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Memphis Flyer Gay, Christian, and Proud of It

By Jacqueline Marino

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  In a meeting room of the First Congregational Church, Rev. Scott Howell’s seating arrangement isn’t working. By 6:30 p.m. almost every folding chair is occupied and people are still squeezing into the straining semicircle. Even after Howell starts speaking, participants continue to file through the door, some sheepishly, some with nods and smiles, some carrying Bibles.

Out of the 24 people in this room, only five are women. All are white. Their ages range from twentysomething to fiftysomething. They identify themselves as Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, and, simply, Christians. Sexual orientation isn’t discussed. It’s just assumed that everyone is gay.

A single candle burns on a small table in the center of the room. Howell, a handsome young minister who, even in his clerical collar, still carries the approachable air of a college fraternity president, paces between it and a large, white notepad, uncapped marker in hand.

After a brief introduction, he asks the group, “What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘Bible?’”

At first, no one answers. Finally one person volunteers the word “family.” Howell jots it down.

“The law,” says another.

“Institution.” Then “Jesus.” Then “history.” Then “fear.”

Howell writes them all down and flips to a fresh sheet of paper.

“What thoughts, images, and phrases come to mind when you hear the word ‘homosexuality’ in the Bible?” he asks.

“Conflict,” someone says.

“Wrong,” says another.

“Incompatible.”

“How do you answer the question, ‘What does the Bible say about being gay, lesbian or bisexual?’”

There’s no hesitation here. The words are fired faster than Howell can write them down – words like “abomination” and “against nature.”

Once the verbal avalanche lets up, Howell steps away from the notepad. He tells them he hopes his class will make them want to change some of the words on these lists or at least add some new ones.

When Howell talks about homosexuality in a religious context, he uses words like “blessing” and “gift.” He thinks the coming-out process parallels the process of religious conversion. He feels certain that you can be both Christian and gay.

“There is this sense that those two things don’t work together – that gays tolerate the church and the church tolerates gays,” he says. “But there’s this incredible link between the gay and lesbian experience and the Christian experience. They really do go together.”

By the end of the third session of his free class, titled “Being Gay, Being Christian. Both at the Same Time,” Howell hopes to show the participants that they can reconcile their sexual orientation with their faith.

It’s a tall order for such a short class, especially since many of the participants have spent their entire lifetime feeling as if the term “gay Christian” was an oxymoron.

That message has often been reinforced by their families, their culture, and their clergy. Most Christian churches still consider them second-class citizens. They cannot be ordained. They cannot be married. Some are accustomed to being excluded, ignored, and subjected to homophobic sermons. Yet active gay and lesbian Christians in many denominations have successfully pushed the issue of inclusion into the consciences of church leaders and up to their pulpits.

This gay and lesbian activism has opened new doors for homosexual Christians in Memphis. Staying closeted used to be the only way gays and lesbians could remain practicing Christians. Now they can work for greater inclusion within their churches in recognized gay-advocacy groups. They can attend a number of gay-friendly churches that do accept them as full-fledged members. Or, if they want to remain members of churches that insist homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christianity, they can try to change their sexual orientation by checking into one of several controversial gay-conversion programs supported by area churches.

What’s the right thing for a good Christian of the homosexual persuasion to do? That constitutes a highly charged ideological, and biblical debate. The following, however, is true – gay Christians in Memphis are coming out of the closet, even if, in the case of gays who opt for conversion therapy, it’s because they just want to become straight.


Those Who Stay

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘How can you be gay and be Christian?’ Howell says. “It happens. I’m gay and I’m Christian. I could be a celibate person and I’d still be gay. Nothing is going to change the ‘being’ part.”

While Howell was attending the Memphis Theological Seminary, he disclosed his sexual orientation during a routine psychological evaluation. The evaluator suggested that he tell his ordination committee. But when he tried, one committee member asked him point-blank why his sexual orientation should be an issue. That’s when he decided the committee had adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy and let the issue rest.

A few months before he was supposed to graduate, however, his advisor made a special trip to Memphis specifically to ask Howell if he was gay. Howell answered truthfully. Then his advisor told him he couldn’t support an openly gay candidate and would vote against his ordination.

Luckily for Howell, not all the committee members were so fundamentally opposed to gay clergy. But because they had never formally addressed the issue, they delayed Howell’s ordination interview for several months while they debated whether a person’s sexual orientation should bar him or her from the ministry.

