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OH MY GOD? EPISODE THREE: THE RAINBOW PROMISE

Young people struggling with their sexuality during their teen years have a tough enough time, but add in the pressure of trying to fit into a Christian community. Christian teachings can have a huge impact on these young people’s lives as they navigate the world. Some have stayed, some have made the hard decision to turn their back on their faith. Elizabeth Thomson and Harry Poland look at how a person's struggles with sexuality can affect their relationship with their faith.

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SAM TABAK, 19

The pain is still very real for Sam Tabak, and it shows on his face.

By his own admission, his high school years were “great” but those same years also gave him a lot of issues he says he will be dealing with for the rest of his life.

“It’s been rough.”

An inkling. It all started with an inkling for the 20-year-old nursing student. He was just 12 when he began to suspect he was a little different to the boys around him. But it wasn’t until he started his tertiary education a year ago that he was in a comfortable enough space to truly come to terms with his feelings.

The seven years in-between were seven years of facade, suppressed feelings, and distractions from his own thoughts. Looking back on his high school years, Sam realises that keeping busy was a sort of coping mechanism for him.

“I was one of those people that didn’t have one lunchtime free because I was running around everywhere just always up to something, and thinking back it was probably me just trying to keep myself busy and distract myself from reality or what was really going on.”

Sam attended a Christian school during his teenage years and is grateful for the “incredible teachers” and morals the school instilled in its pupils, but some of the actions perpetuated by Christian teachings were to be a little more damaging on him. Barely a day would go by where his friends wouldn’t make a jokes about gay people, and Sam would play along, while secretly hurting inside. He says the line between Christianity and sexuality became blurred.

“It was really difficult to disassociate Christianity and sexuality when they were making these jokes at church, and they were making these jokes at school and everything. Because I had such a negative view on my sexuality, religion kind of followed suit. So I kind of became a wee bit resentful towards religion because of the way that my friends joked about gay people.”

Being LGBT and Christian can be tough, and he believes they are experiences no one should have to go through alone.

“I don’t think anyone should do faith alone. I think I need the support to just know that I’m accepted.”

PASTOR MATTHEW JACK

On the corner of Bealey Avenue and Victoria Street sits Knox Church, concrete and wood elegantly mixing the old with the new. Knox Church is unique, as is its pastor, Matthew Jack. Being a pastor, and being part of the rainbow community is rare. Matthew thinks he may be the only rainbow person leading any of the around 400 Presbyterian churches in New Zealand.

“The official position of the wider church here in this country is that rainbow people are not fit for leadership roles… I’m allowed to continue ministering because I was on the register of ministers in good standing when the excluding legislation went through.”

After his ministry is up, there are going to have to be some changes before more rainbow people are allowed to lead churches.

“I’m here on a grandparent clause, which means when I go, no more of my kind will come… But, within that national policy, which I acknowledge - I’m bound by that - I’ll carry on serving as I can. And when I can’t anymore I won’t, and I’ll wait for further generations of Presbyterians to work out what to do next.”

And he thinks that change may be happening, but there is still a long way to go.

He has found the Christian church welcoming but puts this down to his age and confidence in his sexuality. He views unsupportive environments cultivated by other churches as potentially damaging to someone who may be struggling.

“I’ve been to various events at other churches where I’ve listened to what’s being said, and it’s not friendly. I’m okay with that because I’m an older gay person, and I’m currently not coming to terms with myself and my sexuality. It’s just bordering on dangerous. So we’re doing okay, and we could do better.”

He points out with a chuckle that his journey to the faith was a long one. He was raised living a “very pleasant, nice secular life”, but when an English teacher brought up the question of God, Jack was fascinated at the discord among his friends. He approached his local minister to investigate religion further, saying he owes part of where he is today to those first chats.

“Good conversations with a good man, who had lots of time for a young person.”

RAYNOR PERREAU, 20

Twenty-year-old broadcasting student Raynor Perreau experienced a similar kind of mentorship which strengthened her faith. She began attending a youth group while she was at intermediate school, and got along really well with one of the youth leaders, describing her as a “big sister figure”.

But when Raynor realised she was bisexual, she experienced inner turmoil.

“When I realised that I wasn’t straight, it was a bit freaky just because of the Christian side of things. I felt like two big parts of me were just completely clashing. I didn’t really know how to feel. It was just kind of confusing for a while.”

She’s now altered her perception of God to a more general, spiritual being of love.

“After I stopped going to church, my understanding of God definitely changed. I didn’t stop believing in God, but I sort of started believing in a different interpretation of God. I also think that anyone's interpretation of their God, whether it’s Buddha or whatever their belief is, I think it’s just this being that’s love and everyones got their own interpretation of it.”

PASTOR MARTY REDHEAD

For the assistant pastor at Hope Presbyterian Marty Redhead, he sees his job as sitting and listening to those in difficulty.

“I have a real pastoral heart. I love people, and so when someone sits and tells me their story, or when someone sits and tells me about their wrestle, the space that they find themselves in, I mean, personally, I just have kind of love and compassion.”

Redhead says it’s important to take time to hear the story.

“It can be a huge source of pain for families and for young people - for anyone really - and as the church, as a pastor, you want to help people, you want to embrace people you know, and love them in that pain and that space.”

JOURNALIST ANDREW MACFARLANE

When journalist Andrew Macfarlane was presented with an opportunity to do a story investigating the practice of gay conversion therapy, it was a chance to make an impact on a topic close to him.

“When they talked about what the topic was, that was sort of the crux of it for me. I can choose to do a story on almost anything, and bring it to the forefront. For me, that was kind of the moment where I went ‘I can make a difference’.”

He remembers being excited about marriage equality being passed, but not realising why.

“I remember the day that marriage equality was passed in New Zealand. I remember coming to school the next day and for me personally I was kind of like ‘this is quite cool’. I’m totally supportive of that having not clicked that the reason I was supportive of it was because I myself was gay.”

He believes being a member of the Christian and LGBT community shouldn’t be an issue, because being a Christian is more about each individual's relationship with God.

“I definitely think it is possible to be both. But I think at the core of it, you know, a relationship in the church isn’t about your sexuality, it’s about your relationship with God, right? I think the two can co-exist if that makes sense.”

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YOUR OPINIONS

Credits:

Created by Elizabeth Thomson and Harry Poland With images by Steve Johnson - "small painting (part of a larger project)" • Karl Fredrickson - "untitled image" • Patrick Fore - "untitled image" • Daniel Tseng - "untitled image" • Matt Botsford - "Hands High, Heart abandoned" • AbsolutVision - "Business newspaper pages" • Trent Erwin - "Hard at work"