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My Turn: Response to Pastor Hemming story

by JESSICA MAHURON/Guest Opinion
| January 15, 2022 1:00 AM

Pastor Steven Hemming believes that orchestrating religious demonstrations at public libraries, targeting a program meant to be a supportive, safe space for young people and parents is “outreach.” But what results have come from this outreach?

Can his flock and aligned congregations honestly claim to have made a positive impact on any person walking through those library doors? Has any sermon blasting the LGBTQ+ community in the name of God done any real good? Or instead, is it continuing to teach and spread the spiritual disease of bigotry from one generation to the next?

As a nonprofit community outreach professional, I evaluate opportunities requiring precious time and energy with the overall net benefit of that outreach before organizing or repeating them.

From my perspective, Pastor Hemming’s outreach and the subsequent news coverage has resulted in:

• An increase of donations and resources to North Idaho Pride Alliance.

• The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations donated $500 to the Community Library Network to more than cover the minimal costs of the Rainbow Squad program (about $15 per month).

• An influx of new volunteers for North Idaho Pride Alliance who want to support LGBTQ+ people, receive education and training, and advocate whenever needed.

• Letters to the editor speaking up against bigotry and for the integrity of public libraries.

• On the negative side: feelings of not being safe, anger, distrust, a soured holiday season and wasted energy that could be used to build community rather than perpetuating exhausting division.

Perhaps the most valuable result is increased awareness and community dialogue about the evolving, but often painful relationship between faith communities and LGBTQ+ people.

As a straight ally who identifies as “spiritual but not religious,” I am far from being an ideal voice on this topic. Nor am I in the best position to influence and change minds. Nevertheless, this dialogue must continue. I write this in hope that local faith leaders who don’t approve of Pastor Hemming’s “outreach” will reflect and respond with compassion.

And reading Pastor Hemming’s story, I felt compassion for the trauma he experienced growing up. I applaud him for turning his life around and gaining purpose. While his actions have angered and saddened me, I would never encourage anyone to call his church to threaten or call him names. I suppose it’s my liberal bleeding heart and better judgment that reminds me to go high when they go low.

During his rehabilitation, no doubt the seeds of bigotry were planted by someone else. Reinforcement of those harmful beliefs are still prevalent, stubborn to education and change.

The outreach desperately needed by local faith communities is not demonstrating outside libraries and storming public board meetings, bringing literal and spiritual weapons.

For those who work to advance causes and address human needs, the River Babies Parable is a powerful lesson that we must go upriver to the source where suffering and problems originate, or the village will continue to be inundated with rescuing victims from the river.

The source of bigotry of LGBTQ+ people was born in the church and can only be healed in partnership with the church.

Through the community organizing work that I do, becoming more educated and listening to human experiences, my observation is there are three general camps where Christians sit on this issue:

One camp supports LGBTQ+ people as their authentic selves worthy of love and respect. They include LGBTQ+ people in their church or actively work toward positive change. Nationwide, there are numerous faith groups doing the work of healing religious trauma. They study scripture and its complexities — translation, interpretation, and historical context — and challenge the narrative that justifies bigotry. They demonstrate through action the greatest commandment of all: to love thy neighbor.

The second camp continues to misuse the Bible to inflict trauma, instill toxic shame, justify parental rejection, wage culture wars, promote psychologically harmful and ineffective “conversion therapy,” while making the insulting and disingenuous claim to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” They may not understand, and certainly don’t recognize, the harm they do. This spiritual disease manifests into many troubling incidents within our community.

And the third camp sits on the sidelines of this issue in silence, neither participating in religious attacks against LGBTQ+ people nor speaking out against it. To that, I will share a quote from the recently passed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, champion of human rights, including for the LGBTQ+ community:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

I am sure there are many reading this who would clamor back that the Bible clearly says homosexuality is an abomination and that failure to follow gender norms should be passionately rejected.

No productive dialogue can be made with people hanging on to that taught hate. They must first be willing to dig deeper and listen to the lived experiences of those harmed, which may only occur when someone they love does come out and they risk losing that person altogether.

There are many worthy books and films that educate and provide perspective on this challenging topic. I can personally recommend the book “Unclobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality” by Colby Martin and the documentary “Because the Bible Tells Me So.”

The outreach truly needed locally are more funded and stable programs to support LGBTQ+ youth and their families. What’s sad about this situation is there are so few resources here to meet the need.

If you or a loved one need support and would like to avoid any potential trauma of encountering misguided religious protests, I recommend free online groups offered by Gender Spectrum for pre-teens, teens, parents, caregivers, and other family members at genderspectrum.org. There are other online groups hosted by excellent organizations like PFLAG and The Trevor Project.

And to Pastor Steven Hemming and aligned faith leaders, my question to you is this: is this “outreach” outside the Rainbow Squad meetings worth it? With so many people suffering from food and housing insecurity, loneliness, illnesses, drug and alcohol abuse or even elderly people in need of help shoveling snow, can you not imagine a more impactful action for good to organize? I may not be religious, but I do recognize the powerful capacity for congregations to help the communities they live in. I hope you pursue projects that unify rather than divide that truly embody the spirit of Jesus Christ.

• • •

Jessica Mahuron is an Outreach Coordinator for the North Idaho Pride Alliance.

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