One Church's Struggle To Do God's Work
By: Candace Chellew
Rev. Paul Turner was convinced he
had preached his last sermon, pastored his last church, and counseled his
last parishoner. He had dedicated the last 8 years of his life to the church.
But he was turned out of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community
Churches in 1994 after a "sharp disagreement." Now, with no flock
to tend, Turner was depressed. He had always felt called to the ministry,
now his career, his whole life, had been taken away. Life looked bleak.
The fight between Turner and the denomination had left deep scars at
Atlanta's All Saints MCC. The divisions ran deep and some members left the
church. For those members, church was over. They felt their lives had been
torn apart by the conflict. They were left doubting whether they would ever
do church again.
They soon began to meet for Bible study and called Rev. Turner to lead
their sessions. He refused.
"My therapist reminded me of the Jesus' parable of the wedding.
The original messengers got beat up and killed," says Rev. Turner.
"I realized that's what I was doing to these people. My calling was
not from MCC, but from God."
After several weeks of Bible study, talk of starting a church began to
come up. Rev. Turner wanted no part in leading another church, but told
the group if enough people were interested he would consider it. Twenty-two
people showed up for the first meeting. There were no more questions in
Rev. Turner's mind; he would lead this new church. Thus was born Abundant Grace Community Church
The membership quickly outgrew the basements of members' homes and now
rents space from Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in the heart of the predominantly
gay area of Atlanta's Virginia-Highlands.
Although conceived on the heels of a huge blowout with the UFMCC bureaucracy,
Turner bears no hard feelings toward his old home. "I'm very thankful
for MCC." he said. "They were the place that I found out I could
be gay, Christian and a minister. They literally saved my life. They came
at a time when I really had no other place to go."
From the first meeting, Abundant Grace set out to make themselves different
from any other church. "God didn't call this church into existence
as a protest," he emphasized. "We needed a church in this community
that was focused totally on the gay and lesbian community and made not apologies
The church puts its money where its mouth is with respect to community.
"We believe in the concept of tithing. Since we are an independent
church we do not have to give a portion of our tithe to the denomination,"
Rev. Turner explained. "Instead our tithe goes back to the community."
Each quarter Abundant Grace sends ten percent of their tithes to such
organizations as Youth Pride, the Atlanta Pride Committee, and to a financially
struggling MCC in Greenville, S.C.
The consistency should not be a surprise once you hear the church's motto:
"Walk Your Talk." "A lot of churches will talk about being
inclusive, but it comes with conditions. The say, 'we love you as long as
your hair is clean, we love you as long as you're not wearing ratty jeans
and t-shirts, we certainly love you as long as you're not gay or lesbian
or transgendered or bisexual,'" he explained. "But walking your
talk means more than making everyone feel comfortable in the church no matter
their differences, it's really getting to know these people."
It's that attitude that has drawn gays and lesbians, transgendered people,
bisexuals, cross-dressers, street people and even straight people into Abundant
Walking your talk also means living with brutal honesty. At Abundant
Grace, each member is indoctrinated into a method of dealing with antagonists
in the church. "Gossip and other antagonistic behavior is not tolerated
in our church," Rev. Turner said. Members attend classes and are instructed
to not pass on or listen to gossip. They will not listen to problems that
start with "they said," unless "they" are specifically
identified. That has cut down on the number of unsubstantiated rumors and
hurt feelings such talk generates. "It means we're spending a lot more
energy focusing on God," concluded Rev. Turner.
Members are also taught the biblical art of direct dealing. "In
Matthew, Jesus tells us if your brother or sister sins against you, go talk
to them. If you can't come to a conclusion take a couple of witnesses, and
if that doesn't work, you tell it to the church. If that doesn't work treat
them like a pagan." Rev. Turner explained. "We've never gotten
to that point. If we spend the time being positive and putting things back
together, we'll never have to separate anyone from the congregation."
It's a bold concept that can't work without commitment from the members.
"Everyone must be committed to work it through," said Turner.
"We're in relationship here, we're not just going to walk away."
It's a tough commitment but it appears to be working. Since they began
in 1994 with 16 charter members, they now have 61 members, and a mailing
list of 150. Average attendance each Sunday is around 63.
Keeping members committed to the high ideals of the church means staying
committed to the members. Deacons keep tabs on people's day to day problems,
an intercessory prayer team looks after spiritual needs and the pastor has
an open door to anyone in need of counseling.
Abundant Grace is a little church with big dreams. "I want us to
be the largest gay and lesbian organization in the city," Turner said
matter-of-factly. "I believe our methodology gives people an opportunity
to know peace, to enjoy being gay and be proud of that and to be able to