A new, predominately-LGBT faith congregation in Charlotte is reaching out in new ways to a community often underserved among inclusive faith institutions in the Queen City. ReBirth Church, headed by Pastor Ra’Shawn Barlow-Flourney, serves a predominately African-American congregation – people he says are looking for inclusive and safe worship opportunities.
“We are making this space available for everybody,” he says. “It’s very important to have a safe space where our community can worship, where you know you are going to be welcomed and received and where you don’t have to worry about what your pastor will say behind the pulpit that makes you feel less than.”
ReBirth joins an already-diverse, inclusive faith community in Charlotte. The new congregation meets in space owned by the Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte, the city’s oldest predominately-LGBT congregation. Up the street, Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte attracts a predominately-African-American and LGBT congregation. In Plaza Midwood, New Life Metropolitan Community Church meets at Holy Trinity Lutheran.
ReBirth has grown quickly since their first worship service last July. Membership is up to around 60 people, says Barlow-Flourney, who is currently in the process of moving from Spartanburg, S.C., to be with his congregation in Charlotte.
Barlow-Flourney says he’s been pleased with his church’s reception in the city. He hopes a new welcoming and affirming church opens more doors.
“I believe there is enough room at the table for everyone to reach,” he says, noting that a variety of local churches can reach out to different people desiring unique connections.
“Each congregation or church brings something different,” he says. “We have a lot of males in our church; in some inclusive churches, there might be more females. We attract a younger population of people as well.”
For Barlow-Flourney, his church, more Pentecostal in style though non-denominational, represents an opportunity for black LGBT people to have expanded opportunities. He says he wants people to have the opportunity to worship freely and to connect to people who are like them. For a community that often has deep ties to faith, having such a welcoming environment is important.
“One of the things we’ve done in the African-American community is that we have been hidden for so long,” he says. “Religion has been a huge factor for us and family is a huge factor for us, but you really have not seen a strong LGBT person of faith stand up.”
Making African-American faith experiences more welcoming starts at the grassroots level, he says: “It starts off with us. We help to do that. It’s all done one voice at a time.”
Barlow-Flourney knows the church has often been an integral part of the African-American experience, a common comfort for those seeking inspiration.
“It goes back into slavery times,” he says. “Those were the moments, those were the hymns, those were the things that brought them through, having a religious institution they could worship in.”
For many, comfort comes in familiar routine.
“There are some people who are churched and it is a routine in life,” he says. “They are accustomed to it, just like brushing their teeth in the morning. But, it is something accustomed to the African-American community because it gives them a sign of freedom.”
The black church has, at times, also been a catalyst for change. Barlow-Flourney says he’s been pleasantly surprised how some black churches have begun to stand up for equality.
“I was shocked to see some African-American Missionary Baptist churches stand up and say [North Carolina’s anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment] was not right. To see that was awesome,” he says.
But, as in all faith communities, there’s more work to be done.
“It’s still a challenge,” he says. “It’s going to take one step at a time. Things won’t change overnight.”
Barlow-Flourney also hopes to see inclusive change in other ways. He calls Sundays the most segregated day of the week across the nation. At his own church, he wants to reach out and welcome as many people as he can and says he wants straight people and Caucasian and Latino people to feel comfortable at his church.
“I’ve challenged our outreach team all the time,” he says. “Who do we reach? Do we just reach to gay people? Reach them all. It’s a kingdom mindset.”
In his prior work for a church in South Carolina, Barlow-Flourney says he saw first-hand how intentional outreach can have amazing effects.
“The church I used to work for, their pastor was white but it was largely attended by African-American people,” he says. “He found the right people in the right spots to do the right outreach.”
That outreach, he says, extends to other congregations, too. “We’re too small to be divided,” he believes. “We need help and collaborations and partnerships with other congregations to do work for the masses.”
When Barlow-Flourney isn’t thinking about outreach or partnerships, though, he’s deeply committed to to pasturing his flock. His style, he says, is one of practicality.
“We can be so much into our books that sometimes we don’t use life practices in church environments or church experiences,” he says. “We have to be able to apply the Bible and have it to real life situations.”
He’s a fan of demonstrations and interactive worship experiences. The last Sunday of 2012, he encouraged his congregants to write down their burdens on pieces of paper and to toss them in a small casket sitting in the church. Later, they buried it.
“It was so powerful,” he says. “People were dealing with hurt and depression.”
The next Sunday, Barlow-Flourney pulled out medical equipment and mocked checking his blood pressure and heart beat. The church is like a hospital, he said, for those who need healing.
“I can’t use so many ‘thees’ and ‘thou arts,’” he says. “People just want to know what it is, how can the word apply to my life and how can I better from it. I train up our people to do just that.” : :
Learn more about ReBirth Church at rebirthchurch.com. The church worships each Sunday, 3 p.m., at MCC Charlotte, 1825 Eastway Dr. You can contact them at 855-216-8800.
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