Pamela Jones is adamant: Faith communities from all traditions should be more welcoming of LGBT worshipers.
A transgender advocate and member of the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Charlotte board of directors, Jones is also co-founder of the city’s Interfaith Connection. She and other members of the group hope their outreach to local faith communities will help spark a growth in inclusive worship spaces.
“Our mission is to reach other churches on the cusp of becoming open and affirming and offer them resources,” Jones said.
In May, the Charlotte Interfaith Connection undertook their first project. They sent a direct mailing to most Charlotte churches and other faith institutions. Their goal, to gauge the current climate and status of open and affirming congregations citywide, wasn’t received as well as they’d hoped.
Despite the low number of responses, the Rev. Nancy Kraft — pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on The Plaza — said the survey gave the group a chance to learn more.
“It did give us a good feel for the places we need to go to next,” she said.
Kraft and Jones share a frustration in trying to connect with other open and affirming churches and getting LGBT people of faith connected with welcoming worship spaces. Kraft thinks of Charlotte as “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” The conservatism and fundamentalism of area faith communities contributes to her frustrations.
“There’s a misperception of faith communities by LGBT people,” Kraft said. “Because of the negative history, they write off all faith communities as unaccepting.”
But things have changed. At one time, the Metropolitan Community Church was the only option for LGBT Christians. “That’s not so anymore,” Kraft said. “In all denominations in Charlotte there are choices now.”
Kraft and Jones believe LGBT people need to know there are places for them. More importantly, Kraft said, LGBT people need to know the community they’re stepping into is a safe place.
It is for that reason the Charlotte Interfaith Connection set up a booth at 2009 Pride Charlotte festival.
“We had lots of people come up for conversation,” Kraft said. “We had Christians, Jews and Buddhists represented at the table and had some come to my church afterward.”
The Pride Charlotte festival also had religious visitors of another stripe this year. As many as 500 anti-gay activists gathered across the street for a prayer and worship rally. Their leader, Michael Brown, is founder of several ministries including the activist Coalition of Conscience and Concord’s FIRE Church and FIRE School of Ministry.
“Michael Brown is not representative of all organized religion,” Jones said.
Kraft thinks it is important to counter-act anti-gay religious prejudice. “If Michael Brown speaks and we don’t say anything, we’re letting his voice be the only one by default.”
In Winston-Salem, members of several congregations are working with the local chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) on a similar project.
Wade Boyles, a member of the group’s Interfaith Coalition, said several faith institutions currently send representatives to regular meetings. The local PFLAG is also active in community organizing, recently joining the largely faith-based Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment (CHANGE).
“PFLAG is the first LGBT group asked to become involved in CHANGE,” Boyles said. “We voted to join CHANGE not to put forth some type of ‘gay agenda,’ but to be able to be out there in the community, volunteering and working on issues like education and healthcare. It is about being involved in and taking an active part in our community.”
Boyles believes social and civil equality for LGBT people will come when religious communities see queer people as fellow community members. PFLAG’s work with CHANGE and their Interfaith Coalition is an integral part of that mission.
“It is important for LGBT people to work in the community and volunteer and work with people who may not necessarily always agree or understand what is like to be gay or lesbian,” he said. “You are able to build relationships, and sometimes building those relationships one step at a time is what will lead to a greater understanding of our civil rights.”
Alex Jones, a founder of the Triangle Atheist, Agnostic and Freethinker MeetUp, doesn’t think working with religious organizations is key to civil equality.
“I think it is a pretty evident answer,” he said. “All the world’s major religions are so hostile to gay and lesbian people.”
He said fighting to make worship spaces safe is “not a battle worth fighting.”
“People do a lot of good work for whatever reason, feeling they need to hold on to a faith that doesn’t want them,” Jones, also a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation chapter Triangle Freethinkers, said. “If it were up to me, I’d encourage all gay and lesbian people to abandon the religion or faith delusion in God and embrace reason and reality. That is the only way we’ll get the equality that we want so badly. By its very definition, religion is supernatural and unreasonable. You just can’t argue reason and equality with religion.”
The work to put a stop to faith-based bigotry lies not just at the local level. Several national organizations are either solely focused or have a division focused on faith and religious issues.
North Carolina-based Faith in America and founder Mitchell Gold plan speaking engagements and presentations across the nation on the effects of religion-based prejudice. The activist Soulforce, founded by former Jerry Falwell ghostwriter Mel White, confronts religion-based oppression through non-violent, civil disobedience. The Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program mobilizes its members to advocate for LGBT people in faith communities and keeps LGBT religious voices on the forefront of media discussions and legal battles.
Jones, the Charlotte Interfaith Connection co-founder, said she is excited to see so much movement among faith institutions, especially in Charlotte.
“I’ve got this group of friends I didn’t have this time last year,” she said. “They help to keep it all in perspective and I realize how far we’ve come. The Interfaith Connection is just one of the cool things I never thought I’d see in Charlotte.”
Like Boyles and PFLAG Winston-Salem, Jones believes LGBT people must build relationships if we want to see change.
“Sometimes we have to give them a chance,” she said, recalling the dialogue she and others had with anti-gay protesters at a Pride Charlotte event years ago. “We didn’t change minds, but they were really listening.”
That simple act of listening, Jones said, is the start of something special.