Pastor Heidi Neumark
Trinity Lutheran Church, W. 100th St. Manhattan
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Well, I wouldn’t know. Would you? Who among us can boast of purity of heart? Alleyna didn’t dare to even imagine it. We were sitting at a table in the church basement eating lasagna. "So," she asked me, "when are you going to give me the lecture?" The lecture? I had no idea what Alleyna was talking about. "The one that every minister gives me." "What lecture is that?" I asked. "The one where you tell me I’m going to hell."
Thankfully, I’ve always believed that such decisions are made by an infinitely wiser and infinitely kinder mind than mine. I could think of a few candidates, but Alleyna was definitely not on the list. She’d only been staying at our church’s shelter for homeless youth for a few weeks, but she stood out for her positive attitude.
Our church is in New York City, a destination for runaways and also for young people who have been kicked out of their homes. A growing number of the latter find themselves on the street because their families cannot accept their sexual orientation and reject them altogether. There are thousands of young people in this category who arrive here from around the country and find only a few shelters that will welcome them, with only a couple dozen beds. Other shelters are hostile or unsafe. Those who have stayed there describe being urinated on as they sleep or being beaten up. But the streets are worse. Vulnerable teens without resources are easy prey for pimps and predators.
They are also frequent targets of hate attacks, particularly transgender youth. One young transgender woman who sought refuge at the church required reconstructive facial surgery to repair the damage left by a particularly vicious assault.
Shelter from the cold We began the shelter in response to a plea for churches to open their doors for just a week one cold winter, taking the overflow from another shelter. A week seemed just the right amount of time for our limited resources and imagination. At some point during that week, the Holy Spirit intervened and that first week stretched into three. The experience led us to a long, prayerful process in the congregation after which we opened Trinity Place, a shelter for homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. The shelter runs from nine at night to nine in the morning in our church basement 365 days a year.
Alleyna could not have been a more amenable shelter resident. When dishes needed to be washed or the floor needed to be swept, most guests made a hasty exit, suddenly late for a vital appointment. Or they bickered over whose turn it was to do which chore, or questioned who left the cereal bowl on the table, whose wet towel was on the floor. Alleyna simply picked up the broom or headed for the kitchen sink and went to work. Every morning when I looked in to say hello and see how things were going, a time of day when most of the shelter guests are sullen with sleep, Alleyna had a friendly greeting.
And so it came as a shock during our dinner table conversation when Alleyna told me: "The reason they say I’m going to hell is that I worship the devil." Alleyna did not fit my vision of a devil worshiper. I know it’s said that the devil is often disguised as an angel of light, but Alleyna didn’t exactly fit the angelic category either. Every morning, she drew dark charcoal circles around her eyes, blackened her lips, and snapped spiked dog collars around her neck and wrists that matched her pointed facial piercings.
The story in the window All made up, thin and on the frail side, Alleyna could have been either male or female. In that sense, she reminded me of a figure in one of our church’s beautiful stained glass windows. The windows are century-old glorious jewels paid for and set in place by the German immigrants who built Trinity. Now the windows lie sealed in wooden coffins. They had to be removed and disassembled because of the jack hammering going on at the bedrock under the lot beside us. New luxury apartments are going to rise up there, blocking the light that once streamed into our sanctuary. We don’t know if the windows will ever see the light of day again. For now, they are buried in their rented tomb and the cost to restore and replace them appears to be beyond our means.
Before they were laid to rest, I preached a sermon series on the stories in the windows. Most of the scenes were easy to match with their biblical source, but one baffled me. In that window, a young adult lies on a cot that has been carried and set before Jesus in a public square. The youth’s eyes are almost closed, skin pale as death, pale as Alleyna’s skin, with dark circles around the eyes. A woman who appears to be the mother stretches out her arm, imploring Jesus to do something for her child, who looks to be in his or her late teens, the age of the young people in our shelter.
In preparing to preach, I sat and meditated on the window. Which healing story did it depict? The problem was that I could not tell if the figure in need of healing was male or female. I found this disturbing. Day after day, I sat on a pew, gazing at the window, looking for indications of gender that I just couldn’t find. How could I preach without knowing? Finally, it dawned on me: I was more focused on the pronoun than on the healing.
