By Chavaleh Forgey
Editor’s note: As part of her studies at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., Chavaleh Forgey established an LGBTQIA+ reconciliation ministry at Christ Lutheran Church, Visalia, Calif. With the encouragement of the pastor, Brian Malison, Forgey developed the congregation’s Agape Group in 2018.
In the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, Christ Lutheran Church has a story of groundbreaking reconciliation and restoration ministry to share.
Called by the transformative love of God, the congregation’s Agape Group invites people to share their stories of religious trauma and abuse. These traumas range from religious rejection to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of religious leaders and organizations.
In the two years before COVID-19 put this in-person ministry on hold, participants experienced unexpected healing founded in grace. Congregation members, who offer trusting spaces and extravagant hospitality, are also profoundly changed by the experience.
Each reconciliation event for Agape Group comprises hosts from the congregation, local allies, and individuals who have been hurt, rejected or abused in the name of God. Through communal meals, art projects and sharing of stories over four weekly meetings (or a weekend retreat-style event), participants say the Spirit works in astounding ways.
Every event follows a specific pattern, designed to express God’s grace and love. The three goals are to provide amazing food, to listen, and to have parishioners tell people they are sorry for the pain they’ve experienced.
Community partnership has been key to the ministry’s success. “This holding space for healing and listening to historical trauma and pain caused by faith communities is the first time I had ever experienced a true healing of the wounds caused by years of anti-LGBTQ messaging,” said Brian Poth, a co-founder and executive director of the Source LGBT+ Center in Visalia. Poth was invited to participate in the first Agape Group event that the congregation held.
“It’s a wonderful beginning to establishing true trust and allyship with queer and trans people of faith,” he added.
Careful consideration and preparation go into each reconciliation event. At required pre-event meetings, parishioners serving as hosts pray for participants and receive compassion training from partners in ministry who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
These ministry partners warn hosts about the trauma they may learn of, remind them that their goal is to listen and not to “fix,” and school them in a glossary of terms they may find unfamiliar. Hosts practice introducing themselves with pronouns, a way to tangibly show love, and are invited to ask any questions they may have that might cause embarrassment during the event.
Spaces for the reconciliation events are also intentionally regarded. Architecture and items that most Christians find comforting, such as pews and crosses, may have an adverse effect on those who have been traumatized in religious spaces. Given this, the congregation’s youth house provides a comfortable and neutral space for these meetings.
Participants agree to a group covenant of confidentiality and welcome. A brief presentation affirms that the congregation, the Sierra Pacific Synod and the ELCA all honor LGBTQIA+ people as unique and beloved children of God and value their participation at all levels of leadership.
It is difficult to describe the holiness of this moment.
A meal is served, and participants are invited to share a piece of their story or perspective through an art project that hosts also participate in. This builds trust and relationship and begins the process of open communication.
The third week (or the third section in a weekend retreat) is the essence of the ministry. Though a parishioner acts as host and facilitator for the first two weeks, the third week is led by a partner in ministry. Agape Group participants believe that the invitation to speak in such a vulnerable way must come from someone who has just shared their similar experiences.
For many, it is difficult to describe the holiness of this moment. This may be the first time some in the group have verbalized their abuse and trauma at the hands of the church—and often they’ve experienced profound physical abuse in tandem with emotional abuse. Silence is sacred, and no one is pushed to speak or to continue when doing so is difficult. Congregational hosts respond only with expressions of love and gratitude for the story, and with “I’m sorry.”
Hosts are given an unspeakably fragile gift of trust to gently hold, and Christ—who experienced abuse, trauma and humiliation—is tangibly present with them as they listen. Those who may have expected simply to serve in a ministry typically come away from these events profoundly changed, with a new understanding of God’s transformative grace. Participants often describe their experience, though difficult, as a relief or a lightening—a hope.
“I have known since I was a child that God didn’t exist, because of what happened to me in the church,” said one participant after taking part in Agape Group. “But I don’t know if that’s forever for me.”