Gay Days at America's Mega-churches

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Gay and transgender families and allies reflect on six Sundays spent at America's most influential churches. Their journey, titled the American Family Outing, initiated dialogue with a new generation of evangelical leaders.

Being there showed me in a powerful way exactly how brave my LGBT team members were to go into that kind of atmosphere and insist that church leaders recognize their pain and start to see it as their own pain, too

On Father's Day 2008, a group of LGBT and straight-ally families attended services at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The next day, a smaller group of about 8 families met with pastors and other staff of the influential mega-church for lunch and an emotional conversation about faith, family, and the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the church.

The visit was the conclusion of a six-week family road trip to initiate dialogue with mega-church congregations across the nation. In December 2007, organizers of the project--which is called The American Family Outing--invited the leaders of six mega-churches to match families from their congregations with LGBT and straight-ally families for a meal and conversation. Then, on Mother's Day 2008, the outing began with a visit to Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.

"Through the American Family Outing, we were able to share our families and our lives as out and proud LGBT people of faith with some of the biggest religious leaders in America," says Paige Schilt, Soulforce Media Director and one of the lesbian moms who participated in the project. "Along the way, we learned a great deal about the state of mainstream evangelical culture."

"On the one hand, there's still a tremendous amount at stake for high-profile churches to meet publicly with LGBT families. They took a lot of heat just for talking to us, and we appreciate that.

"We also learned that an openly gay or lesbian person cannot become a member or serve in most of the churches we visited. When LGBT people hear that 'all are welcome' at a mega-church, we encourage them to investigate the quality of that welcome.

"On the other hand, we also learned that support for reparative therapy and other kinds of ex-gay programs seems to be diminishing. We heard more talk about celibacy and less talk about change.

"We also heard, from many of the churches, a sincere interest in continuing the conversation with LGBT justice seekers," Schilt concluded. "We look forward to future dialogues, public and private."

Nationwide, more than 50 LGBT and LGBT-affirming families took part in this remarkable journey to build bridges with mainstream and conservative evangelical communities, which also visited Bishop T.D. Jakes, Bishop Harry Jackson, Bishop Eddie Long, and Rev. Bill Hybels.

One of the people who participated in the meeting with Saddleback Church was Bob Bednar, a straight, married father of two from Austin, Texas.

"Being there showed me in a powerful way exactly how brave my LGBT team members were to go into that kind of atmosphere and insist that church leaders recognize their pain and start to see it as their own pain, too," said Bednar.

"As a straight ally, it was inspiring to work alongside them. But the experience also showed me how far we have to go. The churches see the pain, but they don't seem to understand that the pain doesn't come from being LGBT, but from trying to reconcile being LGBT with a theology puts conditions on who people can be and whom they can love."

As a fitting conclusion to a project about faith, love, and justice, several participating couples--including Soulforce founders Mel White and Gary Nixon--were married in California on June 17 and 18, 2008. See pictures for more details.

The American Family Outing is a collaboration between Soulforce, COLAGE, National Black Justice Coalition, and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

Soulforce is a national civil rights and social justice organization. Our vision is freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance. For more information, go to http://www.soulforce.org.

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PAIGE SCHILT
Soulforce
(512) 659-1771
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