Everyone Belongs: Sage’s Story

“I can’t wait to get hate-crimed by a bunch of high schoolers on a trip to a foreign country without a phone to call for help” I joked to my friends. “If I mysteriously don’t come back from Brazil, y’all know what really happened.”
I told myself it was a joke, but honestly the months leading up to this trip I was absolutely terrified. I was practicing in the mirror my comebacks to whatever “attack helicopter” jokes I would hear, I stalked every builder on social media and had a full-on panic attack just from “the vibe” of somebody’s Instagram bio, ex cetera… (all the other typical “anxious gay overthinker” things… )
You see, I was part of the weird situation where my trip (which was originally planned for 2020) ended up being pushed back because of Covid. In that space of time I had officially come out of the closet and changed my pronouns, making the difficult decision to ultimately stop going to church. So, not only was I different from everyone because I was one of the oldest people there (20 years old), I also use they/them pronouns and don’t refer to myself as a member of the church anymore. There was no way I thought this could go over well, even my mom told me that going on this trip would just take away from everyone else’s spiritual experience. My leaders insisted that I come on the trip anyway, so I did despite thinking it was going to go terribly.
I’ve never been so happy to be proved wrong.
There’s plenty of people out there who don’t understand the queer experience and don’t even try to, but at HEFY (now HXP) it wasn’t like that at all. My group turned into the loving family I felt like I didn’t have for so long. I didn’t feel like the nature of my existence was a topic for debate like I usually do in most religious spaces.

Logistical things can be tricky, so contact your group leaders on how they plan to handle things. As for my trip, here’s how things went down for me:
Scripture study: I was able to bring a book that wasn’t scriptures and read that instead in the mornings. I brought Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, who was a famous Roman emperor and philosopher. It contains themes on wisdom, justice, temperance, courage, gratitude, resiliency, and doing your best. If religion is a painful topic and you haven’t read Meditations, I think it’s a great alternative to bringing scriptures because it still contains a lot of peaceful ideas and great messages to start a work day.
Devotional: I got paired up with someone who also wasn’t religious on that trip and we did something really cool—taking a parable from each of the books we brought onto the trip and combined them into one idea.
Separate rooms for guys and girls: I slept with people of the same gender I was assigned at birth, but that wasn’t much of a problem for me or anyone else.
Dressing up for church: I wore pants and a nice button down despite being feminine-presenting and no one made me feel uncomfortable for it.
For everything else, contact your group leader and don’t be afraid to say how you really feel. I’ve realized that when it comes to people who are open enough to do things like travel to other countries, they usually are also open to differing perspectives and experiences.
Questions are good because most of the time, people only fear what they don’t understand. People will probably ask about all sorts of things like “How did you figure out you were queer?“, so come prepared with answers. Sometimes people don’t understand that certain questions can be really offensive, so always give the benefit of the doubt and don’t be afraid to explain if a question is making you uncomfortable.

Still worried? Chances are, your anxiety is still just lying to you, but if by chance you end up with people who aren’t as awesome as people on my trip, here’s my advice:
—When in doubt, turn tension into humor. My awesome comeback for any “well I identify as an attack helicopter” jokes (that I never got to use) was going to be “actually I identify as 9 raccoons stuffed into a human body suit.” This goes for most bullying situations— when in doubt, laugh it off. If you never take any insult seriously, they can never get the satisfaction of hurting you. Also, it lets everyone know you’re super hilarious and cool.
—If you’re having trouble with someone in particular, talk to your group leaders instead of ranting to other builders. Sometimes people can be weird, and who knows? Maybe years down the road they might be really embarrassed for how they treated you. The best thing to do is to not talk bad about them to other builders, it just throws off the whole vibe and pits people against each other. I didn’t have this problem with anyone on my trip, but I saw it starting between a few other builders (even though it was resolved really quickly and didn’t turn into an actual issue). Cliches can ruin trips, and the quickest way to form cliches is to start talking smack about a “common enemy.” Remember: it’s not you versus them— it’s love and understanding versus ignorance and hatred.

I’m still not sure what I’m doing when it comes to religion, but I do know if there was ever a place where the true love of Christ can be found— it’s on these trips. The people on these trips are incredible and I wouldn’t trade my HXP experience for the world.