Elizabeth Garcia wasn’t particularly religious when she first encountered Young Life, a Colorado-based evangelical youth ministry that seeks to win young souls for Christ. Back then, she was just another nervous high school freshman trying to fit in. Young Life took her in, connected her to a Christian community that cared about her, and taught her that Jesus welcomes all kids to his table.
Over a decade later, Garcia learned firsthand that this welcome had a caveat. After serving as a Young Life volunteer and then a staff member, Garcia says she was forced to resign from her job after coming out as queer.
Looking back, she called it a “bait and switch.”
“As soon as I was asked to resign, immediately it was like, ‘They are not who I thought they were,’” she said.
Garcia’s story is one of hundreds emerging from a new campaign, Do Better Young Life, that seeks to highlight the voices of LGBTQ people and other minorities who say they have been hurt by the ministry. Former participants and employees who are queer described a pattern of damaging behavior to HuffPost ― being recruited as children, finding community and belonging in the group, being encouraged into volunteer and staff positions, and ultimately, being pushed away after coming out. They said they lost their jobs at the ministry, were told to just “stop being gay,” were outed to co-workers without consent, and were treated like a threat to children simply for being queer.
Organizer Kent Thomas, a 30-year-old former Young Life student and staffer from Tacoma, Washington, launched the campaign after learning that the ministry had used a photo of an employee on its Instagram to promote one of its camps ― an employee it had forced out for being queer. Thomas responded with an Instagram post on June 29 claiming that Young Life’s “partial inclusion” was even worse than overt exclusion. He encouraged others to share their stories online under the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife.
Since then, Thomas says, the group has collected over 400 stories from former Young Life students, volunteers or staff members who allege they experienced queerphobia, racism, sexism or other kinds of discrimination at Young Life. Some of these testimonies have been posted on the campaign’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. Nearly 7,000 people have signed a Change.org petition that lists more inclusive and transparent policies at Young Life as one of its demands.
Young Life told HuffPost that it welcomes all young people as participants in its programs, regardless of “race, religion, ability, sexual orientation or identity.” But it expects leaders to align with its theology, which it said includes the belief that sex is reserved for a heterosexual married couple.
U.S. courts have long given religious groups like Young Life plenty of leeway to hire and fire employees according to their religious beliefs. But the activists behind Do Better Young Life aren’t primarily concerned about the legality of what the ministry is doing. Instead, they insist there is something inherently immoral and even cruel about the way the ministry actively pursues young people, then rejects the ones who turn out to be queer.
Former employees told HuffPost that more than the loss of their own jobs, they were motivated to speak up because they are worried about queer youth continuing to get plugged into the ministry.
Garcia and others behind Do Better Young Life aren’t hopeful that the ministry will change its non-affirming theology. But what they are hoping for is greater transparency. As of now, Garcia said she doesn’t think that Young Life is a safe space for queer kids.
“If you’re not affirming, you have to be more upfront,” she said of Young Life. “You need to be clear about that or you’re going to hurt a lot more people.”
Winning Young Souls For Christ
The overarching mission of Young Life, a nearly 80-year-old organization based in Colorado Springs, is to introduce Christianity ― specifically, a conservative interpretation of Christianity ― to unchurched middle school, high school and college-aged youth. Young Life does this by “going where kids are” and earning their trust. With the permission of school administrators, Young Life sends leaders, primarily college-aged students, to public schools during free periods or activities open to the public, such as lunch or sports games.
According to former participants, Young Life leaders target and befriend “key” kids, usually “popular” kids, at public schools to ensure that Young Life comes across to the student population as a “cool” thing to participate in. During the school year, Young Life holds weekly gatherings, called “clubs,” where kids learn more about Christianity. Close to 370,000 kids attended Young Life clubs weekly during the 2018–2019 school year. Young Life camps, meanwhile, are the main attraction for many kids. Over 240,000 youth attended Young Life camps between 2018 and 2019.
Thomas said that leaders aren’t immediately upfront with new kids or their parents about the ministry’s conservative religious mission. At club, leaders sometimes have kids sing along to secular songs before switching over to worship songs at the end, he said.
