“For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:3b-4)
* * *
I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, avoiding eye contact with the ladies in my small group. They offered encouragement to a woman sitting next to me. She cried softly and spoke in halting sentences, wiping away tears with a tissue they offered.
“It’s just awful,” she said. “You can’t even imagine.”
But I could.
She was talking about her son. Her gay son. And nobody knew that he was gay but me and her. She didn’t even know that I knew. She didn’t know that I knew he had a boyfriend. That he had only just come out to her a day ago. That she was crying because he was gay and perfectly happy to never change. She didn’t know that I knew about it all.
She didn’t know that I was gay too. None of them did.
“Pete just needs prayer,” she said about her son, never mentioning his secret. “We learned some things about him yesterday. I can’t go into details, but he’s falling away.”
I fingered the pages of my Bible nervously and found myself saying, “Your son loves Jesus… he really does. God will watch out for him.”
“This is just so terrible, Bridget,” she said, eyes bleary and red. “I can’t say what it is, but it’s just so bad that I’d rather have learned he was dead.”
I’d rather have learned he was dead.
Her words lingered in the air as I looked away. One of the ladies gave her hand a little squeeze, and the mother went on about her family’s despair. A woman volunteered to pray for her. And then we moved on.
* * *
Just what exactly is so bad about homosexuality that a Christian would actually rather a loved one be dead than gay? I’ve asked myself that question more times than I could count. Though shocking and even somewhat unbelievable, the woman from my small group isn’t an outlier. Her words reflect the secret and often unconscious thoughts of thousands upon thousands of Christians. Worse, her words reflect the silent voice of death in the midst of countless LGBTQ people. People made in the image of God who often tragically believe they’d be better off dead than alive as they are.
Consider the statistics. In the United States, where over 70 percent of the country identifies as Christian, researchers found that religious involvement increased the risk of suicide by as much as 52 percent for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals but decreased the risk of suicide for straight people. How could that be? How is it that going to church would keep straight people alive but push gay people to death?
Discrimination never starts with a deathwish. It begins slowly. Imperceptibly. Lurking in a raised eyebrow and in the unspoken assumptions we make about normalcy. It flourishes in the hopes and dreams we nurture for ourselves and for our loved ones and in the prejudices we cultivate for those we despise. Until one day a parent wakes up and finds themself shedding more tears over their child being gay than being dead.
Until one day a child wakes up and actually wants to be dead.
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Religious faith reduces the risk of suicide for virtually every American demographic except one: LGBTQ people. Generations of LGBTQ people have felt alienated or condemned by the church. It’s past time that Christians confronted the ongoing and devastating effects of this legacy. Breaking down the issues both historically and socially, Heavy Burdens (Brazos Press, 2021) provides an honest account of the ways in which LGBTQ people experience discrimination in the church, helping Christians grapple with hard realities and empowering churches to navigate a better path forward. Pre-order now.
Many LGBTQ people face overwhelming challenges in navigating faith, gender, and sexuality. Christian communities that uphold the traditional sexual ethic often unwittingly make the path more difficult through unexamined attitudes and practices. Drawing on her sociological training and her leadership in the Side B/Revoice conversation, Bridget Eileen Rivera, who founded the popular website Meditations of a Traveling Nun, speaks to the pain of LGBTQ Christians and helps churches develop a better pastoral approach.
Rivera calls to mind Jesus’s woe to religious leaders: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4). Heavy Burdens provides an honest account of seven ways LGBTQ people experience discrimination in the church, helping Christians grapple with hard realities and empowering churches across the theological spectrum to navigate better paths forward. Start reading now.