During my last year of seminary I had the opportunity to intern with an organization called ROSMY that serves LGBTQ youth, ages 12-20. Since that time, I’ve continued to volunteer in various capacities, and often think the way in which ROSMY’s staff and volunteers embody the organization’s simple goal of “helping youth be themselves” would serve as a powerful model for the Church. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the transformation that comes as youth are given the tools to explore and articulate who they are, and know that they are honored and respected no matter the baggage they carry or the scars they bear when they come in. Every day the cinder-block building that houses the organization becomes a sacred space where lives are transformed through conversations that offer the youth something that many of them cannot find anywhere else: the opportunity to belong.
I recently attended ROSMY’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where folks who serve with ROSMY are given free food and a big “Thank You” from the staff. I was sitting at a table enjoying a meal and conversation with a handful of regular group facilitators who help lead conversations at any one of several programs that go on throughout the week. Included at the table was Betsy, a 64-year-old former drama teacher who, I would soon learn, has been volunteering with ROSMY since 2001. At some point a relatively new facilitator, Justin, approached an empty seat at the table and asked if he could join us. As we went around and did our introductions, Betsy’s face lit up with a flash of recognition and excitement. Their words were muddled together as Betsy and Justin embraced in a joyful hug. As it turns out, Justin was one of ROSMY’s youth a decade ago, and Betsy was one of his facilitators.
“Oh gosh, it’s good to see you,” Betsy said. “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.” The moment blew me away. Given the number of youth that come in and out of ROSMY’s doors in any given year, and that Betsy has been there for over a decade, it’s a safe bet that she’s led conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers during her time as a facilitator. I was humbled by the level of respect she gives the youth, by how very present she must be at every conversation to be able to recognize someone, even after a decade apart.
I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.
In the midst of a world that is largely unkind and a Church that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth a chance to to be honored, heard and known. ROSMY’s approach is pretty straightforward: create a space for people to articulate who they understand themselves to be, give them the opportunity to safely explore that identity, and celebrate the diversity of personalities that make a community unique. This simple act spurs transformation, enabling youth to empathize with one another, to hold each other accountable, and to honor every person who comes through the door. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. A number of youth, like Justin, come back as facilitators, offering not only support, but also a model of life beyond the current muck many are trudging through, as if to say: “Yes, I have been where you are, and I know it’s tough, that it sometimes feels unbearably painful; but, know that you are not alone.”
What might the Church be like if we used ROSMY’s model as an approach to ministry? What would happen if we focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? Would giving each other the space to articulate who we understand ourselves to be give way to empathy, trust, and accountability, and community building? What might the church be like if we look each other in the eyes often enough that, even after a decade apart, we might see one another and be able to say, “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you”?
ROSMY’s website can be found at www.rosmy.org.
Jessica Rathbun-Cook blogs regularly at clatteringbones.com.