In the summer of 2017, Joshua Truitt was summoned for a chat over a presentation he was set to make to his campers at the Crooked Creek Ranch camp in Fraser.
The camp was run by Young Life — an international Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs — and had a tradition called cardboard testimonies, in which leaders present to their teen mentees something they struggled with before God entered their lives.
Truitt wanted to do his about being gay, a message that might let younger queer participants know they weren’t alone.
Three staffers waited for him at a red picnic table, the Rocky Mountains towering before them. The conversation quickly turned from small talk to a more serious tone about Truitt’s testimony topic — and his future in the organization.
After hearing about his sexuality, Young Life was uncomfortable with the volunteer leader sleeping in the same cabin as the campers, Truitt said staff told him. All his one-on-one chats with the teens he had been mentoring all year needed to be done in public where others could see them, he recounted the staffers saying.
“The people there didn’t explicitly call me a pedophile,” Truitt said. “But it was very implied: Because I was gay, I was dangerous.”
Truitt’s experience stayed dormant for years. But two weeks ago, he joined hundreds of people using the #DoBetterYoungLife hashtag on social media to share their raw, emotional stories of discrimination and trauma, of exclusion and heartbreak during their time in an organization that markets itself as a place for “every kid, everywhere.”
Interviews with a dozen former Young Life volunteers and staff, along with hundreds more social media stories, reveal an organization that bars members of the LGBTQ community from becoming leaders or working at camps, even after they’ve spent years volunteering. Those involved with Young Life described a bait-and-switch that invites all to embrace their faith in a welcoming environment, only for some to realize that different rules applied to them.
In response to questions from The Denver Post, Young Life, in a statement, apologized to those who were hurt during their time in the organization and announced the creation of a new council “to further review the stories of current and former members of the Young Life family who have come forward to share instances where they have experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.”
The council will be co-chaired by Young Life’s chief human resources officer and vice president of administrative services, who will assemble a “diverse group of staff and non-staff” to conduct this review, the organization said in its statement.
“The council will review these stories and recommend the appropriate course of action in each case,” Young Life said. “…The formation of this council is a next step in what we expect will be a long process of review, reflection, repentance and reform.”
As stories flood in from across the country, a coalition of former Young Life volunteers and staff has been pushing for the organization to confront what they allege are discriminatory policies toward the LGBTQ community, expand diversity training and open its doors to more people of color and lower-income families.
“When I was in Young Life, I thought I was the only person experiencing this,” Truitt said. “But when all these are people are posting — not only LGBTQ people, but women facing sexism, others facing racism — it’s systemic within the organization.”
One post, then the floodgates opened
It all started with one post.
In late June, Kent Thomas, a 30-year-old social worker from Tacoma, Washington, heard from a close female friend that Young Life recently had posted a picture of her online — despite the fact the organization had booted that friend from a leadership position three years ago after finding out she was dating a woman.
Thomas was infuriated, but not surprised.
Young Life’s statement
Young Life provided the following statement to The Denver Post on Friday in response to the newspaper’s questions about former participants’ allegations of discrimination:
Young Life is announcing today the creation of a council to further review the stories of current and former members of the Young Life family who have come forward to share instances where they have experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.
Some of the stories that have been shared in recent days have already been addressed, but some are new. They represent a small fraction of the experiences across Young Life, a ministry that has existed for 80 years and includes more than 80,000 staff and volunteers in 104 countries and ministers to more than two million kids at any given time. However, we are deeply saddened to know that any individual would walk away from their experience with Young Life feeling hurt or shamed, and wish to apologize for instances where our sins of commission and omission have caused this pain.
We are always reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure that our behavior reflects the Kingdom of God. While we are confident — with continued study, prayer and reflection — that our theology is faithful to God’s vision for human sexuality and other aspects of the human experience, these stories highlight the need for intensive examination of how we live out our faith and beliefs.
