To be gay and Christian at the same time can feel like conflicting identities, but a weeklong summer camp in Minnesota gives teens license to be both.
"For some of these kids it's perhaps the first time in their lives they can be truly authentic," said the Rev. Brad Froslee, co-director of the Naming Project Summer Camp, a place where young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities can share their faith.
The camp on Bay Lake near Deerwood, Minn., had been operating quietly since 2004 until it was featured in early March on Lisa Ling's new Oprah Winfrey Network show, "Our America." In the episode, "Pray the Gay Away," Ling looked at one of the more polarizing debates in Christianity today: Is it possible to be gay and Christian at the same time?
"The response has been so overwhelmingly positive. It's great exposure for us," co-director Ross Murray said of the wave of inquiries after the show.
The camp is an offshoot of a Minneapolis-based program called the Naming Project that offers places to gather, workshops and resources for gay youths. At first glance, it appears to be a typical Bible camp, with swimming, hiking, canoeing and crafts. But Ling notes that perhaps this camp is "the first place in history where worship sessions come after a diva contest."
The camp's directors wanted to give teens a safe place to have a healthy view of their sexuality and also talk about spirituality. When it opened, there weren't any groups in the Twin Cities like it, and there still aren't, especially for kids. The hope is that the Naming Project inspires others to acknowledge the spiritual battle that's going on in the gay community.
"Our goal is to walk with and accompany these kids wherever they're at on their journey," said Froslee, who's also pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. "Some are extremely religious. ... Others have already experienced such hurt or loss within the church that they've given up on religion."
Nobody understands that feeling better than Minneapolis author Jon Odell, who's working on a book of essays about growing up gay and Christian. Odell attended the camp last summer to share his story with the teens.
"Even though I'm 60 and they're 15, we have the same story," he said. "It's that age when kids are trying to create a life story, but everyone wants to tell your story but you. Your gay friends are saying, 'You can't be Christian; look at how they persecute you.' And your Christian friends say, 'You can't be gay; look at what it says in the Bible.'"
Changes are afoot, albeit slowly in Twin Cities churches and schools. Gay-straight alliances exist at more than 70 Minnesota public and private high schools, according to the New York-based national Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
The recent news of bullying and suicides by gay teens has since propelled other religious groups in the Twin Cities to offer safe meeting places for kids. St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Minnetonka, which welcomes members of all sexual identities, opens its doors every Sunday afternoon for GLBT kids and their allies.
"We felt compelled to do this so the kids would have a safe place to come, so they'd have an opportunity to connect with kids all across the metro to know they're not alone," said the Rev. Louise Mollick, pastor.
The group comprises about 50 kids from 10 different schools and various religious beliefs. Mollick said many struggle with how to make room for both sexuality and spirituality.
"My consistent message is that God loves every person unconditionally," she said. "I believe that we're all created in the image of God. Whether we're gay, straight, bisexual or transgendered, God loves us."
Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715