“Of course you would be welcomed at our church!” began the email that I received from an Episcopal priest. My partner and I were moving from Atlanta to a small town in South Carolina in the same year that Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay man appointed to such a high post. Flush with the good news, we had sought out the refuge of the Episcopal church in our new town.
But, as I continued to read the email, my heart sank. The priest made it clear that their welcome was anything but unconditional. Instead, the priest made it clear that they would expect us to seek to “change” our sexual orientation and look toward the day that we would leave each other and marry men.
Such is the dilemma for LGBT people of faith. Often, what we find in mainline churches is a “strings-attached” welcome. At least this priest had the decency to spell that out up front before we walked through the door naively expecting to be both welcomed and affirmed.
This brings up the major problem LGBT people of faith encounter in what should be a fairly simple act: finding a church home. But, we routinely encounter this kind of welcome — one that smiles at us while at the same time condemning us.
It’s no shock, then, that a recent found that 48% of LGBT people claim no religion. With that kind of widespread “welcome,” who can blame them? Another 33% however, felt conflicted in their faith community, meaning they are probably doing their best to fit in, or hide, in congregations that have welcomed them in much the same manner as that South Carolina Episcopal church.
Only 17% of LGBT people say they have reconciled their sexuality and spirituality and go to church regularly feeling no conflict. That means, of course, that this minority within a minority, is responsible, along with their straight allies, for the massive amount of policy changes on homosexuality occurring in such denominations as the Episcopal church.
Despite the progress, though, many mainline churches still find themselves as a loss when faced with truly welcoming LGBT believers. Part of the problem, I believe, lies with LGBT people themselves. After years of having the church door slammed and locked in their faces, they have naturally become suspicious of churches who say they are welcoming.
Are they really, or do they practice the smiling condemnation of conditional acceptance to which our community has become so accustomed? LGBT people must be educated church consumers. We can’t walk into any random church and expect to be welcomed. We must know our denominational politics and polity. We must follow synods and general conferences and be up-to-date on the latest policies passed by denominational bodies and councils. For example, while it’s true the Episcopal Church may be LGBT affirming in its national polity, many congregations, especially in conservative states like South Carolina will gladly buck the national edict.
We must be discriminating church shoppers, understanding the difference between the ELCA and Missouri Synod Lutherans, or the difference between PCUSA and PCA Presbyterian churches. We ignore these differences at our own peril!
Even church marketing can prove misleading. The United Methodist Church’s official slogan, for example, is “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Which is all warm and fuzzy until you look deeper into the church’s policies and polity to learn that Methodists won’t allow same-sex marriages in their churches and regularly prosecutes any clergy who dare perform them. In addition, the UMC continues to bar LGBT clergy and still asserts that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not much openness to celebrate there.
Churches seeking to truly welcome LGBT people have gone through the tried and true methods of writing affirming statements, joining affirming denominational organizations, renting a booth at gay pride and putting out the gay flag every Sunday morning.
Those are all great steps, but true welcome goes much deeper. I would like to propose five fundamental ways that faith communities can deepen their welcome, not just to LGBT people, but to anyone who walks through their doors that they might consider “different” or “other” than themselves.
The first step to make any congregation more welcoming to LGBT people is through LOVE.
We all know what love is, right? The apostle Paul gives us a beautiful definition in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That’s beautiful, but this word, LOVE, is an incredibly loaded word for LGBT people. We’ve been told a bajillion times by every well-meaning anti-gay Christian on earth that they “love” us … but what that invariably means is something like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” which is impossible to do, of course, because the hate for the sin bleeds right over into a hatred for the sinner, too … no matter how well-intentioned the love part may be.
Another way that “love” is misused for LGBT people is the incessant comparison that, again, well-meaning Christians often make to homosexuality and other sins. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the sentence, “Well, homosexuality is no worse a sin than alcoholism, adultery or prostitution,” I’d be a rich, retired lesbian.