The council will review these stories and recommend the appropriate course of action in each case. Our Chief Human Resources Officer, Sha Farley, and our Vice President of Administrative Services, Paul Sherrill, will co-chair the council and assemble a diverse group of staff and non-staff to conduct this review.
The formation of this council is a next step in what we expect will be a long process of review, reflection, repentance and reform. We want to express our deep gratitude to those who have shared their stories. Their courage in coming forward will lead to a Young Life that is better equipped to introduce kids of all backgrounds to Jesus and help them grow in their faith.
Young Life had been a central part of his existence since birth. His parents were lifers and Thomas grew up going to camp with them until he could join Young Life in middle school.
“As a kid growing up in Young Life, I definitely took the ways they looked at the world seriously,” he said. “Which meant, being a gay kid, I thought I was destined for hell unless I changed the way I felt about guys.”
At 24, he came out of the closet and was fired from another religious organization. So Thomas approached Young Life to see if he could lead along with his sister.
In an email to Thomas that he provided to The Post, a Young Life spokesperson told him the organization’s policy “affirms the belief that we are created to experience sexual intimacy in the context of a marriage relationship between a man and woman and those serving in leadership are expected to live within the context of this understanding.”
“If you’re gay,” Thomas realized, “you can’t lead.”
Finally, after his friend told him about the photo, Thomas was spurred to act. On June 29, he fired off a seven-paragraph post on Instagram.
“Young Life says all queer kids are welcome,” he wrote, “but partial ‘inclusion’ at an arm’s length is even worse than overt exclusion. It’s like making eye contact with someone and saying ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ while gently shutting the door in the their face.”
Thomas ended the post by encouraging others to use #DoBetterYoungLife to tell their stories. He figured maybe 20 others would see it, share it, and the whole thing would be over in a few days.
Instead, his post and subsequent Twitter thread were shared by thousands of people. Soon, hundreds of former Young Life participants were posting their own stories under the same hashtag about how they felt Young Life humiliated them when they came out of the closet, or forced them to “act straight” in order to stay in a community they couldn’t imagine being without.
“Young Life became a deep place of anxiety for me,” one person wrote on Instagram.
“I will never be able to put into the words the damage that Young Life has caused me,” another wrote.
Thomas was flooded with direct messages, thanking him for opening the door to a world many former volunteers thought might stay shut forever.
“It’s been both healing to know I’m not alone,” Thomas said, “and also brought up wounds I thought I had healed from and moved beyond.”
A “hypocritical” policy
What makes the Young Life experience so hurtful, according to those who spent years with the ministry, is that it brands itself as inclusive.
The organization, started in 1941 by a Texas minister, has grown exponentially over the decades. Nearly 370,000 kids per week participate in Young Life programs from more than 8,500 schools and ministries across 104 countries, according to the organization’s website. These programs and camps are powered by nearly 68,000 volunteers and 5,700 staff members worldwide.
“Young Life doesn’t start with a program,” the organization states in the first line of the “About Young Life” section of the website. “It starts with adults who are concerned enough about kids to go to them, on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship.”
Under the “Our Values” section, the organization lists “All Kids,” comprising “every ability and all economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.” Two items down on the list: diversity.
Young Life says there’s not one type of person that gets involved in the organization. “It’s for everyone,” the organization says on its website.
That mission led Haeley Keilen to fall in love with Young Life’s special needs mentorship program as a senior in high school, enough to push her toward a career as a special education teacher. The program made her feel good at something for once. It just fit.
So Keilen signed up to volunteer at a Young Life summer camp in Michigan, and was elated when she was accepted.
A few days later, she said, one of Young Life’s area leaders texted her about getting coffee.
“They said something like, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you can’t do work crew because you’re gay, and it goes against the Young Life contract.’ ”
The leader showed Keilen a snippet of Young Life’s policy.
“We must … clearly state that individuals who are sexually active outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship should not serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life,” the policy states, according to a copy obtained by The Post. (Young Life, in an email, said “we do not make our policies public.”)
Keilen was in shock.
“I didn’t feel any emotion,” she said. “I just sat there.”
