Religious leaders call on churches to tone down rhetoric following boy's suicide
Written by Rebecca Bowman Woods (DisciplesWorld)
June 9, 2009

This article is reprinted in its entirety with the permission of DisciplesWorld magazine.

First Christian Church in Decatur, Ga., held a prayer service in memory of Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old boy who took his own life after allegedly being teased by classmates. Photo: William Garner (click to enlarge)

After the suicide of a boy whose classmates allegedly called him "gay" and teased him for being an immigrant, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation in Decatur, Ga., hosted a prayer service to honor the life of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera.

During the April 24 service at First Christian Church, religious leaders also called on Georgia's faith communities to tone down the rhetoric when teaching and preaching on hot button issues such as homosexuality and immigration.

Herrera, a fifth-grader whose family emigrated from the U.S. Virgin Islands, hanged himself at home on April 16. Family members told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he took his own life after enduring months of bullying by classmates. They called him gay and a "snitch," his stepfather told the newspaper.

Earlier in April, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hooker, of Massachusetts, also hung himself. Schoolmates had reportedly called him "gay" and bullied him.

James Brewer-Calvert, First Christian's senior pastor, says religious leaders have the power to influence the way people treat each other. If children hear certain types of people routinely put down at home and in places of worship, "then why not repeat it in the schoolyard?" he said.

Neither Herrera nor Walker-Hooker identified as gay. "Kids used the word 'gay' as a putdown," said Brewer-Calvert. The label carries a social stigma, especially in certain cultural or religious groups. In Herrera's case, "he felt he had no one he could turn to," Brewer-Calvert said.

Brewer-Calvert is on the advisory board of the Faith and Community Alliance. The group seeks to protect the human and civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.

The alliance and First Christian co-hosted the April 24 service with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Tabernacle Baptist Church and Temple Beth Chaverim. Around 250 people attended.

While Herrera did not have ties to First Christian, the service was held to show compassion for the family, and to call for adults "to be held accountable and responsible in how we talk to one another and how we talk about one another," Brewer-Calvert said.

First Christian is not officially "Open and Affirming" — a designation some Disciples congregations adopt to indicate a welcoming stance toward the LGBT community. But the congregation considers itself "open and accepting," and is committed to reflecting the diversity of Decatur, a city adjacent to Atlanta, Brewer-Calvert said.

Part of First Christian's outreach includes hosting Gentle Spirit Christian Church — a non-denominational congregation focused on ministering to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and families.

Paul Turner, Gentle Spirit's pastor, is also part of the Faith and Community Alliance. He and Brewer-Calvert are friends, and the two congregations worship together several times during the year.

After Herrera's death, the two pastors and some other faith leaders decided it was time to speak out.

Pastor Dennis Meredith is the founder and CEO of the Faith and Community Alliance and pastor of Atlanta's Tabernacle Baptist Church, which co-sponsored the prayer service for Herrera. A high-profile gay rights activist whose congregation has a large percentage of non-heterosexual members, Meredith used to make the kind of remarks about gays and lesbians that he now decries, he said.

Over time, he changed his stance. His 2,000-member congregation eventually left the National Baptist Convention and is not currently affiliated with any denomination.

Besides taking a role in the April 24 prayer service, Meredith has been involved in trying to move the dialogue forward — about bullying, but also about the treatment of gays and lesbians. He would also like to see the school system held accountable.

The DeKalb County school system conducted its own investigation after Herrera's death. Its report, made public on May 20, concludes there was no evidence of bullying.

Jaheem Herrera's mother, Masika Bermudez, has hired an attorney and is suing the DeKalb County school system. She has said repeatedly, including on Oprah Winfrey's television show, that she complained to school officials several times, prior to her son's death.

Meredith wonders how many families suffer in silence because of school bullying. Several parents have shared similar concerns, he said.

During the vigil for Jaheem Herrera, Meredith said, one parent came and asked him, "Can you help my child?"

As Brewer-Calvert noted in a letter published April 30 in the Journal-Constitution, "Jaheem bore a heavy burden. Imagine if he knew that every faith community was there for him, to listen and receive him just as he is: a child of God."

Click here to view a photo gallery from Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jaheem Herrera, 11, laid to rest (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) 

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