Finding the Faith, or What I Learned Working with At-Risk LGBTQ Youth

Damon Cardasis on his experiences making Saturday Church, which shows a positive path forward for Christianity in the LGBTQ community.

As a gay man, I was fortunate to grow up with my priest also being my mother — a liberal, Gay-Pride-parade-walking one at that. Christianity has often been used as a weapon to hurt, disparage, isolate, and intimidate LGBTQ people, parents using it to heap abuse upon their kids, kick them out of their homes and force them to make the ultimate decision: be who they truly want to be and risk the loss of those closest to them, or live in a lie forever.

My mother’s version of Christianity didn’t distort the Bible to preach hate or further her own agenda, and taught the purity and love embodied in the teachings of the person it is based upon. An Episcopal priest, she was always passionate about LGBTQ causes: talking openly of them at church, flying the Gay Pride flag, performing gay marriages and commitment ceremonies (before they were legal), etc. Many of her friends were gay men or women, some of whom were other Episcopal priests living their lives proudly. When I, her youngest son, came out as gay, my oldest brother joked that I had fulfilled all my mother’s expectations. I realize how lucky I am to be surrounded by that love and support. That is not always the case.

In my twenties, I spent time volunteering for a gay organization fighting for marriage equality in New York state. Through that experience, I became aware that although the LGBTQ community as a whole faces prejudice every day, certain factions within it – namely trans and gender non-conforming individuals, and particularly people of color – face more extreme hardships. Gay men and women were fighting for the right to marry, while trans and gender non-conforming individuals were still fighting for the basic right not to be fired from their jobs, solely because of who they were. Today there are still no protections in place against this as GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act) has not been passed by the New York State Assembly and Senate. It’s shameful.

Three years ago, I began volunteering at a program in New York City for at-risk LGBTQ youth after hearing about it from my mother. The program happened weekly on Saturday nights and provided food, social services and a safe space where the kids could be themselves. Called Art & Acceptance at St. Luke’s, it was held at an Episcopal church, St. Luke in the Fields in the West Village, in a high-school cafeteria and gymnasium on the church’s property. There was no judgment, no religious agenda, just love and compassion. In the gymnasium, the kids would hang out, dance and be free.

After being taken under the wing of the social worker who ran the program, Jenna Tine Meyer, I began to meet with the kids and hear their stories. Many of their experiences were horrifying. Physical abuse was pervasive, many had been disowned, a majority were homeless, and all were fighting to survive every day. Sadly, most of the abuse stemmed from their parents’ warped religious beliefs, and communities that believed being LGBTQ was a sin. They had fled to New York to find a new community, acceptance, safety and security. I doubt many could have guessed they would find their safe space in a church, when for many of them Christianity had been a source of much of their hardship.

Upon arriving in New York City, many kids of the kids had been hit with another harsh reality. LGBTQ homelessness is now an epidemic and incredible programs and organizations that provide housing and care are often overwhelmed and unable to deal with the sheer number of those in need.

For some LGBTQ youth, the combination of a series of horrific factors – abuse, overtaxed social programs, no housing, lack of job opportunities, and no governmental protections – can lead them to a situation where the only way to survive is through sex work, placing them in even greater physical danger. It’s a horrific situation. And yet these kids still find a way to survive.

My film Saturday Church is based on the St. Luke’s program, the struggle of LGBTQ youth and their incredible perseverance against the horrific circumstances they have suffered under. I was blown away by the hardship that these kids had faced, naïve to the constant suffering that was out there but also deeply inspired by the strength, resilience, creativity, beauty and heart of a community that has been under constant attack. I was inspired to see that there were two sides of the religious narrative, and that although one has been the cause of the pain, the other was working to heal it and protect those abused by it.

Saturday Church stars LGBTQ youth, some of whom attended the actual program, and was a collaboration between members and advisors of the community it portrays and religious institutions that are now working to help them. We shot a portion of the film at St. Luke’s, but the majority of the film was shot at my mother’s church, St. Peter’s Westchester Square in the Bronx, which opened its doors to us, let us take over the property for weeks and became a loving place for our LGBTQ crew and cast.

We recently held a screening of Saturday Church at St. Luke in the Fields, where we were able to show it to the congregation, the volunteers and staff and most importantly, some of the kids who attended the program. It was amazing to witness the film come full circle and be embraced by the community that had inspired it. Christianity has been the cause of so much hardship for the LGBTQ community, but now it must also be part of the solution and begin to right the wrongs done in its name and provide a welcoming home to those who face adversity and hardship, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. It can lead with love and acceptance. Christians only need to look towards St. Luke’s and St. Peter’s for examples of this already in action and work toward helping a community that has been so traumatized by its teachings.

My mother’s next plan is to open a Saturday program at her church in The Bronx. I hope other churches will follow suit.

Damon Cardasis is a two-time Writer’s Guild Award nominee, and writer-director Rebecca Miller’s producing partner. Cardasis recently produced Miller’s film Maggie’s Plan, and is currently in post-production on a documentary with HBO. Round Films, Cardasis and Miller’s production company, is in development on a variety of projects, for film and television. His debut feature as writer-director, Saturday Church, is in select theaters through Samuel Goldwyn Films from January 12.