When he sought to volunteer at NewSpring Church’s annual youth camp, Ryan Robidoux was shocked to find out that his private struggle with “same-sex attraction” would be disclosed to church leadership and bar him from being able to be in a room “full of teen boys.”
I started attending NewSpring Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch in South Carolina, in October 2014 during my freshman year of college. I jumped back and forth between their Charleston and Northeast Columbia campuses during school and breaks, and I absolutely loved it. It was a perfect fit for my evangelical background and my desire to have community. The people I met and served with really became a strong community for me. It wasn’t long, though, before I became painfully aware that I, being at the very start of my own coming out journey, didn’t quite fit as perfectly as I thought. This resulted in an embarrassing situation that could have been avoided with a clear policy on LGBTQ+ participation at NewSpring.
One of the highlights of the year at NewSpring is their youth summer camp, the Gauntlet, a week-long takeover of Daytona Beach, FL, by several thousand middle and high school students and volunteers from NewSpring campuses across the state. For months leading up to the annual youth camp, “Gauntlet 2016,” the staff showed videos from previous summers during services, hyping everyone up. They wanted youth to register and needed adults to volunteer or donate money to pay for students’ steep registration fees. And they had the statistics to motivate us: “Hundreds of students gave their life to Christ on the first night alone! And then they got baptized in the Atlantic the last morning of camp!”
Every time someone mentioned the Gauntlet, the auditorium would erupt into cheers; everyone wanted to be a part of what God was doing in the student ministry.
I wasn’t planning to volunteer due to other commitments, but when the Gauntlet was only a couple weeks out, the ads during services got more specific: they had plenty of women chaperones, but they were in desperate need of men. Some of the campus leadership even asked me specifically to consider volunteering. So, like a good Christian, feeling the “call of God,” I agreed. I interviewed for the position, and if that went well, I would be on a bus to Daytona in a week’s time.
Around that time, I had slowly begun to realize something that didn’t make any sense to me: I might be attracted to men. I still thought it was wrong because that’s what the Christians around me were telling me—my family; people at school; the Christians in the news after the marriage equality vote the previous summer; and, occasionally, people at NewSpring.
Nobody really talked about LGBTQ+ issues at NewSpring. I heard our pastor mention it once or twice from the pulpit. As I understood it, they thought it was wrong to be queer, but still wanted to welcome any LGBTQ+ person at NewSpring. What that meant, specifically, wasn’t clear.
I didn’t identify as “gay” at the time; back then, I said that I “struggled with same-sex attraction.”
While I was waiting to hear back about the results of my interview, I decided to disclose my struggle to a volunteer at NewSpring. I was at the altar call at the end of a service, during which I felt the “tug of the Holy Spirit” to confess my sin in order to “overcome” it. So I walked up to a Care Room Volunteer, a guy that I had volunteered with at NewSpring, and we exited the main service hall to find a quiet space to talk. There, I confessed that I was “struggling with same-sex attraction.” Though, I didn’t think it would affect my ability to volunteer at Gauntlet, given that I agreed with Newspring’s theological position and was trying to overcome my “sin.” It was incredibly difficult to say the least, however, I was assumed the conversation was confidential.
I was wrong.
Two days later at a church event, I decided to ask the youth pastor when I would get confirmation about going to the Gauntlet. He answered pretty evasively, saying that we should meet for lunch that week and discuss. I didn’t think anything of it. It was set it stone, right? So I agreed. Two days later, over burritos and queso from Moe’s, he finally told me I wouldn’t be able to serve at the Gauntlet because I was “gay.”
I was shocked and embarrassed and hurt. How did he even know that? I told one person two days prior who apparently decided to breach my privacy and out me to the youth pastor. Besides that, I did not identify as “gay” and was trying to change my attraction. If we all “struggle with sin,” as he assured me, why should mine prevent me from serving God while he gets to be employed as a youth pastor in spite of his own sin?
Then he delivered a devastating statement that answered my question and made me feel like absolute garbage at the same time:
He told me they didn’t want me in a room full of teen boys. It made me feel like garbage because he implied that “my sin,” as opposed to his, made me a sexual predator who was dangerous to kids.
At that point, I believed that what he said and how he handled things was okay, and that I was in the wrong. After all, this man was a spiritual leader to me. We parted awkwardly, and the next weeks were turbulent and embarrassing. While everyone else at church went to the Gauntlet to serve God and have their lives changed, I stayed behind, frantically trying to come up with an excuse for my family as to why I got rejected when NewSpring clearly needed more volunteers. I sure wasn’t going to add to the embarrassment by coming out to my evangelical family. If I had known that I wouldn’t have been allowed to volunteer at Gauntlet just because of the nature of my attractions, I wouldn’t have applied. If NewSpring had a clear policy on LGBTQ+ participation in their church, it would have saved me a lot of embarrassment and letdown.
That experience taught me that clarity is vitally important.
By the following summer, I had accepted the fact that I was gay and fully affirmed by God. I was even back at NewSpring’s Northeast Columbia campus, serving from 6:00 am until 11:30 every week. Only this time, when July rolled around, I didn’t make the mistake of signing up to go the Gauntlet. And no one asked me to. Even after finding out I was gay, NewSpring let me serve on the greeting and set-up teams and, of course, tithe. But I couldn’t ever serve at summer camp.
I no longer attend NewSpring, but I remain worried about other LGBTQ+ people who may assume they are fully welcome because NewSpring won’t officially say otherwise.
I don’t hate NewSpring Church or anyone there. But I would feel so much better if my LGBTQ+ family knew what they were walking into at NewSpring, and that will only happen if the leadership steps up and makes their policy clear.