There was a parade on the first Sunday Dr. Mike Cordle began his tenure in the summer of 1990 at Atlanta’s St. Mark United Methodist Church.
“I thought, how nice, they’re welcoming us to Atlanta,” he remembered, “then I realized it was not for us, it was the gay pride parade.”
That was Dr. Cordle’s first experience with the city’s gay and lesbian population, but it would not be his last. The parade passed right in front of his midtown Atlanta church, ground zero for a vast number of the city’s gay population. He found the display of gay pride fascinating, and the next year, made a point to watch the parade with his wife and child.
“They gave my little girl balloons, flowers and whistles as they went by,” he recalled. “As they walked by, I realized they all looked like me, they weren’t freaky or unusual, they looked like my family and most of my congregation.”
It was that simple, but profound, realization that spurred Dr. Cordle’s next move.
“In the weeks that followed I felt very clearly — no whistles, no bells, no explosions, no burning bushes — but I felt God very clearly say, ‘so many of those wonderful persons who walked by deserve a church home.'”
That calling was not easily ignored, but it also came with a lot of fear and trepidation. At the time, no mainline churches were taking any aggressive moves to open their doors to gays and lesbians, and Dr. Cordle wasn’t sure he wanted to commit political and personal suicide with his career. After much prayer, and consultation with his wife, he decided to approach the church board with an idea. He wanted to pass out leaflets to the marchers next year and invite them to come to church.
“I expected the board to disagree and ask the Bishop to move me,” he said. “But they said, ‘we’ve been waiting for someone to show us how to do this.'”
Dr. Cordle paid for two ads in the local gay and lesbian paper and ran off leaflets with donations, so none of the church’s budget would be involved in the new ministry. He recruited several volunteers and they stood outside their church and handed the leaflets to the marchers as they went by.
“The marchers would stop and ask us, ‘are you sure you know who we are?'”
Dr. Cordle and his congregation knew well who they were inviting, and they were sincere in their efforts to open their doors. But, there is always some fear associated with the unknown and St. Mark’s was not immune. They wondered how gay and lesbian members might affect their church, how the church would be perceived in the community, how the denomination might react, and what might have to change in the church if the gay people came.
In the next few weeks, several lesbian couples visited the church and word began to spread that St. Mark’s was sincere in it’s invitation to gays and lesbians. They were an accepting church that was not asking gay people to change to part of the church. Instead, they encouraged gays and lesbians to worship in spirit and in truth. More and more visitors came to check out the church … more and more became members.
“Now on a regular Sunday, we’ll have about 200 visitors,” Dr. Cordle said. “We used to average about 100 people per Sunday, now that’s up to about 800.”
That influx of people has brought new life to an aging congregation. Now they can do the ministries they have dreamed about. They can help the homeless in the area, start campus ministries and support missionaries. They also spent $700,000 to rehabilitate and renovate their aging building.
“Some older couples chose to leave, but the great majority have stayed and have learned and are grateful for the progress they have seen in the church.”
The third year that the parade passed in front of St. Mark’s, the congregation again passed out leaflets and “we also did something very basic and Biblical, we gave out water.” From there, St. Mark’s commitment to the gay and lesbian community has grown. They now are a fixture in every gay pride parade.
Opening their doors to gays and lesbians has helped St. Mark realize a lot of dreams. It is also remarkable what did not happen. There has been no backlash from the denomination. While there has not been unanimous support for them, “they are looking at us and saying ‘that congregation must be doing something right.'”
“The denomination has discovered that on a Sunday we are not an empty church we’re a full church and we’re doing ministries and supporting missionaries,” he continued. “We’re doing all the things a church should do only better, and we haven’t had to change anything about our worship services. Now the denomination has a sense of respect for us. They’ve left us alone. We didn’t want anyone to give us awards or slam dunk us, just give us the freedom to do what’s right in our community.”
For all of their openness, St. Mark’s is not a member of the Methodist’s Reconciling Congregation program.
Dr. Cordle said that was a conscious decision of the church’s gay and lesbian members.
“Many of them feel, right or wrong, that being a reconciling church is perceived as being a ‘gay church’ or a Methodist MCC. Our members have been very clear that they want to be a diverse church and not be branded a gay church.”
