It was Alex Churchman’s mother who found Beloved Arise first. She was searching for a way to help her 13-year-old, who had been questioning his gender identity and hospitalized after an attempt to harm himself.
Ashley Churchman, who lives in Arkansas with Alex, saw an Instagram post by the Seattle-based organization, started last year to support queer youth of faith. She reached out to thank Beloved Arise for its work and ask for prayers.
“They just wrapped us up in their arms,” Ashley said. A Beloved Arise volunteer posted about Alex and asked people to send him encouraging messages. Dozens did so. More letters and phone calls followed for Ashley.
It was, in a way, disorienting. A flood of love was coming from people she had never met, while in the church she had gone to for 15 years, Ashley said, she and Alex were getting different messages — “basically that Alex was choosing to be queer, and maybe if Alex would choose to follow God, his suicidal thoughts wouldn’t be there.”
Alex has since joined Beloved Arise’s online youth group, Rebel, attending weekly meetings. “It’s just a really nice place to share your struggles and not have people judge you for being human,” he said.
That’s the goal. Jun Young, head of Zum Communications, a small Seattle company turning into what he calls a “change agency,” said he founded Beloved Arise to create a space for kids who feel like spiritual outcasts — “where they can just be themselves once a week, and feel OK, feel safe, and feel a kind of togetherness with other people of faith.”
It is a mission born of Young’s personal experience. In 2018, the 48-year-old came out as gay, and was told he would not be invited to serve another term on the board of CRISTA Ministries, a multimillion-dollar, Christian operation based in Shoreline that runs an international aid organization called World Concern. Young was the aid group’s board president and that came to an end, too.
Beloved Arise is still a small operation, with just a half-dozen paid staffers and interns (Young, the director, does not draw a salary) and about $150,000 in revenue from donations in 2020.
But Young said the nonprofit has succeeded beyond his expectations. “I don’t think we could have done it if COVID hadn’t hit,” he said, referring to how virtual meetings became acceptable and even sometimes attract a wider audience.
Rebel’s Monday night meetings draw about 80 kids from all over the country and some 30 attend its Thursday night gatherings for international youth — from countries including Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. It is getting so much interest from other young people that Rebel is trying to figure out how it can grow while still keeping an intimate feel, said the pastor who leads the group, Scott Gronholz.
Beloved Arise has also given away scholarships, produced several small books, and recorded an album with musicians donating their time. It held its second annual “Queer Youth of Faith Day” on June 30, as Pride Month came to a close. While Beloved Arise is a Christian organization, the all-day digital event of talks, panels, podcast recordings and meetings was meant for people of all faiths.
Young’s experience with CRISTA was not the only precipitating event. The church he was attending at the time, University Presbyterian, went through a period of turbulence after The Seattle Times published a story about Young, CRISTA and the conversations happening in Christian circles around LGBTQ+ issues.
The Sunday it came out, according to Young, University Presbyterian Senior Pastor George Hinman stood at the pulpit and told his congregation he wanted to be clear, the church is not “affirming” — a term signifying not merely that LGBTQ+ individuals are welcome to attend but fully accepted and included in all aspects of an institution. “That kind of was just like a punch in the gut to me,” Young said.
A group of about 50 parishioners formed to advocate a different position, but the church doubled down, Young and several others said. It asked staffers and volunteers to sign a document laying out essential tenets, including that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.
Hinman repeated that belief when asked for comment. “We accept differences of opinion, and recognize that we have differing understandings of the Bible among us,” he added in an email, also saying University Presbyterian “affirms the dignity and value of every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Young held out for nine months and then left the church. Gronholz, then the leader of University Presbyterian’s large youth group, resigned. “I didn’t and wouldn’t sign the document,” said the pastor, who is straight and some years before had decided to research whether the Bible prohibits homosexuality. While there are certainly varying interpretations, he concluded, “there’s nothing here.”
Gronholz was looking into starting a youth group named Rebel — wanting to affirm both LGBTQ+ kids and the developmentally appropriate teen tendency to chafe at authority — when he met with Young and heard about his similar plans. “Maybe we should be doing this together,” Gronholz said he thought.
Rebel launched under the Beloved Arise umbrella in March 2020, getting together once in-person before pivoting online. Meetings often involve a talk related to a Christian theme of some kind, including affirming theology, but Gronholz keeps it loose. He and Mace Mooney — one of Rebel’s adult volunteers and co-host, with Gronholz, of a wide-ranging podcast called No Small Thing — did a series on curiosity.
Religious doctrine doesn’t need to be “taught and recited back,” said Mooney, who wants to give kids a sense that they are autonomous beings “who have their own encounters with God.”
Dante Hagen, an 18-year-old who identifies as nonbinary, left University Presbyterian’s youth group around the same time Gronholz did after hearing what the Ingraham High graduate considered homophobic statements by members of the church. “It was really heartbreaking,” Hagen said.
Hagen hasn’t attended any church in a few years, but followed Gronholz to Rebel, making friends, feeling accepted and seeing in the youth group a way to keep a little involved with Christianity.