Heidi Neumark speaks on religious expression, helping those not accepted

The Rev. Heidi Neumark, pastor and author of Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump, speaks Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Sophia Neilsen
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The Rev. Heidi Neumark says that there is hypocrisy in being religious and allowing the persecution of LGBTQ+ people.

She delivered her lecture at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme: “Freedom of Religious Expression.”

Neumark is the executive director and former pastor of the Trinity Lutheran Church’s shelter in New York City. The shelter’s basement in Manhattan provides housing and resources for LGBTQ+ youth for 18 months, helping people who have been neglected by homophobic, religious families.  

The resources at the shelter help the homeless youth establish themselves, providing resources such as job readiness counseling, career counseling, education support, access to comprehensive health and mental health services.

Neumark explained the complicated side of religious pluralism in the rise of Christian nationalism through several stories of the queer youth who have stayed at the shelter. 

They are suffering within religion, she said, and told the story of a teenager named Jesus. 

“One night at 15, Jesus told his mother that he was gay. She jumped up and began stabbing him with her fork while yelling: ‘This is a Christian home. Get out!’ He still has a row of scar bumps on his arm … as a sign of the fork attack,” she said. 

He fled and somehow managed to survive, finally landing in Trinity’s basement.

New York City has the second highest number of homeless youth of any city in the country, Neumark said.

“About 40% of these young people identify as LGBTQ+, with a high proportion identifying as transgender,” she said. 

More than 8,000 LGBTQ+ people are homeless in New York City overall; 250 beds are accessible to them through Trinity Church.

Alternative shelters have been shown to harm the LGBTQ+ community, Neumark said, and young people frequently suffer abuse.

“These youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their peers, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth,” she said. 

Compared to the 18 months of housing and resources from the Trinity Church, other shelters only offer 30 to 60 days. 

“Residents come from all over the United States thinking that New York City may be more a welcoming and accepting place than where they live. But that’s not always true,” she said. 

She discussed the Rainbow Railroad, a global organization that helps LGBTQ+ people facing deadly persecution, similar to the Underground Railroad helped those fleeing enslavement to find safety and a new life, she said.

Since its founding, the Rainbow Railroad has assisted around 8,000 people in finding safety through emergency relocation and obtaining visas for them.

“One traveler from the Rainbow Railroad arrived at our shelter from one of the at least seven nations where being queer is a capital crime,” she said. “Their father is a religious extremist on the United States terror list, and this young person experienced terror right at home. Now they are safe.”

On the Rainbow Railroad, the United States was once a sought-after destination. But with increasing legislation against queer people, especially young transgender individuals, that is no longer the case.

“Our nation is no longer considered to be such a sanctuary,” she said. Anti-sodomy legislation that the Supreme Court declared unlawful in 2003 is still in effect in 14 states. Just last year, 400 anti-LGBTQ+ laws were introduced nationwide.

In the basement shelter, Neumark said she has observed the miracles of religious pluralism in which people cooperate for the benefit of the total, with an atmosphere of openness and inclusion, and without one tradition being faith preferred above any other.

“I also come up against the serious limitations of such inclusion,” she said. “Because while religious pluralism helps create and sustain our basement sanctuary, the inclusion of some religious expression works to destroy what we seek to create.”

She said religion has spawned the danger, threat, trauma and pain that it was intended to address in the first place. 

“How can the expression of that religion and its practitioners be included?” she asked. 

Neumark presented another story, of a young woman named Jasmine, who turned 21 years old in the hospital with sickle cell anemia, longing for her mother. Jasmine’s mother kicked her out of the house at 16 years old because she dated girls.

“She asked me to make the call thinking that her church-going mother might listen to a pastor,” Neumark said. “Instead, I heard her mother say, ‘I have no daughter. And how can you call yourself a pastor, a Christian?’ ”

Neumark didn’t have a chance to answer Jasmine’s mother, who had already hung up the phone. But in her head, she thought, “How can you call yourself a Christian?”

Nearly all of the 800 young people who have passed through Trinity Place had been rejected because of their families’ religion.

Religious expression within Christianity itself creates and foments division, she said. 

“One of the reasons the church I serve decided to open the shelter was the recognition that since churches have caused this problem, we need to be part of the solution,” she said.

Neumark said society addresses the symptoms of a crisis but does not heal it. 

“We’ve done better at responding to trauma, supporting the vulnerable, doing the life-saving work essential in the midst of religious-backed harm. But I have to admit we do not do so well (at that).”

Attempts to encourage the youth to reach out whenever they wish and reconnect with their families frequently fail due to religious and ideological divisions that run through many families and congregations. 

Often, when a young person tries to reach back out to their families, they get burned, she said, telling the story of another teenager at the shelter.

“Carlos grew up in the southwest with a homophobic fundamentalist Christian family, who told him to stop acting like a girl and be a man, verbally abused throughout his childhood and early adolescence by his parents,” Neumark said. “Carlos still hurts over his father’s parting shot. ‘You are going to New York City and get AIDS … and die.’ ”

The sound of her voice turned solemn when she continued to recount his journey: “Carlos reached out with hope against hope, and called his mom hoping for sympathy – for motherly constellation, and she coldly told him it was God’s retribution.”

Neumark said there are contrasting approaches to hatred and love in dealing with differences and pain. She reflected on the complexities of maintaining unity while confronting disagreements, particularly in the context of LGBTQ+ acceptance within religious congregations.

“We may have differing opinions on matters related to sexual orientation and gender identity, but we must always uphold the dignity and humanity of everyone,” she said.

To counteract the hate in the world, everyone needs to experience an upsurge of goodness, Neumark said. However, no one person can accomplish everything by themselves. 

Neumark has devoted the majority of her work to collaborating with people of many religions and working to make places where individuals who were most negatively affected by detrimental religious beliefs could heal, feel safe, grow, and have hope.

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim, she said. 

“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Neumark said. “Sometimes, we must interfere when human lives are endangered and when human dignity is in jeopardy.”


The author Sophia Neilsen

Sophia Neilsen is a senior at Ohio University studying communications with two minors in psychology and sociology. She studies her minors because she wants a better understanding of society and environments while grasping how different people think and the reasoning behind their behaviors. Sophia is creative and uses her curiosity and persistence in several school organizations, such as Thread Magazine, Variant Magazine, and Kappa Alpha Zeta. She joined these outlets to express herself creatively through academics and art.