Glenna Shepherd, who in 1992 was the founding pastor of Christ Covenant in Decatur, discovered how dynamically the spiritual scene was shifting when she returned to metro Atlanta last year after a decade living elsewhere. Christ Covenant was formed under the auspices of the gay Metropolitan Community Church, but Shepherd said that when she resumed leadership in 2010, she learned that worshippers believed the church had outgrown its origins.
“When I came back, it was really clear that the congregation had made a shift in their understanding of their mission, and kind of their place in the religious landscape in Atlanta,” Shepherd said. “The congregation decided that they wanted to really, intentionally be more diverse.
“We all know that MCC basically means ‘gay church,’” Shepherd added. “We really thought that we wanted to be a congregation that continues to build bridges. It seemed to us that in a place that’s as gay-friendly, and accepting and open to diversity as Atlanta, that we wanted to have a foot on one side of the bridge and another foot on the other side to make a really integrated congregation — in regard to sexual orientation, in regard to gender, in regard to race.”
Considering the MCC label “a barrier” to attempts to be inclusive to heterosexuals, the Decatur church disaffiliated from the Metropolitan Community Church in July, and joined the United Church of Christ in November.
The newly renamed Decatur United Church of Christ currently attracts about a half-dozen heterosexual worshippers each weekend, and is doing outreach via neighborhood associations and a musical recital series to draw more.
“I think that 20 years ago we really felt that need for safety and for camaraderie, and also to really process things in terms of being gay, lesbian and trans from a theological perspective,” Shepherd said. “What the larger Christian church needs now is for gay and lesbian people to be in community with heterosexual people — I think that’s how the next layer of change, education and acceptance will happen.”
Inclusion a priority
While Decatur UCC has codified its desire to be more inclusive by changing denominations, diversity of sexual orientation is a mission for many Atlanta congregations that are considered gay churches.
“The exciting thing is that we’re welcoming straight people,” said Rev. Paul Graetz, senior pastor at First MCC of Atlanta. “We’re finding more and more heterosexual people say we love your stand, we love your message, we love who you are and we want to be part of that, too. There’s a keen interest among the heterosexual community to be part of a church that has modeled such liberation for 39 years.”
Rabbi Joshua Lesser, leader of Congregation Bet Haverim, said that his synagogue’s founding principle of inclusion inspires the congregation to welcome heterosexual worshippers.
“We know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers ourselves,” Lesser said. “We didn’t like that classification of stranger that the Jewish community labeled us, which is what we felt, and so we want to eliminate people feeling like strangers to Judaism.
“Do we want to be just inclusive of ourselves and create a facsimile of a gay ghetto, or do we want to use that value of inclusion to make others feel like they have a spiritual place that has a stake in who they are?” he added. “We have decidedly become the latter, and that’s why Jews who are traditionally not as comfortable in other settings often come and spend time with us.”
Both Lesser and Graetz are hopeful that the blended houses of worship they are creating will further normalize homosexuality among the heterosexual faithful.
“Our children’s department is flourishing,” Graetz said of First MCC. “We’re looking at the next generation of MCCers, and it’s going to be a very, very mixed group of people. We’re not a gay-only church, we’re not a one-issue church, we’re a church for all people.
“That sense of building a united community is what we’re all about, and for us to sort of be niched into certain markets, I think, is counterproductive to the very message of Jesus,” he added.
‘I am home’
As the line between gay churches and inclusive congregations blurs, so does the division between gay-friendly churches and traditional churches. Whether at the Iconium Baptist Church in Southeast Atlanta or the venerable All Saints’ Episcopal Church downtown, gay worshipers also find passionate affirmation in mainstream congregations.
“I just had two people who were clergy just this last week come to me and tell me that they would like to learn how to do commitment ceremonies,” Graetz said.
“Atlanta has a very strong church culture, and so we’re seeing more and more churches start to address this issue.”
About a dozen commitment ceremonies have been performed at All Saints’, where Bruce Garner has worshipped since 1981 and where he currently serves as head verger.
“They do not actually bless the relationship because the scripture has forbidden that, but there is a blessing of the rings that people exchange, [the couple] exchanges vows, and every one that I have been to, the priest said, ‘Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder,’” Garner said. “In my perspective, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks, it’s a duck.”
