With his birthday only two weeks away, Saddleback Church worship leader Andrew Schmitt sits at his computer typing his first post for his personal blog Dignity + Desire. He’s not a writer, quite frankly the opposite as he’s been singing in the church choir since eighth grade, but working out his writing muscles not often used is enjoyable to Schmitt. On Oct. 7, 2016, 23 years of his life have passed, a very confusing and complex time.
But post “001-Breaking the Silence” would clear a majority of his life’s questions; this was his coming out.
“It was freeing,” Schmitt says. “It’s nice to be able to organize all the things that I was going through and the things God is teaching me on paper.”
Andrew Schmitt leads Saddleback Church kid’s ministry in the Saddleback original “Your Word is Everlasting.” (Austin Weatherman)
Schmitt grew up playing with Legos and video games, but also enjoyed playing dress up and Barbies. From a young age, bodies intrigued him, often playing with friends with no shirts. He envied girls because he thought they had it easy when it came to fitting in socially and their freedom of choice when it came to clothing.When Schmitt entered high school, an internal epiphany answered his life’s questions and confusions. He was romantically, sexually, and emotionally attracted to other men. Although he had these feelings for the same sex, he still had hopes to meet the perfect girl in college to mask his desires.
He came out to his parents while a freshman at Chapman University, but his parents knew from an early age that Schmitt was going to grow up different. Not only was his family in on his secret, but he came out to his church life group where he confronted his problems with his sexual orientation. His story encouraged one his church friends to come out, but the problem was that he had feelings for Schmitt.
A friendship turned to countless hours spent with each other until physical boundaries were crossed with a kiss. Schmitt ended his relationship with the friend and never looked back.
Schmitt is out to build bridges, not made of metal but of healing and acceptance. He says his goal for his blog is to start a conversation between the church and the LGBT community.
“I started the blog because I think one, there is not a lot coming out of Christians who are gay,” Schmitt says. “It’s always the LGBT community against the Christians. There’s not much coming from us stuck in the middle of the two groups.”
Reactions to his published article went well, including members of Lake Forest’s Saddleback Church supporting his act of boldness. Schmitt’s secular friends from Chapman’s music program congratulated him on his coming out and sharing. He says that for the LGBT community, they appreciate the importance of individual stories.
“If my story can be used to help even one person, then I think it was worth it,” Schmitt says.
But far from a few have been burned by the church experience to the point that the idea of God is dead.
Isaac Cortez, 19, grew up in going to church in Exeter, California, an agricultural-driven country town with a population of 10,588. In an everyone-knows-everyone town, nothing is secret for too long, straining Cortez and his true identity. During his sophomore year of high school, Cortez discovered drag or men dressing in women’s clothing, but he couldn’t tell anyone out of fear.
“ I realized that I was embarrassed for liking it because I knew nobody would understand it,” Cortez says. “ After thinking about it more I realized that what I’d been taught was so much based on fear rather than love that it made me pretty pissed. I was like why would anyone teach me and other kids something like that?”
After coming out to his community, he was forced to attend church, but instead of resuming life as it was, the church’s youth pastor spoke about gays in a very demeaning manor. The new treatment drove Cortez away from the church and god entirely.
“The youth leader at the church I grew up in would literally change his sermons on the days I went to talk about how gays are going to hell,” Cortez says. “My cousin told me, ‘He only talks about this stuff when you’re here, other times he talks about how we need to fear god.’ I was pretty done in that moment. I walked out.”
Forty-two percent of the LGBT community is in an area that being different isn’t welcome reports youth activist site DoSomething.org. Cortez believes that if the church would respect each individual and their choices, more LGBT members would engage in faith.
“I think that they could teach more love based sermons and make it a point to coexist with one another,” Cortez says. “Just things like respecting one’s decisions even if they have a different perspective on it.”
Respect and understanding of other’s views is critical in order to have a conversation on any subject. The progressive Christian Irvine United Congregational Church in Irvine was established in 1986 by the Reverend Fred Plumer. Unlike a pastoral led church where a committee of pastors and elders decide for the church, IUCC is a congregation who lets the masses vote and decide on church business. This organization of individuals voted that the church would be open and affirming 26 years ago this past January.