ONE ROUGH SPOT
But, with the good comes the bad. Gays and lesbians are recognized in every way at St. Mark’s. They are a part of every committee, fully accepted as members and welcome to be baptized. However, they cannot have their unions recognized by the church. Dr. Cordle is forbidden by the church to perform any same sex marriages.
“The denomination has given me some slack, but if I did that I fear I would lose my credentials as a minister,” Dr. Cordle emphasized. “When I’m asked to do a service I tell them that if I do, they could lose one of their strongest advocates.”
The restraint makes Dr. Cordle particularly sad, “I see some very dear friends and have seen their commitment and their love for each other and I would love to be able to participate and offer them my blessings and the blessings of the church. I’m hopeful one day the church will listen and learn and grow and allow us to do that.”
He sees some progress in that area. Earlier this year the North Georgia Methodist Conference voted to support ENDA, the federal measure that would prevent discrimination at work based on sexual orientation. Dr. Cordle finds that an encouraging step.
But, the day of the denomination may be in danger. Dr. Cordle mused, “Today people don’t choose denominations, they choose congregations. If they find a place where they are welcome, they don’t get hung up on denominations.”
That may apply mostly to gay and lesbian Christians who are more in search of a church home than a denomination.
As Dr. Cordle observed, “They are Christians who happen to be gay, they don’t want their sexuality to be a part of the worship. They’re not worshipping the fact that they were born gay, they’re coming to worship God.”
THE COST OF AFFIRMING GAYS AND LESBIANS
Not all churches have had the luck of St. Mark when it comes to denominational politics. Many churches have found themselves voted out of fellowships after taking bold steps to include gays and lesbians in their congregations.
Some of the churches facing such action belong to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. In two regions, American Baptists of the West and American Baptists of Ohio, churches have been dismissed because of their memberships in AWAB.
According to AWAB’s Brenda Moulton the movement to disfellowship Welcoming and Affirming (W&A) churches generally begins when an Association or Region passes a Resolution which defines their position on sexuality. This is often an affirmation of the General Board’s one sentence Resolution, which is treated as denominational policy. Changes are then made to the Region’s Covenant of Relationships, which require Covenanting Churches to adhere to the Region’s theological stance [which includes the American Baptist’s resolution that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching]. It then becomes possible to dismiss W&A congregations, and churches which may later define themselves as W&A are defined as having “chosen” to disaffiliate themselves from the Region.
FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF GRANVILLE: REALLY DOING CHURCH
In the spring of 1995, following a resolution from its Board of Trustees, the Columbus Baptist Association in Ohio, amended their constitution to make it possible to dismiss the First Baptist Church of Granville. Granville was dismissed from membership in the CBA in June of 1995, and this dismissal was later acknowledged by the ABC Ohio. The denomination has been notified of Granville’s dismissal through the Credentials and Caucus Committee of the General Board. FBC Granville has appealed directly to the Credentials and Caucus Committee. Until action is taken by the General Board, Granville is still an ABC church.
The move was meant to punish the church, but the church’s pastor, Rev. George Williamson Jr. says it’s been a blessing.
“This has been the most intensely creative and exciting period in our history in the last two years,” he said.
Since the church was ousted from the association, gays, lesbians and bisexuals from around the state — many cast out by their own churches — have joined First Baptist.
Williamson said one member told him they didn’t think of First Baptist as church, “they thought of it as people who, like them, were being persecuted by the church.”
Williamson cited a number of factors — the youth group’s work with a gay advocacy group at Denison University, the CBA’s refusal to ordain a First Baptist member who said he planned to minister to homosexuals and church members with gay relatives — as contributing toward the church’s journey to accept homosexuals.
The church decided to reach out in 1988, after a member spoke to the congregation about his difficulties dealing with his sexual orientation.
“He became increasingly open about his experiences. He had attempted suicide several times and his closeted life was very painful,” Williamson said. “He got a lot of support from the congregation, even from people who were otherwise homophobic.”
Attendance is now up 60 percent, and the congregation has become stronger and more enthusiastic.
“There was an incredible upsurge in the spirit and joy and sense of God that overtook this church, and we got that from the gays and lesbians who came here,” said Williamson. “They say we’ve done a lot for them, but we believe they’ve done alot for us. They’ve brought us a sense of spirituality and mission that wasn’t here before.”
