Central Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas, converted an old and unused daycare into a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community called the Sweet House. Pastor Steven Kurtz, who once served the congregation at the Gulf Shores First Presbyterian Church in Alabama, wanted to bring some of the positive changes he had seen in Alabama through Prism United, a group founded in 2016 that provides support for LGBTQ+ teens and addresses issues affecting the queer community, to Arkansas.
“The Sweet House had been part of our daycare, but when that program ended, the house was unused. I approached [Central Presbyterian’s] Visionary Committee about hosting a program there based on the Prism United program I was familiar with in Mobile, Alabama.” Kurtz explained in an email interview.
Renovations on the Fort Smith daycare to convert it into the Sweet House were made possible through grants as part of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities and the Future of the Church Committee in the Presbytery of Arkansas. With the Sweet House, Central Presbyterian hopes to amend some of the church’s fractured relationship with the queer community and provide support for those in need. Although Fort Smith has been accepting of the queer community, Kurtz and the members of the church want to show that the PC(USA) is taking steps to be more welcoming and accommodating of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Our congregation has been welcoming and affirming of the gay community for years. At the time of the vote, one of our gay members was on session,” Kurtz said, “The session was happy to approve the recommendation of the Visionary Committee, and we commenced a search for a volunteer director at once.”
The Sweet House is just one of many organizations helping to foster a stronger relationship between the church and the LGBTQ+ community, in particular queer youth. The Missing Voices Project, produced by Flagler College, has similarly worked to support a new bond between the church and communities that are marginalized by large organizations, which has historically included the church.
The welcoming and accepting atmosphere that the Sweet House provides is especially important in Arkansas, a state infamous for legislation banning gender-affirming care for minors, although it was overturned by a federal judge in June 2023. The New York Times reported on June 20, 2023, “A federal judge in Arkansas on Tuesday struck down the state’s law forbidding medical treatments for children and teenagers seeking gender transitions, blocking what had been the first in a wave of such measures championed by conservative lawmakers across the country.”
The Sweet House primarily serves as the base of operations for an inclusive organization called the Lambda Society, led by acting director Paige Braun. The Lambda Society was founded in 2021 to work out of the Sweet House using some of the grants given to Central Presbyterian in order to provide a place for queer youth and young adults to gather. The name comes from other LGBTQ+ support groups on a national scale. In addition to the renovations, some of the grant money has been used to create programs run by the Lambda Society, and the church is seeking more grants to continue providing more services to the community.
Paige Braun described some of the many ways the Lambda Society provides care and support for the LGBTQ+ community, including finding doctors and counselors who can provide medical care, teaching social skills, providing clothing (especially to transgender young adults as they transition) and helping to protect members from the discrimination they face in their daily lives.
The work of Braun, the Lambda Society, and the Central Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith has gone a long way to provide the LGBTQ+ youth in Arkansas with one of the few places they can be free to express themselves.
“No matter what challenges we face, every single day I come back to help these kids love themselves,” Braun said, “It has been by far one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life.”
During our interview, Braun recalled one of the many touching experiences she has had while working as the acting director of the Lambda Society. There was a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome and an insulin pump who had been kicked out of his home by family members. He left with only one duffle bag of clothes and supplies and his bike. After turning to the Lambda Society for assistance, he was able to get a place to stay, find insurance, doctors, and other necessities. The young man is now self-sufficient and lives in an apartment, and is very grateful that the Lambda Society’s volunteers were able to aid him in his hour of need.
Another memory Braun shared was about an autistic man who joined the Lambda Society to learn communication and leadership skills. He has since graduated from university and now volunteers at the Sweet House.
The Lambda Society, Braun explained, is a place where people can really express who they are and find their place in life. The volunteers are there to help everyone obtain the skills needed to live comfortably and can teach these skills in a place that is safe and welcoming to people of all sexualities and genders.
“I’ve watched these people come into who they are and love themselves more,” Braun said, “They love themselves for who they are.”
With all of the success the Sweet House and Lambda Society have seen so far, the leaders and volunteers are continually striving to expand their services and programs and to create a more welcoming environment. Braun expressed that more transgender support groups would be a great benefit to the organization. More “life skills” classes such as resume building and personal finance would be good as well. She also noted that expanding the food pantry and clothing donation area would be helpful to all lower-income members of the community and anyone in need.
Kurtz said that Central Presbyterian Church will continue to apply for grants that will be used to add to the Sweet House. He added that in-house counselors and mental health services are needed, as members of the LGBTQ+ community are often victims of bullying and face rejection from friends and family. Having counselors to help with anxiety and depression can make positive changes in their lives. The grants awarded to Central Presbyterian were given with the intent to establish a broader sense of community between the church and the city of Fort Smith. Central Presbyterian believes that the Sweet House and Lambda Society are worth supporting because the building and organization housed within its walls serve local people who, above all else, need love and support.
Currently, all workers for the Lambda Society must pass a trauma-informed evaluation, which assures people seeking support that the staff knows to avoid certain topics that could bring up previous traumatic experiences. Most notably, one of these topics includes the church, as many members of the LGBTQ+ community have faced backlash from the church for coming out about their sexuality. This means that the Lambda Society acts as an organization largely independent from the church, but the members of Central Presbyterian hope that the church’s support for the Sweet House can begin to restore trust between the church and the queer community. Kurtz also hopes to add PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) support.