Prides take on a faith-based role

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
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When the first Pride parades sprouted in the 1970s, those found praying at the gay rights events wanted to save participants from the "sin" of homosexuality. Led by anti-gay preachers, these servants of God beseeched homosexuals to "straighten out" their lives.

More than three decades later, people of faith can still be found at Pride events. Some continue to spout anti-gay beliefs, such as the 150 or so evangelical Christians who have protested the last two years at Sacramento's Pride.

But nowadays most of these believers are gay themselves. They increasingly see Pride as a way to come out, not just as gay, but also as Christians.

"When I came out as a man who is gay I had to go in the closet as a person of faith to my gay friends. I honestly think in our community there is a lot of pain and woundedness regarding Christianity and spirituality," said Ronald A. Hersom, acting assistant minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque.

After graduating last May from Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, Hersom moved to New Mexico. He organized the first-ever Pride Interfaith Service to kick off Albuquerque's Gay Pride Week earlier this month.

"With our interfaith service we are letting the community know there are places where we are welcome. Not all traditions and doors are closed to us," said Hersom. "People need to know that, that we are all children of God."

On the actual day of Pride, people of faith are no longer just marching in the parades or manning informational booths; they are holding their church services right in the midst of the LGBT festivals themselves. At the Twin Cities Pride in Minnesota this Sunday, All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church for the third year will hold its Sunday service in of all places, the event's Loring Beer Garden.

For the second year in a row First Congregational United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz held its "Jazz and Juice" service right at the Pride festival in a city park along the San Lorenzo River. This year, Pride organizers designated the service as an official Pride event and promoted it to Pride attendees.

"It sure does feel good to be celebrating the body and blood of Christ today, doesn't it? Here we are in the park celebrating gay Pride. I don't want to be anywhere else in the world with my family," Pastor Shannon Spencer, the congregation's minister of outreach, told the crowd of 100 people.

During her sermon, Spencer acknowledged the decision to hold the service at Pride was controversial for some parishioners. But she said it was necessary that people of faith do not hide in the closet.

"Why have we moved our church? It seems extreme and unnecessary for some. It is scary to some and hard for some people to bring these two worlds together," said Spencer, an out lesbian whose wife, Heather Dillashaw, is the church's minister of family life and helped preside over the Pride service. "Our service today is a coming out as Christians. In Santa Cruz it is more accepting to be wearing jewelry on your genitals than to be a person of faith."

The mass had a decidedly gay tone. Congregants' spoken prayers included wanting to get married; giving thanks to friends who had come out and "changed their eyes;" blessings for various forms of families; and "all those in transition in their lives."

Joining in the service was Santa Cruz resident Julie Forbes, an out lesbian who attends various churches in the area.

"I think it is absolutely fabulous. I was just sitting up there and my inner self said 'Walk.' I just followed my intuition and here I am," said Forbes. "I am happy to be here because I didn't get to go do my usual Sunday church gig."

Peter Klotz-Chamberlin, a straight man who has belonged to the church for a decade, admitted at first he thought the idea "was crazy" because he saw Pride as a secular event. But having taken part in the Pride services twice now, he said he is glad it was moved to the park.

"I strongly believe the Christian faith has a lot to do with justice, peace and inclusion. It is great to publicize that in a public way," he said. "It is also great to just be outside."

The service was a dual coming out for Aptos resident Harold Clark, who said that he had just quit his job as a heavy equipment operator after being outed by his employer and harassed for being gay. Clark, who is HIV-positive, and his partner, David Holt, had joined the church six months prior to gain strength and comfort while caring for his ailing mother, who died in April.

"This is the first time I have gone to a service or partook in any gay function like this. I outed myself to the community by walking in the parade," said Clark, who had previously attended a fundamentalist church. "This church is great. It is nice to be at a church where we can be ourselves. It is nice to have a spiritual community."

Spencer said she approached the gay-friendly congregation two years ago about moving the service to Pride because their church is three miles away from the event grounds and parishioners who came to worship had to miss out on the parade.

"The parade annually happens at 11 a.m. right in the middle of our worship service. We were asking our community to choose. We didn't think that was very faithful," she said.

Spencer sees preaching and praying at Pride as a way to break down stereotypes that Christians are anti-gay. It also provides healing to those LGBT people who were rejected by their churches when they came out, she said.

"I do think it is a shock for people to connect gay and Christian. It took me many, many years to connect those in a positive way," she said. "We don't believe same-gender loving is a sin. Unfortunately, our voice is not the loudest out there. Pride is one of the ways churches can back up what they say."

San Francisco Pride does not have any recognized Pride masses this year, but for the seventh year in a row Freedom in Christ Evangelical Church is one of its "Partners in Pride." The 17-year-old LGBT parish's tagline is "Christian + Gay = O.K."

"We wanted to become a partner in pride because we care about our community," said Pastor Maria Caruana, who said people mistake the word "evangelical" to mean her 40-member parish is anti-gay. "People ask are you into the reparative therapy? We get asked that a lot."

Caruana, an out lesbian who works as an X-ray technician, plans to hold a street mass with another minister near the start of this year's parade route before marchers set off down Market Street. She would also like to see a "Faith Stage" created at Pride where faith-based groups could congregate, church choirs could perform, the gospel can be read, and Christian music can be played.

She suggested such a stage to Pride three years ago but never received a response. If the street service is well received this year, she plans to re-approach Pride with her idea.

"Our community probably was not ready for that," she said. "We've been going to the Castro now once a month. We wear our shirts and are giving people information about reconciling their sexual orientation and Christianity. We are here to tell them God doesn't hate them. God loves them."

Pride Executive Director Lindsey Jones said she is open to the idea of having a faith stage. In an e-mail Jones wrote that many people have talked about the possibility of faith groups being more involved at Pride.

"Many are already Parade contingents, exhibitors, community partners, and partners in Pride. A number of LGBT faith leaders have been grand marshals," wrote Jones. "The community stages and venues come to life when someone, some organization comes forward to fill a community need at Pride. Late summer every year we solicit proposals from the community and I hope Pastor Maria Caruana will submit one."