To celebrate their progress over the past year, Williamson says the church has committed themselves to build a house for Habitat For Humanity. “It’s mainly because a lot of our dykes are such good builders and electricians,” Williamson said proudly.
THE BOOK OF LETTERS
Despite the good things that have happened since the church became welcoming to gays and lesbians, the church’s journey has not been easy, said Williamson, who has been pastor for 15 years. And it hasn’t all been rosy. There has been some picketing, and a fair amount of hate mail.
There have also been tons of letters of support. The congregation has collected them into what they call “The Book of Letters.”
“It’s a sacred document that we keep in the sanctuary,” Williamson said. “It’s incredible the stories told in there — parents of lesbians and gays, people with AIDS, people still in the closet or out gays and lesbians. It’s a magnificent document that has become very fat. The letters are all different. Some are very eloquent, some are insightful in terms of gay and lesbian reality or dynamics, some are angry, some are prophetic in their denunciation of homophobia, some are illiterate and poignant. Everyone of them is my favorite .. you can’t read one of them without being moved.”
They have also kept the hate mail they have received.
“Those are bitter and cruel,” Williamson said. “They are often illiterate and inarticulate but they bespeak a kind of demonic religious spirit that has possessed a lot of people. We need to learn about that.”
For all the trials and triumphs, Williamson is happy about his church’s direction.
“This is what church is supposed to be. It’s only taking on a mission that you can experience this kind of conflict that makes you either back down or go all the way. It’s only then that you’re really doing church.”
LAKESHORE BAPTIST CHURCH: LEADING THE MARCH FOR ACCEPTANCE
If that’s true then Lakeshore Baptist Church in Oakland, California, has been doing church for awhile. Lakeshore is one of four American Baptist Churches disfellowshipped from the American Baptist Churches of the West.
Founded in 1860, the church is one of the oldest institutions in Oakland. Rev. Jim Hopkins says the church has always been on the cutting edge of the issues of the day. In the 1950s the church courted controversy by working to help defeat the red-lining of several black neighborhoods.
Demographically they also defy the usual segregation of many mainstream churches. The 300 member church is made up of about 45% African Americans, 45% Caucasians and 10% other backgrounds including Asians and Native Americans.
They have also been welcoming openly gay and lesbian people since the 1970s. Given that fact, joining the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists seemed a no-brainer.
“Joining conveyed to our gay and lesbian members that even though the larger Baptist body was taking votes condemning them, we had no intention to move in that direction. It also conveyed to the larger community that this is a place where gay and lesbian people can come and be assured of respect and dignity and safety.”
Some congregation members expressed anxiety that the regional association would frown upon the move, but Rev. Hopkins said he believed the denomination would have no problem with it. He could not have been more wrong.
Once the region moved to change their covenant to include the rule that “congregations must conduct their ministry in a way that is sensitive to stated American Baptist theological positions,” including upholding the church’s position that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the church’s fate in the fellowship was sealed and they were disfellowshipped, along with three other churches, in January.
Rev. Hopkins says the move was mostly about money. “Larger churches threatened to withhold money from the regional board until the churches were ‘dealt with,'” he said. “But through it all, these congregations [under attack] continued to send our money into the region and keep our end of the covenant. None of us has played the economic blackmail game.”
The move surprised and angered Rev. Hopkins.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and energy on this that we didn’t need to spend. We could have been putting this time into productive ministry instead of trying to fend off denominational attack. I have some real resentment toward the denomination because they forced our agenda and acted in a way that stretched the ties that bind this denomination. They did not respect our diversity, they did not respect our directions in ministry and they made us pay a price in time, emotion and spiritual energy.”
But, he vows his church will lead in the march toward acceptance of gays and lesbians.
“Lakeshore Baptist must be what the American Baptist Churches of the West has not been. They took a vote to find out what the majority opinion was, crafted rules to support that opinion and decided that anyone who could not abide by those rules — especially as it pertains to homosexuality — is out. The kingdom of God is bigger than that. The kingdom of God will continue to include both homosexual persons and their supporters. People of faith will disagree on this and we must recognize the minority and find a place for them and make sure they are valued members of the congregation as well.”
