God on Their Side: Open Doors for Austin's Gay and Lesbian Faithful
"[People say] the Bible condemns homosexuality on the basis of Sodom and Gomorrah. What makes that a bogus argument is that if you read the story, you'll see that it's talking about rape - homosexual rape. One of the Bible's highest values is the idea of hospitality. And what these Sodomites say to Lot is, `There are men in your house there. Bring them out so we can be intimate with them.' Which would be a terrible thing for a host to do."
- Rabbi Steve Folberg
"The homosexual orientation of those whom I pastor is caused neither by moral failure nor the idolatry [the apostle] Paul denounces in [the New Testament Book of] Romans." - Rev. Robert Vickery
"Hate the sin and love the sinner? I just don't know how you do that. The words that are heard are `hate' and `sinner.'"
- Rev. Joe Phelps
Scriptural invectives against homosexuality, hurled as the last word on the subject, usually go something like this: the homogenital sex act is an abomination to the Lord; it's rendered doubly offensive by the fact that it's at crossed purposes with His plan for men and women to be together, to be fruitful and multiply. Homosexuals are the way they are because they've turned away from God. If they don't find God, homosexuals are going to hell. They're already trying to recruit the children into their perversion...
Most gay men and women have heard these things already. Those words smarted in their ears, as they were driven out from churches they attended since childhood, and sometimes, from their homes. It's a wonder, then, when homosexual people return to the institution that purportedly doesn't want them - and are welcomed. The Christian and Jewish religions do not unilaterally revile homosexuals - not on the basis of Scripture, nor for any other reason. In fact, in the Austin area, a number of religious leaders have opened their minds, hearts, and sanctuaries to all people - including homosexuals.
We hasten to add: none of the people you'll meet here claims to represent the views of their entire congregations, nor of the denomination they serve. None is principally a gay activist, nor do they lead congregations that are all-gay, or even predominantly gay (with the exception of the Metropolitan Community Church of Austin; see sidebar). And maybe it has to be said - they're heterosexual themselves. But they are united in the opinion that a person's homosexual orientation is not chosen, mutable, or necessarily sinful. Attesting to this point of view has had its price at times, they say. But they continue to count the rewards of having an open congregation.
Baptists: Can't We Just Talk?In December 1993, during the height of the firestorm surrounding a vote in the Williamson County Commissioners Court over Apple Computer's policy of extending health insurance benefits to unmarried domestic partners, including homosexual partners, a Baptist minister fired off a letter to the daily paper. Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of the Church of the Savior, an American Baptist church in Cedar Park, opined that the Bible is not so clear in condemning homosexuality - and those who claim it is were making the age-old mistake of simply citing passages of Scripture without regarding context. He ended his letter by asking for dialogue with those who disagreed with him "in an open, respectful forum."
Phelps didn't get a forum for dialogue, nor much respect, by most of his peers. He pleaded with one fellow minister for their churches to talk, worship together, and pray. "I said, `We're brothers in Christ.' He said, `No, I don't think that we are,'" Phelps says. "In other words, my opinion on homosexuality has become a matter of whether or not I'm even a Christian."
Just talking about homosexuality is enough to plant virulent dissent, agrees Rev. Larry Bethune, pastor of University Baptist Church, across Guadalupe Street from the University of Texas at Austin. When the church sponsored a student forum on the subject, many college-age members fled the congregation in outrage.
"The church is a place where people can gather and have differences of opinion and be in continuing conversation over issues that Christians can legitimately differ over. And our church has recognized this as one of those issues," Bethune says. "[We have] taken no official position regarding the issue of homosexuality."
Phelps, whose church split from the Southern Baptist Convention over tenets of faith, and not over the matter of homosexuality, agrees. "The only thing we've decided is, the doors are open for all of God's people, whoever you are, wherever you are," he says. "Homosexual people are a very small part of the marginalized of our world. It just happens to be the first issue that God placed on our plate as we began to get in touch with what our vision for ministry was."
