Some former Young Life participants, volunteers, and leaders are speaking out about their hurtful experiences in the conservative evangelical youth ministry organization. Through #DoBetterYoungLife, a social media campaign launched this summer, they’re urging the Colorado-based group to be more transparent about its views on sexual identity.
Although Young Life has pledged to review the allegations and examine “how we live out our faith and beliefs,” it maintains that its theology is sound. The ecumenical organization, founded in 1941, ministers to almost 370,000 kids every week. Leaders receive permission from public middle schools and high schools to hold weekly clubs during the school year. Many of those participants also attend Young Life camps and go on to become college-age leaders.
Is Young Life Truly Inclusive?
On its website, Young Life says the organization is “for everyone” and for “all kids [of] every ability and all economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.” But participants in the Do Better Young Life campaign say the group employs a bait-and-switch tactic, initially welcoming everyone, getting them invested in Christian community, and then ejecting members and leaders who are LGBTQ.
Almost 7,000 people have signed a Change.org petition that states: “Many queer students joined Young Life before they discovered and/or embraced their sexuality and/or gender identity, and very few are aware of Young Life’s policies. They hoped to find acceptance and community in an organization that advertises its inclusion, only to be faced with rejection after coming out.” The petition also encourages Young Life to become more socioeconomically and racially diverse.
Former Young Life participant and staffer Kent Thomas launched #DoBetterYoungLife on Instagram after discovering the organization was using a promotional photo of an employee it had dismissed for being gay. During the past six weeks, more than 400 people have posted stories of rejection and trauma, and news outlets have published stories about what LGBTQ supporters describe as “non-affirming theology.”
Thomas, now 39, says Young Life was a huge part of his childhood because his parents were both involved. When he came out as gay in his 20s, he says the organization informed him he couldn’t serve as a leader. Thomas, who didn’t expect his hashtag to reach more than a few dozen people, says, “It’s been…healing to know I’m not alone and also brought up wounds I thought I had healed from and moved beyond.”
In his initial post, Thomas wrote: “Young Life says all queer kids are welcome, but partial ‘inclusion’ at an arm’s length is even worse than overt exclusion. It’s like making eye contact with someone and saying ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ while gently shutting the door in their face.”
More Stories—and Young Life’s Response
Elizabeth Garcia, who found a sense of belonging in Young Life as a teenager in Florida, eventually professed faith in Christ and attended a Christian college to become a Young Life leader. When she came out as gay, she says supervisors told her she had to either remain celibate or resign. That goes against “one of the biggest things I’ve learned over the years with Young Life,” she says, “to be your most authentic self, your healthiest self.”
Josh Truitt, a former college volunteer for Young Life in Texas, says he wasn’t permitted to share a testimony about being gay and was treated as a threat to kids. He left the organization, he says, after realizing that “God created me to live life and live it abundantly, and that’s not what being closeted was.”
As a result of the backlash, Young Life says it’s become aware of “the need to review how we train staff and volunteers to come alongside and love kids who identify as LGBTQ+ without conditions, judgment, or shame.” The organization recently announced a new council “to further review the stories of current and former members of the Young Life family who have come forward to share instances where they have experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors.”