In the late 1970s, there were few places LGBT Christians in Charlotte could turn for spiritual growth, support and family. A few faith congregations in the area were welcoming of gay members, but that support was rarely publicized and limited. A chapter of the LGBT Catholic group DignityUSA also existed, but a void remained when it came to a fully-inclusive and supportive faith community.
That all changed in 1980, when a small group of LGBT Charlotteans set out to start the area’s first Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). After establishing a study group and working to build its local organization, the group received its church status from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC).
In the 30 years since, the Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte has grown and met unique challenges — both internal and external — while serving the LGBT community in the spirit of Christian love and inclusion.
In February, MCC-Charlotte will mark their 30th anniversary with 30 days of celebration. Their anniversary observances start on Jan. 29 with a community celebration and joint choir concert with members from One Voice and the Gay Men’s choruses and the choirs of MCC, Unity Fellowship and Caldwell Presbyterian.
MCC-Charlotte pastor Rev. Catherine Houchins says she is happy to see the local LGBT community and other faith communities join her congregation in marking their anniversary. Troy Perry, founder of the first MCC and former moderator of the UFMCC, will also join the church for a special worship service the last Sunday in February.
The road from small study group to a hundreds-strong congregation has been both rewarding and bumpy. MCC-Charlotte Board of Directors member Isy Ross, who joined the church in 2000 and has served on the board off-and-on since then, says one of the church’s greatest obstacles has been building a strong, internal sense of community.
“One of the biggest challenges has been the direct dealing with people, calling people out on behavioral issues,” she says. “It is not just an MCC of Charlotte thing or just MCCs in general. All churches go through this stuff — how do we deal with each other, encourage each other and work with each other in mature fashions to confront issues as they come around? How do you confront them and address them?”
These sorts of community-building issues are as old as Christianity itself, Ross points out. Christians of all stripes have been asking themselves the same questions since the first century. St. Paul, the prolific writer whose works compile much of the New Testament, spent enormous amounts of time teaching early Christians how to live in community with each other and the world around them.
Because of the unique role MCCs play in Christian faith — serving LGBTs who have often been rejected by other Christians — Ross thinks the journey toward sustained community and fellowship is often harder and more complex within MCC congregations.
“Our community, in and of itself, is a hurting community,” she says. “A lot of people come from religious backgrounds where they have been bashed and rejected and cast out. They come to us hurting and have issues around that.”
But Ross says she’s seen her congregation grow in exciting and rewarding ways. She cites the leadership of current pastor Houchins as an integral part of the movement toward a more stable church community.
The stability the church experiences now wasn’t always the norm. In its early days, not long after its founding, MCC-Charlotte faced its first internal challenge. In 1983, some MCC-Charlotte members left the congregation to start New Life MCC, which now finds its home with the LGBT-inclusive Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on The Plaza.
As the church grew, internal challenges gave way to external challenges — some revealed accomplishment, while others brought rejection.
In the early 1990s, MCC-Charlotte, along with other MCC congregations in North Carolina, gained both acceptance and recognition by many mainline and traditional Christian communities. The North Carolina Council of Churches was just the second state council to accept MCC churches into membership.
Despite membership in the statewide fellowship, the congregation still found itself facing hostility from anti-gay faith-based prejudice.
In 2003, MCC-Charlotte experience just such a challenge from another local faith group. When church congregants attempted to volunteer their time to prepare and serve meals to the homeless at the Charlotte Rescue Mission they were rejected.
Rev. Tony Marciano, the Rescue Mission’s executive director, never spoke to qnotes, but he told other local press, “We cannot endorse a church that openly teaches that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle.”
Even after a personal conversation with Marciano, Rev. Mick Hinson, MCC-Charlotte pastor at the time, said the Rescue Mission hadn’t changed its mind.
“I told him that we weren’t looking for them to support our church,” Hinson told qnotes in an Oct. 25, 2003 article. “Just the opposite, I explained that we wanted to support them and their mission of feeding the hungry. ‘Well, we can’t support your church,’ he kept saying. He never could get past that.”
Such anti-gay run-ins with other local faith institutions are becoming rarer these days, as the number of welcoming and LGBT-friendly faith institutions are rising. MCC-Charlotte is growing, too. So much, in fact, Houchins says they need more physical room to do the growing and MCC-Charlotte is selling their first church building on Eastway Dr.
“There are a lot of people who had emotional attachment to this building, but we’ve come to realize it doesn’t meet all of our needs,” she says. “If we are going to continue to grow, we need a larger sanctuary.”
The church bought the property in 2000, and was one of few MCC congregations in their region to own their own worship facilities. After a decade, the church’s physical needs have outgrown what their current space offers.
Houchins says folks are excited about the impending move. They’ve got several organizations interested in buying the building and the congregation has looked at potential sites for their future location.
Ross says the church’s mission will always stay the same, no matter where they meet. She says their current space is “just a building” and thinks a new location more suited to their needs will allow them to continue to reach out to folks who’ve yet to find a church home. She hopes the next decade’s progress will be as exciting as the last.
“Only God knows how much we can grow, but I’m excited about our next decade and the decade after that,” Ross says. : :
This article was published in the Jan. 23 – Feb. 5 print edition.