Bethune's church, aligned with both the Southern and American Baptist Conventions, recently exercised its autonomy, ordaining a homosexual person into a church office. But Bethune quickly eschews this label, of being the Baptist church with the gay deacon.
"Our church did not ordain a person's orientation. We ordained a person," he says firmly. "The troublesome part of this is, there's a tendency in the debate - sometimes on both sides - to treat homosexuality as a monolithic issue." One of the ways to crack that monolith, Bethune believes, is to talk about behavior, not orientation.
"I do think it's important for the church to be able to say to the homosexual person, `There is such a thing as sexual sin.' Our traditional ethic has been that sexuality is in service to a relationship, and should be an appropriate expression of love in relation to the level of relationship that's there," he says.
Methodists: One Is Fed Up; the Other Is ReconciledRev. Charles Moore, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Travis Heights, would be silent no longer. He had seen the lives of other pastors, lay people, and even a bishop destroyed when their homosexuality was whispered about or uncovered by others. Moore took his vacation time - which coincided with the United Methodist Church's annual conference of bishops in Austin - to execute a 15-day hunger strike last spring, protesting the UMC's condem-nation of homosexuality as a "practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
The Council of Bishops did not renounce its position, but instead issued a statement decrying civil rights violations against gays and lesbians. It was only a crumb, and not the loaf Moore had cried out for, but he took it anyway. He knew at the outset he probably wouldn't change anything within the UMC establishments, but that wasn't why he fasted.
"It was to touch people who are not rigid," he says. With the exception of a few crank letters and phone calls, Moore says the public's response to his action has been "overwhelmingly positive." Within his congregation, however, dissent rose. Some members have stopped tithing, and he fully expects not to be reappointed at Grace UMC next year.
"I don't think that people who do things like I did should expect that they won't be punished for it," Moore says, with a shrug. He has precious little sympathy for people who are laboring under a lifetime of "Biblical" thinking about homosexuality. Scripture has been invoked to defend all kinds of cruelty and injustice - slavery, segregation, and sex discrimination - says Moore, who was born and raised in a small Texas town that still has almost no African-American people living there.
"Abuse, whether it's racial or relative to sexual orientation, is wrong, and the fact that I was brought up in that wrongness doesn't give me any justification whatever for not changing completely, and now," Moore declares.
Like Moore, Rev. Sid Hall had begun to view his silence on gay and lesbian persecution as collaboration. In November 1992, 80% percent of the membership of Trinity UMC in Hyde Park, Hall's church, voted to become a Reconciling Congregation. It is one of approximately 90 UMC congregations in the U.S. - and only the second in Texas - united in a formal and public statement that they will welcome all people, regardless of sexual orientation. (Moore attempted last year to move his members at Grace UMC in the same direction, without success.)
But by March 1993, the 20% percent who voted in dissent left Trinity, taking about 50% percent of the operating income with them, Hall estimates. But new members who affirm Trinity's message have joined, and the church is now well on its way back to solvency. And if Hall has had his share of restless nights, he has also had his share of unexpected rewards.
"One was I realized that ever since I'd started in the ministry, I'd held back every time I was in the pulpit, every time I was in a meeting. Held back, to not be perceived as too liberal, too progressive. It's not that I'd try to be something that I wasn't; it was more like holding back levels of vulnerability," Hall says. "So, I've noticed that I'm not holding back anymore, I was simply being me, on all social issues. And that feels really liberating. And I had no idea that was going to happen."
And also like Moore, Hall isn't trying to move those who won't be moved. "The Christian right doesn't bother me as much as perhaps it should," he says. "I want to concentrate on that `loving middle' and the convicted left, who might be searching for a way to be courageous."
Presbyterian Firebrand"The spirit of God is always with the oppressed," says Rev. Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in the Wells Branch neighborhood. "It is never with the oppressor. It doesn't matter who has the Bible, it doesn't matter who waves the Cross. Because God cares about humanity itself, and the distinctions we want to draw [between people] are completely secondary."
Best known for helping the Mainstream Austin Coalition last year in its failed campaign to keep health benefits for domestic partners of City of Austin workers, Rigby seems unafraid to engage anyone - his members, his presbytery, even the rest of the world - in his fight to end oppression of people he sees as powerless.
