Walking the Talk: One Church’s Struggle To Do God’s Work

Abundant Grace Community Church in action

Rev. Paul Turner was convinced he had preached his last sermon, pastored his last church, and counseled his last parishioner. 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-Highland neighborhood.

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 for that.”

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 transgender 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, transgender people, bisexuals, cross-dressers, street people and even straight people into Abundant Grace.

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 seek justice.