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Area churches coming out of the closet

She grew up in the United Methodist Church. It told her she was sinful. In high school, she turned to drugs and alcohol, trying to come to terms with both the church that raised her and what she’d known about herself to be true since she was 10 years old: She came out as gay after graduating from South Side High School when she was 18. She attempted suicide, twice.

Today, this 48-year-old social worker – who asked to remain anonymous because some of her co-workers and clients don’t know she is a lesbian – calls the Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren her spiritual home. She felt immediately welcomed the first time she and her partner attended a service.

Though the Church of the Brethren as a denomination has spoken out against same-sex marriages, Beacon Heights – along with about 35 of the 1,000 or so Church of the Brethren churches – is open and affirming, a term which means a church is welcoming of those in the LGBT community.

Americans’ acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is changing. According to a spring Gallup poll, half of Americans think states should legally recognize gay marriages, and 51 percent of Americans agreed with President Obama’s support of gay marriage.

The website, which calls itself “the largest gay and lesbian affirming Christian church directory in the world,” lists 108 Indiana churches that identify as open and affirming, including eight in Fort Wayne and one each in Auburn, North Manchester and Warsaw.

Churches’ rights

It was clear a decade ago that Beacon Heights wanted to vote to become open and affirming, the Rev. Brian Flory says, and while it was open and affirming in practice, it did not develop a public statement until five years later.

“That is an important thing,” he says, “that a congregation has to publicly come out of the closet. A lot of churches say they’re welcoming, but you walk in the doors and you find out pretty quick that they’re not as welcoming as they think they are.”

One national movement that has made this an especially difficult decision to pastors is some states’ legalization of gay marriage, says Quinton Dixie, associate professor of religious studies at IPFW. Five states recognize civil unions and six allow gay marriage, with a spattering of others providing various domestic partner rights, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT rights organization in the country. What happens when ministers in those states are approached by a gay couple looking to wed?

“How do you respond?” Dixie says. “It’s the law of the land, and yet your denomination prohibits it.”

Certain denominations are better suited to join the open-and-affirming movement based on their theology. The United Church of Christ historically is liberal in its interpretation of the Bible, for example. Each church is congregational, meaning all the power rests with the local church. With a denomination like Episcopalian, meanwhile, the authority is top-down, with a bishop and hierarchy that makes it difficult for individual churches within the Episcopal Church to make their own rules and laws.

As time goes on, Dixie says, he predicts the number of open-and-affirming churches in the country is going to explode.

“Churches are always talking about growth, and people vote with their feet,” he says. “If this becomes an issue where people will leave congregations (who are not open and affirming), as it becomes more prevalent and accepted in general culture, whether it’s legal (in a denomination) or not, you’ll find churches finding ways to affirm the celebration of (gay) marriage.”

The process

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is in the process of becoming open and affirming, a discussion that has been nine years in the making. The church is awaiting a congressional vote for the process to be complete.

When the topic was first breeched nearly a decade ago, a number of congregants left the church and the discussion was halted, says the Rev. Julie Western, who was not pastor of the church then.

The discussion restarted one day in February, when Western received a phone call asking if her church would have a commitment ceremony for a man and his partner. Western posed the question to the church elders, who voted to restart the open-and-affirming process. There was a single dissenting vote.

“Either we’re open and affirming, we’re loving and accepting, we’re taking God’s love to an extravagant level, or we’re not,” Western says.

Since then, there have been related meetings and sermons, a showing of “For the Bible Tells Me So,” a 2007 documentary that explores how the Christian church has used the Bible to stigmatize the LGBT community, and a guest speaker from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Churches take different paths to this open-and-affirming status, depending largely on their denominations and the congregations. Some, such as Beacon Heights and First Christian Church, require votes of church boards and/or members. Others don’t.

St. Mary Magdala Spiritual Center is a small church, easy to drive by. On a typical Sunday, it serves about a dozen people, says the Rev. John Newbauer.

On the inside, it looks traditional. As part of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, the sanctuary has the gilded imagery often associated with the Roman Catholic Church. There are Orthodox crosses and candles, pews and prayer books.

Other aspects of the church, however, are decidedly different: It supports the ordination of women, for example, as well as the acceptance of the gay and lesbian community. These traits are innate parts of the denomination. There was no meeting or vote among the congregants about whether it should publicly declare itself in support of these things.

“I can’t think of a time when we wouldn’t welcome anyone who came in,” Newbauer says.

Not silent

Perhaps the most established open-and-affirming church in the area is Plymouth Congregational Church of Fort Wayne, which has welcomed LGBT congregants since the spring of 2001. Its denomination, the United Church of Christ, is also welcoming of the gay and lesbian community.

“We’re not a church for everybody,” says the Rev. John Gardner says. “Our worship is fairly traditional. It’s liturgical for the most part. We don’t have screens. We sing old hymns. We sing new hymns. We don’t have drums. It’s not rock and roll.”

If the service looks like a traditional Christian service, the social construct is not; the church holds commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples, and some of Gardner’s sermon address polarizing issues such as birth control or LGBT topics.

“When you’ve got a culture that tends to blame sexual minorities for any number of social illnesses, to not address that from the pulpit is irresponsible,” he says. “The church cannot be silent without failing them, and they have been failed and faulted throughout the centuries.”

It was that kind of accepting, nonjudgmental atmosphere that the unnamed congregant and her partner found in Beacon Heights. Their search wasn’t always fruitful, including one church that had a petition in back for congregants to sign in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

After not attending church for a decade, the congregant realized that her spiritual growth was stalled.

“If I could find a place that could get beyond the sexuality, I felt I could grow more in a church than I could on my own,” she says.

It’s that desire to shepherd everyone that led to Beacon Heights’ choice to publicly welcome all congregants.

“The decision to become open and affirming came out of that sense of justice and peace and care for all of God’s world and God’s children,” Flory says.