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Churches increase efforts to attract GLBT worshipers

The following article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Pittsburgh’s Out and is republished here for the first time in its entirety as originally published. Some language is dated. Help us preserve Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history, like this article, by contributing to our GoFundMe.

First in an occasional series on local gay-friendly houses of worship.

      Invite the average gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person to attend a Christian church with you and you’re likely to get a bristly response ranging from “God and I parted ways a long time ago” to “I have enough guilt in my life” to a melancholy “Why would I want to be where I am not welcome?”

      Such attitudes are not unlike the responses from Pittsburgh’s GLBT community to questions on religion and spirituality posed by researchers with “Voices for a New Tomorrow,” a needs-assessment survey of the GLBT community in Allegheny County.

      In that 2003 study, researchers surveyed area GLBT residents on nine areas of community life, including spirituality and religion, and they interviewed ad hoc GLBT focus groups to obtain qualitative data to supplement their survey results. For the evaluation, Persad Center partnered with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, The Seven Project and the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. (The full study

study is available on Persad’s Web site at www.persadcenter.org/training. htm.)

      From their research and several earlier supporting studies by other sources, the Voices researchers confirm what GLBT people already know: As a result of hurtful religious experiences, GLBT people often leave the churches they were raised in and don’t return.

      In addition, the Voices survey concludes that, “The stigma of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in many faith communities remains a significant barrier to many who wish to have a religious or spiritual life.”

      The study substantiates that stigma with attendance metrics from its pool of local GLBT respondents: 80 percent of the respondents attend religious services less than once a month; of those, 18 percent attend several times a year, 27 percent attend once or twice a year and 35 percent never attend. Only 20 percent of those surveyed attend religious services two or more times a month.

      In spite of the study, or perhaps because of it, Pittsburgh’s Christian churches are making great strides in their efforts to embrace GLBT populations. Twenty-five years ago, fewer than five “GLBT-friendly” Christian churches existed, and the mainstays back then were Dignity, Integrity, the Metropolitan Community Church of Pittsburgh and the Unitarian Universalist Church, all of which formed in Pittsburgh before 1980 (but much earlier nationally). Pittsburgh’s Bet Tikvah, which practices the Jewish faith, began in 1988.

      In comparison, today there are currently over 20 Christian churches in Pittsburgh that declare in some way that they welcome and affirm GLBT people.

      There are several groups working to reconcile their mainline denominational churches with GLBT populations, including More Light Presbyterians (USA), Lutherans Concerned, the Reconciling Ministries Network of United Methodist Church and the (Episcopal) Church of the Redeemer. The recently launched “God is Still Speaking” campaign of the United Church of Christ is a bold statement for the UCC’s policy of inclusion—and it pokes some fun at the exclusionary nature of non-inclusive churches. (View the ads at www.stillspeaking.com/resources /indexvis.html.)

      In terms of “alternative” spirituality groups, there are at least five in Pittsburgh providing Buddhist, Wiccan or interfaith worship opportunities to the GLBT community. The Voices for a New Tomorrow Web site at www.rainbowsendpress.com/voices/ offers an impressive listing of local and national religious groups, Christian and non-Christian.

      These churches and groups contribute an enormous effort to reach that 80 percent of the Pittsburgh GLBT population that shies away from regular church attendance. While it might not yet be a perfect effort, it works to relay to the GLBT community the message that “God wants you back.”

Metropolitan Community Church

      The United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches has been a frontrunner in the national gay movement for well over 35 years, and MCC-Pittsburgh has been an advocate for Pittsburgh’s GLBT community for over 30 years.

      According to its Web site (www.mccchurch.org), the UFMCC was founded by the Rev. Troy Perry. “In the early 1960s,” its history recounts, “Rev. Perry was defrocked as a clergyperson by a Pentecostal denomination because of his homosexuality.” After Perry experienced “a failed relationship, an attempted suicide, a reconnection with God, an unexpected prophecy and the birth of a dream,” he held the first MCC service in 1968 in his living room with a congregation of 12.

      At the old stone house on 4836 Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside, worshippers are welcomed to MCC-Pittsburgh and seated in the lower hall. Its splendid wood floors creak a little but give the room a rustic-churchy elegance. In the front of the room, a bold lavender MCC banner or an artistic tapestry of dancers worshipping around a cross adorn the wall behind the altar.

      On the altar, Holy Communion is in wait—it’s offered weekly without fail with the confident announcement that “all are welcome at God’s table.” A cross, some candles and perhaps a floral arrangement complete the table of honor.

      Congregants are young and old. Some talk and laugh, some pray. Gay and lesbian partners hold hands or have their arms around each other’s shoulders; some have been joined in Holy Union here. Male and female attendees are about equal in proportion. They are black, white, gay, straight, transgender, families and children, some dressed to the hilt and some in jeans and tennis shoes.

      The pianist plays sometimes traditional Christian hymns, sometimes classical pieces. At 7pm the interlude fades and the Rev. Roberta J. Dunn, pastor of MCC-Pittsburgh since 1986, enters. She dons a robe of white, a band of gold (signifying a sacred union with her partner, Marilyn), and a white stole emblazoned with the words “Free to Be” in luminescent rainbow colors. Dunn is a minister in a church fellowship that has 43,000 members and adherents in almost 300 congregations spanning 22 countries.

      “Welcome,” she says in a gutsy, cheerful tone as she surveys the congregation from the pulpit. The congregation welcomes her in return. A reverent “Let us pray” signals the official beginning of the service, and every head is bowed.

      In one sermon, titled “Celebrate Love,” Dunn tells worshippers that MCC “last year around the world united over 4,000 couples in Holy Union. A Holy Union, a wedding, a marriage is a sacred union for people who are committed to each other.”

      It’s a topic Dunn has been vocal about for years, and she finds support for GLBT civil rights issues like marriage equality rights in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “No one is free when others are oppressed,” she says in her “Celebrate Love” sermon. Like King, Dunn has the courage to state from the pulpit what most other mainline denominational ministers cannot and will not. There’s not an ounce of condemnation. Dunn serves not only her flock, but the GLBT community at large.

      The same kind of openness, advocacy, and diversity is found in MCC branches across the country. While many of the liturgical elements of the service are the same, some MCCs take on different flavors depending on their roots; some have a Pentecostal tendency, others are more Episcopalian and so on. Most all, including MCC-Pittsburgh, offer small group ministries and outreach. Among its activities, MCC-Pittsburgh houses a food bank and offers classes like “Homosexuality and the Bible.”

      But there are two givens at every MCC. One is the sacrament of Holy Communion, which is delivered to each congregant individually or as couples and families, and is followed by a prayer and blessing. The other is a time of social gathering following the service. At MCC-Pittsburgh, there’s a third given: a joyful exclamation at some point during the service that “You’re in the right place!”

For more information about the Metropolitan Community Church of Pittsburgh, call (412) 683-2994, send e-mail to mccpghrev@aol.com or visit www.mccpittsburgh.com.