Catholic parents with LGBT children are some of the most committed and effective advocates for a more just and inclusive Catholic Church here in the U.S. Yet even among this group of prophets, Deb and Steve Word of Memphis stand out. The couple were recently profiled in a national newspaper for their efforts at personally housing LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. USA Today writes:
“Although Deb and Steve Word have two children, they are also parents to nearly 15 LGBTQ youth who had been living on the streets after getting kicked out of their own homes.
” ‘It’s a revolving door some days,’ Deb says. ‘We’ve had 19 or 20 total visits. Some of the kids have come back. We did this because we can’t seem to find funding to find out how to do this right. We’re putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds.’ “
To give perspective to these gaping wounds, there are up to 400,000 LGBT youth who experience homelessness annually which is 40 percent of the overall homeless youth population. Many of these young people are on the streets because of family rejection, which often has religious roots. Social services inadequately protect this vulnerable population, with USA Today noting:
“Shelters and foster homes can be volatile environments for LGBT youth, according to Deb. Some are run by religious organizations that aren’t always accepting. Transgender people often have to classify themselves as the gender with which they don’t identify…
” ‘We’re working with the [Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community] Center on a multipronged approach,’ Deb says. ‘Our LGBT youth deserve respect if they have to go into shelter or foster systems. We need to train our social workers and our caregivers to understand and treat our kids with respect.’ “
In the meantime, the welcome mat to the Words’ own home has been a warm invitation to these LGBTQ youth, many who remain in touch years later. This permanent connection is a testament to the Words’ ability to instill family bonds in youth who have experienced ultimate rejection. As Deb notes, “If your mother has told you you’re going to hell, how do you move on from there?”
The story of Kal Dwight, a 23-year old trans man who stayed with the Words in 2009, provides a partial answer to Deb’s question. Dwight’s parents rejected him at 15, forcing him to survive high school without a home or stable meals. He says of the Word’s radical hospitality:
” ‘Without Deb and Steve and the Center, I would have it much more rough…I spend holidays with the Words, and they always call me on my birthday…They are my family.’ “
Dwight hopes to work for LGBT equality, especially for transgender persons.
Like many Catholic parents, the Words’ involvement in helping and advocating for LGBTQ youth is a deeply personal ministry. They began their work for equality and caring for homeless teens soon after their oldest son came out as gay at 23. Deb warmly says:
” ‘It never occurred to me that he was anything other than my child. Did I worry about his safety and worry that life may be harder for him? Yes. Did I ever think less of him? No. I was just amazed that there were parents who would kick out a child because they came out.’ “
Both Deb and Steve have been active in Fortunate Families, a national network which supports Catholic parents of LGBT children. Deb currently serves as the organization’s Board President.
The impact of Catholics parents cannot be overstated. They often help their family members and fellow parishioners better understand LGBT persons and issues. Parents have influenced church leaders, most notably a Maltese bishop who spoke at last fall’s Synod. They are courageous voices speaking out against church injustice, as when a group of parents in Detroit protested anti-LGBT statements by the archdiocese there. Even Pope Francis is waking up to the special role of these parents, suggesting in a recent interview that, “We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their [lesbian/gay] son or daughter.”
New Ways Ministry offers thanks to Deb, Steve, and the countless other Catholic parents who do so much to help LGBTQ youth flourish. Their love is saving lives and is powerfully challenging our church to be more welcoming and merciful!
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
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