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|Faith & Religion: Breaking ground on LGBT faith|
|by Laura Douglas-Brown|
|February 17, 2012 00:00|
Atlanta’s oldest LGBT church
It began as a gathering of about 50 people on Jan. 16, 1972. It’s now Atlanta’s oldest LGBT congregation, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The church began as MCC of the Blessed Redeemer, not even four years after Rev. Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church denomination in his living room in Los Angeles.
“Rev. Perry scheduled that first service in response to a young gay man’s desperate cry ‘No one loves me, not even God,’” the church notes on its website.
Atlanta’s MCC church grew steadily and dedicated its first permanent home, located on Highland Avenue, in 1974. Ten years later, it celebrated paying off the mortgage.
But 1984 proved to be frightening for the LGBT congregation, which was a beacon to LGBT Christians but could not escape the homophobia still rampant in the world around it.
“In one year, the church was burdened with a series of five break-ins. In the most serious incident, the sanctuary was set on fire,” its website recalls. “Given the climate of the times, many members and friends were frightened away. Yet, the church survived all of these challenges and continued its ministry.”
The church soon changed its name to First MCC — as it is still known today. In 1994, First MCC purchased its present home, on Tullie Road at North Druid Hills.
The vibrant congregation shares its resources with other LGBT groups, including offering a “church extension” congregation called The Journey in Conyers, Ga., offering meeting space to other organizations in its building, and hosting the annual Black Gay Pride Candlelight Vigil.
“So many people in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community have had Scripture used against them as a spiritual weapon,” First MCC’s website notes, before concluding, “Contrary to popular teaching, being a Christian and being gay are not in conflict.”
First MCC (firstmcc.com) is located at 379 Tullie Road, Atlanta, GA 30329.
Founded by and for LGBT Jews
When Congregation Bet Haverim was founded 25 years ago, the idea of a gay Jewish synagogue was so extraordinary that the membership directory didn’t include most people’s last names to preserve anonymity.
“Back in 1986, most synagogues viewed GLBT people as sinners or as socially unacceptable. Either they were specifically unwelcome or expected to remain in the closet,” Rabbi Joshua Lesser said.
Even progressive synagogues did little to really include gay members, and Atlanta’s mainstream Jewish community initially didn’t want to have anything to do with the new synagogue.
“CBH was denied entry into the Atlanta synagogue council on the grounds that it did not have a rabbi and when it did, it was still denied because of its insistence of labeling itself as a GLBT synagogue,” Lesser said. “Eventually progressive rabbis demanded they join and more conservative rabbis insisted that CBH be denied so the entire council disbanded over the issue.”
Lesser became rabbi of Bet Haverim 15 years ago, and recalls receiving hate mail, death threats, and encountering rabbis who refused to shake his hand or speak to him. Change came gradually.
“Slowly, CBH and I have built a solid reputation for creative, welcoming and meaningful Jewish experience,” he said. “We are now included.”
That reputation also brought changes for Bet Haverim, as the inclusive “queer Jewish values” led the congregation to also welcome others who had not felt at home — “interfaith couples, economically disadvantaged folks, single parents, Jews of color, multiethnic-racial families.”
The congregation’s membership is now evenly split between heterosexuals and LGBT people.
“For some this means we are no longer ‘gay enough,’” Lesser said. “For me it means we are building a safer world where people work together and celebrate difference.”
Congregation Bet Haverim (congregationbethaverim.org) shares space with Central Congregational Church, 2676 Clairmont Road, Atlanta, GA 30329.
A spiritual home for LGBT people of color
The Unity Fellowship Church Movement, founded by Rev. Carl Bean in Los Angeles, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year — marking three decades of providing worship with an emphasis on LGBT people of color, while welcoming all who believe in liberation and acceptance.
By the 1990s the denomination was fielding calls from gay Christians in Atlanta who were yearning for a local Unity Fellowship, and Rev. Antonio Jones was dispatched from New York.
