In popular culture, the debate over whether social media is more virtue or vice rages on. This issue is so topical, in fact, that at my own seminary this semester they added two questions to our course evaluations about how much of a distraction social media was during class. I have many, diverse thoughts on this whole conversation, but ultimately, I am grateful for social media for one compelling reason: it has given me the community I needed when I could find it nowhere else. In particular, it has given me a community—a family—without which I could not have gotten through the past few years.
I have written and spoken extensively about my experiences at an annual retreat for future LGBTQ pastors put on by Presbyterian Welcome. This retreat is an incredible, life-giving experience filled with people I love, and I look forward to it all year long. Every time I return home from that weekend I feel renewed, enlivened, and full of love and hope and strength. But weeks and months pass and the reality of daily life—so often not affirming of my queer experience—weighs me down and wears me thin. 361 days of the year geography prevents those of us in this community from sharing space. On those many days, we find each other and the comfort of our family of choice in a private Facebook group.
It is a simple thing. A single page, closed to the public, where any member can post and comment on other posts. But it also so much more than that for me. It is a steady pulse that echoes my own heartbeat, a constant blip on the radar screen that reminds me there are others out there like me. From across the miles we share life together. We share our anxieties as we confront each stage of the ordination process in the PCUSA. We celebrate together in moments of hope and victory. We cry together and comfort one another when the brokenness of our world casts us down. We pray for each other and we pray with each other.
Time and again I have sought strength and solidarity in this group. As I struggled for the courage to come out to my family, I posted my fears and they offered me empathy and compassion. As I anxiously approached committee meetings and examinations on the floor of presbytery, they offered me calming wisdom and good-humored encouragement. When I posted to announce my successful approval, they responded with heartfelt congratulations. When I faced a second coming out as bisexual, rather than gay, I messaged friends within this group and found validation and solidarity. And many nights, as I have sat in darkness, filled with fear and loneliness and hopelessness, I have scrolled through posts in this simple Facebook group and read about lives of people I love and found comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone.
Now I look ahead to seminary graduation and whatever comes after. In addition to all the normal anxieties such a transition brings, I face uncertainty—for the first time since coming out—about whether I will have an LGBTQ community or any support wherever I go next. I confess that this question, more than any other, terrifies me. And I spend more time than I would like to admit in a state of deep, overwhelming panic. But so often in the worst moments of this fear, I see a post in this group or receive an unexpected friendly text from a member of this chosen family of mine—and I feel a spark of comfort and hope. I take a deep breath and remember that wherever I go and whatever I face, I am being held in love by so many hands and hearts.
Social media is often critiqued with the claim that it draws us away from real-world interaction and relationships, and that being able to choose virtual communities of the like-minded keeps us from being in tangible relationship with those who are different. I believe this is a real risk that must be avoided with intentionality. But my own virtual experience with my Presbyterian Welcome family has given me the strength to go out into the world and build relationships with all types of people even when I am afraid. It gives me hope for what could be.
Social media is many things—both good and bad. But among them, for me at least, social media is a gift. It has helped me find and hold onto this LGBTQ Presbyterian family and for that, I am beyond grateful.