Do Better YoungLife.

My first draft of this was over ten pages. I hope you feel the grace that went into cutting it in half.

Over the last week I have seen so many brave people come forward with stories of the ways in which YoungLife has hurt them. I feel it is important to say none of these stories have shocked or surprised me. Each person who has shared their story admits that the history they have with YoungLife is complicated. I too have fond memories of YoungLife, and I too have lasting hurt from YoungLife. I encourage you to read and give priority to the stories appearing with the hasthtag #DoBetterYoungLife. Their voices are important and their experiences speak to a pain that I can never experience. But based on these stories and on my own personal experiences in YoungLife, I too join in their call in compelling the ministry to do better.

I was 13 years old when YoungLife first entered my world and it became the companion to my life until I was 27. For nearly fifteen years, half of my whole life, I was a proud participant, volunteer, and employee. Nearly all of my good friends I owe to YoungLife. The most joyful High School and College experience I owe to YoungLife. I work in ministry today, I owe that to YoungLife. My favorite band that I’ve traveled the nation over to see, was shoved in my face by my YoungLife leader. The values of seeking truth, understanding the Bible, loving my neighbor unconditionally, I owe this to YoungLife. I say with love in my heart that I would not be who I am today without the love and guidance of so many beautiful people who were part of the community of YoungLife and I thank everyone who gave me this.

When I was a freshman in High School, a college student showed up on my High School campus got to know me, was kind, interested, and funny. My friends all knew him already and with their help they convinced me to go to YoungLife camp where I had the promised “best week of my life.”

It was such a powerful experience that it bought my dedicated involvement for the years to come. When I was given the opportunity my freshman year of college I decided, with tears in my eyes, that I wanted to be what my YoungLife leaders were for me to youth I had not even met. That maybe one day, there would be a group of young men standing where I was, wanting to become YoungLife leaders because of how I showed up in their lives. Because I had brought them Jesus.

I was a volunteer leader for six years following a group from sixth grade to their senior years of High School. We grew one of the smallest YoungLife clubs in my area, on the brink of death, to one of the largest. We took countless kids to camps and I watched numerous give their lives to Christ.  We loved sincerely, the youth who were entrusted to us. We did our best by them. We taught them what we were able, as best we could, and I believe we were loved deeply in return.

This is the truth and experience of countless people who went through YoungLife and YoungLife should be proud of this. But I am here today, to join the calls for YoungLife to do better because this experience, despite their mission to reach every child and to help them grow in their faith, is not offered to every child.

My hurt from YoungLife doesn’t come exclusively from how I was pushed out of the ministry. Or how my last days were handled by those with power over so many. My hurt primarily comes from not being able to grow within the community of YoungLife and the ways this suppressed me for so many years. It’s the failure of that back half of the mission statement, “and helping them grow in their faith.” My hurt comes from being taught things that are immature, ignorant, and harmful. My hurt comes from passing those things along to youth in my care when I was a volunteer. My hurt comes from knowing many people have tried to help YoungLife and offer their gifts just to be turned away. My hurt comes from knowing that many people have had that same experience in High School that I had, and when their teary-eyed moment of wanting to give back to those they loved finally came, they were rejected because of who they are, and who they love.

They were not allowed to walk alongside a group of kids, they were not allowed to help a dying team find life again, they were not allowed to invite youth to camp where those youth would fall in love with Jesus, they were not allowed because they are gay.

Whenever I get into this with people who disagree with me, I find they want to argue a text rather than meet and listen to a people. God is not a text or a seminar. God is love. Find God in love. This is something YoungLife could do better with. YoungLife has given the wrong tools of discernment to their entire community, their efforts of understanding and reason are not robust but limited and small and it continually creates a toxic disingenuous environment for countless people for countless reasons but primarily because it does not receive criticism until it is backed into a wall.

I’m not going to spend energy debating Bible verses, because it won’t get you anywhere because our issues are far more complex than that, and because this diminishes the value of people you should know. People you should experience. People you should love.

YoungLife believes in “incarnational ministry.” They believe that we are able to know and love God because, “God put skin on and moved into the neighborhood.” And so likewise they approach ministry the same way. Rather than invite people to their gatherings, they go and meet youth on their campus, in their world, at their sporting events, in their lunchrooms. This is how they believe kid’s best learn about God’s love. By showing up. But I say to YoungLife, why don’t you receive that for yourself? In all the ways that YoungLife is recognizing it has a mountain of racial ignorance present within its ministry, maybe it’s time they use that same shock of awareness to finally listen to LGBTQ+ Christians in their communities.

As Christians we are called to stand against hatred, division, and to show love to the persecuted and marginalized. This is clearly something YoungLife claims to believe also, as this was the sentiment they lifted up recently in their response to George Floyd’s murder stating: “We stand with those who are suffering, vulnerable, and marginalized in our communities, and today especially, we stand with our African American brothers and sisters.”

