The times when we believe we can see right and wrong the most clearly are usually the times that we are the most blind. When we refuse to think of other beliefs and circumstances besides our own and don’t give any credence to other people’s experiences, we stunt our ability to learn, to love others, and to have our eyes opened.
I just finished watching a documentary entitled, “Kidnapped for Christ,” which features a 17-year old named David who was sent to a school in the Dominican Republic before his Senior year because of his homosexuality. It’s a very honest film about the conditions the students had to live in, and it chronicles their experiences. During his stay, David turned 18, and as an American citizen, he should’ve had the freedom to leave that place. Unfortunately, because of how horrible this place was, the leaders at the school told him that he actually didn’t have any rights because of how the government in the D.R. was structured (which was a complete lie). Eventually, he was allowed to go home, but his story of fighting for social justice and fighting against institutional abuse had just begun. Before I share my thoughts on the documentary, I want to take you behind the scenes of my relationship with David.
When I was going into 6th grade, I met a boy at my voice teacher’s house. He was just leaving from his trumpet lesson as my older sister and I walked in for our lessons; our teacher stopped and introduced us, telling me his name was David, and that he was going to be in my class at school. Little did I know that he would later become one of the most important people in my entire life.
Throughout Junior High, David and I became very close friends. We passed notes to each other in our classes, we called each other on the phone (back in the stone age when nobody had cell phones and we had to call each other’s HOME PHONES), and we would talk for hours on end. He was (and is!) adorable, sweet, fun, funny, and loves his friends with his whole heart. I deeply valued my friendship with him. He transferred to public school for high school while I stayed at the private Christian school that we attended, and our relationship deepened so much after that. We fought fairly often, but we were best friends and we loved each other. We would talk on “MSN Messenger” as often as possible, we would talk on the phone until 2 or 3 in the morning, we would go to each other’s houses and hang out, and we gave each other birthday and Christmas gifts whenever we could. At this point, in the middle of our freshman year, David had become the most important person in my life.
I’ve written about sophomore year in my blog before, and if you would like to read what happened on a rainy September night that changed both our lives forever, go ahead and click here. Otherwise, I’ll quickly summarize it here. There was a point in time where I could tell that David was distancing himself from me, and I had this strange feeling that there was something he wasn’t telling me. I couldn’t tell for sure what it was, but I knew I needed to find out. He agreed that there was something he needed to tell me, so he came to my house, and after minutes in silence, he told me he was gay. All I remember is hugging him and crying with him after that -- I don’t even know how long it lasted, but I know we sat in my basement for hours.
I screwed up. A couple weeks after that, David told me he was going to accept the fact that he was gay, and he really wanted my support. I told him that I couldn’t support his choices, and in that exact moment, our friendship was forever changed. Our relationship became rocky at best. We were mean to one another, we would go long periods of time without talking, and we both had a deep amount of resentment towards the other person; David had every right to be resentful towards me, but I had no reason to be angry with him.
This story isn’t about me, though, and it isn’t even about our relationship. It’s about what happened to him when we were about to enter our Senior year. David had attended a dance production I was in in May, 2006. At this point it looked like our relationship could be on the mend, but I knew we were very distant friends. After the production, though, I attempted to contact him to get together, but didn’t receive anything back. I left him voicemails, texted him, emailed him, and checked my messenger accounts constantly to see if he would be online. Neither I nor anyone else had heard from him since that time. It wasn’t until December 2006 that I was in my room doing my homework, when I heard my MSN messenger ping. It was David. I was ecstatic, overwhelmed, and so glad to know he was safe. We planned to meet at Starbucks the following weekend, and I could hardly wait that long.
When we talked, he told me he had been down in the Dominican Republic at the “Escuela Caribe,” which was a school for “troubled American teens.” He told me he had been sent there because he was gay, and he told me all the horrible things that happened to him while he was experiencing that awful place. For some reason, I felt completely disconnected from everything and just didn’t really understand why he would have been sent there. At this point I was still very against what I perceived to be his choice of homosexuality (even though, I realize now, it’s not something he chose), so when he told me that this school attempted to make him “straight,” I didn’t initially see the problem with that.
Now, I want to make something clear. David is and always has been the furthest thing from “troubled.” He is kind and giving, he loves people with everything he has, he is passionate about so many things, and he was a stellar student. He thrived in the drama department at his high school, and he was in many AP classes (in fact, in the documentary, he states he had a 4.3 GPA before he was sent to the D.R.). Even though this was all very true, because of my ignorance and refusal to understand other beliefs outside of my own, I found myself wondering why he didn’t just accept the help he was being offered and “change.” Even now, almost 10 years later, I shudder to think about the way I treated him.
It wasn’t until about 2 years ago that I realized how wrongly I had treated him. At the same time that I started learning about feminism, I also gained multiple friends who were both Christian and gay. Some of them had decided to live lives of celibacy, but others believe that homosexuality is no longer a sin and have clear consciences in pursuing romantic relationships with those of the same sex. It was through talking with them and others that my views started to change. To this day, I actually can’t tell you exactly what I believe about the matter, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to state what I believe. If my friends can be Christians and gay at the same time, then the Holy Spirit must not be convicting them of any wrongdoing. If they are pursuing Christ and Love, then who am I to tell them that they have “backslidden” or that they’re not actually Christians? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know now that loving others is the most important thing we can do.
Love isn’t telling someone you refuse to be in relationship with them until they change their ways. Love isn’t telling that person you’re praying for them to see the light. Love isn’t hounding that person over and over again with the reasons why you believe they’re wrong. Love is supportive. Love says, “I love all of you, no matter what.” Love pursues a deeper relationship with the other person, regardless of theological differences. Love says, “We may believe different things, but that’s okay.”
David, and many other teenagers, were very, very mistreated at Escuela Caribe. They had to endure multiple instances of emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse. This was not an isolated event, either. There are thousands upon thousands of “behavior modification” schools all over the country, and they are not subject to federal regulations. This means there’s no system for accountability with these places, and that’s not okay.
Please take the time to watch this documentary -- you won’t regret it. You can find it on iTunes, or if you live in Colorado, you can borrow it from me (but I will definitely want it back after!). I really encourage you to watch it without any distractions and to fully immerse yourself in seeing a glimpse of what life was like for these teenagers.
Please also visit www.kidnappedforchrist.com to learn more about the people who made the documentary and how you can help fight against institutional abuse. Regardless how you may feel about homosexuality (which, please think of the fact that these are real people, it’s not just an “issue”), this kind of treatment is simply unacceptable. If you have any questions or would like to talk about the documentary, I would love to chat with you. We can either meet for coffee, message back and forth on Facebook, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to get connected with you, and if you would like to get in touch with David, I’m sure we can arrange that. Having the courage to stand up for yourself and for others can be incredibly difficult, but you can do it. It’s not in the least bit easy, but you’ll be so grateful once you cross that barrier.
And to David -- I love you, and I’m so proud of you. I know I keep saying it, and I know you’re probably tired of me saying these things, but you are such an inspiration to me. The kind of courage it took to get the word out about that school is mind-blowing. I want to love and support you in any way I can, so please let me know if you ever need anything. Love you!
“Love is good and Love is God. His will be done through you by loving others.”
- David Wernsman