US - Gay Christians find home in suburbs... [Philadelphia Inquirer]
- Gay Christians find home in suburbs
Sunday, April 1, 2001
Gay Christians find home in suburbs
With its first public worship service, a Metropolitan Community Church opens
at a crossroads near Media.
By Joann Klimkiewicz
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
They gathered on a sunny Sunday afternoon to raise their hands and voices in
prayer, song and even laughter.
For some, it was a homecoming to worship; for others, a cautious entry. For
most, it was the celebration of a new beginning.
"But don't let it end here," the Rev. Karla Fleshman urged the crowd of more
than 100 at a church outside Media. "We're staying - 'cause we're queer,
Last Sunday, Ms. Fleshman led the first public worship service by Imago Dei
Metropolitan Community Church, which primarily serves gay, lesbian, bisexual
and transgendered people.
While Philadelphia has had a Metropolitan church for almost 30 years, Imago
Dei is the first to set up shop in the suburbs. The church is anchored in
the Christian trinity, and its services include weekly communion.
Imago Dei is meeting in a Unitarian Universalist church - fitting because
Unitarians are one of the few church communities that accept practicing
homosexuals without condition.
Most Christian denominations take a dim view of homosexual practice, citing
scriptural condemnations. Liberal factions continue to dissent, however, and
some individual congregations swing open their doors to gay people.
Imago Dei meets in Upper Providence but has fixed on neighboring Media for a
permanent worship site. Ms. Fleshman saw the borough, easily accessible from
major roadways, as a midpoint to pull in people from the diffuse gay
population of the suburbs.
"It's a cliche, but it's very true: We are everywhere," she said. "Gay folks
are not merely ghettoized city people who have only found acceptance there."
Which is why the effort to go suburban was supported by the Universal
Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in Los Angeles in
1968 to minister primarily to sexual minorities. The denomination claims
about 42,000 members in more than 300 congregations around the world.
Little more than a year ago, Ms. Fleshman led a feasibility study to see
whether a Metropolitan church could succeed in Philadelphia's suburbs and in
Delaware and South Jersey. She hit the streets across the region, looking
for gays and lesbians who had turned away from the church - and for those
who sought a return to a spiritual community.
Out of her search, an informal Bible-study group took shape. That evolved
into what is now a congregation of about 30.
With organizations and resources for homosexuals often concentrated in
cities, gays and lesbians are applauding the church's birth in the suburbs.
Why, they ask, should someone have to drive from Chester County to
Philadelphia to feel a sense of religious community?
"It's harder to get resources [here], so it's harder to be 'out,' " said
Marla McCulloch, 29, of Media, who attended last week's service. "That
allows people the trap of compartmentalizing their lives; to say, 'I'm gay
when I go to the city.' "
"Social groups are good for getting to know people, but they're just not
going to fill the spiritual side," said David Ham, 33, of Royersford, who
attends Imago Dei with his partner, Harry Seabright, 38.
There is a real need for it, especially in the suburbs," said Joane
Fleischer, a psychotherapist and director of Lavender Visions, a support
group for lesbian and bisexual women. "I think the people 'coming out' are
really having a struggle" with spirituality.
Since it has so far been quietly meeting in different spaces, Imago Dei has
been "below the radar" and not encountered much protest, Ms. Fleshman said.
There have been some angry phone calls, but she is preparing for worse now
that the church is taking a higher profile in the community.
The Rev. Wylie Johnson of Springfield Baptist Church in Delaware County
seemed to be one of the few to catch word of Imago Dei's opening. Though he
planned no protest, he made his opposition clear.
"The Bible says that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are in
need of redemption. The Bible also says just as clearly that homosexuality
is a sin," Mr. Johnson said.
In recent years, many Protestant churches have been shifting, or struggling
to define, their stances on homosexuals in the church.
Presbyterian liberals and conservatives are in a tug of war. The church does
not allow ordination of practicing homosexuals, though last month liberals
defeated a ban on same-sex blessing rituals. Last year, the United Methodist
Church upheld its stance against same-sex unions and actively gay clergy.
And while the Episcopal Church opposes homosexual relations, it gives its
dioceses freedom to set rules for themselves.
At Upper Dublin Evangelical Lutheran Church in Montgomery County,
homosexuals are welcome to worship, but the church does not specifically
reach out to the gay community.
"I don't believe we take the issue of orientation and lift that up," said
Pastor Albert Douglass. "The congregation hasn't chosen to make that a major
aspect of our mission because there are so many issues that take our focus."
At Media Presbyterian, the senior pastor, the Rev. Bill Borror, called the
debate in his denomination "wrongheaded."
"We don't think humanity should be classified by what they're eroticized
toward," Mr. Borror said. "We always tell people that to be a part of Media
Presbyterian, you have to be a sinner. We're just a whole bunch of people
who need God's grace."
Mr. Borror said he saw the policy for most denominations turning to a
"People are very localized now," he said. "People think in terms of small
communities of identification, as opposed to a large organization of
And there is Main Line Unitarian, a liberal church in Devon.
The church does not consider itself just open and welcoming to gays and
lesbians, but proactively so. For about 10 years, it has reached out to the
community, teaching tolerance through Sunday school programs, and performing
same-sex unions, said the Rev. Kathie Davis Thomas.
"We believe that part of being a sexual being is a spiritual issue, and as
such it is something that we talk about in our church," Ms. Davis Thomas
Ms. Davis Thomas said that while it appears that some religious groups are
changing as society becomes more accepting of homosexuals, "the fear of many
churches is, 'We'll turn into an identified gay and lesbian church' " and
lose straight worshipers.
Until Imago Dei can support its own space, services will remain at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, at 1 p.m. Sundays. The
Metropolitan denomination has only recently begun paying a part-time salary
for Ms. Fleshman, who also is a social worker in elder care.
She is committed to the church's mission and undaunted by the uncharted road
"When gay can be a part of who we are and not the focal point, it frees us
up to really grow with Christ and serve Christ by serving other people," Ms.
Fleshman said. "I'm not necessarily requiring someone else to give up what
they believe. I'm just asking them not to superimpose their beliefs onto me.
And that's what this church is all about."
Joann Klimkiewicz's e-mail address is jklimkiewicz@....
Kindly appreciate that Brenda Lana Smith R.af D. having had no editorial
input whatsoever in the above declines to entertain e-mail argument on its