Shelter from the storm
The Rev. Rick Eisenlord starts a new church in response to a spate of gay teen suicides
By Justin Chapman 11/18/2010
In September and October, at least seven gay teenagers around the country committed suicide, but not before enduring years of harsh bullying from classmates and being either ignored or ostracized by school administrators who did nothing to help, while religious leaders condemned their sexual orientation as sinful.
The deaths of these kids sent shock waves through the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In one openly gay preacher’s opinion, it was the biggest shock since the murder of openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
That pastor, the Rev. Rick Eisenlord of Good Shepherd Church Pasadena, has taken a forceful stand and created a new church from scratch two months ago to deliver a powerful message of unconditional acceptance and love.
“It just breaks my heart when I hear about these kids feeling so alone that they decide to take their own life,” Eisenlord said.
The problem, said Eisenlord, is that churches either condemn homosexuality or they choose not to get actively involved in supporting the LGBT community. Some denominations, such as Unitarianism and Episcopalians, are openly supportive, while others, such as Catholicism and Islam, want nothing to do with it.
“And it’s not even uniform within those denominations,” said Eisenlord. “It’s more of a case-by-case basis. But I don’t see most churches getting involved and helping the gay and lesbian community.”
Virginia Uribe, executive director of Friends of Project 10, an organization that works mostly with gay and lesbian students in Los Angeles schools, agrees with Eisenlord that much depends on the individual congregations. She wholeheartedly supports what Good Shepherd is trying to do.
“Good Shepherd is doing what every church should be doing: opening up their church to everyone,” she said.
Eisenlord added he’s concerned about the impact negative messages from churches have on a young mind struggling to work out his or her identity.
“Can you imagine being a teenager and trying to figure out your identity as a person and being told that you’re sinful and going to hell? It makes them feel incredibly alone. My church is trying to tell them that it’s OK that they’re gay, lesbian, transgender, whatever. God loves you the way you are.”
The unusual rash of gay teen suicides in the last two months has brought many underlying issues to the forefront of the national consciousness. On Oct. 22, President Obama addressed the nation to call for an end to violence against anyone, no matter their sexual orientation. That video is part of the “It Gets Better Project,” a support forum for LGBT youth.
“We have got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal right of passage, that it’s some inevitable part of growing up,” Obama said. “It’s not. I do know what it’s like to grow up feeling like sometimes you don’t belong. It’s tough. But you are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied. And there is a whole world waiting for you, full of possibilities. There are people out there who love you and care about you, just the way you are. You’ve got to reach out to people you trust.”
Despite the president’s message of hope for LGBT youth, the gay community has been disappointed with Obama’s stance on gay marriage and his administration’s recent challenge to the ruling overturning the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
The president’s speech was given as a response to a number of recent gay youth suicides. At Rutgers University, 18-year-old freshman Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge after two roommates secretly videotaped him kissing another man and streamed the video online. Justin Aaberg, 15, of Anoka, Minn., hanged himself after constant bullying for being gay, and 13-year-old Asher Brown of Houston, Texas, shot himself following 18 months of being picked on for not wearing designer clothes and shoes, his short height, his religion and the perception by his schoolmates that he was gay. Brown’s parents claimed the school did nothing to stop the harassment.
Eisenlord said he has already started seeing the fruits of his slowly growing but dedicated congregation’s labor. At a recent service at Good Shepherd, Eisenlord, along with guest speaker Adam Carranza, an openly gay board member of the Mountain View School District in El Monte, led a discussion with several LGBT youth about the struggles they are enduring at home, school and places of worship.
Cody Williams, a 16-year-old singer, songwriter and producer who works with Baby G Music and just got signed to a two-year development contract, sang an original song at that service and spoke with the Weekly about his experience getting harassed for being gay.
“Since elementary school, I stood out for my sexuality,” said Williams. “There were constant derogatory remarks. I have a lot of gay friends, and everyone endured their amount of bullying.”
