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The Talking Stick

Last week, I had an opportunity to sit down with our church’s high school students during their Friday night gathering. It’s been three months since Eric shared his story with the Youth, and since then, there hasn’t been an opportunity for them to talk about what our church is walking through as a whole group. Conversations have come up, of course—on a retreat weekend, on the trip some of them took to Northern Ontario, and no doubt in other informal contexts—but we wanted to create an intentional space for them to share some of the thoughts and feelings that were swirling around in their minds and hearts with the group as a whole.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

We met in the Youth Room, which as you might have guessed, is in the basement of the church. In the time since we began sharing space with the Lutheran congregation that owns the building, this space has slowly transitioned from a dingy, overstuffed storage room—it was literally filled with church garage sale leftovers—to a classic church Youth group hangout. There are some old couches, a projector mounted on the ceiling, and even a small stage in the corner that was built by a couple of Youth leaders. The room is still a work in progress, but then again, it will probably always be that way.

Having a space that our Youth could call their own was one of the many gifts that came along with our facility-sharing partnership. When I first learned about the significant challenges this particular Lutheran congregation was going through, I met with a couple of their Board members with a suggestion that we explore the idea of sharing the space in a way that would be mutually beneficial. That’s a different story altogether, but it’s one that I think will probably become more common as both new and established congregations face the challenges of finding and maintaining places of worship as membership grows and fades over time.

Our church has been calling this place home for five years now, but my roots go back much further than that. Long before I was stepping up on a platform to preach on Sunday mornings, I was roaming the halls of this very same church as a child. I attended St. John’s Lutheran Church with my family throughout my childhood, and the fact that I am now pastoring a congregation of my own out of the same space is something I have a hard time putting into words; serendipitous might be close, but there’s some irony in it, too, and something else that feels like grace.

The Lutheran church was home for me until middle school, at which point I made my Confirmation and, since I was suddenly responsible for my own faith, promptly decided that I would start sleeping in on Sunday mornings while the rest of the family loaded themselves into our Volvo station wagon and made their way across town. Honestly, I’m not sure if there was much that could have kept me going to church in those days, but I had a particularly negative experience in that final year that was resurrected when we started talking about creating a dedicated space for our Youth.

One day, my childhood Youth leader had a brilliant idea: we would work together to restore an old room in the church basement and turn it into our very own Youth Room. I can’t remember what it was being used for before we started working on it, but since history likes to repeat itself, my best guess would be a storage space for church garage sale leftovers. Once we had cleared the place out, a bunch of us showed up in grubby clothes to put on a fresh coat of paint. At some point before I arrived, one of my friends had used her roller to paint a large ‘expletive’ across the wall. She was laughing as she told me about it and about how our Youth leader had yelled at her, saying that if we were going to abuse the privilege of having our own space in the church, then it would be taken away from us. My goodness—we hadn’t even finished priming the walls and ‘the adults’ were already threatening to take our room away!

Some time later, I invited a few friends from school to an overnight event at the church. One of them threw a Frisbee through a window and another one lit a table on fire, and I remember how incredibly mad our Youth leader was as she threatened to send us all home at 2:30 in the morning. But I also remember that she was doing her best.

Teenagers like to test the limits: sometimes they break the rules and sometimes they break windows, that’s just the way it is. But the broken window was the last straw for a church Board that had already heard about the painted ‘expletive’ (and possibly other things that I don’t remember quite so clearly!) so they decided to send a strong message to our unruly group: they took away our Youth Room.

Well, I got the message loud and clear: there wasn’t a place for me and my friends in the church. As it turned out, that was my own last straw, and many of the people in that Youth group of ours walked away from the church for good.

Those memories I have of being shoved aside by ‘the adults’ fueled my commitment to avoid doing the same thing to this new generation of Youth gathering in that same basement Youth Room. I sat down at the edge of a make-shift circle of stacking chairs and curbside couches as Graham, our Youth Pastor, got the conversation going. Since the Youth team returned from their trip to Northern Ontario, they have been using what they call a “talking stick” to provide some structure to their conversations. It’s simple, really: whoever is holding the stick is the only person who gets to speak. The stick is passed around in order to ensure everyone gets a fair opportunity to speak and to avoid a small number of voices dominating the conversation.

I was determined to honour the Youth as part of our church community and let them know that ‘the adults’ cared about what they thought and about how they were feeling. As the conversation started, I felt a sadness creeping in as I looked around at some of the kids whose families I was pretty sure would end up leaving the church as a result of our conversations around same-sex attraction. Two of those families have already let us know they will be leaving, and there are others that I know are struggling a lot right now, so we felt like providing an opportunity for the Youth to continue to process their questions and emotions would at least help them wrap up their time with us in a healthy way if they do end up leaving along with their families. Of course the conversation is equally important, if not more so, for the Youth who will stick with us, to help them understand what it is their parents are so worked up about and why their friends may not be around for much longer.

The first question Graham asked sought to gauge the level of engagement the Youth were feeling with the topic of same-sex attraction and Christian faith. As the talking stick was passed around, most of the group seemed to indicate that, on a personal level, the intensity was pretty low: ones and twos out of a possible ten. There were a couple of exceptions, including one girl who admitted that she was confused about her sexuality, being attracted to both girls and boys, and, through tears, she expressed a high level of anxiety about whether the church was going to become a place where she would no longer be welcome. It was brave of her to be so vulnerable with her peers at that age, but as confused as she was, she found a way to share her honest questions and fears with the group.

For most of the Youth, this isn’t something they are processing at a very personal level, but there is an awareness of how important this seems to be for the church as a whole. There were concerns about how this would divide the group, especially after one of the girls shared about her parents’ decision to find another church for their family. This wasn’t just a debate any more, this was real people—real friends—being separated over an issue that didn’t seem like it should be as big of a deal as ‘the adults’ were making it out to be. That was definitely a theme that emerged as the talking stick made its way around for a second and third time and they shared about the big questions they had and about what they were hoping for as our church moves forward with these conversations.

I jotted down as many of the questions as I could that night, and as I’m typing a few of them out here today, I’m struck by how similar the questions our Youth are asking to the questions their parents and the rest of the church are asking:

“Why is this such a big deal for some people?” 
“How can I say what I believe about this without offending people?”
“What does this mean for the future of our church?”
“When will I know with my heart what I believe?”
“Why isn’t it simple? Why can’t we figure it out?”

While they’re likely getting cues from what they’re hearing around their dining room tables, there was something genuine about their questions and I could tell that some of them were definitely wrestling through this themselves.

As a couple of the Youth expressed, they had thought things over and then thought things over again; they had prayed about it and then prayed about it again; and still they couldn’t figure out what to do with all of the mixed messages and lack of clarity. I could sense the weight of their anxiety over this and tried my best to validate what they were feeling, sharing my hope that they would all be able to look back on this season of our church’s life one day and reflect on how it was a time of growth for them, as opposed to looking back in anger and resentment over how ‘the adults’ handled everything. I reminded them of the words I shared during my sermon back in February, where I acknowledged the importance of being able to pass the church on to the next generation, and how this conversation was a part of that: helping them own the challenges of this season along with the rest of the church.

At the end of the night, I was glad to know we had provided the Youth with a safe space to share what was on their minds and to listen to the voices of their peers. But there were a lot of unanswered questions, too, so hopefully we’ll be able to find meaningful ways to continue helping them process things as we all navigate our own sets of seemingly unanswerable questions.

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