To compare one of the central parts of my life — my love for my same-sex partner, which is not a sin — with people who drink too much, cheat on their spouses and sell their bodies for money certainly doesn’t feel like “love” no matter how sweetly and earnestly they say it. It’s also a bit frustrating to have to explain to people how deeply offensive that kind of “love” for the “sinner” really is — and then realize they still don’t see anything wrong with what they’ve said. This is not the kind of love that honors or protects another.
The underlying problem with all this “love the sinner, hate the sin,” talk is this — people have missed a very important lesson that both Jesus and Buddha knew: to extend genuine love outward, we have to be able to feel genuine love inside.
Jesus was adamant that we must love our neighbor — which is everyone — just like we love ourselves. It’s that second part that people tend to skip over or neglect. If we fail to love our neighbor — both friend and foe alike — then what we’re missing is the right kind of internal, self love that needs to be nurtured and brought out. Any failure to love comes from our own ignorance on how to truly love ourselves.
The Buddhists have a great way to foster this deeper understanding of reflective self-love. It’s not a conceit, but true concern for yourself. Often, we are our own worst enemy, speaking to ourselves in ways that we would never speak to anyone else we say we love. We call ourselves names like “stupid,” or “ugly,” or “worthless,” or even worse.
The Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation begins by expressing loving-kindness for ourselves: “May I be free of suffering. May I be safe and happy.” Once we fully internalize self-love, not a self-absorption, not a self-righteousness or self-conceit — but a true self love that cares for oneself in the deepest, most compassionate way, only then can we extend that out to someone else we care for, which is the next part of the meditation. “May they be free of suffering. May they be safe and happy.” From there we can project those feelings to those we are indifferent to, strangers, and finally to enemies and all sentient beings.
Love — that love that is not self-centered or self-serving, is the first step to becoming a welcoming congregation. Only when a community is comprised of people with a strong sense of self love and deep compassion that is peace loving and nonviolent first of all toward the self. Only when we remove all thoughts of violence, exclusion and harming of ourselves can we then extend that true love of welcome to others, especially those who are different from ourselves.
Believe me, LGBT people are amazing at recognizing that false love of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” because we’ve been the victims of that kind of love for far too long. It’s getting better though as organizations like Exodus are even apologizing for foisting that kind of dangerous and damaging “love” on LGBT people. But, even as Exodus disbands and starts up a new organization, our community remains suspicious — because condemnation delivered with a smile or a hug is still condemnation and it’s not love.
Any love that says, “I love you, but …” is conditional. Any love that cannot love a person completely for who they are is not a welcoming love, and LGBT people can smell false love a mile away. Unless congregations can offer acceptance, and not just welcome, don’t expect the LGBT community to flock to your church.
The second way churches can become more welcoming and accepting of LGBT people is through COMMUNION.
Now, there are certainly issues around communion that are touchy subjects for LGBT people. Because of who we are and who love, we are routinely barred from the communion table in many churches — judged unworthy to have a place at God’s table.
But, while this is an important issue, and no congregation can be welcoming while excluding anyone from the table, the kind of communion I’m talking about here has two parts.
First, it’s looking at communion as a form of self-care. The main question to ask ourselves is this: “Is there any part of myself that I exclude from communion?” If you’re leaving out any part of yourself from communion with God that will translate into exclusion outside of yourself. So, a lot of this idea of welcoming begins with how we treat and welcome ourselves and how we, ourselves, relate to God.
Do we relate fully and openly to the divine? Are there parts of ourselves, parts perhaps we are ashamed of that we are holding back from God?
Remember, LGBT people, especially, have been taught to be ashamed of who they are on a very visceral and personal, not to mention spiritual, level. We are told we can’t bring that shameful parts to God — but, we all have shame issues. Being welcoming means those in the congregation have worked on, or are working on, their own issues of shame. Only then can we fully bring ourselves — even the parts that we’re ashamed of — into God’s healing presence.