The stories online this week, many of which inspired by that post, say everything.

I really can’t accurately express how awful it is. The manipulation of it is vile. I mean it hurts just thinking about how it has played out for so many people who have shared their stories. You are an unsuspecting confused teenager in High School and a college student shows up in your world over and over and over, and knows your name and shows deep loving interest in you, attention like you are not used to, and so you go and become a part of a new community where you make your core relationships, you laugh, and sing, you eat meals, you get sold on going to summer camp for the best week of your life but it’s difficult because it cost $1000, but you know it will be worth it and so you beg to go. You’ll do anything to go. You spend a week away and learn how to become vulnerable and share your wounds and your fears and your hurt, and the people accept it and love you and you hear about how Christ loves you so much that he died for you and that there’s nothing you could ever do to change God’s love for you. And so you cry and say I want that love. You give your life to that loving experience, and that college leader who sought you out on your campus, who knows your name, who knows your pain, they hug you and they’re crying too, and you sing arm in arm with a room of hundreds of kids just like you and you belong like you’ve never felt before.

Years of belonging later that moment comes where you want to give back. Where you want to be a leader, you want other kids to know they are loved and they belong and you’re told you can’t do that because you’re gay. You can’t because you’re bi. You can’t because you’re trans. And so you don’t belong anymore. And that place you found God’s love is broken, or no maybe you’re broken. Broken in a special way that isn’t allowed to share God’s love with others. And maybe that unconditional love you gave your life to at camp actually has conditions. You’re a Human Resource problem and you’re told you can’t be around your kids anymore. Because it’s inappropriate. Because you’re a risk. They sexualize your love and service thinking you dangerous towards youth. You’re told you can’t be yourself and a part this community. The very community that inserted themselves into your life as a young kid. That pulled you away from what could have been another High School experience, that accepted your money, that accepted the money you raised for the area, that accepted your volunteer time to keep their camps staffed and functioning, that counted your conversion in their data as a success story.

They stole you out of your life, they used you, just to abandon you. They tell you “you were made for this,” just to rescind the invitation. This is wrong. This is spiritually abusive. It is violent. People die because of this. Where do they go, when you made yourself their whole world and then you tell them they’re not allowed inside?

We will know Christians by their fruit. The fruit of this is visibly rotten. It is broken communities. Broken families. Self-harm. Suicide. Abandonment. Homelessness. Loneliness. Hurt.

Dear YoungLife, this is not what it looks like to stand with marginalized people. This is what it looks like to marginalize. As a member of the YoungLife community, I was complicit because for too long I was quiet and dishonest because of fear. I didn’t want to share in the guarantee of exile. And that was selfish.

I once read that “People do not resist change, they resist loss.” I know it wasn’t that I was afraid of saying I love and welcome gay people and I believe God does too, because when I was around safe people I didn’t hesitate to say so. I was afraid to show public support because I knew I would lose something that for fifteen years was central to my life and my joy. That something I had given everything to would abandon me like it abandoned you. That everything would change because everything would be lost. I thought I would never be able to be a minister to kids again. And the fear of that loss was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to confront in all of my life. I love what I do.

It was never about you. It was always about my weakness to confront that loss. And I’m sorry.

I honestly don’t know what it means for YoungLife to “stand with those who are suffering, vulnerable, and marginalized in our communities,” because I was told explicitly I had to pick between doing just that and being on YoungLife staff.

As an employee of YoungLife, the climate around my hire was the divisive election of Donald Trump. In such tumultuous times we were advised to not be political and partisan. But naturally every act of standing for justice and standing with the marginalized was deemed partisan not Christian. I’m not sure how we got there. I’m not sure how today YoungLife can say they stand with marginalized people when my act of repeatedly doing this was silenced and shut down and ultimately cast out.  This is how the system of YoungLife functions. It is not an effective environment to grow or learn because it is not open in a way in which you are able to bring in what you are learning unless it maintains the fierce certitudes of the status quo.

I was lucky to have coworkers above me who were on the same page as me. But they were living in secret planning their departure because they were tired of it. I was learning quickly that I probably wouldn’t survive in my community, our money quit coming in, and those who helped me raise our funds were concerned about my leadership.

YoungLife, behind its most glamorous surface, fosters an environment of fear and harm because many leaders and staff are not able to be honest if they want to partake in the community. This is made abundantly clear by how many people on staff leave and quickly become open supporters of LGBTQ+ people. That position is so actively rampant within the ministry. I know this because I still talk to these people who feel comfortable talking to me because they can’t in their own communities. There is a cowardice established in fear because they know they can’t openly hold this position and remain on staff.  But hear this clearly, we cannot claim to listen to the community guided by the Holy Spirit when we silence the work She is doing in our hearts. And this is something YoungLife continues to do, they silence the Spirit. Because that truth is there in their communities and they won’t let it shine. They hide and hide and hide it.

