Sunday, January 25, 2009
In the event you watched Prayers for Bobby last night (on Saturday), you may feel that the drama in the story was hard to understand. Sure, Bobby had endured a lot of pressure and religious bigotry from his family but there came a time when he left home, lived in a big city, and found a handsome lover. And yet, in the middle of his success, he committed suicide. What kind of emotional baggage would there be that would follow someone once they left the abuse situation?
This afternoon I found this story on The Bilerico Project about a Trevor Project helpline (a teen suicide prevention hotline). Reading the story, you are left wondering about the situation, what turmoil the kid must have endured, and ultimately, as the story ends, so does our knowledge of what happened next. For some kids, this is a resonating story. What a tragedy!
Editor's Note: "Stories from the Helpline" is a recurring feature on The Bilerico Project, bringing in the personal accounts of Helpline counselors from The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization that operates the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. This installment comes from Kenny Ballinger, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline. He volunteers at The Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles.
I wanted to share with you about an experience that changed my life, the day I realized that my problems seemed to hold no value compared to those in need or the youth who call The Trevor Helpline.
On January 1, 2009 I arrived at the Randy Stone Call Center in Los Angeles, aka The Trevor Project, West Coast Call Center. Over the past few weeks I had worked roughly 4 prior shifts, all in which superseded another; in call volume and true help line calls.
The phone rang, and knowing that we've learned to expect the unexpected- I answered, "The Trevor Helpline, this is Kenny- what's going on?" My caller, in a calm, confident, juvenile tone replied with a simple question: "What's this line for?" I casually replied with a paraphrased mission-like statement of what The Trevor Project was: "Well, we're the only nationwide LGBTQ Youth Suicide Prevention/Crisis Hotline" I quickly added "What's your name buddy?" He quickly said "I'm Marcus."Marcus was 16 years old living in the great state of Texas - Houston to be exact. During the first 5 minutes of casual talk with Marcus, he didn't sound distraught; he didn't sound like he was in a crisis - and what I mean by that is that his breathing was well-paced, no emotions were evident, nor was his talking irrationally. When I asked Marcus why he was calling the helpline, he calmly stated he was just checking it out.
It seemed the call was moving at a slow pace, as Marcus did not allow me much opportunity to project the direction of his call, as his thoughts and emotions were very much neutral. I casually reminded Marcus that he was calling a crisis suicide prevention hotline and was curious to know if he was in a crisis. "No," he replied. "Did something happen tonight that you needed to talk about?" I asked. "Nothing in particular," he stated. "Have you ever thought about killing yourself, Marcus?" I asked. "All the time," he said. "Are you thinking about taking your life tonight, Marcus?" I asked. He said ever so casually, "Yes, I've come to peace and I called looking for permission to take my life."
I had to ask myself, "Did I hear him right? He just asked for permission to kill himself, but yet he didn't hesitate in his breath, his sentence, not a tear, no sign of emotion."
I allowed a moment for silence, so he and I could both comprehend his comment. I then allowed an additional moment for him to perhaps clarify his comment. However Marcus said nothing, he was confident in his gesture. I replied in a tone as if he'd asked for a drink of water, and said "Well, Marcus, I unfortunately cannot give you permission to kill yourself, but why don't you tell me about these thoughts you have and where or what they come from?" His simple remark was that "I've had enough- that it was time for me to die." I've worked many shifts, but no caller has ever captured me in a call with very little emotion, let alone none at all, as Marcus was easily portraying.
I truly believed that Marcus needed a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to, a friend to listen, but more importantly not to be judged. I assured Marcus that he could talk to me about what was bothering him so much, but he quickly declined stating that "there's nothing more to talk about," that he was the happiest he had been in such a long time.
Marcus's story was that of years of pain, suffering, neglect, tears, and hate. He felt that he was a stranger in his home with his parents and four younger siblings. He was told on a regular basis that he had demons inside his soul because he was gay. His step-father encouraged his siblings to spit on him, as if he was scum and did not deserve to be treated as a person. His mother treated him as an inconvenience to her life, telling him that she wished he would just go away. Marcus even had the clarity to tell me that they were supposedly a religious family, but he believed they were hypocrites, as they denied him acceptance and he was a child of God, as they are.
