative religions class. The professor was widely respected and
a fellow parishioner. It was rare to have a “religious” college professor in the 70s. I could hardly wait. Years later as our oldest daughter struggled to find the courage to live, I realized the wisdom of what I had learned in that class.
The course was unlike what I expected. There were no lectures about theological differences, no mention of reformations, schisms, or religious atrocities. Instead, we focused on what Dr. Gary Dyer called “The Courage to Be.” We talked about human existence; about a boredom or frustration that eats away at the human heart; the lurking fear that life has no real meaning, that it is a waste, a chasm of missed opportunities and losses at best, or a cruel hoax at worst, nothing more than disillusionment and disappointment. “Religion,” Dyer proposed, “could be that indefinable ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that gives humankind The Courage to BE.” When tempted to give up, religion at its best would save us from despair. I envisioned religion as a spiritual elevator lifting me up, pulling me out of the pit into which everyone sinks at one time or another in a life.
Rolling Stone magazine recently published an article by Alex Morris entitled “The Forsaken: A Rising number of Homeless Gay Teens are Being Cast Out by Religious Families.” It confirmed a sad fact: a gay teen is more likely to be emotionally and physically rejected by his or her family if the parents are “religious.” To me, this made no sense and total sense simultaneously. As a “religious” mother of a gay daughter, I have struggled with the fear that my own fervor caused the agony my daughter suffered as she dealt with her homosexuality. Admittedly, some of the most vicious rhetoric regarding lgbt issues comes from people of faith.
According to Morris’s article, a typical homeless lgbt youth is 15 years old and from a religious family. Ironically, homosexual youths who grow up traumatized and abused at home often fare better than those raised in a loving religious environment when it comes to surviving the streets. Many rejected kids naively believe they will find help and support away from home. They don’t. Shelters for homeless lgbt youths are few. They face the same prejudices and funding struggles as the youth they serve. According to the San Francisco State University Acceptance Project, 40% of the homeless teen population in the United States is gay. That means that at any given time there are between 320,000 and 400,000 lgbt youths on the streets with no means of support. Morris also explains that as society talks more openly about sexual orientation, more youths are “coming out” earlier and far more economically dependent than their predecessors.
Carl Siciliano founded the country’s largest organization dedicated to lgbt youths in New York City. A former part of the Catholic Worker Movement, he faults not only religious attitudes for the large homeless population of gay youth but the equality movement itself. “We have been almost entirely focused on laws regarding marriage and adoption as they pertain to homosexual persons. We have not put resources into safe havens for our rejected youth who are seven times more likely to be victims of violent crime, engage in survival sex, lack medical care and attempt suicide. Every four hours a homosexual youth dies from freezing, a beating, or a drug overdose.”
Thinking back on that college course, I wonder what a discussion about this article would have sounded like. I think it would go something like this: Religion that does not cultivate “The Courage to Be” in its followers is not religion. It might be dogma; it might be laws; it might be liturgy—all of which can be good if they don’t become more important than the Spirit they serve. Religion, as society defines it, can be used to justify prejudice or free slaves. It can promote war or peace. It can build walls or soup kitchens. Religion can vilify those who challenge it or welcome dialog. It can promote a top-heavy organization or it can serve those who have no voice.
I think we would have said that religion, as defined by Dr. Dyer, could offer the much-needed spiritual and emotional elevator I envisioned in the beginning days of the class. Each day homeless lgbt teens battle demons telling them that life isn’t worth the pain, that they are a mistake, that even their parents struggle to love them. If 50% of children rejected by religious parents and surveyed by the San Francisco study still believe in God, who more than they fight to find the Courage to Be?
In spite of the science to the contrary, I find many believe that sexuality is a choice. Many Catholics subconsciously wonder if they did something wrong as parents to harm their lgbt children. Many who love their homosexual children unconditionally don’t know where to go for help. I didn’t. Ignorance and misinformation abound, even in churches. Parents must be very careful about where they get information. Even they look for the Courage to Be. I did.
At her worst moments, my daughter told me she held on to belief in God even when she didn’t want to. That gives me reason to believe the Precious Blood faith her father and I share with her is, in fact, part of the reason she is alive and well today. I believe the Lord claimed her for His own long ago, foresaw her struggles, and with His Blood blessed her suffering with the Courage to Be.
I dedicate this article to my daughter Julia, one of the most courageous people I know—and to all like her.