Nestled around the Greater Cincinnati and Ohio Valley region is a small organization on a big mission: bridge a theological divide between the church and the LGBTQ+ community.
For many, church and other faith-based environments are seen as antigay, anti-trans, and generally unsafe for anyone who is not straight and cisgender. The result is many within the community leaving churches they grew up in, and some giving up on faith altogether.
LOVEboldly wants to change that dynamic and do some healing in the process.
“It’s a huge number, the percentage of LGBTQ+ people who left the church but would return if the church was a safe space for them,” says Heidi Weaver-Smith, LOVEboldly’s Founder and Executive Director.
Founded in 2011, LOVEboldly’s mission is to “empower willing Christians and LGBTQ+ individuals to step towards loving one another more boldly.” They’ve been accomplishing this by meeting the current spiritual needs of LGBTQ+ Christians, as well as equipping churches with the tools to practice reconciliation with the LGBTQ+ community.
The Buckeye Flame sat down with Weaver-Smith to learn more.
Give us the LOVEboldly backstory.
I grew up in a very conservative part of the country, in a conservative Christian family. For the first 25-ish years of my life, I don’t think I really knew anyone who was [out]LGBTQ+. I was straight and cisgender, and I thought everyone else was as well! And, I just sort of had early messages about LGBTQ+ people that were really negative.
After college, I became really close friends with someone who was gay. As our friendship developed, I began to confront some of the misunderstandings I had about the LGBTQ+ community. For me, that was the beginning of a movement of recognizing the wrongs that the church had done to the LGBTQ+ community. And [recognizing]I was complicit, and the ways I was not understanding the lived experience of an LGBTQ+ person.
So, through this friendship, he would introduce me to his friends as his “straight Christian friend” and he would go get a drink at a bar and abandon me in those conversations. I’m somebody who is pretty approachable, and someone people generally found to be warm and welcoming. So, when I saw the ways people were responding to me through that introduction of a “straight Christian” I was taken aback to see people literally backing up and seeing their body language close down.
This made me start to ask what had been their experiences with Christians. I had the privilege then to hear so many stories of people who had been raised in the church, and in faith communities, and had unfortunately really devastating experiences. That disturbed me on a fundamental level and I began to ask a lot of questions. I began to ask why I didn’t know this stuff was going on in the first place, [especially]some of the more traumatic stories around homelessness and abuse.
What stayed with me most through the years, and a big impetus for LOVEboldly was all of the stories I heard from LGBTQ+ friends [where they shared]things that were really hurtful and harmful. I began to ask “how can I help other people sort through these things I sorted through” and hopefully interrupt harm before it happens to LGBTQ+ people in faith environments, and equip pastors and churches on how to love well and care well for LGBTQ+ people. So, that was the personal backstory that led to founding LOVEboldy.
I love that you recognized harm, intentional or not, that was being done by a community you are part of, and you founded an organization to stop that harm before it starts. So, what services and/or programs does LOVEboldly offer to help reduce harm?
Like many people, COVID has changed this up for us. We’ve been able to modify some things, [like provide]resource support for those who come through our virtual door.
We’ve also been able to offer training events really geared towards Christians, especially to leaders and pastors who know it’s not going well, but aren’t sure how to make it go better. We help them better understand the divides between the communities and how to better care for LGBTQ+ people, best practices, and that sort of thing. What I found is I was able to speak that language in a way that was meaningful and helpful, and sort of bridge that divide in order to help people interact in a way that they hadn’t before. Our training is around that, equipping pastors and leaders, but also many times parents attend to learn how to navigate the coming out process with their kiddos.
We also do dialogue events where we really seek to model our core values and demonstrate how to have productive convos across our deepest ideological divisions. We help people foster curiosity, empathy, and understanding; to better understand folks with different views even within their own church. Even very affirming churches have folks who maintain more traditional or conservative view points. So we help navigate those conflicts, and hopefully together build empathy and understanding.
The other big event we do is participate in Pride. We invite Christians to get out of their comfort zone, and to really do something to care for LGBTQ+ people on that day. We usually set up a booth and hang out, and just try to be a loving positive presence. We know at many Prides across the country that the only Christians that show up are those with really mean and hateful signs, and we try to counter that message with love, kindness, and support.
How do you bridge that divide between LGBTQ+ people who grew up religious and may have been harmed by the Church and now want nothing to do with it, and those Christians that hold very conservative viewpoints and want nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ community?
I would say I think there is a time and place for these conversations. For instance, for an LGBTQ+ person who has gone through a really traumatic experience in the church environment and chose to leave, it might not be the time or place for them to have conversations with people they disagree with. I’m a big believer that you have to take time to heal and find boundaries that are appropriate for you and your health.
