For more than four decades, Kinship, an organization dedicated to rewriting the narrative of isolation and exclusion within places of worship for LGBTQ Adventists, has fought to redefine parts of Adventist culture that they have experienced as harmful. Floyd Poenitz, who assumed the role of Kinship's president about three years ago but has been involved in some capacity since the late 1980s, acknowledges that growing up in Adventism can sometimes feel like existing within a bubble. When one's thoughts and experiences significantly diverge from those of their surroundings, an overwhelming sense of loneliness can permeate every aspect of their existence. The stark contrast between the church's proclamation of open doors, the preaching of Christ's all-encompassing invitation, and the harsh reality of ostracism, rejection, and shunning often creates an unfathomable dissonance. Consequently, many individuals conclude that the church is an unsafe space for them. Kinship strives to address this dissonance by reassuring members of the LGBTQ community that they are not alone in their perspectives and experiences. Not only do they not walk this journey alone, but they are celebrated and welcomed.
Kinship's origin as an organization traces back to a quest for camaraderie. An Adventist gay man placed an ad in The Advocate magazine. Around the same time, there were similar ads posted in different publications in New York and Northern and Southern California. The posters all sought answers to the same question: "Am I alone in my experience of being Adventist and queer?" These ads garnered positive responses, with LGBTQ individuals reaching out to express their shared stories and parallel journeys. The great need for connection and a community to foster those connections became evident, leading to exchanges of phone calls and other communication. Thus, Kinship was born.
To facilitate in-person connections, the group decided to organize a camp meeting that they affectionately called “Kampmeeting.” Planning commenced, and the first Kinship Kampmeeting took place in Arizona. Clergy members were invited to attend to help foster connection and dialogue with them. Members of Kinship had questions on theology, the Bible, and navigating spirituality and sexuality that they wanted to explore with these clergy. During the inaugural Kampmeeting, six clergy, including pastors from Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church (Takoma Park, MD) and professors from Andrews University, engaged in meaningful exchanges that paved the way for Kinship to find its first allies.
From the first courageous act of seeking community through The Advocate, Kinship has experienced substantial growth. The organization is currently in over 90 countries worldwide, with more than 4,500 members registered. “But, that's only a drop in the bucket,” says Poenitz. “Adventism has roughly 22 million members, so there are certainly thousands more individuals within Adventism that are looking for and could be beneficiaries of the spaces and culture Kinship creates." The organization is not only comprised of members from the LGBTQ community but also friends, family members, allies, and supporters. Kinship strives to be authentically welcoming to all.
When asked why he felt an organization like Kinship was necessary, Poenitz said, “Because there is no place for us in the Adventist church.” He further explained that the church extends a conditional welcome to those in the community, noting that it often feels like the message churches send LGBTQ individuals is: You can worship with us, but not if you act like that; you can sing our songs and walk our halls, but not if you sound like that; you can sit in our pews and mingle with our members, but not if you look like that. The silencing of stories and the invalidation of experiences do not lend to an authentic connection with God or others, he added. Kinship strives to create spaces where people can encounter God without feeling they must morph into their neighbor. “Our journeys are different, and Kinship welcomes that."
Kinship's goal extends beyond providing respite for Adventist LGBTQ members. The organization welcomes individuals uncertain about their relationship with Adventism or God. It invites those who may have distanced themselves from Adventism in their present reality but still acknowledge its significance in their personal history and wish to maintain connections. Kinship embraces everyone so that they can engage with and experience God and God can engage with them. Recognizing how cathartic it can people who have been silenced to have their voices heard and amplified, Kinship strives to hear, amplify, celebrate, and validate the diverse experiences of its members.
Kinship also seeks to honor the courage it takes to keep pursuing a God who is sometimes presented as having rejected LGBTQ people and to worship in places that sometimes feel like a war zone. “There are still many people who don't know that there is a home for them in Kinship,” Poenitz remarks. “An open invitation always awaits. We are not trying to compete with the church. Being Adventist is important to many of the members, and the organization aims to honor that reality.”
Poenitz imparts two final messages. First, to those wrestling with identity and searching for a safe space to be, he assures them that they are not alone; they are not the only ones. A vast community exists that understands and affirms them. There are people who want to see them nurtured and witness them grow into the beautiful individuals they are. While Adventism may sometimes overemphasize people’s brokenness, Poenitz encourages individuals to look to the God who created them and intimately knows every aspect of their being. God sees and loves them unconditionally. Poenitz advises persevering and nurturing the relationship with God, wherever that journey may lead.
Second, for those who are still learning, who fail to comprehend, or who ardently disagree, Poenitz extends understanding. He acknowledges that strong and polarized reactions often arise from fear of the unknown. He suggests taking the opportunity to engage in conversations with queer individuals. “Hear our struggles and our stories. You can hear our prayers and our resolutions. By doing so, one may gain a different perspective and outlook. If you don't know anyone, contact Kinship; we would be more than happy to facilitate connections,” he said. During Pride Month, the Kinship YouTube channel is featuring video testimonies about what Kinship means to its members, and Poenitz invites readers to honor these stories by listening to them.
Kinship will hold this year's Kampmeeting in Riverside, California, on La Sierra's campus, hosted by the La Sierra University Church, November 9–12. Clergy, allies, members, friends, supporters, and those seeking further understanding are all welcome to join in worship and connect with others at this event.
Ezrica Bennett is a writer, public speaker, and coach passionate about working with young adults to help them navigate life and faith. She is also committed to helping churches, and church leaders, find innovative ways to integrate young adults into church leadership and empower them to honor God's calling on their lives.
Title image by SDA Kinship International
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