They finally agreed to give Howell the interview in August 1997. With 10 yes votes and only two nos – one of which was from his advisor – Howell became the first openly gay person to be ordained in the Missouri conference of the United Church of Christ, which includes Memphis, North Arkansas, and Missouri.

UCC, which has strong roots in social reform and independence in biblical interpretation, has been among the most progressive Christian churches on the issue of inclusion. Some Methodist churches have adopted a “reconciling” movement that accepts gays and lesbians without trying to make them straight. Similar movements are afoot in various churches of other mainline Protestant denominations. But in general, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and American Baptists are all discussing the issue of homosexuality more openly. Groups such as Integrity in the Episcopal Church and Dignity in the Catholic Church advocate on the behalf of gays and lesbians within those churches.

Such movements rarely have an easy time getting started. The local chapter of Integrity, which meets at Calvary Episcopal Church, was founded in 1991. By 1993, it had 54 members, which made it the second-largest chapter in the country. Still, convener Jim Ramsey says the chapter has never been supported by the local diocese.

“The attitude of the bishop in 1991 was cold,” says Ramsey. “Now it’s cool.”

Gay and lesbian movements within churches remind the old guard of the homosexual-inclusion debate, which has been difficult for most churches to engage. To civil libertarians, the current exclusion of gay Christians from full-fledged church membership bears a stunning resemblance to the oppression of blacks prior to the civil-rights movement. But those against inclusion hold fast to scriptures that they believe clearly condemn homosexual behavior, including Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:18-32, Genesis 19:1-11, and Leviticus 18:22, which says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

With the possible exception of the abortion debate, homosexuality has become the most divisive issue for Christian churches since slavery. One populous group in the Methodist Church, for instance, has threatened to split if its leaders move toward greater inclusion of homosexuals.

A number of Christian churches actively preach against homosexuality. At least one local church, Central Church in Hickory Hills, directs gays and lesbians to organizations that offer gay-conversion therapy, such as Memphis-based Love in Action. In fact, some observers, such as New York Times columnist Frank Rich, have blamed the Religious Right for using its flaming anti-gay agenda to promote fear of homosexuals – fear that leads to intolerance that leads to hate crimes, such as the recent beating death of a gay college student in Wyoming.

Locally, many churches are still ignoring the issue. Len Piechowski, founder of the Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Religious Affairs, says only 25 of 400 invited clergy attended a symposium he held last year to help bridge the gap between the religious community and gays and lesbians. Only a few local pastors have responded to his requests to meet with him.

Piechowski isn’t surprised by local pastors’ reluctance to discuss homosexuality with a gay-rights advocate.

“We [gays] are ostracized by Christian churches,” says Piechowski, a former Roman Catholic priest. “There’s still a lot of hostility between gays and the church. We’re trying to establish a dialogue.”

He says most Christian churches are not open to accepting gays because they have “tragically” misinterpreted the Bible’s scriptures. Howell agrees that the “texts of terror” in Leviticus, Genesis, and Romans I beg for reinterpretation. In the Leviticus scripture, for instance, Howell tells his class that the “abomination” related to a religious purity issue, not a moral issue.

At the time, Jews were trying to distinguish themselves from non-Jews, or Gentiles, he says. So they adopted “holiness codes,” which included a number of rules good Jews were expected to follow. Jews were told not to cut their hair, not to wear clothing made of mixed fibers, and also not to “lie with a male as with a woman.”

Howell says Jews were also concerned about increasing their numbers. “At the time, they thought small humans were in sperm and if you weren’t putting it into a womb, you were destroying life,” he explains. “In a community that was trying to grow, it was a waste.…It was a religious issue, not a moral or ethical issue.”

Throughout the duration of the class, participants’ reactions to Howell’s interpretations vary. With a few exceptions, most questions directed at him are of an intellectual or academic nature. One man wants to know how Howell’s “spin” is any more truthful than the damning perspective of other biblical interpreters. Another says Howell’s interpretations weren’t convincing enough for him. What Howell calls the “blessing of sexuality” feels to him like a curse.

He says he doesn’t feel worthy of God’s love.

“Can you help me feel that way?” he asks with more than a tinge of despair. “Do you feel worthy?”

“Yeah,” Howell says, without hesitation. “I do.”


Those Who Go

The Holy Trinity Community Church is housed in a former bread factory on Madison Avenue, near the Piggly Wiggly grocery store and several gay bars. On Sunday morning, smiling greeters move through the hallway, welcoming church-goers on their way from the private-security patrolled entrance to the worship area.