Former Young Life volunteers recounted tales of other leaders publicly sharing various behavior that also goes against Young Life’s contract: watching pornography, drinking or engaging in pre-marital sex.
“That was the hardest thing to follow,” Keilen said. “Why do some people get to break the contract but I can’t? What’s different? I don’t drink; I don’t do drugs. The only thing I was breaking was being gay. It seems hypocritical.”
Young Life previously had changed the language of its policy — if not the meaning behind it. A copy of a previous policy reviewed by The Post, which does not include a date, stated: “If an individual was terminated from service as a staff member or volunteer as a result of concerns by Young Life that the individual engaged or may have engaged in an act of child molestation, child abuse, sexual involvement with a child, incest or overt homosexual activity/lifestyle, there will be no rehire or reinstatement.”
In an email responding to The Post, the organization said that section is “not a current Young Life policy.”
Even supporting the LGBTQ community as an ally can be enough to get you trouble with Young Life, said Addie Barret, a former volunteer leader at Butler University.
When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, she celebrated with social media posts and on her blog. That afternoon, Barret said she received a call from a Young Life staff member.
“He suggested I ‘take this time to delve more into the Word and join a few more Bible studies,’ ” Barret said. Until she could adopt the correct narrative, Barret couldn’t be a leader.
The stories on social media encompassed not only LGBTQ discrimination, but also tales of leaders being pressured to raise money so low-income teens could make it to camp, while their richer counterparts got their parents to simply cut them a check.
Diversity, something Young Life points to as a key organizational tenet, is also lacking, former participants said, and that has led to allegations of racism in some areas.
In one instance, video of a 2018 event in Norman, Oklahoma, called “Jew Night” showed Young Life staff donning yarmulkes and prayer shawls as they danced to traditional Jewish music. Carrie Hopper, the leader who shot the video, said the skit was accompanied by Hitler jokes and Nazi salutes.
The individual responsible for the offensive skit was fired after the organization reviewed their employment record, Young Life said in an email.
Pushing for change
The leaders of the Do Better Young Life movement don’t just want to share their stories — they also want change.
More than 6,400 people have signed the movement’s petition, which lists a series of shifts Young Life can make to become more affirming. These include the immediate repeal of the sexual conduct policy that bars LGBTQ individuals from serving as volunteer leaders or staff, more scholarships for low-income students and leaders, diversity training for staff and elevating the representation of queer members and people of color in the organization.
After the hashtag went viral, Thomas said Young Life’s president, Newt Crenshaw, reached out to talk. Initially the former volunteer was all ears — until he saw a purported internal memo to Young Life staff that had been posted online.
The memo — on which Young Life would not comment — included talking points for staff on the movement, including that the sexual conduct policy is an “internal document” that should not be shared outside the mission. But one line in particular jumped out for Thomas and others: “…we are not reviewing our policy or theology.”
“If they’re not willing to really let these stories open hearts and minds,” Thomas said, “a conversation with me wouldn’t do anything.”
Young Life, in its emailed statement to The Post, said: “We are always reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure that our behavior reflects the Kingdom of God. While we are confident — with continued study, prayer and reflection — that our theology is faithful to God’s vision for human sexuality and other aspects of the human experience, these stories highlight the need for intensive examination of how we live out our faith and beliefs.”
Former volunteers said they hoped the organization would, at a bare minimum, clarify its policies so kids and parents can make an informed decision about whether to get involved. Nearly everybody stressed that this movement was to “do better,” not to completely dismantle Young Life.
Mixed in with the heartbreak and tears were summers full of joy, best friends and unforgettable moments of growth. The organization has so much potential, they said. It’s now time they live up to it.
Ironically, Thomas said, the same traits that he learned in Young Life — how to have community and work together on a collective mission — are the skills he’s using to further #DoBetterYoungLife.
“It feels that we’re taking the healing and pain and isolation, and making it into action and community and more freedom,” he said. “It feels so challenging, but also one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever been a part of.”
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