Congregation moderator Renae Boyum, 69, has been a member of IUCC for 18 years, serving her third term of moderating this Spring. Although she is not apart of the LGBT community, she considers herself a straight ally and fully supports her comrades. Not only is the church accepting to others, but is environmentally and socially aware.
“I chose this church because it is open and affirming, just peace, and involved in global missions,” Boyum says. “I fully support our members in the LGBT community here and they serve on many of our boards and ministries.”
The Irvine church is heavily involved in their local community with participation in AIDS walks as well as constantly fighting for social justice. In 1992, Measure “N”, which fights against discrimination in the workplace, was passed, but the problem was that a city council member ensured that the LGBT community was excluded from protection. The senior pastor for IUCC took a bold stand against the law and made it appoint that all were welcomed to his church by adding “everyone is welcome, including lesbian, gay, and transgender” to their mission statement.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Tellstrom has been senior pastor of the church since 2006 and was also married to his partner of 27 years in the church two years ago. He says the church has grown 11 years that he’s been on staff, going from 140 to 240 attendees. The Orange County Register published an article in 2016 calling IUCC a haven for the LGBT community which Tellstrom believes in heavily.
“When we say everyone is welcome, we really back it up,” Tellstrom says. “Other churches say they are welcoming, but they force people to change. ‘You are welcome here, but you can’t be gay,’ and people have been burned by that.”
To date, there are more than 1,200 open and affirming churches nationwide under the United Church of Christ. Tellstrom says his experience as senior pastor as a learning curve throughout the years, giving advice to other churches looking to reach out to the LGBT community.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Tellstrom greets church goers at Irvine United Congregational Church. (Austin Weatherman)
“They’ve got to get over their six verses in the Bible,” Tellstrom says. “That is a literal theology and I believe no one is a true literalist because we aren’t stoning for being disobedient to their parents.”
The Human Rights Campaign reports that LGBT youth are twice as likely to face physical assault among their peers. Not only is physical assault feared, but on June 12, 2016, an attack was carried out against patrons of the gay nightclub Pulse, leaving 49 dead and 53 wounded.
Hostile environments have impacted the amount of actual individuals that do not identify as cisgender, but not for IUCC youth member Hunter Mirmak. Formerly known as Catherine, 16-year-old Mirmak grew up in the church since he was 7 years old, knowing that he was not a female at the age of 12.
“It was kind of hard because of all the stuff about transgender people getting killed is scary,” Mirmak says. “It can be hard for someone who is trans to come out to someone, not knowing if they are going to hate you and try to harm you.”
Not all parents are accepting to your life choices. For example: meet 11 year IUCC member Liviania Cooper who came out as lesbian when she was 28 years old. She grew up in a Pentecostal church so when she noticed she felt different at a young age, her family and faith kept her from wandering. Cooper has grown to resent preachers speaking bad about the LGBT community because to her, they are no better.
“I personally refuse to go to any churches that preach fire and brimstone about my choices,” Cooper says. “They try to demonize me and I know better. I am a child of God like you are.”
Cooper finally figured out that she was attracted to other females when at 22 years old, making it an interesting event bringing her first girlfriend home.
“My father asked if I was sure that she was a woman,” Cooper says. “And I asked him what question he was actually asking. Be sure you want to know the answer to the question before you ask. He never brought it up again.”
Cooper believes in loving everyone, no matter who or what they are, because that is what Jesus commands her to do. She used to march for social justice when she was younger, but nowadays, Cooper enjoys being an advocate for environmental issues and singing in the choir every Sunday. Cooper says in order for people outside of the LGBT community to get connected, they need to do their research.
“There are many groups out there that offer information about our lifestyles and how we feel, like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays,” Cooper says. “Or go and meet them in person. Nothing like face to face interaction.”
Tolerance is not a state of agreement but a call to be respectful despite the circumstances. In the Bible, Jesus says in Mark 12:31 the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and Schmitt is taking that to heart. You can find him enjoying a fresh brew at Hidden House Coffee or driving around town with friends, talking about their ideas to improve the church to attract more people.
“All sin is equal at the foot of the cross,” Schmitt says.