Inside, instead of churchy organ music, a steady hum of voices fills the large room. There are many hugs and kisses hello. Many handshakes. Many smiles. There are no guilt-streaked faces here. No reverent silences. No fire and brimstone. It is as much a community as it is a church – a church unlike any other in Memphis.

As an “affirming Christian community,” everyone is welcome at Holy Trinity. Everyone includes lesbian couples who sit on folding chairs with their arms draped across each others’ shoulders. It includes their young children. It includes a male cross-dresser wearing a fluffy, brown wig, stockings, and pumps. It includes pairs of gay men holding hands. It includes heterosexuals.

“People who come here usually come out of crisis,” says Rev. Timothy Meadows. “This is the emergency-room church. People are about ready to give up on Christianity in general. They come here very scared.”

Meadows, a former Methodist minister, presides over this racially diverse congregation of 300 proudly with the thoughtful, patient devotion of a man on a lifelong mission to break down the prejudice that almost destroyed his own faith in Christianity.

He isn’t one of Holy Trinity’s 13 founders, who started the church 10 years ago as an alternative meeting place to the bars. But he knows their story, even though parishioners don’t often want to be reminded of it.

“It was about the same time the AIDS wave hit,” Meadows recalls. “There was this spiritual vacuum and people didn’t know where to take it. They knew they couldn’t take it to their Baptist churches.”

For years, the group met in other local churches and its membership grew steadily. Five years ago it moved to the Madison Avenue location. A year later, Holy Trinity placed an advertisement for a pastor in an Atlanta weekly newspaper and found Meadows, who had left the ministry and was working in public health at the time.

“The church was undergoing a real identity crisis when I showed up. It was no longer a small, little group that started in response to the AIDS crisis. It moved from being an alternative to the bars to an alternative to churches who shut people out for whatever reason. That was when they realized they were finally a church rather than a bunch of queers playing church.”

Meadows knows about churches who shut people out. While he was growing up, his family attended a fundamentalist Mennonite church. Because of his religious beliefs, he denied his homosexuality. As an adult, he turned to the more accepting Methodist Church but still refused to acknowledge his true sexual orientation. He became a minister, got married, and fathered two children.

At one point, Meadows confided in a friend who ultimately betrayed him. Rumors about his sexual orientation spread throughout his “rednecky” Georgia church. His bishop launched an investigation and Meadows was summoned before an investigative committee where he had to answer deeply personal questions about his sexuality.

On Palm Sunday 1992, a ranking minister of the local Methodist church showed up and told Meadows that he was there to take him out of the pulpit. Meadows says he preached a tremendous sermon first and came out to his congregation. Afterward, when he heard the church was going to press the issue further, he resigned.

Meadows has since found peace inside Holy Trinity. All the animosity comes from the outside now. Occasionally, the church gets threatening telephone calls, letters, and bomb threats. Two of Holy Trinity’s windows have been shot out.

“Do you know what happened in Oklahoma City?” said one caller after the 1997 gay pride parade here. Then he told Meadows a bomb would go off inside the church that Sunday. Meadows was thankful it turned out to be just another idle threat.

Needless to say, it’s not easy being a “gay church” in the Bible Belt, especially in Memphis – a well-known stronghold of the Religious Right and home to numerous crusaders against the “homosexual agenda,” both in the church and in the political arena. Meadows says he has counseled several gay clergy in town who are scared to make their sexual orientation public.

“The number of closeted gay ministers and choir members is incredible,” Meadows says. “I’ve had meetings with clergy in the area who are living double lives, who are afraid of being kicked out of the church.…They have tremendous hypocrisy. I’ve known of [gay] preachers who will preach against it [homosexuality]. I’ve known of a bishop.”

Besides Holy Trinity, there are other churches with primarily gay memberships in Memphis, but they aren’t nearly as large or as visible.

Among them is the mostly gay 32-member Safe Harbor Metropolitan Community Church, one of 300 congregations in 18 countries. It’s only been in Memphis for three years, but deacon Craig Samples says his congregation is growing quickly, with its membership doubling in the last year.

Another, Living Word Christian Church, has a nondenominational, charismatic identity, complete with hand-clapping and spirited singing. Unlike Holy Trinity and Safe Harbor, which emphasize social justice causes and community activism, pastor Kyle Dearen explains that Living Word, which has about 40 members, is about “God first, everything else next.”

Members of gay-identified churches do not all claim to be previous victims of discrimination and exclusion. Some just feel drawn to worship God with people who are like them. The same could be said for suburbanites who want to attend the wealthy church in their neighborhood or college students who prefer youth-oriented churches near their campus.

