Saint Mark United Methodist Church now stands as one of the largest gay-friendly churches in the nation with over 1,800 members — the vast majority of which are LGBT. (Photo by Adam Carpenter)

A Sunday at Atlanta’s Saint Mark, one of largest gay-friendly churches in nation

It’s rare that a church service begins with an announcement asking worshipers for nominations for an upcoming drag show. But not many churches are like Saint Mark United Methodist.

The imposing structure that houses Saint Mark has anchored Midtown since the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the church started attracting LGBT people from around the rapidly changing area. Saint Mark now stands as one of the largest gay-friendly churches in the nation, with over 1,800 members — the vast majority of which are LGBT.

A visit to Saint Mark’s is a history lesson. Worshipers stream in from all directions at the corner of Peachtree Street and 5th Street, coming into view of the striking building made from Stone Mountain granite. While the congregation is diverse as far as sexual orientation and gender identity, most of those in attendance are white males in the 40’s or 50’s. Some arrive alone, some with friends, some with their partners and children.

There’s a triple entrance portal beneath a large lancet-arched window and front gable. The wood doors, original to the building’s 1902 construction, swing open to reveal an elaborate scene inside. Worshipers are enveloped by stained glass and fellowship. Handshakes and hugs to friends and strangers alike occur throughout the sanctuary. The wooden pews creak with every move, signaling that you’re not the first or the million-and-first person to take in a Saint Mark service over the years.

‘We thought it was a bait-and-switch’

Rudy Clemons was brought to Saint Mark by a bigot.

The 1991 Pride parade was scheduled to make its way down Peachtree, right in front of First Baptist Church. And the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Charles Stanley, wasn’t happy about it.

Stanley was one of the founding members of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition — a double-word score when it comes to the embrace of anti-gay religious teachings. Rev. Stanley also believed AIDS was God’s punishment for the supposed sin of homosexuality.

First Baptist hired guards on horseback to keep the marchers off the property. They barred the doors to keep everyone out but their congregants, who jeered the marchers with homophobic comments before entering to worship God. But on the other side of the street, parishioners were handing out water to the marchers, along with fliers that said “Everyone is welcome at Saint Mark.”

It was the beginning of a long-term relationship between Saint Mark and the city’s LGBT community, one that is personified by the vast number of LGBT parishioners on any given Sunday service, holding hands with their partners, hugging their friends. Rev. Stanley and First Baptist Church eventually retreated to Dunwoody. Saint Mark’s membership soared. Clemons was a part of the initial wave.

“I like the inclusiveness,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, purple, gay, straight, bi. And we have some of the best pastors in the country.”

Sheri Barrera-Disler and her wife Noey were brought to Saint Mark by water.

They were marching in a late-90’s Pride parade when they noticed the church’s parishioners handing out cupfuls of sweet relief. They’ve been coming ever since, although they were wary at first.

“We thought it was a bait-and-switch,” says Sheri. The couple sat in the back their first few times, so they could have an easy getaway if their fears proved true.

“But we didn’t need to,” she says. “They seriously want all folks to come and they are very accepting.”

Their son Todd, 14, was eventually baptized there. He can be seen every Sunday with his moms, hanging out after the service with the other kids — kids with gay parents and straight parents alike.

A larger message in play

Rev. Josh Noblitt carries the title Minster of Social Justice. Although it sounds like he fights crime, his plate is actually full with plenty of other fights — and not just the LGBT ones.

Whether it’s marriage equality or the death penalty or HIV/AIDS or homelessness, Rev. Noblitt is there to coordinate the action, organize the protest or volunteer opportunity, to create the learning opportunities for the congregation.

Noblitt and Saint Mark use LGBT issues as an entry point into larger social justice issues.

“A lot of us have felt the sting of oppression and know what it’s like to be in an uncomfortable position like that,” Noblitt says. “So that’s our entry point into reaching the homeless, and doing HIV/AIDS stuff and politics even.”

The sermon on a recent Sunday, given by Minister of Missions & Outreach Rev. Jennifer Hanson, was about the power of servanthood. Not a single “gay” or “trans” or “LGBT” was uttered. There are no rainbow flag vestments. There’s a larger message in play, the same one delivered that Sunday afternoon in 1991 on the corner outside.

An apology and a promise

The Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in a major Christian denomination, once compared the relationship between religion and the LGBT community to an abusive husband. After being hit so many times, what would draw someone to come back?

“I’ve thought about that a lot, about why someone would come back,” Noblitt says. “My personal belief is that we are spiritual human beings. There is a lot of meaning to be found in being part of a spiritual community.”

The Church is there in good times and bad, he says. Births and deaths, relationships beginning and ending. “Which I think is really, really powerful,” he says.

As a man of the cloth, Noblitt wants to apologize to those who have experienced the “sting of ugliness” from the Church, as he puts it.

“We don’t do that here because a lot of us have felt the same thing,” he says. “And we’ve finally found a community here where we don’t have to worry about that, and we can just focus on what really matters, which is loving ourselves, loving God and loving our neighbors.

“That’s really what it all boils down to.” | @patricksaunders