Long Beach Fellowship Group Reaches Out To Gay Youth
They all have youthful faces, and a few of them joke and laugh together. Others sit silently with a combination of premature worry and awkward post-adolescent shyness etched on their brows.
It’s a Friday night in Long Beach, and though it may look like any other Christian youth group getting ready for Bible study, this gathering is different. Its attendees are young, Christian and gay.
The youth fellowship's name, G3, stands for "God's good news for gay people."
A gay pastor, Paul Reutzel, 45, started the group more than a year ago following an onslaught of gay teen suicides in the media.
He attributed the high suicide rates of gay youth to rejection from their churches and, in some cases, their families as well.
"It's a lot for a young person to deal with. They have no support system and are being ostracized by the support system that they should have."
Reutzel came out to his parents when he was 24 years old after a bad breakup with his boyfriend at the time. During a distraught phone call with his father, he finally confessed that he was upset by the end of his relationship—with a man.
His father was understanding, but his mother needed more time to accept his sexuality. "My parents were concerned that life would be more difficult for me, but I never got any religious condemnation from them," said Reutzel.
The pastor's family eventually accepted him—the same could not be said for others in his life. Christian friends and people in the athletic community abandoned him after he came out.
Reutzel went through a period of depression and doubt, but instead of rejecting his religion, he started to research and study the Bible on his own.
A turning point came when he was 25. Pastor Mark Elias explained to him how the Bible was often misinterpreted in newer translations. In its original form, Elias said, gay people were not condemned.
Reutzel now teaches that same lesson to the young people who come to his group, hoping it will serve as a revelation for them as well.
Tonight, the group is discussing "clobber passages," the biblical verses most often used in anti-homosexual rhetoric. During the presentation, Reutzel explains that certain stories such as Sodom and Gomorrah are misinterpreted, and that gay people do have a place in Christianity.
But the conflict between Christianity and homosexuality is just as much an internal struggle as it is external.
For 28-year-old Sergio Rodriguez, one of the founding members of G3, the inner turmoil over his sexuality and fears of rejection from his family led him down a self-destructive path of drug and alcohol abuse.
"I was hiding from myself,” he said. “When you don't know who you are, you pretend to be camouflaged, and I covered up my feelings with drugs and alcohol.”
His coming out created tension in his family. But when his parents later kicked him out of their home, it was not because of his sexuality but rather the dangerous addictions he had developed.
Religion had always been a strong presence in Rodriguez's life. He was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school throughout his childhood. He said he had even prayed to God for the strength to come out of the closet.
But soon after, he turned away from his faith and toward a life of clubbing, alcohol and drugs, which he found to be empty substitutes for spiritual fulfillment.
"Now I have my own personal relationship with a higher power,” he said. “Prayer gives you self-awareness of what you're doing."
Like Rodriguez, the other founding member of the fellowship experienced a similar rift between her religion and sexuality.
"I thought I had to be gay or Christian, so I denied being gay, then God," said 25-year-old Danielle Boivin.
Boivin used to see the world as segregated. Church was reserved for straight people while gay bars were the only communal place for gay people.
"It got to the point where I felt like a leper," she said. "I knew it was not what God intended."
Boivin said the founders of G3 created the group so gay people could accept themselves and Jesus, dispelling the notion that homosexuality and Christianity are mutually exclusive.
More than 700 churches in California consider themselves "gay-friendly" according to gaychurch.org, but G3’s founders say their group is rare in that it specifically targets youth.
Reutzel and his team teach the fundamentals of Christianity while tailoring their fellowship meetings to address relevant issues that these young people face— suicide, family relations, dating.
One of their primary goals is to help young gay people create "balanced lives" with healthy relationships that are based in love.
Gay relationships have come increasingly into the public eye. Federal courts recently ruled Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, unconstitutional. Although the Prop. 8 decision opens up the possibility of marriage for gay people, Reutzel is wary of the reaction it might illicit from anti-gay groups and individuals.
Other clergymen and Christians have called to harass Reutzel, deeming him a "false prophet" and a liar.
But none of this has stopped Reutzel from developing G3, expanding the group’s reach. He is currently working with Boivin and Rodriguez to set up a fellowship in Orange County.
Reutzel said rather than spend time convincing the broader Christian community to accept homosexuality, he hopes to reach the gay people left to fend for themselves when it comes to faith.
“We want to impact gay young people who are suffering and desperately need help,” he said. “I want to see things change in the gay community. The Bible and God have the answers for the difficult situations we face.”
Video Profile: "God's good news for gay people"
Reach Staff Reporter Tricia Tongco here.