Since their disfellowship, Lakeshore has continued its ministry, and even made history. They have become the first Baptist church in the nation to ordain an openly gay person.
Dr. Rick Mixon came before the regional ordination commission in 1975. He was twice nominated for ordination, and twice turned down.
“The prevailing wisdom is he would have easily been ordained had he not been openly gay,” said Rev. Hopkins.
Mixon bided his time — getting a degree in counseling and a doctorate in pastoral psychology — but still felt called to the pulpit.
In 1993, Lakeshore moved to solve Mixon’s problem by setting up an extensive local ordination policy that would include a process to ordain anyone turned down by the regional ordination commission.
Last February , the process was approved by the church’s diaconate … and the congregation approved it by a two-thirds majority. Rev. Hopkins noted the vote was close, “We got the two-thirds but not much more than that. It’s fair to say it was two-thirds for, one third against.”
In June they made the historic move of ordaining Mixon. He is now being considered by several search committees and hopefully will soon have a church home.
NEW COMMUNITY OF FAITH: STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
Accepting gays and lesbians into the congregation of New Community of Faith Baptist Church in San Jose, California was rather anti-climatic.
Rev. Dick Taylor tells the story with a smile. About ten years ago, a congregation member confided in Rev. Taylor that he was a transvestite. He continued to tell Rev. Taylor that he met regularly with a local group of transvestites and transexuals, until one day they lost their place to meet. That’s when the congregation member asked if they could meet at New Community of Faith. The church agreed, and many members of that group eventually joined the church — some coming to service dressed in drag.
“Once people could accept that, the issue of accepting homosexuals was really a non-issue,” Rev. Taylor concluded.
It was not a non-issue to the American Baptists. In the early ’90s they passed a resolution deeming homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. That brought protests from the members of New Community of Faith. They decided to join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. “It was a way to institutionalize our protest,” said Rev. Taylor.
In January, they were among three other churches voted out of the American Baptists of the West. The 60-member church, made up of a diverse group of young, old, straight and gay members became the center of a lot of attention.
“When the news of us getting thrown out happened, a local newspaper devoted a whole page to the church with a color photograph, the TV station came out a few times and we’ve gotten about a half a dozen new members and others who visit regularly, some gay and some straight,” said Rev. Taylor.
The influx of new people has been a blessing, according to Rev. Taylor, but it’s bittersweet.
“I think with a certain amount of sadness that some of the wonderful members we have — other churches could have these people active in their churches and they lost them,” he said. “It’s such a stupid thing.”
The whole experience has soured some members on the whole idea of being associated with the American Baptists, but not Rev. Taylor.
“In my mind it’s a symbolic thing of being joined together with other churches and wanting to rescue the Baptists from a suicidal self destruction that’s going on.”
The American Baptists are not the only denomination in turmoil about this issue. Two Lutheran churches in California have also been driven from their denominations because of their bold moves to welcome gays and lesbians.
In 1990, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America disciplinary committee suspended two San Francisco churches — St. Francis Lutheran Church and First United Lutheran Church for ordaining three openly gay members. The Revs. Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart and Jeff Johnson are all graduates of official Lutheran seminaries but are not accepted as pastors because they refuse to take vows of sexual abstinence. There are no such restrictions placed on heterosexual pastors.
On December 31, 1995, First United and St. Francis were expelled from the ELCA for this action. They are now independent Lutheran churches affiliated with the San Francisco Conference of Lutheran Churches.
James DeLange, senior pastor at St. Francis, where Zillhart and Frost serve, told OUT magazine that no congregants have left his church as a result of the expulsion.
These churches are not alone in their battle. Many other churches, including some Southern Baptists congregations, are facing, or have faced, disfellowship and outright abandonment from their denominations because of their stand.
The trend has become so prevalent, there is even a new book out about the challenges many churches, from Baptist, to Catholic to Quakers have faced as they take up the mission to welcome gays and lesbians.
Despite the heartbreak of rejection from their denominations, the pastors of these churches remain hopeful that one day things will change.
As Rev. Taylor observed, “I think that given 10 or 15 years churches will be taking in gays and lesbians without batting an eyelash and we’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. But in the meantime, the church will distance itself from what goes on in society and divided itself up and spend a lot of energy that could be used elsewhere.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.