Marcus told me that at a young age he felt that he was different. That around the age of 9 he knew he was different, but didn't know how to identify these feelings. When he finally recognized himself and identified as gay, he was only 13. When Marcus told me this, I instantly commended him for being so brave and powerful in the ability to identify who he was and sharing that with others. Marcus felt that his self-revelation had caused more grief and pain than feeling good about himself.
After Marcus had felt that he could trust me, nearly an hour into the call, he continued with his vision of death, his story of why he had no tears left within his soul - his prior suicide attempts with pills and a knife and his experiences with cutting himself for pleasure. I quickly realized that he was truly seeking closure or "permission" to end his life. This was the fine line of determining whether or not this was a high-risk or a rescue call. Marcus was 16 years old and had enough with it all - he didn't need a reason to live, he needed a reason not to die. He had this vision of his afterlife; this life that would consist of happiness- no gods or goddesses, but purity and equality.
I could not believe how rational Marcus was sounding. He was so sure that this was the only option left. He told me that he had tried everything. In fact, January 1, 2008 he made the decision that he'd wait one more year, to fight on. To fight for being treated better than being spat on, or being told he was full of demons, or just to be loved by his own family. Unfortunately, that year had approached; he had planned for this day, he knew that nothing was going to change; he knew that his time had come to take his own life.
I called for rescue support an hour and a half into the call. It took just as long for them to arrive at Marcus's doorstep. I was working with two other Trevor Counselors, who showed that The Trevor Project isn't a one man team. Together they supported me in my every effort and action, and my direction of the conversation, with creative ideas on how to identify the caller's apartment number.
Roughly during the second hour of our conversation, Marcus asked me what I would do if he would kill himself shortly after we spoke. He asked how I would feel if he attempted to kill himself with me on the phone. Could I continue to do the work that I do, knowing that he killed himself?
I was not prepared to answer such questions. But then I felt that I was. I suddenly told Marcus, that yes in fact I could continue the work that The Trevor Helpline is known for. That if he had killed himself, that I would be hurt. That I would be devastated, because it would tell me that we still live a world where families can neglect children because of ignorance and selfishness. I told him that no matter what happened, that I would never forget him. That he had left a mark on my soul- that he changed my life. That it was calls like his that are the reasons I volunteer with The Trevor Helpline.
At that moment I got a message from my co-counselor that Houston Police Department should be there any minute. Then I heard someone knocking on his bedroom door. Marcus asked if I could wait a moment, so that he could check who was at the door. I heard talking in the background asking, "Who are you talking to?" He honestly replied, "The Trevor Project." There was a pause, then "The Police are here and want to talk to you." Marcus came back on the line. He said with the only emotion he'd shown over three hours of talking "Kenny, the police are here and they want to talk to me." At that very moment I told Marcus that I was worried for him, that I cared for his safety and that I wanted him to talk to the police and tell them what he had told me.
Marcus's story is all too familiar with the LGBTQ youth. However, the lack of emotion proved he was tired of fighting, that he wanted to give up at 16 years of age. Marcus used the metaphor during our conversation that some people get the easy road, while others get the hard road. He had felt he got the hard road. He knew perhaps not as hard as some, but he was too weak to keep fighting. I attempted to assure Marcus that with the support of The Trevor Project, we could keep fighting together. A great peer that I have befriended at The Trevor Project has, in my opinion, the two most powerful words that we stand for on the closing of every e-mail: Fight On.
The words "Fight On" are symbolic in the work that we do, the life that we live, the tragedies of today's equality movement. "Fight On" means more than fighting for what we believe in, but to never give up and to never settle; to encourage others to do the same. That each road we may be presented with is only hard when we do it alone. If we Fight On together with the support of each other; together we can make a difference.