If we are holding on to feelings of violence or hatred for ourselves, our welcome will be affected. We cannot be welcoming unless we can welcome every aspect of ourselves. First, we must love, but we must love from a place of self-love. Second, we must commune, but we must commune from a place of deep openness to the whole — of opening ourselves of communing even in our own shame and hatred and accepting even those broken parts of ourselves.
It’s also important that we commune with one another. I have been to social events at some welcoming congregations and have noticed that LGBT people sit with other LGBT people, while the straights sit with straights. It’s completely understandable. Even as we strive for diversity, we’re always more comfortable with the familiar. But, congregations who want to ensure they project that inward sense of welcome will be aware of this and be sure to mix with each other to create and deepen that welcome.
I don’t want to discount the importance, though, of all those LGBT people and straight allies gathering in the same room, even if they are at different tables. Progress is often made in baby steps, and gathering together is still a sign to LGBT people that a congregation wants not just their money, but also their gifts and leadership.
Wariness on both sides is understandable. LGBT people are used to rejection and being slapped down, so many of us may be shy. Straight folks have heard all manner of weird rumors about some mythical “gay lifestyle,” so they may be afraid of offending people or asking dumb questions. But, for true communion to happen, both sides must be willing to be vulnerable with each other to make welcome really work. So, break bread together — sit and enjoy one another’s presence to learn true meaning of communion.
The third step for creating a truly welcoming congregation is SERVICE.
I’m not talking about the mechanics of a Sunday worship service, but whether a community is really walking its talk. It’s lovely to say that you welcome — and even affirm — LGBT people, but what are you doing to make sure the community sees you in action?
Yes, it is important for you to have a presence at the gay pride parade each year. The more LGBT people see welcoming congregations in their towns and regions, I think the more likely they will come back into the fold at some point. Years ago, all we had was the MCC, and if you didn’t have that, you either didn’t go to church, or you hid in whatever church you could find and tolerate anti-gay sermons and sentiments.
So, it’s important for congregations to be seen out in the community, and not just your pastor or spiritual leader, but members as well. It can’t all be the pastor’s job to ensure that you’re community is seen as welcoming.
That means churches must be willing to publicly work for legislation that protects LGBT people in this state and on the federal level. The good thing about our failed attempt to keep the constitutional ban on marriage equality in this state was that it really did encourage churches, pastors and religious folk to stand up and be heard on this issue. But, we can’t just speak out when big issue are at stake. There have to be more church people involved in anti-bullying education and measures. There have to be more church people involved in suicide prevention programs for LGBT people. There have to be more churches speaking out against workplace discrimination, marriage equality and other issues that affect LGBT people.
There also must be service from the other side of the equation, too. LGBT people must also be active in social justice issues that may have little or nothing to do with their sexual orientation from immigration issues, workplace and union issues, housing the homeless and feeding the poor.
In short, service is how we express to one another that we are not just dedicated to our own pet social justice issues, but we realize that unless we serve one another on a larger scale, we are not really dedicated to welcoming and affirming one another.
The fourth way congregations can become more welcoming is to practice what I call RADICAL GRACE.
I think we’re all familiar with the idea of grace — God’s unmerited favor given freely to us. Now, truly grace, in and of itself, is a pretty radical thing — unearned and unconditional love.
But, what many churches have done to the idea of grace is to de-radicalize it. Instead, most religious communities seem pretty much bent on domesticating grace, teaching it some tricks and breeding out the inherent wildness — and wideness — of God’s mercy.
For many churches, the welcome, not just the full acceptance, of LGBT people has proven to be what I call “a grace too far.” Too many churches, even those who may say they are “welcoming,” can’t bring themselves to fully accept LGBT people, even if their lives obvious display what Paul calls, in Galatians, “the fruit of the spirit,” namely “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Against these things there is no law, Paul says.
These tangible signs of salvation and liberation are evident in the lives of LGBT people. For the church to continue to deny this puts them at odds with the apostle Peter. He concluded that Gentiles should also be accepted into the church because, “if then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)
Peter recognized that there is no such thing as a grace too far. God’s grace extends to even the Gentiles — those people that Jesus called “dogs” (Matthew 15:26). The church continues to hinder and cheapen God’s grace by casting out God’s gay and lesbian children because of some perceived “sin.”
