Growing up in Nowheresville, Texas, in the 1980s with strict parents and nothing but tumbleweeds to play with is tough enough on a teenage boy. Add in a vivacious, outspoken personality –– and a sex scandal –– and life becomes downright unbearable. It was time for Stacey Fox to hit the road.
The road eventually led to Fort Worth, where the 47-year-old pastor has revitalized a church that’s unlike most others in North Texas. Sitting on the corner of Bonnie Brae Street in Carter Riverside, Fellowship of Love Outreach welcomes everyone, including young people struggling with their sexual identities, as Fox once did.
Studies show that about 1.6 million American youngsters are classified as homeless and that almost half identify as LGBTQ. These youth face additional risks, such as higher instances of violence, abuse, and sexual exploitation. Roughly 20 percent of the nearly 2,000 homeless persons in Tarrant County are children.
Fox welcomes them all at F.O.L.O. and wants to create something different from a shelter environment –– a place where teens can have their own space, a bed, and a place to watch television and where they can “just be a teenager,” he said.
Fox remembers what it’s like being a confused teen. In 1985, he was 17 and leading a music ministry at a little church in Odessa.
“Odessa was a great place to grow up,” Fox said. “I had a normal life, and it was mostly a good time.”
Even as a small child, he was always heavily involved in his church, playing piano and even preaching by age 12. Still, he found time for fun and friends.
“People would see me so involved at church and say, ‘I want my kid to turn out like you!’ I would think to myself privately, ‘Maybe not.’ ”
Fox had not come out as gay, and so it was believable when he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a married woman at church.
“She was having marital issues,” he said. “Soon the gossip started that we were in a sexual relationship. It was a huge mess in the church and an even bigger one in my life.”
He worried about his parents and fellow church members finding out the truth. He feared alienation. Rather than explain why the accusations were false, Fox remained silent.
“I couldn’t come out yet,” he said. “I couldn’t say I was gay at the time. It was easier to let people believe the lie.”
Little did he know, he wasn’t the only one in on the secret.
“My dad already knew, because he knew me,” he said. “And he stood by me, manly man that he was, and he never tolerated anyone saying something bad. When I finally did come out a year later, he just said, ‘I don’t understand it, but you’re my son. I love you and I want you happy. Just don’t get them AIDs.’ ”
There were still many unknowns about the disease in the mid-1980s, particularly in small-town Texas.
Fox figured it was time for a change. His sister had moved to Garland, and Fox soon followed, becoming a music minister at a local church. But he was still closeted and began to worry that some congregation members suspected he was gay. Eventually he made friends in the Fort Worth area and heard about “gay churches.” He didn’t know much about them, but he accompanied friends to F.O.L.O. one Sunday 19 years ago.
“I missed God and the church enough that I wanted to try and figure out what was going on there,” he said.
Some churches point to the Bible to condemn homosexuality. It can be difficult for LGBTQ individuals to find a safe place to share and practice their beliefs. Rev. Lee Ann Bryce of First Congregational United Church of Christ knows this struggle personally.
“There are a few churches locally that are friendly to [LGBTQ], but it’s unusual to see [LGBTQ] people fully included,” she said. “They are allowed in the congregation, but the path to ordained ministry isn’t often available. Many [LGBTQ] can only go so far.”
She made the move to Fort Worth from New York a few years back. Bryce laughs now about the old joke that lesbians live in Fort Worth and gay men live in Dallas. But it’s her friends that give her confidence in this community. She is always excited to hear there are others working toward a common goal of inclusivity.
Or maybe kids just find themselves at odds with their family. Lisa Daly, co-president of the Fort Worth Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P.F.L.A.G.), tries to help parents understand what their children are going through.
“It must be the hardest thing to say, to bare your soul to a parent or guardian,” she said. “And if they don’t respond well, it can be devastating.”
Sometimes, church and family members turn their backs on a kid. Sometimes kids get kicked out. Or they just leave. Fox hopes many of them find their way to F.O.L.O., the type of church that he could have benefited from as a young man.
When Fox first visited F.O.L.O., the congregation was led by Pastor Ric Huett. Fox finally felt at home and stayed involved. He was there when Huett resigned in 1996. At 26 years old, bleached blonde, and hungry to serve others, Fox offered to assist as the interim minister. A year later, the church asked him to remain their pastor permanently. He has been pushing growth and outreach ever since.
Fox stood at the podium on a recent Sunday and asked his congregation, “What is our goal? Who will we become? I’m not satisfied with just us. There are more people in this city who need to know the message.”
“Amen!” the congregation responded, as ladies waved fans across their faces to keep cool.
Expanding hasn’t been easy –– there are about 80 folks in Fox’s flock –– but Fox still has big plans.
“Our biggest roadblock right now is finances,” he said. “We would need to remodel. We couldn’t house people where we are now, we need a larger facility. We have hit a wall.”
He’s trying to sell the church property and find a bigger place. In the meantime, he collects socks, coats, toothpaste, and ordinary items that most of us probably take for granted. He fills up boxes with the items and donates them to local organizations that serve the same people he hopes to care for.
Fox said he won’t give up easily. He knows happiness can exist for anyone. Fox is happily married now. He adores (and brags on) his four children and three grandchildren.
“I had been thrown out, thrown away,” he said. “It was hard to think it was even possible that God could love me or that I could love God. Now I have had the honor to be here for 19 years. I have incredible children, an awesome husband, and I’m a pastor. I am living my dream.”