Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Recently, Warren told me about an interview he heard on public radio - a parent giving advice to parents on how to talk to their adolescent children about sexuality, specifically about the possibility that their child might be having sexual feelings toward someone of the same gender. It got us to talking about how difficult it is to penetrate feelings of isolation, depression, and fear in kids between the ages of ten and eighteen. The interview was one of many interviews and articles published recently about five suicides of young boys in the last month, all of whom had been bullied about their sexuality. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that suicide is the 4th leading cause of death in adolescents between the ages of ten and fourteen. Among that age group, the rate of suicide has doubled in the last two decades. As adults, it’s almost impossible for us to imagine how life could be so despairing to an eleven year old that he would want to kill himself. Many adolescents stop talking to their parents around that age. Middle School teachers, for whom I have nothing but admiration and gratitude, keep their eyes and ears open for signs of adolescent depression, anxiety, bullying, sexual abuse but in the same way as for parents, it can be difficult for teachers to see the signs. It made me think of how the lives of adolescents are like a brick wall - the bricks are their school classes, piano lessons, confirmation sessions, sports’ practices, rides to and from activities with parents. But those bricks, however strong, are only as good as the mortar around them, and it’s in the mortar that children are most vulnerable.
I’m sometimes asked to speak in the Hanover High School religion classes, and once I was the Martin Luther King, Jr. speaker. Those occasions remind me how incredibly fragile is the mortar – the few minutes between classes when the hallways are loud, crowded, and hormonal, the physicality of teen-agers, the evaluating, judging and identifying that happens in mere seconds. There is the mortar of the internet, texting, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. There is the mortar of mood swings, sexual feelings, rumors, sudden infatuation, crushes, and experimentation of all types and levels of danger. As good as we are as parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, guidance counselors, physicians, and interested onlookers, we have very little control over the quality of the mortar.
Not all teens who commit suicide are gay. But I would propose that all teens who are bullied have been accused of being gay. “That’s so gay”, faggot, queer, all words and phrases to label someone who doesn’t quite fit the norm, for whatever reason – because they’re quiet or artistic, because they dress in odd clothes, enjoy the fantasy world of wizards, because they’re introverts, because they got drunk at a party and did something exhibitionist, because they try too hard to fit in, because they touched someone of the same gender in a way that was tender, because, because, because… Kids who bully usually use sexual slurs to demean, humiliate, and isolate kids who are different and the best way to humiliate another human of any age is through sex.
The story of Tyler Clementi is horrifying on many levels. He was the Rutgers student whose roommate and roommate’s friend webcammed Tyler in a private, sexual encounter with another boy. A webcam is a tiny little camera in most newer computers, the lens of which is no bigger around than a #2 pencil. It can be engaged without any noticeable light or sound. Every laptop in every college student’s room has one of these tiny cameras. In Tyler Clementi’s room, the camera was on him and running and the clip of Tyler kissing another boy was sent out and viewed on the internet by who-knows- how many others. It was too much for Tyler. He sent a Twitter message (innocuously called a tweet), announcing his intention to jump off the George Washington bridge. He did just that, and he died. He was 18. This same month, emotionally exhausted from fending off gay bullying, Asher Brown and Seth Walsh, both13, killed themselves. Billy Lucas was 15, and Raymond Chase was19. They also killed themselves because they couldn’t stand the gay-bashing of which they were the targets.
Good has come out of these and other tragic teen suicides. There have been vigils and conversations between parents and kids. The It-Gets-Better project has been particularly moving – adults, most of them gay, post clips of themselves speaking directly to gay and questioning teens, reassuring them that life does get better, bullies, while seemingly omnipresent and permanent, do recede, genuine friendships can be formed and lifetimes of wonderful moments will be blessed, so please, stay alive. It gets better. There is the Trevor Project, founded by the creators of the 1994 short film, Trevor, about a gay 13-year-old boy who, when rejected by friends because of his sexuality, makes an attempt to take his life. When Trevor was scheduled to air on HBO, the filmmakers searched for a help line to broadcast during the program. When they discovered that no such helpline existed, they decided to create such a service - an organization to promote acceptance of gay youth, and to aid in crisis and suicide prevention among that group. As a result, The Trevor Helpline became the first nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline specifically for gay and questioning kids. In addition, The Trevor Project also provides online support to young people through the organization’s Website, as well as guidance and resources to educators and parents.
There are lots of reasons adolescents die. There is disease, gun violence, and neglect. Adolescents become soldiers before their brains are fully developed. They drink themselves to death and die of alcohol poisoning, or they freeze to death, too drunk to know they aren’t indoors where it’s warm. They die in automobile accidents because they are distracted by all the things that draw their attention – conversation with their friends, text-messaging, music through earplugs that block out the sounds of horns or sirens. And sometimes kids kill themselves because they can see no other alternative, because they believe it’s better to be dead than face whatever humiliation they have experienced, better to be dead than face another day at school.
Into this morass of sorrow, helplessness, and incredulity comes the lectionary passage of this second letter to Timothy. Long believed to have been written by Paul to a fellow worker in the early church, this letter is in a group of writings called pastoral letters, written to encourage, soothe and reassure Paul’s companions in the difficult work of building churches. I’ve tried to read these letters as if I had received them directly from Paul himself especially these words to Timothy, as if I had received them through the mail this past Wednesday as I was preparing the opening words for a vigil held that evening. They contain the wisdom of experience that has evolved into strength of purpose and unapologetic forcefulness about the call to be faithful. “Proclaim the message, be persistent, convince, rebuke, encourage, be patient, be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
What do Paul’s words say to us on October 17, 2010, to our congregation as we absorb the sadness of teen suicides, gay bashing, and terrified parents?
When a child is baptized in our church, we make promises to his or her family. We promise to care for that child and to support those parents. We promise to do all we can to protect them, love them, and provide them a safe place. We covenant with them to walk with them. And we certainly try to fulfill that covenant promise. We choose individual church members to be mentors for our confirmands. We review curriculum and look for ways to make the curriculum parent-friendly. In placing a high priority in our staff structure on the care and nurture of children through Rob Grabill, we state, unequivocally, that the relationships between adults and children matter to us. But in doing these things, we must not pass off our collective responsibility to Rob and to the Board of Deacons for Religious Education. The covenant promise we make is a congregational promise. So here is something new we’re doing – we’re linking up our children who have email addresses with older church members for an e-pal correspondence, and we’re developing a prayer list of our congregation’s children with a sentence or two about each one of them so they will be prayed for, by name, on a special day and their parents will know that on that day, people in their congregation are praying for their child.
And here’s something we all can do, we can get to know our congregation’s children by name. Start by looking through your photo directory, but don’t stop there. Ask parents the names of their children or bend down and ask the children themselves, and work on remembering them.
And here’s one thing more – we can choose to believe, really believe, that all people are created in the image of God, gay, straight, single, partnered, married, celibate, and sexual. That’s the message we must proclaim. We are, every one of us, a reflection of God’s glory. If we can convince just one struggling teen of that fact, then we will have saved a life, a life far too precious to waste. Amen.