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Kin-dom Camp co-founder shares lessons learned during the PC(USA)’s ‘New Way’ podcast

The Rev. Pepa Paniagua discusses a camp that’s been life-giving for LGBTQIA+ youth

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Pepa Paniagua (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Kin-dom Camp is set to be held in Texas later this month, and no one is more excited than the camp’s co-founder, the Rev. Pepa Paniagua, the guest during the most recent installments of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities podcast “New Way.” Listen to Paniagua’s conversation with podcast host the Rev. Sara Hayden here and here.

Kin-dom Camp debuted last summer as an intentionally safe environment for 58 LGBTQIA+ youth and 45 staff. In addition to her Kin-dom Camp responsibilities, Paniagua is founding pastor and executive director of Kin-dom Community, a new worshiping community that extends, according to its website, “transparent welcome to the LGBTQIA+ community and others who have felt cast out by or uncomfortable in ‘traditional’ church.”

“Right now, so much of my work is to help places become more affirming and to welcome people and to learn how to do that without causing harm,” Paniagua told Hayden during the first of the two episodes. “I entered into this new worshiping community work almost because I couldn’t not. There was a place in my spirit that wouldn’t let me rest until I tried to do something about it.”

“As a lifelong Presbyterian, I love our church. I love its traditions. I love everything about it, right? And I’m deeply committed to the good of it, and then also deeply committed to doing what I can to try to leave it better and more expansive than I found it. And so that has been what has marched me forward.”

Coming from a background of youth ministry, “I have this innate understanding in me that young people will often teach us so much if we just give them the space and the resources to do it,” Paniagua said. She heaped credit on Kin-dom Camp staff that includes Andy Hackett, Baylee Davis and others.

At Kin-dom camp, the gender binary has been eliminated. The restrooms have signs with messages like this: “We don’t care if you sit or stand. Just make sure you wash your hands.”

“As a longtime youth minister, that was like the most liberating thing ever,” Paniagua told Hayden. “Granted, we have to have then honest conversations about relationships that develop and flirting and all the things. But it was really beautiful to watch the kids come and recognize that we weren’t going to make them choose, and that we weren’t going to ask them to step into a box that doesn’t fit.”

Campers are given a paper nametag each morning in order to tell staff and others who they are for the day. “Really, what we’re trying to do is help these young people integrate with their bodies and their identities,” Paniagua said, “because so much of what they have to do every day in the world is pick either to live fully in their bodies or to live fully in their identities.”

When their week at camp comes to an end, “I think they go away with a sense of empowerment and a sense of knowing there’s the community behind them that loves them and supports them and wants to continue to walk with them,” Paniagua said.

The Rev. Sara Hayden

“It’s such a tender thing to hear as a parent,” Hayden said, “to think that a community can open up something in your child that may not have happened in their daily life.”

“That’s the thing about camp for me,” Paniagua said near the end of the first episode. “We are just entrusted with these lives and these identities and these families and the stories, right? And so, we have to be good stewards of them.”

When people ask Paniagua what success looks like for the camp, she tells them, as Paniagua told Hayden in the second episode, “Success looks like giving these kids enough hope, and I don’t even know if this is reasonable, but giving them enough hope and just enough of whatever it is to help them know that whatever comes, they’re not alone and that it can be better and that their life is worth living.”

“As a person who believes in the wide expansive love of God that is without end, it is unfathomable to me what we are doing to these young people and what’s being done in the name of bad theology, right?” Paniagua said. “We really had to cultivate new language around faith that wasn’t hurtful to these sweet souls that just needed to know that they’re loved.”

“Not one of our campers — not a single one — walked in without a scar either visible or invisible,” Paniagua said. “Every single one of their bodies had already started keeping score to what it is to live in the world.” Paniagua continues to be struck by their resiliency. “I think of the image of God, like enfolding little chicks under God’s wings, right?”

That’s an aspect of Kin-dom Camp Paniagua points to with pride: “The young adults and the adults that we’ve put in place to support these kids so that they have a network of support other, and in addition to, their parents,” she said.

Paniagua told the story from last year’s initial Kin-dom Camp of a worship service that got everyone dancing and singing and being “fully embodied in the moment.” A woman present during the service later told Paniagua, “That’s one of the most holy things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“There was invitation to participate and invitation to show up as you are,” Paniagua told Hayden. “We have sold ourselves and we’ve sold God short by just limiting [worship] to 90 minutes or less once a week … where you go in and you hardly talk to anybody or hardly share life with anybody. We want people to share life with us. That’s what we want. We just want to share life together because it’s just easier to do it together than it is to do it by ourselves.”

Paniagua said she’s “very clear that my voice is not the only important voice in the room. And the thing that I have said from the very beginning of Kin-dom Community and the thing that I try to end everything that we do is, just, ‘You are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.’” Most people have no problem saying that to others or wearing the message on a T-shirt, Paniagua said. It’s “the easiest way to understand who God is and what God is really about … I do care that out of knowing that, they are equipped to help other people know that.”

“Our world is just so hard and so angry all the time,” Paniagua said. “And so, to the best that we can be gentle with ourselves, but then do our best to be loved to one another and to love one another as well, how can we just do that? How can we be the one for somebody else? That’s what I always think about.”

“Thanks,” Hayden replied, “for helping us be brave.”

1001 New Worshiping Communities’ “New Way” podcasts, hosted by the Rev. Sara Hayden and produced by the Rev. Marthame Sanders, can be heard here.

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