“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
For Leslie Carole Taylor, transitional pastor at Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, the meaning of John 3:16 is abundantly clear.
“God loves the whole world,” she said,
adding that at Advent UCC, “There’s never been a question that everyone belongs.”
Advent UCC, a primarily African-American congregation on the east side of Columbus, is one of many Columbus faith communities that have openly stated their acceptance and affirmation of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Their goal is not only to accept the LGBT community among their members, but also to represent them actively in worship and ministry.
While some denominations have a history of working toward equality, other denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, remain divided over the issue of homosexuality, making the “coming out” of individual churches a complicated undertaking.
In 1994, King Avenue United Methodist Church was an urban church in decline in the middle of Victorian Village, a neighborhood transitioning from to student housing to LGBT-friendly. Grayson Atha, King Avenue’s senior pastor at the time, announced to the church that an LGBT Bible study was being held at a neighboring church.
“That was the verbal breakthrough,” said John Keeny, King Avenue’s current senior pastor.
Shortly afterwards, the child of a same-sex couple was baptized in church, upsetting several members and leading to a dialogue about the church’s position on homosexuality. At the end of six months, after consulting with numerous experts, a task force recommended that King Avenue begin its journey to full inclusivity, which it achieved by 1999.
It had also doubled its membership. In the winter of 2012, King Avenue expanded its inclusive mission by opening Stone Village Church in the Short North.
King Avenue recognized that its journey would meet with some resistance, but even for liberal religious movements such as Unitarian Universalism, which has traditionally promoted intellectual freedom and an individual’s search for truth, the steps toward equality were not necessarily easier.
“Culture is conservative,” said Mark Belletini, senior minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Clintonville. “When I first came into the movement, there were hardly any women in the ministry, even though we’d been ordaining them for years.”
Belletini said that, just like LGBT individuals striving to represent themselves within Unitarian Universalism, the church had to undergo the same transition as other ministries working toward inclusion. First Unitarian held awareness exercises, meetings, and potlucks as part of the process of understanding. As a gay minister, Belletini preached at other churches as an example.
“We had to look at our principals of equality and say, ‘What does that look like in the real world?’” he said.
Now, First Unitarian has become so integrated in its ministry that a separate LGBT group was dissolved for its redundancy. As a result of the transition, the church itself is “much more vital and alive,” said Belletini.
As Columbus’s acceptance of the LGBT community has grown, finding ways to serve its spiritual needs has become a more natural process.
When she began her position as associate rabbi for community engagement at Temple Israel in April of 2013, Sharon Mars was given the task of finding under–\served persons in her congregation. As the needs of LGBT members were brought to her attention, she began KESHET Israel, a Jewish LGBT and allies networking group.
Mars is emphatic about acceptance and that acceptance of difference not be polarizing.
“I want every person walking into Temple Israel to feel welcome. Every human being is uniquely created in God’s image,” she said. “But at the same time, you’re just like everyone else.”
Overcoming Conflict with Context
Certainly, inclusive faith communities deal with issues of scriptural interpretation, but leaders in more inclusive churches have realized the importance of context and culture.
“That was then. This is now,” said Mars. “This is about each person mattering and being part of the tradition. There is something beautiful about being part of an ancient religion, community, and people.”
What is clear is the mutual importance the LGBT communities and their houses of worship play in each other’s lives. In a society where small groups such at the Westboro Baptist Church can command significant attention, Belletini believes that it’s important to have “spiritual shelters” that remind worshippers they are individually worthwhile.
The openness of inclusive houses of worship goes beyond the acceptance of the LGBT community. Many people who have had negative religious experiences are more willing to explore the possibilities of faith in an accepting environment.
“We have seekers and doubters who come here,” said Keeny. “There isn’t an energy devoted to suppressing who we are.”
Historically, believers have found that embracing the unusual, such as the Jewish belief in one God or the early Christian practice of risking themselves to care for the outcast sick, has given a depth and authenticity to their faith.
Now, the belief that God accepts all may be just as transformative.
“Faith takes on a whole new sheen in light of that acceptance,” said Mars. •
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