And I think there is a real power dynamic in any reconciliation conversation. That could be a racial reconciliation conversation where you have white folks and people of color in the same room. But it costs a lot more for a person of color show up in those conversations. Just like it costs a lot more for LGBTQ+ people to show up in conversations with straight, cis, Christians, some of whom may have more traditional viewpoints. I always try to emphasize that the conversation is an invitation, not a compulsion. If that is something God is drawing you towards, or it’s part of your journey that will be helpful in healing for you, then it’s there for you.
On the other side, I get a little less gentle when it comes to Christians because, core to our faith is that we love everyone – even our enemies. So, it doesn’t matter how negatively you might view the LGBTQ+ community, you have a call from God to show up with people you are uncomfortable around. I’m invitational, but I’m more forceful in making the point that [Christians] have done harm to the LGBTQ+ community and we need to make this right. One way to do that is to sit and listen to LGBTQ+ people and their experiences. We can’t create safer faith environments without listening.
As someone who grew up in the church and is part of the LGBTQ+ community, I really appreciate you touching on the power dynamic within this conversation.
I think there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about who is in power. There is a narrative unfortunately in the church that pits the gay rights movement against religious rights. It interprets basic human dignity for LGBTQ+ people as infringement on religious rights. I don’t have a whole lot of tolerance with that kind of language, and I will say I have graciousness for anyone seeking to learn and grow, but the fact that [Christians] are more comfortable thinking of ourselves as oppressed or mistreated, is just not true in regards to our country. The data really backs up that LGBTQ+ people face marginalization in ways straight, cis Christians do not.
Just trying to find ways to sometimes be gentle and sometimes more forceful in correcting those narratives is important work for straight, cisgender allies of LGBTQ+ people. The bible is really clear that Jesus was all about listening to, elevating, respecting, and dignifying all the people in his time who were most mistreated, most thought of as outcasts, and degraded. He always seemed to find those folks and find a way to dignify them, and I think it’s our turn.
We’re seeing a lot of anti-trans bills being introduced in states across the U.S., much of which is spurred by religious conservatives. Here in Ohio, the Fairness Act has also been met with a lot of religious opposition. What do you wish you could say to that group?
I would say LGBTQ+ people are made in the image of God, just like everyone else. They are beloved of God. They are some of God’s favorite kids. And as such, we as Christians have a duty to treat them as if they are our own beloved family members, because they are Gods.
So, finding ways to stand for LGBTQ+ people is very important, even if you maintain a theological disagreement, or qualm, with LGBTQ+ relationships. There are many, many, many ways that Christians can stand for, and with, LGBTQ+ people in protection of their basic human rights, dignity, agency – all things that God has given to all people. We should all be able to eat, work, and live. Because that is who God has created all people to be. And whether or not LGBTQ+ people are people of faith or not, all people deserve those basic human dignities. It took me a moment to realize that not all people have those dignities. And most Christians still don’t realize it.
What would you suggest for a church that wants to become safer and more affirming for LGBTQ+ people?
I think it’s better for an LGBTQ+ person to answer. I will say, I’m on year 13 of this, and I’ve never met a church that doesn’t think they are welcoming. Every pastor I’ve talked to says “LGBTQ+ people feel welcomed here,” but we know that’s not really the case. Something is obviously going wrong, even if we think it’s going okay. So, I would really challenge churches to ask someone they know, “would you feel welcomed in my church, why or why not?”.
Churches absolutely need to be clearer on their website on what their theology is around same sex relationships and gender identity. We do consultations and coaching to help churches clarify and articulate what their views are. Even if they are not affirming views, we want to not hide that and we want to share that so LGBTQ+ folks can make informed decisions on where they feel comfortable worshiping. And if you are striving to be an LGBTQ+ friendly place, then really sit with the voices in the community to know what it will take and take that action.
Final question, what does it mean to you to love boldly?
Oh, I’m getting my Masters in theology right now, so this is going to have that answer to it. I think loving boldly means being willing to make yourself uncomfortable for the sake of someone you love. When I think of bold love, I think of Jesus who crossed boundaries between the human and divine to come and hang out with us and live his life on earth.
I think his presence of moving into our neighborhood, as scripture says, is really a model to be followed; that we can find ways to move into neighborhoods of people that we care about and want to love well. That could mean literally moving into an area of town that is more LGBTQ+ friendly to learn and listen, or it could just mean showing up and standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people that you love. But it’s definitely active, it’s not by accident. It’s something you chose to do, even when you feel uncomfortable. And you keep showing up, even if you mess up or and hurt someone’s feelings. You persist and keep loving and make that a pattern of your life.