OutFront’s Faith Alliance: An allyship sailing in Kalamazoo for 15 years

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating.The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

Mountains have been moved, but hills, rocky paths, and a few mountains remain.
On the winding path of LGBTQ+ rights, issues, and inclusion, OutFront Kalamazoo’s Faith Alliance has been committed to fostering a welcoming and affirming community. Their focus has been especially on religious groups and institutions, both in offering pastoral care and consults, providing interfaith services, and working with local religious institutions to become more accepting and affirming of LGBTQ+ congregants.
“There is a tremendous amount of religious trauma among the queer community, of folks that grew up in faith-based churches or families and then experienced that discrimination once they came out,” says Dell Darnell, OutFront Program Manager. “That is a very, very common thread. So to have an alliance, a group of churches, not just one or two, that are affirming and celebrate sexual orientation and gender identity is very powerful and healing to a lot of people.”
Dell Darnell is Program Manager of OutFront Kalamazoo.Formed in 2008 following the enactment of the City of Kalamazoo’s passage of the Equal Rights Ordinance, which was aimed at protecting “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals from discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations,” a group of local clergy came together to provide community and religious institution support to that ordinance. They launched the Faith Alliance.
With current representation from 14 local religious institutions (and another 50 plus on the email list), the group meets monthly to discuss current projects, books on current LGBTQ+ topics, and interfaith services for Pride, Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20) and Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31). Over the years, the group has addressed LGBTQ+ issues of the day, including gay marriage.
Currently, the Faith Alliance is focused on two crucial issues that reflect national trends: housing support and family reunification services for LGBTQ+ minors (under 18); and transgender and nonbinary support, especially vital considering the recent politically-based attacks on transgender rights and inclusion. Underlying their outreach is an ongoing focus on education, both personal and community-wide.
“As a group, we focus both on self-education and trying to educate our congregants and our neighbors that not all faith communities are anti-LGBTQ+ and that we have a responsibility to support each other,” says Rabbi Simone Schicker of Temple B'nai Israel who identifies as queer and who joined Faith Alliance when she arrived in Kalamazoo in 2018. Schicker says she comes from a liberal Jewish tradition that has long been involved in LGBTQ+ rights and was the first Jewish denomination to ordain gays and lesbians.
Susan Fisher (Hearth & Grove Fellowship), Rabbi Simone Schicker, and Pastor Sarah Lee-Schmidt are alll memebers of OutFront's Faith Alliance.“Some of our (Faith Alliance) members and some of the local clergy are working on personal relationships with other churches with a recognition there are theological differences, but there are ways of preaching those differences from the pulpit in a negative off-putting way or preaching that message and saying at the same time, we prioritize family and children.

“Which value do you hold higher? Being outspoken against (LGBTQ+) or do you hold families and children higher?”
Host Homes for LGBTQ+ Minors

With the recent opening of Legacy House, transitional housing for LGBTQ+ ages 18 to 26, Faith Alliance decided to pick up an on and off-again OutFront project, Host Homes, an initiative that OutFront’s Darnell was in part hired to lead. Host Homes is a program that trains volunteer families to host for up to 12 months (longer, if agreed upon and arranged by both parties) an LGBTQ+ minor aged 13 to 18 who is housing insecure. If the minor desires to reconnect with their family and the situation is conducive, family reunification services are provided by Faith Alliance.

The statistics for LGBTQ+ youth and homelessness are staggering. Over 28 percent of LGBTQ + youth report being homeless at some point in their lives, according to the Trevor Project, and “those who did have two to four times the odds of reporting depression, anxiety, self-harm, considering suicide, and attempting suicide compared to those with stable housing.”

Pastor Sarah Schmidt-Lee of First Congregational Church is part of OutFront's Faith Alliance.Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee of First Congregational (United Church of Christ) in Kalamazoo was one of the first clergy to approach Faith Alliance with the issue of LGBTQ+ homelessness. “There’s a parable in activism of people drowning in the river, and someone on the shoreline comes and rescues them. People keep coming down the river drowning. The folks on the shore create a line to rescue. Finally, as this rescue group grows, someone asks where all these drowning people are coming from. How can we stop them from falling into the river? With that in mind, we started asking, how can we stop these kids from ending up in the river in the first place?”
Family reunification services, outreach to clergy, and temporary host homes for LGBTQ+ youth so they didn’t end up in the foster care system, along with Legacy House, have become the response. The hope is to create a pipeline for homeless LGBTQ+ youth to have shelter while they work on establishing themselves as independent young adults, says Darnell who has a background in housing programs similar to Host Homes. They mention successful models around the county, such as Minnesota’s Avenues for Youth, which is the longest-running program for queer youth.
“Youth have a need for stability and shelter and just someone in their corner,” says Darnell, who has created a trauma-informed, LGBTQ+ 101 training curriculum for interested host families. “Through the training, we encourage and help equip hosts for this experience. The materials delve into anti-racism and white privilege as often our host homes are white, middle class and our youth partcipants are not.”
The first training program will start on April 12 and will involve three online meetings, as well as self-paced material, and individual meetings. People who are interested in participating should complete the inquiry located on the OutFront website. Any Specific questions can be directed to Dell Darnell at dell@outfrontkzoo.org.
“We have a lot of families who are interested in being trained,” says Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee. “The families of the youth would have to agree with the goal of family reunification. We want to help parents move to a place to say, ‘I love my kid no matter what.’ That’s the ultimate goal. If we can achieve that, it lowers all the risk factors immediately.”