“My message is an invitation to take a spiritual journey through the traditional African American religious medium — music, praise and worship,” Jones, who is also a UFC elder, notes on the church’s website.
Atlanta’s Unity Fellowship Church has spoken out against anti-LGBT bias in mainstream congregations, including Jones taking part in protests against Bishop Eddie Long’s 2004 march against gay marriage and joining in a 2006 Atlanta summit on homophobia in the Black Church.
The congregation also works closely in its local community — even with those who might not seem “acceptable” to other congregations. An early ministry involved reaching out to gay prostitutes on the streets.
“Regardless of where they land on the sexual orientation spectrum, the message I brought to them was that they do matter, and they are loved,” Jones said in an interview on the church’s 10th anniversary in 2007.
The church aims to cross lines of race, sexual orientation, and faith background.
As its website states: “Black, White, Latino, Native American, Asian, Asian, Gay, Baptist, COGIC, Apostolic, Catholic, AME, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist, etc. — you are welcome in this place.”
Unity Fellowship (unityfellowship.org) holds services at New Schools at Carver, 9 Gammon Ave., Atlanta, GA 30315.
Early outreach to Atlanta Pride
Saint Mark United Methodist Church is one of several prominent churches that line Peachtree Street — also the route of Atlanta’s Gay Pride parade. In 1991, the church’s members made a decision that might seem simple today, but forever altered the church’s course.
As the gay marchers came by, church members passed out slips of paper reading, “Everyone is welcome at Saint Mark.”
“In that the Baptists were hiring armed guards at the time, that simple message had a big impact,” said Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts.
The next year, Saint Mark also passed out water to marchers — as they have continued to do ever since.
“We continue to do it because it changed our church’s life. We would have died as an aging congregation of fewer than 300 members if we had not been joined by the LGBT community,” LaRocca-Pitts said. “That parade saved us and opened up a whole new era of ministry and life here that we could not have imagined.”
Saint Mark’s membership is now mostly gay, and the church is now one of only three in North Georgia that are part of the Reconciling Ministries network. But while Saint Mark disagrees with the United Methodist Church’s stands against ordaining gay people who are in partnered relationships and denying marriage rites to gay couples, it has not chosen to join the handful of UMC clergy and congregations that have openly broken those rules.
In part, that’s because Saint Mark is one of the few UMC congregations with a majority LGBT membership, and leaders “choose our battles carefully” because they don’t want to risk the safe harbor they offer for LGBT worshippers.
For now, that means Saint Mark won’t host same-sex weddings and clergy can’t perform them. Instead, LaRocca-Pitts said, they can refer same-sex couples to other churches, and Saint Mark clergy may take a small role. They also offer “family blessing services” for those married elsewhere.
Change comes slowly, and Saint Mark doesn’t want the denomination to schism over LGBT inclusion.
“What we want is to convince our WHOLE church that God’s love and acceptance is available to all people,” LaRocca-Pitts said. “For this reason we go slowly —because we want the whole church to change.”
Saint Mark UMC (stmarkumc.org) is located at 781 Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30308.
National fight for gay clergy
Gay clergy in committed relationships can now serve as pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which cites more than 4 million members around the country. Atlanta’s St. John’s Lutheran Church played a major role in making that possible.
St. John’s had been open to gay people for many years, but in 2000 took the step of calling Bradley Schmeling — who is openly gay — as pastor. When Schmeling fell in love with Darin Easler, also a Lutheran minister, the two began a committed relationship. Easler moved to Atlanta in 2005 and Schmeling’s congregation at St. John’s welcomed the two with open arms.
But when Schmeling told his synod bishop about the relationship, a battle began within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on whether openly gay clergy in committed relationships could serve. In early 2007, Schmeling was put on a church trial and that summer he was removed from the clergy roster.
St. John’s stood by Schmeling, keeping him as pastor. In 2010, the ELCA voted to allow gay clergy members in committed relationships, and Schmeling was returned to the clergy rolls.
