At Home in the Church

Last November, Lost-n-Found Youth (LNFY), a nonprofit serving homeless LGBTQ teenagers and young adults in Atlanta, announced a partnership with Park Avenue Baptist Church, a congregation rooted in the Grant Park neighborhood for over a century. Their alliance is among the first of its kind, and for the many within the LGBTQ community who have endured a church’s rejection, such a partnership may come as a surprise.

“I think that any kind of suspicion about a church is actually quite warranted,” says Darci Jaret, Pastor of Worship, Advocacy, & Arts at Park Avenue. “That’s just the result of a theology that’s been harmful.”

Nasheedah Muhammad, Co-Executive Director of Lost-n-Found, smiles when asked if her board felt hesitant about partnering with a church.

“Not once we explained what kind of church it was,” Muhammad says. “Rick Westbrook, our founder, used to say that every time we had a need, the universe just had a way of opening up and what we needed would be right in front of us.”

As denominations fight and fracture over the issue of LGBTQ inclusivity, Park Avenue is a breath of fresh air. For them, inclusivity is more than a buzzword; it’s a collection of activist efforts and worship practices designed to deconstruct inequality in its many forms. Denouncing racism, untangling ableism, and serving the LGBTQ community are all acts of divine worship at this church.

“We lead with love and we end with love,” says Henra Chennault, Park Avenue’s Pastor of Community Engagement & Stewardship. “We try to heal individuals from the past experiences that they may have had at other churches. I often call us the unicorn church.”

That unicorn was just what Lost-n-Found Youth needed. On any given night, there are over 900 LGBTQ youth on Atlanta’s streets, and at traditional shelters, they are at greater risk of abuse. Since 2011, LNFY has provided a safe space for them through transitional housing and social services, with the goal of helping them progress to independent living. Like most nonprofits, LNFY needed to reduce costs, but also wanted to expand its services. Thanks to the partnership, LNFY has managed to do both.

The church has added 12 Lost-n-Found Youth beds, which are used for short-term, emergency housing. The church also provides case management, meals, clothing vouchers, sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing, job training, and mental health workshops. Finally, the church hosts a drop-in center, which allows nonresidents to use these same resources. Lost-n-Found Youth now has twice as many beds to offer, a greater outreach capacity, and a more financially sustainable future.

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first six months of this partnership haven’t gone as planned. To limit exposure, LNFY has asked its volunteers to take an indefinite break, and staff members are stretched thin covering the activities that would normally be volunteer-led. The church has suspended all in-person meetings and embraced online worship services to lower the risk of infection for those living in the church’s building. For the most part, LNFY’s resident youth are kept separate from nonresident clients, and those in search of an LNFY bed have access to free COVID-19 testing before they enter transitional housing. As a result of these measures, LNFY has been able to maintain its services without a single infection in its communities.

So far, the needs of LGBTQ youth have remained steady during the pandemic. However, Jaret speculates that they could see an uptick in client traffic as shelter-in-place measures loosen. Those who may have felt unable to leave a toxic living situation might be more willing to take that risk, and they are likely to show up at LNFY.

No matter what the future holds, Park Avenue and Lost-n-Found Youth are excited to move forward together. “We’re building the road,” says Muhammad. “We’re defining what this kind of partnership looks like.”

The hope is that other congregations will take notice. Today, church attendance in the United States is at an all-time low, and church buildings often become financially burdensome for their shrinking congregations. The partnership between Park Avenue and LNFY is a shining example of how a church can turn this potential detriment into a resource. For progressive congregations looking to turn welcome statements into action, this partnership offers a model for authentic inclusivity.

“With Lost-n-Found, the goal has never, ever been to get people to join our church,” Jaret says. “What we want to do is expose folks to a healing theology, a theology that says you are whole and loved. If the one thing that we can do is give someone just an idea that that may be true for them, then that’s a success for us.”