Am I Really Welcome Here?

Circle of Faith Urges Inclusion

“But am I really welcome here?” may be the question often in minds when visiting a new faith community. LGBT persons who grew up practicing religious observance often discover a wide range of attitudes that may range from unconditionally welcoming to downright condemning.

“I once thought that I couldn’t be ‘out’ as both a lesbian and a Christian,” says one Pittsburgh woman. “I just assumed I would not be welcomed in a church. Now, ten years later, I am gay person with both a spiritual life and church family.”

Now, many greater Pittsburgh area faith organizations are connecting to create “a public witness to welcome and inclusion” for LGBT individuals, families and allies during Pride Month.

Circle of Faith, an event happening on Sunday, June 9, is designed to raise awareness of a heart breaking reality for many LGBT individuals seeking welcoming faith communities. The gathering at 2 PM invites all members of the greater community to come together and walk around the reservoir at Highland Park on Pittsburgh’s East End. The spirit of welcoming and the “family circle” that faith communities can offer will be represented by a diverse circle of members from many kinds of congregations, temples and groups.

The one-hour event is not so much a “demonstration” as an affirmation, says Jeff Miller, Circle of Faith steering committee leader. “We extend an invitation to the greater community. We hope more people will come to understand the importance of inclusion in all worship and spiritual experiences. The representatives working on Circle believe all people should have the opportunity to express their faith, feel safe, and be welcomed.”

“We hope for a very large circle,” says Miller, “to best represent the welcoming spirit we know already exists in so many of our region’s congregations and faith-based groups.”

Involvement in a faith community can be more than challenging for those who identify as LBGT. Moreover, simply identifying as a gay person can be alienating for such in a formal worship environment.

The significance of being welcome has a profound impact on not only an individual’s spiritual journey but also their identity. A transgender woman, who had served as clergy in a large, non denominational church, speaks of the profound effect of being welcome at another growing urban denominational congregation. ”Coming out after 50 years of denial and coming into a faith community of like-minded believers has revolutionized my understanding of God’s love, not only for me, but for all of humanity,” she said.

The symbolism of gathering around water is not lost on the planners, as the freedom and cleansing metaphors of water are a through-line connecting so many religions. Circle of Faith is one event during Pride month, but for those taking part it represents a critical statement by faith-based and LGBT organizations striving to support members of the community in their faith journey.

One gay man shares, “I now don’t feel accepted or welcome in the church where I grew up.”

Another questioning individual says, “I still feel my faith in my heart, but I feel uncomfortable attending mass when the Catholic church has been so vocal about the ‘wrongness’ of homosexuality.”

This serious reality can have threatening ramifications on those who experience alienation by their faith communities and even their families upon coming out. A 2011 Public Research and Religion Institute survey reported that “more than 6-in-10 Americans believe that negative messages from America’s places of worship contribute either a lot (23%) or a little (40%) to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.”

Among those surveyed, 73% of nonChristian affiliated, 64% of Catholics, 60% of black Protestants, 59% of white mainline Protestants, and 51% of white evangelical Protestants agreed that the very places people worship play a role in LGBT teens questioning the value of their own lives.

However, inclusion of LBGT persons could improve over time as exclusion could indeed be a generational stance. The same PRRRI survey reported that nearly seven-in-10 (69%) of millennials (generally those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.

As of press time, individuals from the following welcoming congregations and organizations are planning and participating in Circle of Faith: East Liberty Presbyterian, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Allegheny Unitarian Universalist, Calvary United Methodist, Community House Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Judah Fellowship Christian Church, Mifflin Avenue United Methodist, Bet Tikvah (at Rodef Shalom), Calvary Episcopal, First United Methodist, and Sixth Presbyterian Church.

Other partner organizations include Mayor Ravenstahl’s LGBT Advisory Council, Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, Dignity, Integrity, Garden of Peace, Persad Center, and the chaplaincy of Pittsburgh Veterans Administration Healthcare System.

The Circle of Faith will take place on Sunday, June 9 at 2 PM at the Highland Park Reservoir. For more details, contact circleoffaithpgh@gmail.com, one of participating organizations, or visit the Circle of Faith Pittsburgh page on Facebook.

Yvonne Hudson is a writer and publicist, and has been a United Methodist for several decades. She is an active lay leader and choir member at Calvary United Methodist Church and a member of the Western Pennsylvania Reconciling Ministries clergy-laity group. As administrator of the Circle of Faith Pittsburgh Facebook page, she can be reached there with questions or information requests.