The call to serve

LGBTQ religious leaders’ challenges, rewards

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Most LGBTQ citizens know what it is to feel alienated and to lose faith. Religion hasn’t always been a friend to people whose sexualities or identities don’t follow the traditional norm. Fortunately, past decades have seen an ever-increasing number of faith leaders and even new faith traditions born on the principles of equality and universal love. The Carolinas alone host a number of LGBTQ-led congregations, and many more are inclusive and welcoming.

The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) was one of the first churches founded by an LGBTQ minister, first holding services in founder Troy Perry’s living room in the fall of 1968. There are now well over 200 MCC congregations in 37 countries, serving LGBTQ people as well as allies. New Life MCC is one of two congregations in the Charlotte area alone. MCC Charlotte is home to Rev. Wanda Floyd, who describes a distinction within her congregation between spiritual faith and religious dogma.

“Even though many churches still discriminate against our [LGBTQ] community, some have taken on the label of ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘religious,’” Rev. Floyd explained. “The word ‘religious’ ties too closely to the Christian community in which many Evangelicals have condemned us.”

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This condemnation is well-known to many in the LGBTQ community, and creates unique challenges to LGBTQ people who want to practice a faith tradition.

“We get burned. We get hurt. We get told we’re abominations. Rebuilding trust is sometimes a big part of our ministry,” said Rev. Joan Saniuk of Sacred Journey MCC in Hendersonville. “What’s rewarding is helping people get to a place where they’re comfortable again. One of the gifts of spirituality for people who are queer is that we ultimately learn that we have to trust our own experience.”

Self-acceptance and self-love are key to LGBTQ folks participating in a faith tradition. Rev. Sonja Lee of Unity Fellowship intones, “God is love and love is for everyone.” Or, as Rev. Floyd advises her flock, “God loves them unconditionally and God did not create them to condemn them.”

Belief can provide particular rewards, but it also presents challenges. Primarily LGBTQ congregations are sometimes victim to discrimination or outright violence. The conflicts have escalated in the current political climate, particularly in the weeks since the election.

“MCC’s first response to it was to address the nastiness that was part of the campaign,” said Rev. Saniuk. “It seems to have given permission to people to act out against immigrants, to hassle gay folks, to be rude towards women, and to be hateful towards Muslims. MCC’s position is that that’s not acceptable and that we stand in solidarity with everyone that’s been harassed.”

This harassment is an unfortunate reality for many marginalized populations, and LGBTQ churches are no exception.

“Three of our churches so far have experienced some sort of violence or graffiti,” reported Rev. David Smith of St. John’s MCC in Raleigh. “The church in St. Petersburg, yesterday the church in Tampa had a protestor outside screaming some pretty hateful things at the congregation as they came to church. The church in Baltimore had some human excrement smeared on the doors.”

It isn’t the election alone causing tension, of course. Other marginalized communities have been impacted by recent events, including the series of police shootings whose victims have disproportionately been people of color.

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“Tensions between the community and the police have been exacerbated in recent months,” Rev. Lee said. “Our young people in particular have become afraid of the police.”

Despite prejudice and conflict, pastors leading LGBTQ flocks do not lose faith. Although the political climate of late has been less than welcoming—with the discriminatory rhetoric of HB2 and the recent election of conversion-therapy-proponent Mike Pence—faith leaders see the current moment as a key time for action.

“My sermons reflect the news around us and challenge the congregation to do something,” Rev. Floyd said.

Rev. Lee, also a member of Southern Coalition for Social Justice, agrees that activism is an important part of faith leadership.

“We stand on a platform of social justice,” Rev. Lee said. “The journey as far as Christ is concerned is a radical one that is also very inclusive… We advocate across the board for social justice, not just with LGBTQ but with people who are marginalized in our community.”

For these faith leaders, the pulpit represents a chance to nurture the good of spirit and provide comfort to the abused. LGBTQ people have always participated in religious community, but now they are able to do so while being out and proud. Rev. Smith believes: “There’s so much more power available when we can do it authentically as who we are.”

“We need to focus on the fact that the peace we seek is available if we accept who we are and share that peace with others,” said Rev. Wendy Woodruff of MCC Winston-Salem. “No matter what religious faith we have, the love, hope, joy and peace of this season must be carried throughout the year.”

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