I loved sharing with people everything I was learning. I was open, resourceful, and willing to discuss it because I believe education is always beneficial, especially when it’s challenging. This is what growth and maturity invite. If you are too fearful to listen to another perspective, than you are immature and you will not grow. I would constantly share images on social media of pages that I had underlined in books that really spoke to and challenged me.

Towards the end of my first and only year on staff, I posted a picture from the book “God and the Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines. It was a portion speaking to the use of “natural and unnatural” in Romans 1; which is used arguably as the strongest case biblically against same-sex relationships. However, this book passage was providing context of how the original words were actually used in the ancient world and that the word “homosexual” did not appear in English translations of the Bible until the late 1940’s, and even that the translation team that had done this, later admitted they were wrong to do so. In other words, I was sharing Biblical Scholarship. I thought this was fascinating, and so insightful and counter to how many people viewed the English translation in front of them. I thought if we cared about the truth, this was information we all should be looking at. This insight was really helpful and it was interesting to many others because several were asking me further questions and wanting to learn more. But I was not allowed to have that conversation in YoungLife. This is an area where YoungLife can do better.

For sharing that post of scholarship, I had all sorts of people in YoungLife message me their concern, including a message in my inbox from my Regional Director; the boss above my boss.

After dancing around it, this was how I had finally crossed the line.

I was told that they were very concerned with my posts and that I needed to meet with them immediately.

I think the most hurtful part of working for YoungLife, in the end, was how easily dismissed the years of the hard work of educating myself about the Bible and theology was, simply because what I had learned did not work inside the constructs of those above me who had not yet sought out the same education and reflection. They had not done this work. I say this with confidence because they had no idea what I was talking about, despite its growing awareness amongst Christians everywhere. I did not find open ears, or interest, I found fear, and concern and discomfort.

All of the hard work I did, I did to set children up well for the life ahead of them, growing in their faith. I wanted youth to know how the Bible worked and show them things that Religion Scholars, and Christians from other traditions would teach them in college and as they grew older.

So many youth are taught in YoungLife that to “reject a part of Christianity or the Bible is to reject all of it.” This idea keeps Christians from receiving criticism and maturing. I call it the idolatry of certainty. I heard comedian Pete Holmes describe it as the Christians who “stay in third grade their whole lives.”  And so when these Christians, ill-equipped with a closed-minded faith,  find a more diverse understanding in the wide tradition of Christianity, or a criticism that exposes a fault and challenges what they have been taught is certain truth, many young Christians abandon the faith all together because they were taught young that that was the choice. People discover either a more mature faith or no faith when they leave YoungLife. This is true for nearly ALL of my friends who are no longer involved in that ministry. They do not hold to the beliefs they received from YoungLife. It is not a solid rock.

If our goal is truth, it feels funny that we do such a poor job of equipping our staff, our leaders, and our youth to learn how to discern. Standing firm in your faith does not mean standing stubbornly. We give youth a very particular version of a story and culture to sell. We teach them what to think rather than how to think and discern. This is an area that YoungLife could do better.

I was passionate about offering something more open and healthy than that. And I said all of this in my interview and they loved it. I was excited to be able to help youth in this way. But I was misunderstood.

After that email, I was honest with my Regional Director and clarified everything, I explained with citation and careful explanation, offered to be part of the “conversations,” but the feeling I now live with is that it wasn’t received or valued.  “YoungLife wasn’t going to change overnight.” And I guess that meant there wasn’t a place to share what I was learning to help influence and model that change moving forward.

Ultimately my fears became true. I didn’t have the financial support of my community. I became an H.R. problem. (Though I never talked to them.) I shared all the scholarship and resources I could, but I was told I needed to believe and teach a literal Creation story despite the fact that there were two. I discovered that my years of passionate study and listening to God would not be considered or welcomed by YoungLife, the very people who sent me on that journey. I just took it further than they expected. I was given two weeks to change my mind about something I spent years of study informing.

After those meetings, I went on summer assignment and said I’m going to be the most honest I have ever been. I decided I would no longer live under the fear of YoungLife, and when I return home, I will leave. And on the day that I came in to say I was leaving I was offered my own resignation. A week later I was flown to Texas and offered my current job.

In truth, I think some staff were excited to see me leave. Not because they didn’t like me or took great issue with my beliefs, but because they knew I could do more somewhere else. I remember telling the entire summer assignment team my testimony, I’m not sure why they felt compelled to let me be one of the four people that month to share, but it was one of the most gracious opportunities God has ever given me to be courageous and tell the truth about who I was, what I believed, and why I was leaving YoungLife.