All Saints’ has a gay and lesbian ministry, a sizeable gay population, and human sexuality issues are periodically discussed from the pulpit and in Sunday school classes, Garner said.
“My sexual orientation was never an issue, it never became an issue,” he said. “One of the things that most people in our community forget is that once you are in there, though, you have to keep reminding people that you are there, because like most minorities, once you are there, you can disappear.
“It’s a ministry that I call putting a face on the faggot, because once the faggot has a face, he ceases to be a faggot anymore,” Garner added. “He’s the child of God he was to start with, and the same goes for lesbians. When you strip away the issues and realize that you’re looking at a person, a child of God, it’s much more difficult to dismiss them or treat them badly.”
As explicitly gay and gay-friendly congregations have proliferated over the decades, Garner said he has visited other congregations but continues to feel most comfortable at All Saints’.
“I think it’s wonderful for some people, it’s just not my cup of tea,” Garner said. “It’s just not what feeds me spiritually. I didn’t find the same mix of the liturgy, the ceremonial — the ceremonial has come to mean a lot to me because of what it represents.”
Ceremony is also one of the reasons Von Collins prefers attending a traditional church to one with a gay or gay-friendly reputation.
“It’s what I’m more familiar with, growing up in a black church,” said Collins, who asked that his church not be identified because he did not want to portray it in a negative light.
“It’s not like the pastor is bashing gay people every Sunday or telling me that I’m going to hell, but it’s not what I would call gay-friendly,” Collins said. “But I feel welcome there. I am at home there, both in terms of belonging there now, and in the way that it reminds me of the church I grew up in.”
Many black gay congregations have maintained the charismatic worship style that is pervasive in many traditional churches, but Collins said the latter feels like a more authentic worship experience for him.
“I want to go to the club on Saturday night, not Sunday morning, and the few times I went to a ‘gay church’ it felt like that’s all that was going on,” Collins said.
“Everybody checking everybody else out and trying to flirt, and that’s not what I’m used to at church.”
Garner knows that gay churches are often labeled cruisy, but he thinks it’s unfair.
“I kind of laugh at that, because what do you think straight people are doing in church, at any church?” he said. “That’s where they’re supposed to go to meet their mate.”
Indeed, churches — and especially synagogues — have been a crucial place to search for love over the years, and Lesser confessed that he is disappointed more matchmaking isn’t occurring at Congregation Bet Haverim.
However, he recognizes that Bet Haverim’s mission to be fully inclusive complicates the search for a gay partner.
“I do think that there are people who don’t come because we aren’t more exclusively gay in our membership,” Lesser said. “For some people who would see a synagogue as a place where they could meet a partner perhaps, I think we muddy the waters for them a little bit because it’s hard to know who’s gay and who’s straight.”
Still, welcoming heterosexuals does not dilute Bet Haverim’s identity as one of a handful of gay synagogues in the country, Lesser said.
“People always refer to us as gay-friendly, but I always go, ‘No, you have it wrong: we’re straight-friendly,’” he said. “As a queer-founded congregation, we recognize the value of inclusion from the very fabric of how we were created.
“When I think about our kids growing up in a synagogue that affirms them, I’m willing to give up a little of my comfort because that’s social change,” he added. “If I had had something like this when I was a child, I could have saved myself many years of deep pain.”
Whether at a gay, gay-friendly or traditional church, it is important for LGBT worshipers to expect explicit validation of their worth, as opposed to “global affirmations” that gloss over ingrained biases, said Rev. Antonio Jones, pastor of the gay Unity Fellowship Church.
“There are folks who are very clear that they’re not going to leave their church, they’re going to stay there and make their church throw their arms around them because they have invested a lot in that congregation and they love their church, aside from this one particular matter,” Jones said. “That, to me, is a very, very valid argument and it’s a very passionate argument.
“But for those who are just there out of fear and don’t know that who they are is definitely loved by God, my advice would be to find a space that’s healthy and safe, and find a space that will constantly affirm your value to God — your total value, not just part of you,” Jones said.
Top photo: Rev. Glenna Shepherd (left to right), Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Rev. Paul Graetz and Rev. Antonio Jones are among LGBT faith leaders in Atlanta. (photos via Facebook)