“It’s absolutely never, ‘Come and you’ll get this message about Jesus and we want you to become a Christian.’ It’s, ‘There’s going to be this school game of dodge ball, or let’s get this gutter and fill it with ice cream, it’s going to be fun.’ And then at the end, Jesus talk,” he said.
Once unchurched kids become emotionally invested in Christianity, they are taught that a key way to be like Jesus is to become “servant leaders,” former participants told HuffPost. That means older leaders will push teens to sign up for volunteer positions at Young Life while they are still in high school. It’s only when the teens start seeking out leadership roles in an effort to live out their newfound faith that they start hearing about Young Life’s non-affirming theology.
In hindsight, Thomas said, he now thinks of Young Life’s methods as manipulative ― especially for the queer kids who naturally get caught in the wide net Young Life casts for its mission work at public schools.
“I think it’s so much by design that Young Life gets youth roped in in a casual, social way, and then slowly, it gets more and more intense.”
Old Beliefs, Repackaged
Young Life told HuffPost that its position on sexuality and gender “aligns with historic Christian theology.” The group believes that “sexuality is a gift from God and that God guides us in how to use this gift, including that intimate sexual activity should occur within a marriage covenant between a man and a woman.”
“We recognize that some thoughtful and committed Christians have different views, and we are committed to being in conversation with these and others – both inside and outside Young Life,” the group added.
Evangelizing to Gen Z, the generation born after 1996, with this conservative set of beliefs has become an increasingly daunting task, given that generation’s affirming views. Roughly half (48%) of members of Gen Z say that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is a good thing for our society, compared to 27% of Baby Boomers, according to a Pew Research Center report published in April.
As a result, there’s been a growing trend towards ambiguity among some conservative churches that want to attract young people, according to Jess Kotnour, a member of the leadership team at Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database that scores congregations based on how clearly they communicate their actively enforced policies on gender and sexuality.
These churches will present themselves as inclusive, but will ultimately refuse to ordain, hire, or marry queer people, Kotnour said. “They’ll have really nice websites, they have Instagram, and they look hip. They play into this idea that ‘We’re not the church your parents went to, we’re the cool church.’ But actually, it’s the same beliefs, but repackaged.”
Church Clarity hasn’t started to officially score campus or other parachurch ministries. But after taking a brief look at Young Life’s website, Kotnour gave the ministry Church Clarity’s lowest score ― “undisclosed” because the group’s position on sexuality or gender diversity can’t be found in its statement of faith, mission statement, “about” page, or other main pages.
Since Young Life isn’t affiliated with a specific religious denomination, new students and their parents must depend on the ministry’s website to glean information about where it stands. Being clear about these issues is particularly important when kids and parents are unfamiliar with evangelicalism and may not know what key phrases to look for, Kotnour said.
Young Life declined to answer questions about whether it would update its statement of faith to reflect its views on sexuality and gender diversity.
Thomas believes Young Life’s ambiguity around this issue is “100% purposeful.” If the ministry believes firmly that LGBTQ relationships are sinful, it shouldn’t be ashamed to make that clear from day one to both kids and parents considering getting involved in the program, he said.
“Young Life is trying to have their cake and eat it too by pretending to youth that they’re affirming,” Thomas said. “The idea that a person would be barred from any activity just because they are queer is horrifying to so many young people. Young Life knows this, they’re not naive to that. And for that reason, they are toeing this very fine line.”
A Pattern Emerges
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Garcia said she doesn’t think she fully grasped that Young Life was an evangelical ministry when she first heard about it back in 2005. She didn’t have much exposure to evangelicalism at that point in her life. Other than having her grandma’s funeral at a Catholic church, religion wasn’t a big part of her life.
All she knew was that Young Life was something the popular kids at her public high school in Bradenton, Florida, participated in. Garcia remembers the girls on the school’s basketball team pushing her to check it out. Young Life leaders came to her school, got to know her, and encouraged her to attend the ministry’s week-long summer camp in North Carolina, Garcia said.