The burden to match the image with the right pronoun is too much for some young people. The attempted suicide rate among transgender youth is estimated to be between 30 and 50 percent. It strikes me that Alleyna’s morning routine before the mirror accentuates what has been mirrored back to her for years: You are not normal. You deserve the abuse you get. Her look mimics what she’s seen in the eyes of others. What if the mirror that had been held up to her all her life had been different?
Mirrors are a hot commodity in our shelter where the guests jockey for their time to primp and preen. They always seem to need one more minute, time for one more adjustment, time to get the make-up, the hair, the fit just right. This is typical teenage behavior, but it’s accentuated for the transgender youth, waiting to be pleased with the face and the body they see in the mirror. It’s a long wait. I’ve never suffered from gender dysphoria (the opposite of euphoria), which is the medical term for the condition transgender people are faced with, but I know what it’s like to wait to be pleased in the mirror. And I know I’m not alone.
There’s a song that goes through my mind when I see the flurry in front of the mirrors. Ysaye Barnwell of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock sings "No Mirrors in My Nana’s House": Without mirrors we’d never know that we are anything but beautiful — because our beauty is reflected back to us in loving eyes.
That expresses what we aim for downstairs in our shelter and upstairs in our sanctuary. But now we had a self-confessed devil worshiper in the church basement. Was it time to get out the holy water, exorcise the demon, and show the devil the door? Or was it time to listen? I asked Alleyna to tell me what she meant about worshiping the devil, what it was that she believed.
Listening to Alleyna I remember three main things from the conversation that followed. The first is that Alleyna believed that God is not in charge of the world. Her reasoning was simple: How could God be in charge with so many terrible things going on? How could a loving God allow all the damage that had been done to her? It was easier to believe that God was not around.
The second point that Alleyna made is that she believed she had to look out for herself because she couldn’t count on anyone else. Some people had told her that this means you’re worshiping yourself, she added — or the devil. Others would just say that you’re a good shopper, embracing the pervasive theology of a consumer culture — taking care of Number One. Did Alleyna participate in any demonic rites, any satanic ceremonies? No. Did she believe in hurting other people? "Of course not!" she said.
Was this the theology of a devil worshiper? How many people in our pews have the feeling that God is not in charge? How many of us live and work that way, acting as though it all depends on us? And would that more of us could claim an ethic that rejects harm to others. Frankly, I did not find Alleyna’s statements satanic at all. If such thoughts pave the road to hell, well, Alleyna will have plenty of pious company.
Should our response to her struggle be to tell her to go to hell? Should we join those who would kick this child of God to the curb or condemn her to the margins, fulfilling her belief that no one cares for her, not even, especially not even, God or the people who worship God? Or would it be better to invite her to come into the church, to find sanctuary, to eat lasagna and sleep in a warm bed and wake up slowly to discover that there exists a community that sees in her things that others miss, the ache for healing, the shining beauty, the image of God etched indelibly upon her heart.
That is what we seek to bear witness to through our shelter: We reject the way of seeing that looks upon those who are different—even different in ways we don’t like or understand—as inferior, defective, evil, unworthy of our every effort and attention. Maybe it’s because we see that we are unworthy too. Our eyes have been opened to see God not because we are pure in heart, but because we are not, and yet we are loved by One who is. Jesus has come to remove the logs in our eyes to help us see, if only for moments here and there, hipresence in our midst, at the table upstairs as we share bread and wine and downstairs eating with those labeled among the least of these, those who come to the door in need of shelter, food, clothing, and most of all, in need of eyes that light up at the sight of you.
I would like to report to you, dear reader, that Alleyna’s time at the church transformed her, healed her, and saved her — but you deserve the truth. Alleyna disappeared. I don’t know what difference her time here made. One morning she left and that night, she did not return. What happened? Did she meet a hellish end? Did she catch a bus to another city? Did she wash her face, remove some of her piercings, and get a job at Starbucks? I don’t know. But I do expect to see her again, where eyes are clear and hearts are pure. When the light streams in without blockage and we know as we are known and see as we are seen.
Buried Windows (Essay in Lutheran Women Today, March 2008)