For example, he has refused to follow Presbyterian Church policy prohibiting the ordination of gays and lesbians as deacons and elders, and intends to ignore edicts against blessing their unions as well. "The irony is, we don't let them get married and then we call them fornicators," Rigby says.
As a sign that he is distancing himself from the established order, Rigby has also stopped wearing his robe at all church services or sharing communion at presbytery meetings, to protest that the Lord's table is not open to all. "And that's going to take place until the church ends its discrimination against gays and lesbians," he says.
St. Andrew's members recently put Rigby's future with them to a vote; he was allowed to stay but "we lost some really good people," including original core members, he says. "It was devastating, financially."
And what of his chief critics, the Biblical fundamentalists he's sure despise him all the more because he should have been on "their" side in condemning homosexuals? He may have the weapon of compassion. "What we've got to do is enter a time of suffering," Rigby says. "We will feel what they cannot feel. And we will purge our frustration towards them out of our minds as best we can. But we will not get out of their way. We will speak the truth in love."
Episcopalians: Looking for Signs of IntegrityWhen Rev. Robert Vickery, rector of St. Michael's Episcopal Church at Bee Caves Rd., and Loop 360, aspired to be a delegate to the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1994, he offered a very modest and carefully worded proposal: The Church ought to discuss blessing a covenant of commitment between two people of the same sex. His suggestion "was not well received," Vickery admits. "On the other hand, an awful lot of people thanked me for speaking out."
Vickery's idea was radical because furor in the Episcopal church has mainly swirled around whether to ordain gays and lesbians. "Gays have been getting ordained probably since the first century A.D.," Vickery says. What's needed now, he believes, is a way for those men and women to be sexually intimate and monogamous, if God does not grant them the gift of celibacy. "That's why I would like to see the Episcopal church explore the blessing of same-sex unions. Because if we decide we can move to that, it very naturally flows that we can consider [ordination]."
Rev. Judith Liro, assistant rector at St. George's Episcopal Church on North I-35, says when Integrity, an Episcopal organization for gays and lesbians, established a chapter in her church, "it created a great stir. At this point we've had a lot of people leave."
Since then, however, homosexual men and women have assumed roles in church offices and as liturgists at St. George's. But it hasn't advertised itself as a gay church. "Our current mission statement has wording that we're an open community of wounded people. But it doesn't specify gay people," she says.
Like Vickery, Liro believes the church can legitimately support gays and lesbians who pursue relationships that have integrity. "Where I come down with it is, I believe homosexuality is a naturally occurring sexuality. I would think that God would want people to live it out in ways that are responsible, and loving, and non-exploitative," Liro says.
For his part, Vickery doesn't believe maverick actions are what's called for and he isn't ready to do ecclesiastical disobedience over the same-sex union question. "I'm not saying I would stay there forever, but at this point, that's where I am right now."
Catholics: Offering The Catholic Church, by all appearances, is an unlikely place to seek support
for gays and lesbians. Indeed, in an institution that requires celibacy for its
priests and nuns, that has been excoriated by sexual scandal in recent years,
the subject of anyone's sexuality seems about as welcome as a match in a
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that church-sponsored groups for gay Catholics emphasize objectives such as "spiritual growth" or "discerning one's place in the faith community." At the University Catholic Center, adjacent to UT, Sister Margaret Andre and Father Pat Hensy serve as chaplains to such gay and lesbian associations.
"Yes, it's all right for the church to have groups like this," says Sister Margaret, in response to the obvious question. It's not so surprising, she adds, when you consider divorced Catholics and unmarried heterosexual couples participate in the church, too.
"I see gays and lesbians as marginalized groups who are struggling to find a place in the church and be recognized," she says. "Their presence also helps other students confront their prejudices." Ministering to gays and lesbians she doesn't indicate in any way the church's tacit approval of their sex lives.
"I don't think we're saying anything about the sex part," says Sister Margaret. "Is there a difference between ideals of Christian living and pastoral care? Yes. And we're here for the pastoral care of homosexuals."
