Jesus drew such big crowds just by preaching on the hills that feeding all those people in a pinch was a problem calling for divine intervention. But for Rev. Paul Turner’s small flock, free food is a planned attraction and the church itself could be the miracle.
Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, which started in a living room eight years ago, expanded its program on Labor Day weekend this year to a schedule of two Sunday services. The more traditional service meets at 7:00 pm in the sanctuary of Epworth United Methodist Church on McLendon Ave. The new “Church Without Walls” service begins at 10:30 am wherever the congregation can find a spot in Candler Park.
A potluck lunch open to anyone follows the morning’s closing prayer every week. On a recent mild Sunday, guests included a veteran of the war in Iraq who finished double helpings of lasagna, fried chicken and potato salad before he quietly asked, “Is everyone in this church gay or homeless?”
Not everyone, but that shows where Gentle Spirit has its heart. This is a fellowship where the motto is not a Bible verse, but a slogan that rejects all man-made religious conventions that would exclude anyone: “No Rules… Just God.”
Pastor Paul, as the members affectionately call him, is gay himself, and he worked first within the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. MCC is known as the international denomination created specifically to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Fundamentalists have been known to call it “The Synagogue of Satan.”
Pastor Paul first envisioned himself as a minister to bring God’s love to this much-hated community. Over the years the mission has matured and broadened. Gentle Spirit’s ministry is to give a warm welcome to all regardless of their journeys and beliefs. Readers of Southern Voice put Pastor Paul in a tie for third place as local male hero this year. The top two vote-getters were political candidates who had spent thousands of dollars on advertising. In contrast, Pastor Paul and the church got this reputation from a seemingly endless routine of good works, including interfaith and secular efforts. For example, the church bought a brand new wheelchair for a person in need without waiting for him to ask. In addition, the church’s web site at www.gentlespirit.org has a link to an online ministry, Whosoever webzine, edited by Rev. Candace Chellew. This monthly publication has just celebrated its ten-year anniversary. Pastor Paul writes a column called “Seeds of Hope” for Whosoever. He has a backlog of 200 letters to answer from people all over the world who are seeking, sometimes desperately, to reconcile Christian spirituality with their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Gentle Spirit’s following among the homeless is a natural outgrowth of the church’s generous and respectful welcoming of all comers. It goes back to Pastor Paul’s ministry at Abundant Grace Community Church. That congregation met from 1994 to 1999 in Virginia Highland and Grant Park. Abundant Grace proclaimed the motto, “Walk Your Talk.”
Pastor Paul said at the time and today, “A lot of churches will talk about being inclusive, but it comes with conditions. They 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 transgender or bisexual.'”
Insisting on more than lip service then and now, church followers transform intentions into outward action by truly getting to know and support all who join. They make mutual commitments to attend to each other’s needs, whatever they may be. Members have experienced setbacks along the way, but they are buoyed by faith in God.
Merry exuberance has been Pastor Paul’s primary mood these days. He is thrilled about Church in the Park, and attendance of 20 people at a morning service is enough to set him crowing.
When one member scoffed that he was leading a “cult” and headed out of town, Pastor Paul made a joke of it, saying, “I truly doubt anyone here will let me pick the flavor of Kool-Aid, much less drink it. The beauty of this church is that everyone is encouraged to develop their own relationship with God, owing their faith to no one but the God who created them.”
Even as members of the congregation face what may seem more than their share of crises and sorrow, there are always big smiles, warm hugs, and happy laughter at Gentle Spirit. Maybe more importantly, there’s an opportunity to be safe and to be who you are in God without conditions. Check out Gentle Spirit Christian Church at 10:30 am this Sunday.
South Carolina native Gareth Fenley is a community activist in Georgia and earned a masters in social work from the University of Georgia.