We have lost our sense of history that helps us to understand how incredibly radical this move was by the early church. The Gentiles were regarded by the Jews as the worst sinners of them all.. Including Gentiles in this new Jewish movement then would be like asking fundamentalist Evangelical churches to fully include LGBT people now. Both Peter and Paul got a lot of pushback from leadership and the rank and file when they began grafting this foreign community into their new church.
But, what they were advocating was radical grace — that grace that says you’re welcome here just as you are, whether we understand it, whether we agree with it, or whether we like it or not. I think both Peter and Paul understood what the modern church is just now learning — when we radicalize our grace, we radicalize our own hearts.
When we welcome those we don’t understand, agree with, or don’t like all that much, it transforms not just them, but it transforms us.
Grace is meant to transform — radical grace transforms radically — and that kind of radically transformed congregation can’t help but be both welcoming and affirming.
The last step for making communities more welcoming is EXTRAVAGANT WELCOME.
In the Taize song, Ubi Caritas, we sing “where love and kindness meet, there is God.” This is the essence of extravagant welcome. One example of this can be found in Jesus’ own life as recounted in the 7th chapter of Luke. In this story, Jesus goes to have dinner with a Pharisee named Simon, but in the middle of their no-girls allowed, he-man club dinner party, a woman bursts in and begins pouring expensive ointment over Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair and her tears. The Pharisee is aghast, thinking, “If this Jesus guy were really a prophet, he’d know what a horrible sinner is touching him right now.”
Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisee however, setting her up as an example of extravagant welcome.
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus tells Simon. “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
What Jesus points out to this Pharisee is that he has committed the biggest cultural sin of all in this scenario — his failure to show hospitality, or extravagant welcome, to Jesus himself. When we show extravagant welcome to anyone who comes through the door, we become that woman with the ointment, lavishing our love and acceptance on them, recognizing them as holy, just as this woman recognized Jesus as holy. In this way, we communicate a true joy that they are part of our community.
Extravagant welcome should be something every community strives to provide for whomever walks through the door, whether they are LGBT, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or whatever label we put on others. No one should ever face the ecclesiastical bouncers of prejudice and exclusion. The extravagantly welcoming congregation takes in everyone, warts and all — and in fact, expects each of us to be broken people in need of healing.
Communities that do this well understand that broken people are the most beautiful people. In Japan, when a bowl is cracked or broken, it is not discarded. Instead, they use gold to fill the cracks so that they shine. The process is called Kintsugi, and it honors our own suffering, our own broken places, as the parts of our lives that are most beautiful and in need of celebration instead of shame or hiding.
Churches who can see the gold in the cracks of all the broken people who walk into their sanctuaries are the ones who already deeply understand extravagant welcome. Being broken is not a sin, it is not a sickness or a shortcoming — it is a condition we all share as human beings. Life breaks all of us in many, many ways, and extravagant welcome means you don’t have to be healed before you can be accepted.
LGBT people are broken just as other people are. Our sexual orientation is not broken, but it can often be the source of our brokenness because the world has condemned us for simply trying to be who we are. An extravagant welcome can offer some golden healing for that brokenness while recognizing the wholeness of our sexuality.
That kind of extravagant welcome is also kin to radical grace in that it should be extended even to those we don’t agree with, like or understand. Extravagant welcome is the only way to transform ourselves and others into a truly welcoming and affirming community.
In conclusion, to be truly welcoming to everyone, not just their LGBT brothers and sisters, congregations need love — that selfless, giving, compassionate love for themselves and others. They need the ability to fully commune with God and with one another. They must walk their talk and seek to serve the LGBT community outside of the congregation. They must practice radical grace and realize that no one is outside the reach of God’s unconditional mercy, and they must practice an extravagant welcome that throws a welcome home party for every prodigal son or daughter that walks through the door.
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.