"It's probably one of the best-kept secrets in the Catholic Church - that it isn't as authoritarian as it appears to be," says Daniel Hel-miniak, a former Catholic priest and author of "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality," a compendium of scholarship from the last 40 years on the topic. Before he acquired his Ph.D., in psychology from UT and left Austin for a teaching position at a Georgia college, he led the local chapter of Dignity, a 22-year-old national organization for gay and lesbian Catholics. In pastoral application of official church teachings, he says, an ideal is presented, but it must apply to individual people. And sometimes, it can't be applied.
"The whole problem with the gay/lesbian issue is, it's being dealt with quietly within the Catholic Church," says Helminiak. "And so if you're lucky enough to find somebody, a priest or religious woman, something of that nature, you can get the most amazing support and encouragement. But it's all quiet."
Catholic bishops, he adds, "are in a really difficult place," because they must be faithful to the Pope, "and yet they know what's going on at the grassroots level. So one of the typical Catholic ways of doing it is `not to know.'"
Jews: A Different PerspectiveA long-held tradition in his former synagogue in New York, where Rabbi Steve Folberg was an assistant, was for married couples to be honored on their wedding anniversaries with a prayer. When a male couple, who were active and contributing members of the temple, wanted to celebrate their 20 years of commitment to each other in the same way, the senior rabbi approached the lay committee in charge of synagogue practices and rituals.
"He said, `I'm going to do this because it's right. I want you to tell me how I should do it so I can be sensitive to everybody,'" Folberg recalls. A long discussion ensued, about whether such an action would sanction or endorse homosexuality. A blessing "is something which is said to call attention to something miraculous or precious in life, and thank God that it is a part of our existence," Folberg told the committee. "The question is, will we permit [them] to give thanks for their relationship in this synagogue?" The answer, finally, was yes.
To explore a Jewish perspective on a subject like homosexuality is not like asking the same question of Christianity. "Judaism is not the Bible," says Folberg, "just like Christianity is not the New Testament. To find out what the breadth of Jewish opinion has been about a given issue, you start with the Bible, but you have to pursue it a lot further down through the centuries and actually see what Jews did with it."
For example, the oft-quoted lines from Leviticus that supposedly condemn homosexuality ("You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination," 18:22; and in 20:13, the death penalty is proscribed) are most certainly discussing a same-sex act. But the Hebrew word for "abomination," toevah, seems to signify the pagan practices of the Canaanites, from whom the Israelites were trying to differentiate themselves, Folberg says. Their very existence was at stake if they did not remain separate.
Today, a similar concern arises. "For Jews, lurking in the background with these questions is always survival issues," he says. Gay sex, being non-procreative, produces no heirs - and Jews are already a very small minority in the U.S. (perhaps four percent, by some estimates). That, and the fact that the Holocaust decimated one-third of the world's Jewish population, creates some anxiety - so much, in fact, that one young man, newly "out" and with devastated parents on his hands, asked Folberg if he should marry a woman anyway and pretend he wasn't gay (the rabbi said no).
In the meantime, action. The Reform movement (of which Folberg's synagogue, Temple Beth Israel on Shoal Creek, is a part), endorses outreach to gay and lesbian Jews. Moreover, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (an association of Reform rabbis) voted in 1990 to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained as rabbis.
Lifting BarriersIt is the problem that doesn't have to be a problem, the subject that will not go away. Every mainline Christian denomination in the U.S., as well as Judaism, is grappling with the question of homosexuality. What shall we say to gay members about their lives? Shall we ordain gays and lesbians to be ministers and rabbis? And if we do lift those barriers, how shall we respond to our critics? With very few exceptions, churches continue to assume a hard line, certainly against ordination of gays, and often against the compatibility of homosexuality with religious life at all.
But many small local churches, the real ones, the ones with the steeple and all the people inside, aren't waiting for institutional action. Their movement towards acceptance of all people continues to ascend slowly upward, never believing for a moment that God won't let them someday reach the top. n