Something shifted in me the night I sat in the campus auditorium watching the documentary on the life and death of a young gay man. I don’t know that I would have come to watch the film except that I had been asked to lead the vigil afterward, and I thought it would be disrespectful if I did the one and didn’t show up for the other. Nonetheless, I was uncomfortable, as I thought I would be.
Justin, a student involved with the Gay Straight Alliance at the university where I served as chaplain, had requested my participation in the evening’s activities. He wanted me to help organize a vigil to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Ryan Skipper, a young man from Polk County, Florida (less than two hours from our campus) who had been bullied, beaten, and murdered because he was gay. Justin told me the plan was to show a documentary that had been made about Ryan, titled Accessory to Murder: Our Culture’s Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper. After the film, the audience would be invited to walk from the auditorium to the campus chapel for the vigil, where we would honor and remember Ryan as well as others who had been victims of hate crimes.
I wanted to say yes. I wanted to stand up for these students and for those who had died. But I was afraid. It was only my second year as a clergyperson, and my first year as a chaplain; what would people think if they knew I supported gays? I belonged to a denomination whose polity stated, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” I wasn’t sure I believed that statement anymore, even though it had been a mere two years since I had taken vows to uphold the polity of the church. There were so many students—and faculty, too—who held conservative views; they assumed, even expected, I would share their perspective. To avoid potential repercussions, I had kept silent about my emerging beliefs.
Yet, I wanted Justin and the other students who would come to the event to know that I was on their side, that I supported them. I wanted them to know I didn’t take literally the biblical directives against homosexuality. (How could I? My identity as a clergywoman was an embodiment of—and a commitment to—a contextual reading of Scripture.) I was reminded of a conversation with one of my clergy colleagues. Michael had shared with me his long and difficult journey towards claiming his identity as a gay man. He gradually uncovered the layered realization that he would never be his authentic self until he accepted his God-given sexual identity. I remembered thinking at the time, his story is no different than mine, the yearning to be my authentic self and the arduous journey to get there.
And so, finally, I said yes. It was an anxious yes. A timid yes. A yes that left me feeling awkward and exposed, as I leaned into claiming what I believed.
That night in the campus auditorium, as I sat watching the film—listening to Ryan’s friends and family talk about Ryan and how much they loved him because he was Ryan, and how much others despised him because he was gay—I began to feel a heaviness in my chest. Then came a dawning awareness that right there, in that auditorium, were young men and women who knew firsthand the same kind of prejudice and bullying that was being depicted in the film. I’m worried about my reputation, and they are worried about their very lives.
I had not paid attention to how marginalized the gay community was, not only by the church, but also by the culture at large. How had I contributed to their marginalization? How had I been complicit? How had my ignorance and naiveté, my silence, caused them harm? Something shifted in me as I sat there, recognizing that the heaviness in my heart was the weight of conviction. Another thought began to rise up to my consciousness. Forgive me for the things I have done; and, for the things I have left undone. Forgive me for the words I have said; and, for the words I have left unsaid.
After the documentary ended, we solemnly walked from the auditorium to the chapel, where I presided over the vigil. Justin and some of the other students had displayed around the room poster-sized photographs of young men and women who, like Ryan, had been murdered because of their sexual identity. They also had created a video that told the story, the life and death, of each person.
We watched the video, we sang songs, we cried, we laughed; we lit candles to honor and remember these lives that were snuffed out way too soon. The sanctuary was full of students who shared words of their loss. But also, they shared words of their hopes and dreams of a culture where all people can be treated with respect and dignity, where all people can be honored. Where all people can be free to be their authentic selves.
As the vigil came to an end, I felt prompted to cast aside my scripted closing remarks, and instead, share a little of what I experienced that evening. I concluded by telling those gathered that I wanted to be a living sanctuary, a safe place, a refuge for those who may be looking for a space to rest in their weariness, a space to seek the sacred without scrutiny. May I no longer be complicit in death, may I be a sanctuary for the preservation and flourishing of life.