He added that while it didn’t happen often, teachers, school administrators and heterosexual kids would stand up for him on occasion.
“Schools do their best to fix the problem, but it’s really hard to call out every single kid and bring them in to reprimand them,” he said. “There were so many kids bullying me that it was hard to report them all.”
The Big Three
Nat Nehdar, a member of the Pasadena Human Relations Committee, believes schools need to play a bigger role in ending the unfair treatment of gay and lesbian youth.
“Schools must come to realize that they must take measures to educate students that bullying, name-calling and harassing gay and lesbian students is not acceptable,” said Nehdar. “It has to be part of the curriculum that is taught at a young age. Kids have to learn to respect gays and lesbians just like anyone else, and that no one has the right to hurt another human being because they are different.”
Uribe said that while Pasadena Unified School District has made some inquiries about Project 10’s work, district officials have fallen far short of where they need to be in terms of dealing with the harassment of gay and lesbian students.
“Pasadena’s been terrible,” Uribe said. “But, again, it depends on the individual school. Blair [high school], for example, has a big organization for gay and lesbian youth. But as far as the district is concerned, I don’t think there’s been much done.”
The district has an anti-bullying policy, but it doesn’t specifically address anti-gay bullying.
“Bullying with respect to LGBT youth has not emerged as an issue at PUSD,” said Binti Harvey, PUSD’s director of communications. “But in light of recent incidents, the board has made it a priority. Staff is currently in progress of updating policies.”
PUSD Board member Ramon Miramontes said he is confident district employees at all levels are taking this issue very seriously.
“I emphatically know that our staff and administration take this issue extremely serious,” said Miramontes. “I don’t know if we have the evidence that we’re addressing all the bullying, but it’s definitely a priority. We’ve conducted cyber bullying workshops, educating bus drivers, monitoring the social networks and training teacher aides who help supervise the playgrounds. That’s how we’ll eventually get a full handle on it.”
Harvey added that district officials are focusing on prevention methods, teaching students about conflict resolution, holding workshops for parents to help them recognize bullying, training staff on threat assessment and intervention, and working to update their policy on cyber bullying.
That recent trend has become a huge problem for youth in general, but especially for teenagers struggling with sexual identity issues.
“It’s one of the worst ways to bully someone because you’re taking the time to sit down at your computer and click on someone’s name and write something horrible,” Williams said. “It’s an even more personal way of bullying as opposed to face-to-face confrontations. Lots of kids are taking it to heart.”
Eisenlord definitely believes cyber bullying is a huge problem facing gay youth.
“That sort of hate reaches thousands of people,” he said during his sermon two weeks ago. “All of a sudden, your private life and struggle becomes known to thousands of people on the Internet. It can be so pervasive. Something about the Internet is more intimate, which is hard to explain to adults who didn’t grow up with it. The shame and embarrassment becomes more than these kids can handle, especially since they’re still developing their identities.”
As for the church, Williams agreed with Eisenlord in that hostility toward gays and lesbians doesn’t come from one group of people.
“Religious people have a blurred view on what homosexuality really is,” Williams said. “But I don’t think hatred is coming mainly from religious groups. It comes from factions of every group of people. It’s across the board.”
Eisenlord said he understands what these kids are going through, but suicide is not the answer. The answer, he believes, is threefold: One, parents and family need to let their kids know that they’re loved and accepted for who they are. When many gay youths come out, they experience anger and other negative emotions from their parents. There’s a lack of support and the last thing a youth wants to hear is that their parents don’t love them. Two, school district administrators and teachers need to be aware of bullying and harassment and institute a zero-tolerance policy at their schools. And finally, the church.
“Those are the three major sources of support, and right now they need serious work,” he said. “Those three institutions need to get together and let these kids know that they are not alone on this journey.”
Good Shepherd Church holds services at 4 p.m. every Sunday at Neighborhood Church, Room 21, located at 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. Visit goodshepherdpasadena.com for more information.