Last Halloween, the Internet went viral with the story of a preschool boy who wanted to dress as Daphne for Halloween. His mother supported the plan, but the child—given the ghostly pseudonym Boo—was concerned about a potentially negative reaction from his peers.
His mother said not to worry, but the boy continued to have concerns. She wrote at the time that Boo “insists their [the other children in the class’s] laughter would be of the ‘making fun’ kind. I blow it off. Seriously, who would make fun of a child in costume?”
Then Boo’s mother took him to school. As Boo entered the classroom, three mothers approached, appalled that she had let her son dress as a girl for Halloween, implying that she would ‘turn her son gay,’ and insisting that she make him wear only male clothes on Halloween (and, for that matter, the rest of the year).
All of this occurred in a church preschool.
Earlier this month, Boo’s mother posted a follow-up to the story on her blog. After Boo’s Daphne costume went viral, the pastor of the church called her in for a meeting, and told her she had broken the 8th Commandment by bearing false witness against the other mothers in the class. Boo’s mom insisted she had only told the truth on her blog, and that she felt had bullied by the other mothers and now by the pastor.
Several months later, Boo’s mother was called in again and told that she needed to apologize to the other mothers for slandering them, remove the post, or be precluded from receiving communion in the church. The pastor told her that he tried to be mad at her but couldn’t.
Boo’s mother responded by e-mailing someone higher up in the church administration; in response, she received an e-mail from her pastor, cc’d to the person to whom she complained.
She wrote the following that incident: “The church, or at the very least Pastor is trying to bully me into shutting up, and I find that so disheartening. I am floored by the fact that they’ve gone to so much trouble regarding a post that discusses love and tolerance that was posted 3 months ago. I am shocked that they do not see the hypocrisy of what they are saying to me. I am in complete disbelief that this has been handled in the way it has. I have never felt less welcome in a church.”
Within three weeks, Boo was withdrawn from the school and his family was churchless. Boo’s mom said in her final post on the issue that, she was “without religion. For now at least. Though I am not without faith. I have faith in so many things. You, me, my family, goodness, happiness, kindness. I have faith in those things. Though not church or religion. Not right now. Maybe sometime.”
As church leaders, regardless of our stance on homosexuality, we need to ask how much of our behavior is reactive. We need to ask what is motivating our stance on homosexuality. We need to ask whether and if pastoral concerns outweigh dogmatic ones. And we need to ask whether we are using our collars and titles and positions of trust to manipulate people to our ends and agendas or whether we are empowering them to evaluate faith for themselves. After all, manipulation is just a fancy term for bullying, and as we’ve seen from the deaths of children like Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, and Phoebe Prince, the results are devastating.
Moreover, we as church leaders should be appalled that any of our ranks dealt with this mother in such an un-pastoral way. Telling someone, “I wanted to be angry with you” is not an appropriate way to respond to a parishioner. Regardless of who the people in our care are and what they do, we are called to love them. And that doesn’t mean never taking a stand. But love needs to motivate our choices and it needs to ensure pastoral practices. It’s a challenge to do that, but it’s a necessity. And if Boo’s mother reports correctly, that necessity is especially needed in her community, where it sounds like judgment motivated her pastor far more than love did.
At the conclusion of her final post, Boo’s mother writes that three parties are considered to be involved in any bullying situation: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. She says we ought to add a fourth group to the mix—those who stand up to bullying.
She counts herself among this last group. I hope religious professionals will do the same.