“I was always told that no matter what, God loved me,” says Dearen, who was raised Baptist and attended a Catholic school before switching to an Assembly of God church in college. “I never had a problem with that [being gay]. I was very blessed I didn’t have to deal with it. Instead of pushing me away, it drew me in.”


Those Who Change

A flowing waterfall is projected onto a large screen at the Adam’s Mark Hotel ballroom. In front of it, a burly, excessively masculine man who identifies himself only as Ron stands at the podium, weeping.

By now, most of the 240 people in the room have finished their chocolate mousse, put down their spoons, and given Ron their undivided attention. He is playing himself in a confessional production of Love In Action: The Real Story at Love In Action’s 25th anniversary celebration. He is one of several people who will tell the audience exactly what they want to hear tonight: “I used to be a homosexual.”

Ron says he grew up in a sexually abusive environment. At some point, he decided he was gay. He had sex with men for 13 years. He became a drug addict and an alcoholic.

One day a co-worker who suspected Ron’s homosexuality was the true source of his misery told him, “Ron, go back to where the joy is.” Ron sought reparative therapy, a so-called homosexual-recovery program offered by Love in Action that mimics the popular 12-step model used by many alcohol- and drug-recovery programs.

Ron says it transformed his life. Just like the man on the Madison Avenue billboard, Ron claims he too found “freedom in Jesus Christ.”

The man on the billboard is Love In Action executive director John Smid. For him, homosexuality and Christianity were not compatible because he thinks homosexual behavior is sinful. Smid says God makes that clear in several places in the Bible. But, he says, members of the “gay Christian movement” twist the meanings. That way they can satisfy their own religious guilt without having to address the wretchedness of their lives.

Still, even Smid thinks it’s possible to be both gay and Christian.

“In the gay community, I see an intense hunger to know God and a lot of people have found God there,” he says. “God can be found in a dirt cloud. Why can’t he be found in a gay church?”

Smid himself turned to Christianity after a string of broken relationships with men had left him deeply dissatisfied with his life. In 1984, after living as a gay man for four years, he began to abandon the homosexual lifestyle.

He explains the difference between his faith and the faith of gay Christians in this way:

“Imagine a person’s life is a pie dish,” he says. “The pie dish is homosexuality for gay Christians. They have to mold everything to fit into the dish or they kick it out. My pie dish is Christ. Their dish has a piece in it that is Christ.”

Smid and his program have been disparaged by civil-rights groups and psychologists who insist the therapy does little to change sexual orientation and much to promote feelings of guilt and depression among participants. Love in Action and a number of other gay-conversion groups affiliated with the national umbrella organization Exodus Ministries have been labeled by gay-rights activists as cults.

Men who want to participate in Love in Action pay $950 a month to live in a house with other men who are attempting to become formerly gay. They are counseled extensively and immersed in an environment intended to break homosexual behavior patterns. Most stay about 18 months. Smid says about 50 percent of the men who complete the program refrain from homosexual behavior. Some become celibate. Others get married and live as heterosexuals.

Smid says participation in gay-conversion programs is growing. This summer conservative Christian groups ran advertisements in The New York Times and other national newspapers promoting ex-gay ministries like Love in Action. The ads followed anti-gay comments made publicly by several public figures, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), who likened homosexuals to sex addicts and kleptomaniacs.

One ad pictured a group of happy-looking men and women described as ex-gays. Another featured the personal story of a former lesbian who became a heterosexual wife and mother. The ads sparked controversy because they linked homosexuality with criminal behavior, AIDS, and drug addiction.

“Religion can be very healthy or very pathological,” says Piechowski, of the Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Religious Affairs, who invited Smid to his symposium last year. “That [gay-conversion] is the highest expression of the pathology of religion.”

Still, tears flowed and hugs abounded at Love in Action’s marathon celebration banquet. One self-proclaimed ex-gay after the other gushed with gratitude at the podium. Love in Action founder Frank Worthen barely spoke half a sentence before the crowd rose to greet him with a standing ovation.

Then there was the boy in his late teens who left the banquet to sit in the hallway with his face buried in his hands, racked with pain. Unlike Ron, the boy wasn’t crying joyful tears.

Later Smid said that type of behavior isn’t unusual for someone going through the gay-conversion program. But the result, he says, is worth it.

“It was easier for me to leave homosexuality than to change the culture,” he says. “Now I don’t have to deal with the shame or the guilt. Now I’m a content, married heterosexual living in the suburbs with a relationship with God.”


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