St. John’s risked ELCA sanction and a lengthy church battle to challenge the denomination’s rules for a simple but profound reason:
The turmoil drew national headlines and fears of schism within the denomination. But rather than wither under the scrutiny, St. John’s thrived.
“It made the church stronger and more clear about its witness to welcome all people,” Schmeling said. “Numbers and budget grew during the period of the trial.”
“After the trial, the church sets its sights on being a more racially inclusive congregation. We felt like we needed to reflect ALL the diversity that’s present in Atlanta,” Schmeling said.
St. John’s Lutheran Church (stjohnsatlanta.org) is located at 1410 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta, GA 30307.
Kicked out by Ga. Baptist Convention
Virginia-Highland Church began welcoming gay attendees in 1989. Within five years, out gay men served as deacons and in other church roles. In the late 1990s, the church marched in the Atlanta Pride parade for the first time.
Other Atlanta churches were also reaching out to gay worshippers at the time. But Virginia-Highland wasn’t just any church: At the time, it was Virginia-Highland Baptist Church.
VHC left the Southern Baptist Convention, the increasingly fundamentalist denomination, in the early 1990s over a number of issues, including the full inclusion of women.
“Virginia-Highland Church, noticing the shift, simply stopped giving to the cooperative program and withdrew membership,” said David Plunkett.
But the church retained its membership in the Georgia Baptist Convention until it was “disfellowshipped” in what Plunkett calls a “distasteful, dramatic, and very public forum in November 1999.”
The church had rented its sanctuary to a gay couple for their wedding.
“VHC then was brought up on charges of ‘harboring homosexuals,’” Plunkett said.
The church decided not to back down.
“The membership voted unanimously to stay the course and continue to welcome gay women and men into whatever role the Holy Spirit called them,” Plunkett said.
Virginia-Highland received support from other denominations and groups, and is now affiliated with the more progressive Alliance of Baptists and the United Church of Christ.
Now under the leadership of Rev. Mike Piazza — who once led the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, the world’s largest gay church — Virginia-Highland is focused on three areas: quality worship, justice and compassion.
“The biggest challenge is finding the resources to fulfill those three callings every day,” Plunkett said.
Virginia Highland Church (vhchurch.org) is located at 743 Virginia Ave., Atlanta, GA 30306.
Stood up to Southern Baptists
Oakhurst Baptist Church describes its journey to full inclusion as “organic.” The first out member joined in the 1970s.
The road to inclusivity launched in the 1980s, when that first out member was considered to become a Sunday School teacher. The nominating committee declined, but the pastor at the time preached that “Oakhurst will not have second class members.”
In 1995, Oakhurst appointed a committee of gay and straight members to explore the issues, said Rev. Melanie Vaughn-West, who now pastors the church with Rev. Lanny Peters.“In 1997 the church voted to approve new language in our covenant adding ‘sexual orientation’ to the distinctions that would not be discriminated against,” Vaughn-West said. “This includes, of course, issues of ordination to ministry and marriage.”
That bold stand didn’t exactly mirror the policies of Baptist governing bodies, which were growing increasingly conservative.
In a very public process, in 1999 the church was dis-fellowshipped first from the Georgia Baptist Convention, and then from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Atlanta Baptist Association.
“I think honestly most people in the church would say it was totally positive for us,” Vaughn-West said, while acknowledging “grief” at the lost relationships.
“We thought we could be a voice for something positive and inclusive and stay engaged with the Georgia Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention,” she said.
But the “galvanizing” battle brought support from other churches, new church attendees, and unified Oakhurst’s members.
“There was never any doubt that we were doing the right thing for the right reasons,” she said.
Oakhurst is now aligned with smaller, more welcoming Baptist organizations, and unlike Virginia-Highland Church — which was also dis-fellowshipped — plans to keep “Baptist” in its name.
“Historically what Baptists stood for was freedom of religion. … We feel that is such a valuable part of our history that we want to remember and claim that,” Vaughn-West said.
Oakhurst Baptist (oakhurstbaptist.org) is located at 222 East Lake Drive, Decatur, GA 30030.
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