When I finished there was silence in the room, and I could see on the face of nearly every person, that they understood exactly what I was talking about. Things that I have described here. Even the camp speaker approached me later and told me they didn’t believe what they were teaching that room of 400 campers.

They say the truth will set you free, but in my experience freedom’s gates are painful to open. Freedom, even freedom of one’s self, takes difficult, often messy work. There is loss. There is change. But that pain is death, and that freedom is resurrection.

And I want resurrection for YoungLife. I want freedom for our youth. The work there will be messy and painful but behold Christ is making everything new! That is the Gospel. Love wins every time.

“Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:8

In my current job, I get to welcome all youth. I get to celebrate all youth. We go to camp together. We serve together. We have meaningful relationships together. There are safe and practical ways to do all of this.

I get to let youth bring their whole self to God and know that they are fearfully and wonderfully made. That they are loved unconditionally and invited to love others too. I get to honestly teach my youth about the Bible, and the world it was a part of. I get to help them use reason to ask questions about the text and to wrestle with their faith. We look at the different ways people understand things with open hearts and open minds. I get to help them understand anti-racism, and sexuality, and gender and justice. We don’t just “affirm” LGBTQ+ youth, we ARE LGBTQ+ youth and these kids have taught me so much about love and God. They have a heart for others and this leads them to acts of service. They are shining God’s kingdom into the darkness of our world.

I’m upset that I couldn’t do this with YoungLife.

Everything I was afraid I would never be able to do, this church was already doing and they accepted me and celebrated me.

Resurrection.

The further away I get from YoungLife the more I’m able to see beyond its spell. Over the last week, many women, many black people, gay, bi, and trans people have shared the stories of the trauma they experienced by YoungLife. The rejection, the hurt, the abandonment, the lack of having a safe community. They’ve talked about the long term impact these experiences have caused their lives and their faith.

YoungLife needs to not just listen to, but heal these wounds also. YoungLife does have a bigotry problem. It has a misogyny problem. It has a racism problem. It has a queerphobia problem. The stories are there. Read them. Listen. Enact change.

As our nation learns more and more about the system that is White Supremacy, YoungLife has to do the work to see how they have long contributed to the mindsets, culture, AND the theology that allow White Supremacy to thrive.

YoungLife shared in a post that “We lament the persistent walls in our society (e.g., racism, sexism, ableism, bigotry, and every kind of evil) that consciously and unconsciously replace that love with hate. We see you. We care for you. And we will stand by you.” But while it is right for them to make such a stand, it is wrong of them to project this evil to our society when it is still so present in their walls. On this YoungLife could do better. And they need to do so publicly. They can’t just bring these things up, and let us know they are talking about it when there’s a Charlottesville or a George Floyd. It needs to become an essential part of their culture and I believe they have begun to seek that out. Keep going.

You must be willing to do better, you must realize that instead of God and love, what you are offering too many young people is hurt and trauma that lasts years; lifetimes. It costs the youth you hurt financially to seek counseling, therapy, and medication. It costs the youth you hurt mentally with issues of abandonment, loneliness, and trust. It costs the youth you hurt spiritually, many want nothing to do with a God that would treat them like you had. And most urgently it costs people physically, at times with their own lives.

I am angry at YoungLife.

I am hurt by YoungLife.

I am conflicted with relationships to those who remain in this system who know about this pain and do nothing and say nothing. The privilege of your “journey” with this is in the way of another person’s freedom. You are making them wait for something that cannot.  You have the power to prevent this trauma. I hope if nothing else, that this post has invited you to take that seriously.

YoungLife has so powerful an opportunity to be an active fighter for our young black, gay and trans youth. They have a powerful platform to actualize their desire to see, to care, and to stand by our most marginalized youth. And everyone who has shared their painful stories longs to see that day, we want you to do better. We want that joyful young child, with tears in their eyes, not to be used and rejected, but to have the opportunity to be a part of a ministry that made us feel so loved. We want growth and maturity. We want all youth to feel safe, loved, and celebrated.

Our history with you is complicated.

The pain you’ve caused is real.

But if you truly want every child to know they are loved, we want to see you get there.

Do better. You were made for this.

Grace & Peace,

Devon Bailey

 

If you would like to read these stories. Please follow #dobetteryounglife

Instagram: dobetter_younglife

Twitter: @dobetter_yl

You can sign the petition. There are great action steps within the petition for YoungLife to take. And I do believe those who have written the petition should be leading that conversation of specific things YL can do. After I’ve let this post exist for a moment, I’ll try and share some insight of how our ministry does camping and relationships with youth of all sexuality and genders. If this interests you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

If you would like to share your story, you can do so here:

https://msha.ke/dobetteryounglife/

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