Jessika Sessoms grew up in a conservative Black evangelical family, attended Christian schools, and often heard that being gay was an abomination until she understood that she was queer while studying to become a missionary.
The 23-year-old from Florida came out publicly last year and has found healing and a sense of community after joining Beloved Rise, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ youth of faith.
Maria Magdalena Gschwind, 20, from Germany, credits the U.S.-based group for inspiring her to study Protestant theology in college at a time when she had doubts about whether her sexuality would conflict with her faith. Samuel Cavalheiro, 21, a Brazilian living in Mozambique, feels so connected to the group’s members that he calls them his “chosen family.”
They are among hundreds of young people worldwide who have joined Beloved Arise during the coronavirus pandemic to worship, sing and bond virtually. The group celebrated its second annual Queer Youth of Faith day on Wednesday — the last day of Pride Month — with podcasts, concerts, online panels of teens, and seminars on LGBTQ history and churches.
“We wanted to do something that would be there to uplift and honor … queer youth of all faiths,” the Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, program coordinator for Beloved Arise, said during one of the panels.
“Something that would let them know that there’s no contradiction between being a queer and trans person and being a person of faith … that those things can go together.”
Across the U.S., circumstances vary widely for LGBTQ youth seeking religious engagement.
Some major denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, condemn same-sex unions and say all sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. But thousands of houses of worship, including many mainline Protestant churches and synagogues, have LGBTQ-inclusive policies.
“I can tell you how important it is to accept because I’m proof of that. I grew up in a church where LGBT people were accepting and accepted and loved,” said DeTar Birt, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and has worked as a Sunday school teacher and youth pastor. “I came out in college and … I had a lot of trepidation and anxiety around it, but the church wasn’t part of that.”
Beloved Arise was founded in Seattle in February 2020 by Jun Love Young, a former board member of the Christian development agency World Concern. He grew up in a Catholic family in the Philippines and kept quiet about his queer identity until his mid-40s.
“And it was due to religious pressure, which is why I created Beloved Arise so that other kids wouldn’t have to wait until their forties,” he said.