Posted by Bo at 5:17 PM
Saturday, January 24, 2009
You may have read my earlier post about the made-for-tv movie Prayers for Bobby. The movie is based on Leroy Adam's book by the same name. If you get this in time, the movie airs tonight on Lifetime (channel 45 on Cablevision in Bergen County, NJ) at 9:00 PM.
Posted by Bo at 5:45 PM
A post has been brewing in my head since I read this morning that disgraced former pastor Ted Haggard had other gay relationships. One relationship in particular involved a volunteer at the church he pastored. As the story goes, the relationship lasted "a long time" but when it came to light after Haggard's sordid prostitution story broke, the church paid the man's counseling bills and COLLEGE TUITION (what's up with that?!) to keep things quiet. Also, the church seems confident that the young man was over 18 when the relationship with Haggard occurred (but they not entirely certain).
The thoughts in my head isn't over Haggard, per say, but over the power of the closet and what happens when a person allows themselves to justify the need for it.
When I attended a prominent Southern Baptist seminary (before I eventually left and transfered to a prominent liberal seminary in the East), I was both closeted and out, but in a variety of ways. My family knew I was gay and I was part of the unofficial 'gay underground' at the school; however, the school and church I served did not know. I was terrified at the thought of the school finding out because I knew I would be immediately expelled. When I was outed by another student (in a way that I should have expected), I consulted a close friend (who I had dated previously) who used to serve as the secretary to the Vice President of Student Affairs about how to handle the situation. He gave me incredible advice that caused some strain but ultimately didn't get me expelled (as the result of a lesser known stipulation in the disciplinary rules). My friend told me my situation wasn't unique and that nearly 100 students per year were kicked out of the school for being gay. That's a lot of students, even for one of the the largest seminaries in the world.
Anyways, my rant is somewhat directed at myself and what would have happened if I was not seen cavorting in a known gay neighborhood in a nearby city by a student spy sent there to discover students of the seminary? What would have happened to me if I made it past the radar, having graduated and served a growing congregation somewhere in the South to Midwest? What if I married and had children? Would the gay experiences and feeling have gone away upon marrying and serving a church? Haggard's story illustrates that marriage and servitude doesn't make the 'homo go away'. Haggard's story also illustrates that 'praying away the gay' won't make it go away either.
Next week, Haggard will be starring in an upcoming documentary called, The Trials of Ted Haggard, which begins airing on HBO. Interestingly Haggard will be promoting this documentary with guest appearance on Larry King Live and the Oprah Winfrey show. I am guessing those appearances will garner dynmite ratings (admittedly I plan to watch them too). What interests me about the documentary is the presumed acknowledgement that inspite of counseling after his affair was exposed, he still maintains that his same-sex feelings are still there and need to be managed accordingly. He also lamblasts his former church for treating him so badly after his fall and, a bit unexpectedly, endoreses same-sex legal and unions while also explaining that "marriage" belongs to a man and woman (which, in my opinion, changes the tune of the documentary from self-promotion to self-revelation, which can be a good thing).
Now, I am not the kind of minister who could ever found a mega-church or interest large numbers of Christians to come here me preach. But in some ways, when I look at Haggard, I wonder to myself what would have happened if I wasn't outed and left the Southern Baptist church. Would I have been eventually discovered? Outed? Shamed? Would the situation have been my fault for deceiving myself and others? Would I have publically condemned homosexuality but privately engaged in it? My questions are surely rheortical.
And yet I know that I wasn't alone. I know of many, many seminary students who are going into a situation just like Haggard's. While I was so angry over being outed, today I am somewhat grateful for the experience--although I do wish it had gone a bit smoother. For all the conservative forces to expunge its gay folks from its institutions, it may seem cruel and harsh. The fact is, while those institutions are primarily covering their tails, the experience actually benefits the students more. It gets them out of there and from the situation that justifies their closetedness.