That week changed the course of Garcia’s life. She still remembers seeing Young Life’s Windy Gap camp for the first time and being blown away by the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, the rustic cabins, the zip line and the basketball courts. And then there was the community, the sense of belonging and acceptance that staff members worked hard to create for kids.
By the end of camp, Garcia had gone from being ambivalent about religion to making an evangelical profession of faith ― standing up during a meeting and declaring that she had accepted Jesus as her personal savior.
She stayed involved in Young Life for the rest of high school, going to weekly club meetings with friends, attending a local church and volunteering at camp.
“I loved that kids come [to Young Life] and they feel so safe, they can be who they want, they can have a good time and forget about whatever else is going on in their lives,” she told HuffPost. “I thought that this is what Jesus would do, he wants everybody here and everyone to know that they’re safe and loved and that this life is good.”
Garcia said she believed so deeply in the group’s mission that she turned down a basketball scholarship to a secular college in order to attend a Christian college in Florida, just so that she could learn how to be a better Young Life leader. Garcia went on to become a Young Life staff member, working at a camp in California before finally getting a job as a housekeeper at what had long been her dream location ― Young Life’s Lost Canyon camp in Williams, Arizona.
By then, Garcia said, she had known for a long time that she was queer. She had struggled to repress her sexuality for years, but in 2017, with the help of a therapist, she said she felt ready to come out to herself and to the people she loved. She knew that Young Life was a conservative organization, but because of how inclusive and welcoming the organization had seemed for all this time, she said, she still believed that it wouldn’t prioritize its policies over people.
That’s not what happened. Instead, Young Life gave Garcia an ultimatum ― pledge to remain celibate, or be forced to resign. It was presented as a choice, but it didn’t seem like a fair one to her, she said.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the years with Young Life is to be your most authentic self, your healthiest self. To love others, love yourself, and love God,” she said. “To love myself, I needed to accept this part of me. To hear that they were going to tell me to choose to live a life of celibacy, that’s not living an authentic life.”
Several queer, former Young Life volunteers and staffers who are part of the Do Better Young Life campaign shared similar stories with HuffPost.
Alyssa Silva, a 24-year-old former Young Life student and volunteer, told HuffPost she was a nonpracticing Catholic before she was introduced to Young Life in 2010. At her public high school in Lucas, Texas, Young Life was the “popular” thing to do, she said.
In her junior year of high school, Young Life leaders asked her to help out with Wyldlife, the organization’s middle school ministry, she said. During high school, she said, she never heard Young Life leaders in her region explicitly talking to kids about the organization’s beliefs around sexuality and gender.
Young Life’s non-affirming theology became clearer to her when she started volunteering with the ministry as a college student at Texas A&M University, she said. At meetings, the area director for the Brazos Valley region would tell college-aged leaders that if a kid in their care came out to them as gay or lesbian, the children should be told that these feelings stemmed from a “misplaced desire,” Silva said.
When Silva decided to come out to that same area director in 2017, she knew she would need to step down. But his reaction still shook her. He told her she needed to “stop being gay” and that she was no longer “worthy or qualified” to serve as a leader, Silva said.
“He told me that I was a wolf in a herd of sheep. He told me a lot of really hurtful things that I still think about to this day, and it’s been almost three years,” Silva said.
The director outed her to the rest of the Young Life leadership team and she ended up being ostracized from the community that she had grown to love, she said.
“It was truly devastating,” she said. “I was alone, I was terrified. There were days on days on days that I couldn’t get out of bed. I would go into these crazy crying spells where I just couldn’t stop. Eventually, I got to the point where I was suicidal. It was a really hard and dark time.”
The Brazos Valley Young Life chapter did not reply to HuffPost’s request for comment on Silva’s story. Young Life’s central communications team also declined to explain if and how Young Life volunteers and staff are trained to respond when a queer student comes out to them.
Studies have suggested that religiosity could be a protective factor against suicide attempts. But that protective effect hasn’t been documented among LGBTQ individuals. Data from a 2011 survey from the University of Texas at Austin’s Research Consortium, one of the few large-scale studies that investigated suicidal behavior, sexual orientation and religion among college students, suggested that increased levels of religiosity were associated with increased odds of suicidal ideation among queer youth.
