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Open Doors

Local churches reach out to gay Christians

By Bruce Robinson

"This is like the civil rights movement and the feminist movement," says Dorothy Brooks, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Santa Rosa. "There's a certain inevitability about it." She's talking about the declaration her congregation recently made to actively welcome "people of all sexual orientations," a stance that they call becoming an "open and affirming church."

By a vote of 93-10, church members adopted that position last winter, becoming the first mainstream Protestant congregation in Sonoma County to do so. "It took us three years of talking, studying, putting it forward," Brooks says, "and it wasn't easy."

But, she adds, it was important. The church's parent denomination, the national United Church of Christ, "has traditionally been a denomination that has been very concerned with justice," she explains, one that is unwilling to "just abandon homosexuals to the kind of abuse they've been receiving.

"One of the reasons for going on record as welcoming gay and lesbian and bisexual Christians and seekers is that we have to counter the programming in their lives which has said, 'You are worthless, you are a sinner, you are not acceptable to God and the church. You are lepers and pariahs and so on.' Most homosexuals have had a lot of bad experience with respect to church. They don't go, because they assume they're not wanted."

The truth of that generalization hit home for Janet Sage, who with her husband, John, served on the committee that studied and eventually proposed the Open and Affirming covenant, because of the experience of her own gay son. "Here was our child, who grew up in the church and yet he didn't feel welcome and loved in the church," she recalls. "That isn't right."

Beyond her personal concerns, Janet says, "we also felt it was our social duty and our Christian spiritual duty to come forward and counteract all the hate that is spoken in this community."

Brooks' congregation joined about 180 other UCC churches in the United States that had also adopted Open and Affirming statements. But First Congregational was the second church in Santa Rosa to take such a stance.

When the Universalist Unitarian congregation adopted its statement as a "welcoming congregation" nearly four years ago, "it was quite uneventful," says Pastor Dan O'Neal, who noted that his denomination as a whole is "at the forefront of recognizing sexual variation as like any other variation in the human population. That's what nature does, just throws out a whole plethora of variations."

His congregation is now "actively thinking about how to get the word out," O'Neal says. "We actively want more people of differing sexual orientations."

Meanwhile, a small handful of other congregations in Sonoma County, both UCC churches and other denominations, are beginning to have internal discussions about declaring themselves more open to homosexual members. Others bluntly refuse to consider the subject, and still others remain adamantly opposed.

One of these is the Oak Valley Baptist Church in Cloverdale. "The reason that I hold homosexuality as a sin is because the Bible teaches it is a sin," says Pastor Roger Margerison, quoting chapter and verse. And while he embraces the directive to love the sinner but hate the sin, Margerison adds, "I believe the sin of homosexuality is so unnatural that a person can get to the point where their conscience doesn't bother them anymore; then they become very vociferous about 'there's nothing wrong with homosexuality and the Bible's wrong in that area, and you are all hateful bigots.'

"They have no desire to repent and be saved."

That viewpoint is so fundamental to the Baptists that when congregations in Oakland, San Leandro, San Jose, and Berkeley decided to become Welcoming and Affirming Baptist Churches, they were promptly expelled from the denominations' regional group last month. "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings," declared Robert Rasmussen, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of the West.

Brooks gently espouses a more tolerant theology. "I see so clearly that the Gospel is about inclusivity," she explains. "Jesus was always relating to people who were at the edge and not included, which is something we as Christians are commanded to do. The 'welcome to stran-gers' theme is there from Genesis on."

The Open and Affirming stance of Brooks' church is what attracted George Splane and his partner, Larry Trent, who have become active, visible members. "I wanted to go to a church where I could be myself and be known and not have to keep parts of myself locked up," Splane says. He made his first visit alone and a little wary, but "found a very warm welcome. The people on the Open and Affirming Committee were thrilled to have an actual gay person walk into the church, because at that time they didn't have any openly gay men attending."

That welcome, adds Trent, was a distinctly new experience. "I have been to a number of churches around town, and I never felt that any of them made me feel like it was OK to tell anyone there I was gay." At another local church he attended briefly, Larry says, "there were some other gay people there, but when I walked in that door, I didn't feel like it was OK to say to someone that I'm a gay man, that I have a partner at home, and how do you feel if I bring him with me next Sunday? Whereas at this church, it was not long before they wanted to know when George was going to bring me with him."

Overall, though, the Open and Affirming status has attracted more new members who are straight. One of them is Bob Cramer, a former Baptist who was not only ordained in that denomination, but worked as a national public relations man for the American Baptist Church. "I'm what the Bureau of Standards uses to define straight," he booms, "but I'm cussed if I'll be in a church that says I can't teach what I believe. So I left."

"There was a time when the church supported the oppression of women and blacks, using Scripture," says Brooks, taking the long view. "And yet it is also Scripture that has helped liberate minority people and women and so on."

That positive trend is now moving in a new direction, she adds, one that her church has joined and many more will follow. "It's a countercultural thing that we're doing, just as it was for the churches in the South to get involved in civil rights. There is a kind of rising tide that's just going to keep on going; it's not going to stop," she smiles seriously.

"The churches that act like they're safe from this controversy, they're going to be affected by it, too."

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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