A Conversation with Rev. Alex Wirth About Reaching LGBTQ Youth in Chicago
Rev. Alex Wirth serves at Café Pride, a ministry of Lake View Presbyterian Church, a welcoming and affirming More Light church. Café Pride is a safe social space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth and their allies in Chicago. The church is located in Boystown, the first officially recognized LGBTQ district in the United States. A large number of LGBTQ youth gather in the neighborhood throughout the year. Some are homeless and some come into the neighborhood to hang out with their friends.
Alex and his wife Megan recently preached their candidate sermons at Lake View Presbyterian Church and were called into ministry at the congregation. They were also recently married. Alex served as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Belfast, Northern Ireland for a year and then went on to McCormick Theological Seminary and recently graduated with a Master of Divinity Degree. Alex buys vinyl albums more than mp3s, tries to ride his bike more than drive a car, makes and bakes things more than buys them, and generally sticks to a punk rock, do-it-yourself mindset like Jesus did.
How did you get involved in reaching out to LGBTQ youth?
I came to it in two parts. I went to college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a school with a lot of diversity. I got to be friends with a lot of gay people for the first time. I met these friends through the context of a Christian campus organization. They were welcoming to all in this group.
I also have a great passion for serving homeless people. Serving the poor is one of the clearest things the gospels call us to do. When I served as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I worked in a Catholic neighborhood coaching soccer with at-risk boys, 11 to 20 years old. It was my first job working with homeless and at-risk youth. Caring for these young persons had a big impact on me. When I started seminary, I was very interested in thinking about the theology of homelessness and did my internship with the Night Ministry, an organization that goes out on Chicago’s streets to serve the homeless. I learned a lot at the Night Ministry about interacting with people who are different from me.
How many of the LGBTQ youth at Café Pride are homeless?
We don’t ask the youth attending Café Pride about their housing status. We provide a meal and have reference lists for those looking for services. My guess is that about 60 percent are homeless. It is hard to say because their housing situations are so fluid. We talk about them as “precariously housed.” There is a severe lack of LGBTQ youth friendly shelters in Chicago. Many of the youth are in relationships in order to have a place to say, some crash with friends, and others live at home and tone things down while at their parents house. They take the train into Boystown to have fun over the weekend.
Why do you think this kind of ministry is necessary?
As Christians we need to be on the cutting edge of loving people traditionally not loved by the church. We do everything we can to show these youth hospitality, love and compassion. We show them that they are loved, not in words only, but let our actions speak for our compassion. If the church is not completely inclusive of LGBTQ youth, homeless and housed, we’re fooling ourselves as a church.
What has been your most amazing moment working with LGBTQ youth?
We have lots of amazing moments working at Café Pride. It doesn’t happen every night, but sometimes the youth will come and set up speakers in our space, dance and have a good time. It is pretty fun. I love seeing how much joy they have when they are dancing. Sometimes they come in hungry or in conflict with a significant other, but when they are dancing, it transforms their difficult week into joy.
It is also amazing to see the level of trust the youth are willing to give me. They know we’re a church and that I’m a pastor, and yet their thick walls of defense come down. We are there every week and they really trust us. If they grew up in the church at all and experienced the alienation that so many LGBTQ people experience, by all rights they should not trust us. The more we are hospitable, consistent and loving, the more they open up to us. We don’t make our faith a part of the space, but often those kinds of conversations occur.
What have been some of the challenges?
Sometimes the youth are slow to trust us. They don’t often have safe space to express their beautiful identities to the fullest and that expression gets pent up and it comes out in some powerful ways- good and bad. Sometimes we have behavioral issues that get out of control and we have to calm things down and talk about that kind of stuff. We have conversations and mediation to make the space safe for everyone. The more present and consistent we are, the better things go.
Another challenge is finding people to volunteer. It is hard to get people willing to give up a whole Friday night and chill with the youth and listen to loud music. We struggle to keep our volunteer pool consistent and full enough. I spend a lot of time training new folks and checking in with our current volunteers. They are confronted with intense theological and emotional questions in this work. For example, when you leave Café Pride, you get to go back to your house. The LGBTQ youth often don’t know where they are going. It can be hard for volunteers to process this. I work to keep people processing healthily and asking good questions to keep things in perspective.
If you were to give advice to a PC(USA) church wanting to start a similar ministry, what would it be?
The most important thing is discerning if you are ready to host something like this. Would your church be willing to fail? Make sure you have lots of energy for the project in your congregation. Invite an outside group to train you that really knows what they are doing.
Also, be ready to see an amazing amount of glory when you do gain the trust of the youth. That is one of the most impressive things. When an LGBTQ young person discloses something personal, it is a moment of glory. As a straight male, it is amazing when a black, transgender youth shares a relationship problem with me.
Be prepared for it to be harder than you think. It is easy to see homelessness and LGBTQ issues as sets of problems to be solved. When you realize that these are whole humans with faith, passion, and joy, and that our church has historically neglected them entirely, it is a heavy realization to deal with. Whole humans need to integrate their whole selves in the life of our church, for them and for ourselves. This is a hard road because of the oppression LGBTQ people have experienced in our church.
Any final thoughts?
The good Samaritan story is in the lectionary this week. I see the story a little bit differently. We as a church are the ones beaten up at the side of the road because we’ve denied the fullness of community to these LGBTQ youth and ourselves. When they come into our space, they show us the fullness of community and the fullness of God.
They bind our wounds.