“This is all volunteer,” says Darnell. “This is not a court-placed program. When it works the best, the hosts fill out a sheet about themselves and then the youth get to look at the available homes and make the choice. The emphasis is on a youth-driven choice.”

So far, even with the pause on Host Homes during the pandemic, the program has been successful. “One youth moved into Host Homes and then turned 18 and moved into the Legacy House. For some folks, that is the optimum situation.”

Darnell says they are excited to start the training that will provide education and information on issues that exist or may arise.

“Young people in need of a Host Home often bring with them complex trauma. As supportive adults and allies, it's important that we be trauma-informed and center the experience of the youth. The whole process is both messy and magical.”

Transgender Days of Remembrance and Visibility
In November, OutFront and Faith Alliance host – with the support of Kalamazoo College's Chaplain Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Hakken Candido – the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day sadly dedicated to those who have lost their lives in acts of transgender violence. In 2022, at least 32 people were reported killed nationally due to transgender violence (though much more go unreported). Recent news reports have indicated that current escalating attacks on transgender rights are part of efforts to get evangelicals to vote.
Looking to states like Florida with their “Don’t Say Gay” Law can send shivers down the spines of LTGBTQ+ and their allies.
Rev. Rachel Lonberg of People's Church (with baby), Susan Fisher of Hearth & Grove Fellowship, Pastor Sarah Schmidt-Lee of First Congregational, and Rabbi Simone Schicker of Temple B’nai Israel at a Pride Interfaith Service.“Trans people have become political pawns and symbols in way that are really dehumanizing,” says Rev. Rachel Lonberg, Pastor at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist). “This makes me really sad that people think they can score political points by being cruel to some of the most vulnerable people in our community.”
In honor of International Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31), Faith Alliance is hosting for the first time a local Trans Day of Visibility at 2 p.m. on  March 18 at People’s Church, 1758 N. 10th Street. Conceived by Lonberg and Rabbi Schicker, the day is meant to be a celebration for all ages.
“We will be talking, singing, having blessings, and having food,” says Rev. Lonberg, who has been involved with Faith Alliance for eight years and says that People’s Church connection with Faith Alliance and OutFront goes even farther as a tradition that support, affirms, people of all sexualities and all genders. “I think it should be a really sweet gathering. We are designing it to be for people of all ages. I know a trans first grader in my life. People of all ages are having the freedom to be who they are. We are just going to have a little party.”

