A Conversation with Rev. Meredith White about Reaching LGBTQ Youth in Lakewood, OH
From Jenna (age 17): “I think it has to be how close we are. We have a lot been through so much. And we have pushed through it all. Even though we say that ‘we’re done’ and that we aren’t coming back, we all push through because we are a family. We love each other.”
Rev. Meredith White serves as the pastor of the Phoenix Project, a new PC(USA) church development in Lakewood near Cleveland, OH. She graduated from Louisville Seminary and her mom was an advocate for LGBTQ welcome in the PC(USA) in the early days of the struggle.
The Phoenix Project encourages a creative response to the Gospel through art and activism, worship and prayer, and celebration and conversation. The congregation meets at a storefront in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, OH. One day a young adult from Lakewood High School approached Meredith about hosting a youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth and their allies and that became the start of Freak Flag.
Freak Flag is open to anyone ages 12 to 20. The group established itself as a drama and hate free zone for youth to hangout and have fun. It provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth who are not feeling accepted anywhere in the community. Discussions center on issues like bullying, harassment, same gender marriage, and other great topics. At Freak Flag, everyone is equal, and everyone is beautiful.
How did you get involved in reaching out to LGBTQ youth?
Shortly after starting the Phoenix Project, I came out as a lesbian. We founded the congregation as welcoming from the beginning and we hosted a number of affirming events including three HIV/AIDS benefit concerts. One day I was sitting on the porch at my house and a high school student approached me about the discrimination she was experiencing at Lakewood High School. When youth came out at the High School, they were often bullied. I told her what we have a drop in center at church that is not used often and she was welcome to use it to establish a meeting for LGBTQ students and allies.
It took us about six months to get ready to have our first meeting and a dozen kids showed up. We then planned a Christmas party for two weeks later and 35 kids showed up. We now have about 55 kids, LGBTQ and allies, that participate each week at Freak Flag. It is a no hate zone, protected space. This summer, we had 35 kids march in the Cleveland Pride Parade and staff our table at the festival.
The youth that come to Freak Flag are alternative kids, come from single parent homes and we don’t meet the parents very often. Many of them struggle with bullying at school. Some struggle with their parents telling them that they don’t want them to go to that “gay group.” A lot of them are church traumatized and to them we are able to witness that the church is changing and we’re not all a bunch of jerks. We don’t have them on a path to confirmation, but simply live a Christian life before them.
How many of the LGBTQ youth at Freak Flag are homeless?
There are 3 kids over 18 who are homeless and couch surfing. They were kicked out of their houses. Even with the younger kids, there is a lot of house swapping. Their home life not stable for the most part and some are from the lower end of economic spectrum. Generally they have spaces to stay.
Why do you think this kind of ministry is necessary?
In past year-and-half, I’ve seen the love and welcome we offer make a big difference in their lives. A lot of them did not have a place to go and did not feel like things were going to be OK. They just need a safe place to be, not at school, home, or the church. Institution after institution has failed them and we are honored to have a chance to be different. We’re able to model the love of Jesus and counter the notion that the church is mostly about bigotry and hypocrisy. Given the opportunity to plan events and be involved in the larger community, these young people have blossomed and discovered many skills and gifts that they had never been encouraged to use. Given a place of their own, they have stepped up and taken responsibility for everything from weekly clean-up to organizing fundraisers, concerts, and celebrations.
What has been your most amazing moment working with LGBTQ youth?
I love to see the strong justice mindset of the kids. About six months ago, we had a big marriage equality rally in downtown Cleveland. The kids told me that they would be taking the rapid at nine am to be at the rally. When I got down there, there were 40 people on the courthouse steps. Most of them were kids from Freak Flag. They came out fully and represented. If it is important to them, they will get out of bed. It was amazing to see them hold the majority at the rally paving the way for equality.
Another thing that has amazed me about the youth is how accepting they are of many different varieties of people. At the Phoenix Project drop-in center we often have adults come in with mental or emotional problems that make them uncomfortable in social settings. It is often the youth who help them to feel welcome, teach them to use the computers, and engage them in conversation. Even as we have welcomed them, they consistently extend that welcome to others.
What have been some of the challenges?
One of the main challenges are the parents. We don’t see the parents much. A few of those that do get involved are often negative about the group and often tell their kids, “I don’t want you to be part of that.” One mother went ballistic and accused us of turning her daughter gay. We have to confront the negative messages that they absorb from the culture and help them understand that often those messages are wrong and untrue. This is not to say that all of the parents are antagonistic towards our community, many of them are simply too busy to be involved. From those parents, we regularly hear messages of affirmation and support that we have provided a healthy and safe place for their kids to spend their free time. Vetting adults to work with the kids is also a challenge. We want the kids to be safe and we do background checks on our volunteers. We also make sure that we don’t pick adults that are going to be uncomfortable with the realities of these kids lives. Not everyone can have a healthy conversation with a 17-year-old boy about his sexuality or with a 16-year-old girl about date rape.
If you were to give advice to a PC(USA) church wanting to start a similar ministry, what would it be?
If you have the space and the resources, just do it. Make it known that you have a welcoming disposition to LGBTQ youth and allies. Youth have been really hurt, especially by churches. You have to be sincere in your welcome because as soon as they sense hypocrisy, they will run.
It is important to focus on serving the youth without conditions. We did not say you can be part of Freak Flag to get them in the pews and teach about Jesus. We offer a place of healing and safety and let them be the beautiful people God has created them to be.
Like all high school students, they play music, dance, and have drama. You have to let things like this roll off your back. It gets noisy and a bit wild at times as they have a lot of energy to burn but it is so much fun to talk and laugh and sing that I usually go home exhausted but very happy with the community they have created.