Ebie Hussey’s first reaction when her son announced that he is gay was to offer unconditional love.
Finding a new church was a close second.
“His first question was, ‘Am I going to hell?’ ” Hussey said of that conversation with her son, Jaxn. “Mainstream Christianity and fundamental Christianity really pushes that homosexuality is a sin, and he had caught on to that.”
Jaxn, now 15, knew his parents didn’t think that. “But I had always heard people saying that kind of thing,” he said.
In an effort to counter the message, almost two dozen Houston-area churches have designated Sunday as Bring Your Gay Teen to Church Day.
“We think it’s important for families to know there’s a safe place to go to worship,” said Jim Bankston, senior minister at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. “Families who have gay members want to make sure they feel welcome in church and aren’t bashed in any way.”
Joanna Crawford, a seminary student at the Houston Graduate School of Theology, said the idea came up after the suicide last fall of Asher Brown, a Cypress-area eighth-grader who killed himself after what his parents said were years of bullying and taunts that he was gay.
It is a project of the Houston Clergy Council, formed last year to allow churches to work together on shared concerns.
“None of us knew Asher, but we felt if we could get families into our churches, where they have support, where they feel loved for who they are, not in spite of it, something good could come of that,” Crawford said.
Organized religion has had a complicated relationship with homosexuality.
A ‘negative’ message
Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church, waded into the fray last month when he told CNN that homosexuality is a sin, although he doesn’t preach on the topic and a number of people who attend his church, the largest in the United States, are gay.
A survey last fall by the Public Religion Research Institute found that fewer than 20 percent of Americans believe places of worship do a good job on the issue. Almost half said religion’s message on the topic is “negative,” and 40 percent said the messages contribute “a lot” to negative perceptions of gays and lesbians.
Almost two-thirds said the messages contribute to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.
Religious Americans historically have had negative attitudes about gays and lesbians, said Robert P. Jones, the institute’s CEO.
Mainline Protestant churches — including the Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches — began wrestling with how to interpret biblical writings on the issue several decades ago, he said.
Other churches, including the Unitarian Universalist and the Metropolitan Community churches, have always described themselves as “welcoming” churches, distancing themselves from conventional religious views.
“We don’t need a special day,” said the Rev. Adam Robinson, assistant minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. “The GLBT folks are welcome every day.”
Proclaiming a special day is mainly a way to spread the word, he said.
“It’s for the parent who doesn’t know what to do with their teen that is experiencing a different sexuality, who is wondering whether they’ll be accepted in a faith-based environment,” Robinson said.
Jones said the institute’s survey was too small to register statistically significant findings for non-Christian religious groups.
‘A huge blessing’
But it did show a generation gap that affects all religious groups, he said.
“Younger people are much more supportive on rights for same-sex couples than the older generation,” he said. “They also were much more likely to see these connections between negative views in the churches and negative views in society and with the higher rates of suicide.”
Hussey did a computer search for “gay-friendly churches” and discovered Plymouth United Church of Christ in Spring.
“It’s been a huge blessing,” Hussey said. “It has brought me so much closer to God and to my spirituality, having a gay child, because it puts me in the position of Jesus’ message, which is unconditional love.”
Each participating church will handle Sunday’s services differently. Jaxn Hussey, now a sophomore at Klein High School, made beaded bracelets and handed them out at school, along with information about Plymouth United.
“I really want gay teens like myself to have a place where they feel truly accepted, where they can be who they are,” he said. “And that place is Plymouth.”
The Rev. Ginny Brown Daniel and members of the congregation “showed me God doesn’t hate you because you’re gay,” he said.
That was important to his parents.
“When a child tells you they’re gay, you don’t want to change your plan for him,” Ebie Hussey said. “I still want him to be a doctor. I still want him to marry a doctor. I still want him to be Christian.”