Josh Truitt, a 24-year-old former college volunteer for Young Life in Georgetown, Texas, told HuffPost that at first, he bought into the ministry’s position that it is wrong for Christians to be in same-sex relationships. But even then, he says, he was never fully accepted by the ministry as a gay, celibate Christian.
Truitt said he wasn’t allowed to be open about his sexuality while volunteering for the group. When he tried to give a testimony at camp about how being gay doesn’t separate people from God’s love, staff members not only stopped him from speaking, they also started treating him as if he were a threat to children simply because he was gay, he said.
Truitt said he also heard a speaker at a Young Life leadership conference say that it didn’t matter if a queer person was or wasn’t sexually active ― and that simply having same-sex attractions disqualified someone from being a ministry leader.
After months of wrestling with depression and suicidal thoughts, Truitt said he decided to leave Young Life of his own accord.
“I finally came to the realization, through a lot of therapy and a lot of tough conversations and reading everything under the sun, that God didn’t create me to go through life in a state of mental unhealth,” he said. “God created me to live life and live it abundantly. And that’s not what being closeted was.”
Young Life presents itself as a ministry where the “weirdest, strangest, most out-there kids,” can feel safe and accepted, Truitt said. But he believes that in practice, it’s for the “whitest, straightest, most Protestant kids” at a school.
Do Better Young Life organizers say that the ministry’s anti-queer policies are just one example of a culture that is unwelcoming to kids from marginalized communities. The group has shared stories from former participants who claim they were subjected to racist jokes and tokenization, classism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination.
“I’ve been told things like, ‘You’re not meant to lead at this school. You’ll be more of an impact with the urban kids’ or things like, ‘You’re not like everyone else! You’re different!’ I’ve been used for racial jokes in front of hundreds of campers and I’ve fallen victim to making those jokes myself simply because I was being influenced by the wrong people,” one Black former Young Lifer wrote on Instagram.
To address all of these issues, the ministry has announced it will convene a council of top leaders and “staff and non-staff” to review the stories of former Young Life leaders who say they were deceived and mistreated and “recommend the appropriate course of action in each case.”
Young Life declined to answer HuffPost’s questions about whether the council will include people in same-sex relationships or those who identify as trans, as well as questions about when the review will be completed and how the results will be shared with kids, parents and the public.
Young Life told HuffPost that the ministry is confident that its theology is faithful to “God’s vision for human sexuality.” The stories some former participants have shared “highlight the need to review how we train staff and volunteers to come alongside and love kids who identify as LGBTQ+ — without conditions, [judgment] or shame.”
The organization insisted that “the vast majority of young people, including those who identify as LGBTQ+, have positive experiences in Young Life.” HuffPost requested to be connected to a current or former Young Life participant, volunteer or employee who is in a queer relationship or is gender diverse and had an overall positive experience with the organization. Young Life has not responded to that request.
Truitt said his biggest concern now is making sure that others don’t experience what he did.
“I never want someone to come out to [a leader at Young Life] and their canned response to be, ‘That’s sinful and you need to change,’” he said. “That will lead kids down deep dark tunnels that they don’t need to be in and that I found myself in when I was leading Young Life.”
Three years after being pushed out of Young Life, Garcia said that the emotional and spiritual trauma that came with that rejection still feels fresh. She admitted there are some days when she still wishes she could go back and work at camp.
But ultimately, Garcia said, she decided not to let the ministry decide whom she was going to love. She emphasized to HuffPost that she’s thankful for the lessons she learned from the pain and for the life she’s built for herself outside the ministry. Despite the harmful theology Young Life tried to pass on to her, she said she fully believes that “who I am is okay and good.”
The Do Better Young Life campaign has shown her that she’s not the only one, she said.
“I loved my life there,” she said about Young Life. “But it wasn’t worth compromising who I am. And that’s what I want for kids, I don’t want them to feel like they have to hide.”
“I want people to know that they are seen and celebrated and loved.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.