A  kind , gentle, knowledgeable and very socially conscious 16 year old boy arrived to join his circle of friends for a youth group prior to going on a mission trip.  These kids/this place  had been this boys sanctuary from years of school bullying.  This group held a safe and sacred space for him as he experienced the laughter and joys of friendship.  Over the course of about a year, and since the addition of a new conservative youth leader, a tension had been building between the youth leader and Ben. The youth leader delivered a devotional.  Sitting in the circle directly, across from the youth leader quickly became excruciating.  The topic was about the sin of homosexuality. After what probably felt like an eternity, I can imagine the breath of relief when the lesson finally came to a close.

The discomfort, however, did not stop.  The spiritual leader, blurted out a strong attack:

You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay.  Who here is comfortable being around him?  Child by child as each name was called, the leader required a response.  The next question that was posed to each child in the circle, do you understand that Ben is going to hell?  Child by child the leader pressured an answer.  Child by child, Ben’s sanctuary was dismantled.

Ben was told that he was not worthy of going on the mission trip.  He had been shamed, humiliated, and betrayed.  He was told that he did not deserve to be a part of the group.  He was no representative of God.

Out of our front window, I saw the goldish colored Caviler abruptly whip into our driveway.   Ben ran up the porch steps and stood in the doorway.  One look, and I knew, something horrible had happened.  The flushed sides of his cheeks quivered as did his lip.  His breathing was rapid and his eyes just about to spill over.

The church bus was loaded with Ben’s friends to go on that mission trip while my betrayed and broken son, walked alone around Salem Lake.   He must have felt so very abandoned and isolated.

While he never lost his compassion for others, I think that this was the day that he gave up on people and God. 

Our church was such a loving and supportive place, as it is now.  We were crushed that our second home had been polluted with a vile and disgusting presence of hate and abuse. How could a place, with loving values, fail to protect our son and the other children in the room? The other youth members had received the teachings that God is love and to have compassion, yet they were forced to participate in cruelty in the name God.  Sadly, Ben was not surprised by the behavior of the youth pastor but he was crushed that his friends left his side.

Ben later graduated from high school and became a student at UNCA. Here, he finally found a community that practiced and promoted individuality. He loved it there. He had a shirt that said something like, Asheville, where weird is normal.  His bumper stickers of Books not Bombs, Go Vegan, Coexist, etc, no longer brought second looks.  This boy had found his place.  We, our family, continued to want nothing to do with church but we were so happy that Ben was happy and safe.  He seemed to have soared above the experiences of his sad childhood.

I’ve observed something very powerful.  Each one of us yearns for our authentic selves to be expressed, seen and celebrated.  Like water, we thirst for it, pleading, just let me be who God prepared me to be.

Some kids who are gay, would give anything to have the love and acceptance of their family, yet are rejected.  What a painful empty space that is drilled into the heart. God please hold that dear person and fill in the space with your love.   My son, was fully accepted and cherished within his family.  His being gay was just part of him. We loved him.   Being gay is no different than my eyes are blue.  They just are blue.  Blue is not better or something that I chose, they are just blue. How could what was given by God be evaluated and judged.   Sexual orientation is just no different than any other God given characteristic.

On May 8, 2013, at 12:20 I was at my work desk.  I received a call from a gentle but firm sounding officer who stated:  “Ma’am you have not done anything wrong and you are not in trouble, but I need to speak with you.  You need to come home”.  I journeyed home to find my fingers fumbling through my wallet to retrieve my license. My identity was verified and recorded, and the gentle man asked,

“Ma’am, I need to verify that you have a son in Asheville.”  Yes.  “I am sorry Ma’am, your son is no longer with us.”

Quickly I was given the phone to answer questions from the medical examiner.  Ma’m, I am so sorry, but I need to ask, has your son suffered mental health problems, substance abuse, or cutting.  No, nothing, I don’t know of anything like that.

The Resident Assistant had found Ben in a fetal position on the floor of his tiny dorm room during the end of semester room check.  Twenty-one year old, William Benjamin Wood chose to end his life. I yearned to know why, when did his nirvana leave him? I learned from his friends that Ben was no longer doing so well in school. His grades and attendance had nosedived.  He just couldn’t get motivated.  As it goes with depression, the things that you love most no longer matter.  His friends said that his greatest fear was the thoughts of having to move back to his home town and getting stuck there with no way out.  He understood that without being in school, he had no way to “be” in Asheville.   What amazing power love or rejection can hold over us.

Even though he had been wrapped in the warmth of love in his family home, he would rather die, than come back to the community of his pain.  It horrified him.

I have been asked, do you think what happened to Ben at church caused his death by Suicide?  My heart felt response is no.   With depression, comes distortions, confusion and then hopelessness.  But I do, with all my heart, believe that the outcome would have been different if he had not suffered humiliation, betrayal , rejection,  and shame.  YES,…… Shame……for being the beautiful creation that God made him to be.     Did this experience strip him of his faith in God and man? Yes. This experience may not have taken his life but it most certainly did not help save it!

The UMC has a Book of Discipline that states:  The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Now, I have a question.  Did this youth pastor behave in or out of the culture created by the words in the United Methodist Book of Discipline?  I think he behaved in line with our Book of Discipline. (Sin, unworthy, undeserving, not comfortable around you, going to hell-words that delivered the message that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching!)

I however, do not, believe that The UMC would knowingly sanction such ignorance and abuse. Of course no one intended for this to happen. Many people have grieved for my Ben. Still, our Methodist messages are contradictory and confusing.  Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds… but our message is that a gay person does not measure up to Christian teachings? This confusion opens the door to hurtful situations.

We must help others understand that words are incredibly powerful instruments for love or hate—even those voted on and written in the Book of Discipline create cultural norms and expectations with said and unsaid parameters for behavior.

We have to make good come out of this suffering. There is progress being made, yet even here in North Carolina the laws show regression. It’s time to make a change.  This is OUR commission.

We must power the wave that creates a paradigm shift that brings understanding in the church, our state, and our world.  We are all beautifully and carefully woven together in our mother’s womb.   Celebrate who you are in God. We are the masterpiece of the Divine Creator.  Clothe yourself in the love of God and never let ignorance cut through to you.

Each of us has experienced rejection.  When the people of Japan mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.

You ARE a divine and beautiful masterpiece.

. . .

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386.

Julie Hilliard Wood

Julie Hilliard Wood lives in North Carolina with her husband, and two daughters. She works in the Human Services field, serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Julie is a lifelong United Methodist and the daughter of a United Methodist Minister. Julie has a passion and commitment, as a mother and ally, to facilitating justice in our churches and society for individuals who are LGBTQ. Julie celebrates the beauty of her son, Ben, who is now in heaven and strives to ensure that his death will not be in vain.
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