Today I am pastoring a congregation in New Jersey as an openly gay and partnered man. The seminary I ultimately transfered to, away from my Baptist one, accepted me as an openly gay man and allowed me to write my Master's thesis on developing a new gay theology. I say all this to say that what Haggard and others need to know, once they come to terms with their sexual orientation, is that if you feel called to ministry, there are options outside of your current faith traditions that will honor and affirm your place in ministry. And for gawd sakes, get out while you still can before you cause yourself, a future family, and a church a world of abuse, hurt, and shame.
Posted by Bo at 7:51 AM
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Today I learned from a post on the Baptist Temple Facebook page that my childhood pastor, the Rev. Dr. Finley Tinnin, died yesterday. Tears have welt up in my eyes as I think back on such a wonderful and loving pastor--one who was both a sympathetic leader and one who was also a bit aloof to a 15-year old kid curious about what life in the ministry would look like, as I first knew him.
I have these images in my head of his pastor's study. In it, books on walnut stained bookshelves surrounded the office. His dark wooden desk met any visitor as they entered his space, his place. The study was what you'd imagine a 1950's era study would look like (even though it was the early 80's). It was warm, neat, and organized (unlike my study). Sitting behind the desk but rising as I would come in, I was scared witless (for whatever reason, I felt like I was talking with a prophet whenever I spoke with him). He would extend a hand, gester for me to sit down with a smile gently which would put me at ease (somewhat).
I began going to see him after my Christian conversion. Afterall, it was he who baptized me. And, I felt a unique bond to him after the baptismal episode where, once immersed beneath the water, he tried to lift me up (all 6'9" of me) and me, upon his direction, moving my back leg so that I helped raise me up from the waters. The only thing, when I tried to do this, my foot slipped and we both fell back into the water, arms flaying, water spewing, and laughter erupting from the entire congregation.
Following my baptism, I immersed myself into the life of the church. I went to Sunday school, Sunday morning church and Sunday evening church. I went to Wednesday night youth night and Friday night prayer time. I attended Falls Creek Baptist Assembly and any and all church-related activities. And I did it because I wanted to do so. I loved Baptist Temple, Dr. Tinnin and my youth pastor, Steve McNeil.
Within a year, I began to have a sense that I belonged in ministry. As a result, Dr. Tinnin and I spoke often about my interpretation of this "call to ministry"--sometimes he'd refer me to my youth pastor, at other times, he'd quiz me about my intentions. When I turned 16 and I was still coming to see him, and somewhat convinced that this wasn't a passing phase, he led to me teach. Believing that an ability and love of teaching were always the confirmation that a person has been called to ministry, he directed me to teach Sunday school. From then on, I demonstrated a love and an ability for teaching that confirmed for him my place in ministry. And that began my lifelong journey in ministry.
Many years later, when I attended college after a stint in the US Air Force, Dr. Tinnin was my reference to a job where I was the Assistant Chaplain at the local Baptist Nursing Home, where I led worship and visited the residents. It was a ministry I held for 3-years and loved every minute of it. When Dr. Tinnin recommended me to the position, he told me what he wrote. He said, "If Bo wants to do this, he'll do a super job. You'll be glad you have him." I remember thinking how interesting a recommendation that was and how true I felt it represented me.
Since that time, much of my life and faith have changed. I doubt Dr. Tinnin would have recognized me today, had we kept in touch. Years and life experiences led me away from home and yet a part of home has always remained with me. I have thought of Dr. Tinnin when I have preached a long sermon (he tended to do that often) or when some crisis needs availing, I ask myself how he would have handled it (he was the consumate peacemaker).
I will miss Dr. Tinnin as will countless others who have been inspired by him. Many will remember his gentle ways, his deep convictions, and his faithfulness in ministry. As just about anyone who knew will tell you, there was something warm and amazing about him. And yet, for as long as I knew him, I didn't really ever know him well. But I think of him and know that he affected me in ways that no other person has done. He was kind and really good at what he did--and he did what he did for a loooooooong time. I hope that my ministry will be as long as fruitful as his was.
Posted by Bo at 12:26 PM