The event will also feature blessings by Deacon Joe Schmidt of St. Thomas More Catholic Church; Susan Fisher of Hearth & Grove Fellowship, a local pagan religious community; Pastor Rachel Laughlin of Prince of Peace Lutheran; Rev. Lonberg of People's Church; and The Rev Mother Mary Perrin from St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church. 
“When my family is having negative thoughts about themselves, we whisper good thoughts in their ear to balance them out,” says Rev. Lonberg. “We want people to get to hear religious leaders affirm that they are beloved as they are.”
Even in the trans community, not everyone is treated the same, acknowledges Darnell, who identifies as trans and knows firsthand the importance of visibility.
Dell Darnell, Program Manager of OutFront Kalamazoo, with Regan Hanley celebrating Pride."Living in Kalamazoo, which is fairly accepting, as a white, middle-class, able-bodied, and masculine-appearing person, I carry a lot of privileges that many of my trans friends do not. Even if they want to be visible, it is not always safe for them to do so -- especially my trans sisters of color.”
On the Trans Day of Visibility, people share their stories about what being visible means to them and feel supported, says Darnell. 
"I choose to be visible and public about my trans identity. I do that largely to show others that they matter, they are represented, they are beautiful, and for trans youth – that they, too, can grow up to have jobs and a family if they want. I have a wife and three kids, two of which identify as nonbinary."
Dell Darnell poses with their wife, Kim Shaw, and two of their daughters.Darnell says the faith aspect of the Trans Day of Visibility event is extremely important. "My father was a pastor. I grew up in the conservative south, in churches that were not affirming. The first time I attended one of the churches in the Faith Alliance, it was so powerful to look around and feel welcomed and affirmed by such an intergenerational congregation. As a teenager, I could never have imagined standing in church, as my authentic self, and being welcomed by folks' in my grandparents' generation.
“Faith Alliance is really a gift because they provide the space, and they often do a lot of the leg work for the events they host. It’s really a beautiful form of allyship," says Darnell. "Religious institutions have caused deep and immense harm to the LGBTQ+ community, so the fact the Faith Alliance is continually focused on was in which they can help create safety, show up for, and celebrate our community is a true gift."
Celebrating and clearing the path
On many fronts, national and international cultural attitudes have improved for LGBTQ+ over the last decade, reflected in LGBTQ+ supportive laws such as the State of Michigan’s recent bipartisan passage of a civil rights law that guarantees protection for LGBTQ+ and Pope Francis’ recent comments which reflected an opening in the Catholic church where he stated, "We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity. Being homosexual is not a crime.”
In Kalamazoo and nationally, the Catholic Church has also opened its doors through groups like the Lambda Catholics. At St. Thomas More, the group is led by Deacon Joe Schmidt, also a member of the Faith Alliance. According to St. Thomas More’s website, the Lambda Catholics “is an inclusive and ecumenical group of gay men and lesbian women, endorsed by the Diocese of Kalamazoo, to provide spiritual ministry in accord with the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Though there is so much to celebrate for LGBTQ+, there are still too many homeless LGBTQ+ youth, too high levels of depression and anxiety among LGBTQ+, lingering discrimination, and stigmatization, which can sometimes be life-threatening.
OutFront’s Faith Alliance has been a large part of those local gains, but there is work to be done, says Rabbi Schicker. For one, Faith Alliance wants to continue to diversify its membership. “We are a very white group, which we are trying to work on. That’s one of our current goals to diversify at least racially those who participate,” says Rabbi Schicker. “A couple of us are attending Northside Ministerial Alliance meetings, in hopes that particularly once we have the training set for the Host Homes that OutFront can present to NMA about the work we’re doing.”
“We’re always looking for new clergy and other religious leaders to join this partnership with Faith Alliance and OutFront,” says Lonberg. “This is not a closed door.”

Kalamazoo Pride takes place in June.Faith Alliance also wants to make itself and OutFront more widely known as resources of support in the LGBTQ+ community.
“I run into people all the time who have no idea that OutFront exists, never mind our offshoot program,” says Rabbi Schicker. “It’s really important. I got to table at Pride in 2019 and last year, and it means so much to people to see the faith community present. Even when people walk up and say, ‘Well, I’m not religious, but I’m glad you’re here.’ It means a lot to them to see that support. And that’s what building community is about.“
Local churches that are open and affirming continue to raise their voices in their congregations and to the community at large. As a longstanding open and affirming church, First Congregational UCC congregants are familiar with the vibrant rainbow ribbons that festoon the church during Pride month of June. The church can proudly boast it was the first to perform a legal gay marriage ceremony in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its historic declaration.
“I’m part of a tradition now that is committed to continuing to draw the circles of our community more and more broadly,” says Pastor Sarah Schmidt-Lee. “That’s the trajectory that I see Jesus following in the Gospels, that is the trajectory I see the spirit of God leading the early church. It is just this challenge to consistently engage with and include in the community people who are different from themselves and who have not up to that point had a place in their church. That is the trajectory I can trace through history and that I choose to stand in. We celebrate Pride, stream rainbow ribbons from the roof through the sanctuary. The power of that is incredible.
“Seeing so clearly this is a community where (LGBTQ+) can be fully themselves, not where that is just tolerated but genuinely celebrated, that is so powerful. And I’m just delighted that I get to be a part of a ministry that is engaged in that work.“
The work of allyship, Schmidt-Lee says, can also bring us closer to ourselves.
“It is in this community that I was able to let go of some of the messages of my own faith upbringing as an evangelical. It is as a pastor of this community that I’ve recognized I’m queer, too,” she says with an appreciative laugh.
When she looks around at youth today, Schmidt-Lee says she is optimistic.
“This is the generation when we have finally recognized that people can have different sexual preferences or gender identities and those are not faults, flaws, or sins. They are differences in the way God has made us. We are experiencing that challenging spirit that is saying, ‘No, I want to walk with these people, are you going to walk with me?’”

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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.