Southern Miss’ Gay Straight Alliance hosted religious leaders from campus, Hattiesburg and nearby communities as part of their “Religious, Secular and Spiritual Paths to Enlightenment” panel Thursday.
Its mission has been to bring religious and secular leaders together to foster conversation about the intersection of LGBTQ acceptance and affirmation within various faith and non-faith communities.
The panel is now in its third year after two previously successful programs.
“There are members of our organization and friends of mine that faith is a very big part of their life and they feel excluded in other groups because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Zackari Arbogast, GSA president.
“To open up that conversation and make a safe place for them to talk about it and for others to talk about it, that’s important,” he added.
Each year the GSA has reached out to different religious and non-religious groups to fill out the panel.
“If we have [GSA] members who are also members of LGBT churches or faith groups or student ministries, we reach out to them through that,” said Jessica Piness, a GSA council member.
Included on this year’s panel were representatives from a Zen Buddhist group, Trinity Episcopalian Church, Hattiesburg Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, USM’s Secular Student Alliance and Safe Harbor Family Church in Jackson.
Each panelist shed light on how their respective denominations became inclusive to members of the LGBTQ community. They also explained what services were available to the community through their organizations.
Avery Hilbert, a senior public relations major, attended the panel for the first time and enjoyed the conversation.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” she said. “The members of the panel were very open and had no problem answering any question the audience proposed.”
She also plans to attend one of the panel member’s services.
“I never heard of the Unitarian Universalist [Fellowship] and I find it to be fascinating,” Hilbert said. “I definitely want to attend one of their services.”
Piness stressed the reality of how faith intersects with other aspects of people’s lives.
“Not all aspects of the [LGBTQ] community, but certain pockets of the community aren’t accepting of religion and they think that people’s lives are very complicated,” she said. “We can’t separate our sexual orientation or our gender identity from our faith or race or our socio-economic background.”