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God is dancing at the gay bar

Sarah Leer shares five tips for youth workers navigating the Club Q shooting with young adults.

Photo by Raphael Renter on Unsplash

Oh, Beloveds — I wish I were not writing about this.

And yet, it must be written. Gun violence is not something new to us, but this time the shooting occurred the evening before the Trans Day of Remembrance at Club Q, an LGBTQIA+ club in Colorado. News organizations jumped to rationalize why this city, this place, at this time. Heroes emerged and saved lives, like a military veteran and a transwoman wearing a mighty pair of heels. But the story is eerily familiar: another mass shooting, another rush to find a motive, more grieving families who will have to face empty chairs at their tables.

With each mass shooting, I feel the swell of anxiety, as many of us do, and immediately begin to personalize the tragedy: Do I know anyone who lives in Colorado Springs? Do I know anyone who may have been present? I think of all the times I have gone dancing at clubs and gay bars. It could have been me and my friends. Each mass shooting reminds us, we can’t go about our daily business – go to school, to the grocery store, to church, to synagogue, to the club – without the threat of gun violence. But this mass shooting is layered with another awful truth: this is a hate crime, and LGBTQIA+ people are targets. As a queer woman, typing that statement is scary. As someone who has worked with youth for over a decade, it is also necessary to name.

Youth workers find themselves in difficult conversations all the time: we help youth navigate the world around them through a lens of faith, which means we talk about life with our youth — a spectrum including relationships, joy, hope, abuse, sex, violence, grief, and more. Conversations in youth ministry are never binary. Youth come from different family systems and are living into their emerging identities more and more each day. Adolescence is like a sunset — they are no longer in childhood, not yet adults. Youth workers live in the liminal space with them.

I’d like to offer some concrete steps as you navigate this mass shooting and hate crime with your youth. (Note: people are going to want to immediately jump into action mode, but action is not the first, immediate step.)

Name it.

With each mass shooting, youth workers are called to walk through tragedy with youth and their families. In the case of the Club Q shooting, youth workers are called to name this as a hate crime, sit in grief, and help the youth process emotions.

Ask your youth what they need. Sit with them in grief.

Youth workers, your LGBTQIA+ youth will be extra tender, and they may be for a long time. Check-in with them as a group and individually. They may need quiet contemplative space or they may just need you to sit with them as they weep. Your cis, hetero youth may need the same thing. You may want to try some box breathing or other exercises to help youth cope with their anxiety.

Do not try to rush this piece of their emotional processing. You will have queer youth who are scared for their lives and even if you don’t think you have queer people in your faith community, you do.

Another idea: Invite queer adults in your faith community, who have already done their emotional processing and will not trauma dump on the youth, to join you in conversation with the youth. They do not need to rush this. The heart of our loving God is sitting with us with a broken heart, in grief and pain. 

Claim this shooting as a hate crime and violence against LGBTQIA+ people.

They will see videos on social media with Christians proclaiming this kind of hate is the will of God. You must counter that message. You need to explicitly state that LGBTQIA+ people are beloved. Celebrate queerness and queer bodies. This was an act of hate upon queer bodies and youth need to hear that LGBTQIA+ youth are beloved.

Celebrate queerness.

I have used various resources to share messages of celebration and belonging. Amplify and share open, explicitly affirming messages put out by faith organizations such as Q Christian Fellowship, kin-dom community, Beloved Arise, More Light Presbyterians, Queer Grace, and Covenant Network of Presbyterians, just to name a few.

Equip the youth.

You may have any LGBTQIA+ youth who are not yet out, which is a process and a journey. You can give them some words to hold close and to share with their LGBTQIA+ friends. You may want to use this from Emilie Townes’ essay “To Be Called Beloved:” “to be called beloved/ is to be called by God/ to be called by the shining moments/ to be called deep within deep” to remember “we are washed in the grace of God.”

Unfortunately, this is not going to be the last mass shooting of the year. It will not be the last mass shooting of the month. Speak with your youth and share power with them by drawing them together and engaging with the work of Presbyterian pastor Deanna Hollas and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF). (See, for instance, “Worship/Vigil/Action Resources for Times of Gun Violence” by PPF.)

Perhaps your youth want to start an action circle and invite session members and other leadership to host a Guns to Gardens event through RAWtools. However you engage with your youth, give them the tools to help them navigate power structures in order to share their voices and needs with the larger faith community.

Much like our journey through Advent, the waiting and anticipation for glimpses of joy and hope is difficult, cold, and can seem bleak, but the God of abundant love has the last word. Until the celebration of queer bodies and LGBTQIA+ liberation is a reality everywhere, as God dances alongside us at the gay bar, as “Jesus at the Gay Bar” by Jay Hulme so beautifully illustrates.

In grief and in resilience and beyond, dance on, Beloveds.