by Neil Ellis Orts • Photo by Yvonne Feece
Located just a few blocks north of Westheimer and a few blocks west of Montrose, Grace Lutheran Church is in the heart of the neighborhood that Houston’s gay community calls home. They’ve long been a welcoming church to LGBT Christians, and their facilities have hosted a variety of community organizations.
Starting June 10, they will be the home for a new project that is reaching out to street youth who populate the area. Montrose Grace Place is a separately incorporated nonprofit organization with this stated goal: “Grace Place will be a safe, welcoming environment for vulnerable homeless youth of all sexualities and gender identities, providing nourishment, healthy relationships, and hope for the future.” To learn more about the organization, their history, and their goals, I recently spoke with four members of their board—Rev. Don Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop for Leadership for the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Victor Schill, a member of the Grace Lutheran Church Council; Lou Weaver, President of the Board for the Transgender Foundation of America; and Rev. Lura Groen, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church and Interim Executive Director for Montrose Grace Place. (Unable to attend the interview were board members Scot More, Barbara Carroll, and Hal Core.)
Victor Schill is the board member who has the longest history with Montrose Grace Place, but even he came in mid-stream. “Originally, a team got together here at Grace for discernment as to what might be a mission for Grace to take on,” he says. After months of discernment that included forums with the whole congregation, they decided that homeless teenagers are a population that is underserved by other agencies, and that they had resources to address their needs. “We created the mission implementation team, and I was involved from day one with that. We started last year in May, meeting every week.”
Groen adds, “A lot of this hearkens back to when HATCH [Houston’s social and support group for LGBT youth] met in this building and the congregation was so excited about having HATCH meet here. The idea of having LGBT youth in the building again felt very natural to them.”
After deciding what their mission to the neighborhood would be, Grace went about contacting people to be involved as board members. Rev. Carlson had a history pertinent to this new endeavor. “I was both a facilitator and, for several years, co-director of HATCH,” he says. “This was back in the mid ’90s, and I became acutely aware of the number of street youth that HATCH was working with at that time, and also the lack of resources for homeless youth. They just fell through the cracks of all the social networks and government agencies that are out there.” Pointing to his professional life, he adds, “From our bishop’s point of view, we’re very interested in [having all Lutheran] congregations get re-rooted in meaningful ways in their neighborhoods, and that is exactly what this is about.”
As president of the Transgender Foundation of America, Lou Weaver had already been working with city agencies to get trans people off the streets. “None of the shelters in our city will work with someone who is trans identified,” he says. “We sat down one afternoon and called every homeless shelter in Houston and pretended to be clients, and said, ‘I’m a male to female transsexual. Will you take me?’ They’d say, ‘Um, well, if you come in as male.’ ‘But I’m on hormones. I have breasts.’ They said no. Not one of them would accept us.” After hearing Rev. Groen’s plea for involvement, he decided Grace Place was a natural extension of the work he was already doing.
As the church’s pastor, Groen says, “I came to Grace because I knew it was a congregation that wanted to meet the needs of this community and to reach out to include everyone and to work for justice for those who don’t have what they need.”
Groen describes what Grace Place will have to offer beginning in June: “One evening a week, a good dinner, a creative activity that is healing or protective on an emotional level, referrals to other programs, and adults who are willing to commit to a year’s relationship of mentoring and nurturing and accepting in safe and boundaried ways. We hope to grow from there.” A library of books will be available for the youth to check out, and a selection of DVDs can be watched while they’re at the church. Donations of appropriate books and DVDs are being accepted.
Grace Place is working with other organizations in getting the word out to the kids who need their services. HATCH will be making referrals to street youth who show up at their meetings. Bering United Methodist Church has their Open Gate Ministries, which serves a similar demographic on Sundays, so they will also promote Grace Place as another safe place to meet during the week. Tommy Calzadias, the director of Bering’s Open Gate Ministries, will be working with Groen to form teams who will hand out information on the street. Other organizations are helping them identify specific parking lots and other hangouts where the youth gather.
These are only starting points for Grace Place as it looks for ways to expand with more services. “An immediate growth area that we’re hoping to raise money for is showers and laundry,” Groen says. “Our long-term hope is that through knowing people and making referrals, we’ll see where the gaps in the system are, that we will know what to grow into.”
Of course, a venture like this depends upon volunteers, so there is a training and screening process in place. Every volunteer who is in the building at the same time as the youth will have a background check. That includes anyone who helps with setup and cleanup, food preparation, or any of the activities. They are looking for people to lead creative activities such as drum circles, music lessons, writing workshops, painting, etc. There are also volunteer positions that won’t require background checks since they will have no contact with the youth—everything from grocery shopping to grant writing to volunteer coordination, and potentially groups that may prepare food elsewhere and bring it to the church. People or organizations interested in helping out should call the Grace Lutheran Church office (713/528-3269) for more information.
“The interesting thing about doing this work and talking to community leaders is to discover how many people have said, ‘Oh, I had that experience when I was a teenager,’ or ‘Oh, my son . . . ’ or ‘Oh, my daughter’s partner. . . .’” Groen says. “Human beings are resilient. There are people who come through this experience, get on their feet, get an apartment, go back to school—and that is our best-case scenario. We know there will be folks for whom that may not be possible, and for them we’ll be a safe space for the time that they need it.”
Lou Weaver continues, “Youth, especially, are very resilient, and when they come and [meet other kids who have gotten off the streets] they no longer think, ‘I’m condemned to do this.’ If they see people who have been on the streets and have a job, have a home, have friends, and people who care about them, that will often give them the hope and faith that it will take to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. That is one of the things that, even if it is only a few hours a week, is going to make a difference in someone’s life.”
Having spent a great deal of time talking about how much LGBT street youth need safe havens, the board wanted to emphasize that Montrose Grace Place is open to all street youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. And while an upper limit of 21 years of age is stated, no lower limit is publicized. Groen says, “We can’t imagine telling a 12-year-old, ‘You can’t have dinner here, you’re too young.’
“We’re talking about young people who are forced into situations that are really awful,” Groen concludes. “Teenagers who don’t have a legal way to provide for themselves, who don’t have choices other than survival sex or petty theft. That’s the situation we’re trying to change.”
Keep up with the developments and needs at Grace Place by visiting the church’s website, gracelutheran-houston.org.
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.