Sunday, June 28, 2009

A place of healing, a place of hope

Oh, there's nothing as sweet as fellowship
As we share each other’s hearts...
Sweet, sweet fellowship...

- the group Acappella

It's been a long, long time since I could say that about a church. Thanks be to God, I can say it today.

For the last four years, I have been waging a 3-sided internal battle. On one side, I've been wanting to again be a part of a fellowship of Christian believers. On another side, I've not wanted to go any place where I am not wanted (having become an "I'd rather switch than fight" kind of fellow). And on yet another side, I've not wanted to end up the one round peg in a set of otherwise square pegs.

In my search, I found churches where I could be active, but closeted; I found churches where I could be out, but the theology was way too watered down. And I found churches who were accepting of anyone, because they were just desperate for live bodies - anyone with a pulse was welcome as long as they were willing to pitch in.

Then for the last year, Chris was working until midnights on Saturday and then he was working again on Sunday afternoons. I was simply too jealous of our one-morning-a-week-to-sleep-in to give it away looking for a potential church home, so the idea sat on hold.

Then the move to Champaign came, and we were both finally on the same Monday/Friday schedule. Once we got settled in, I went to the GCN "Welcoming Churches" website, and instantly one church stood out among the rest. Their website, the person we talked to on the phone, everything about them shouted "welcome."

What sold us both was the welcome, and the worship...

We came in the door, and someone immediately welcomed us with a cheery “Hi, have you been here before?” When I introduced myself "and my partner Chris,” the response was “We’re SO glad to have you here!...” We were ushered into the sanctuary and plied with coffee, banana-nut bread, and then led over to see the church's beautiful stained-glass windows. Specifically, the newest one… this one:

If you note, the top of the window has the pink-triangle that was both a symbol of shame in World War II as well as the symbol of the early gay community. Below it are rainbows, symbols of the GLBT community from the 70's until the current day. There is red-ribbon which is the reminder of HIV/AIDS sufferers world-wide, and the heart with tongues of flame symbolizing the presence of the Spirit resident in the hearts of believers. The peaceful, pastoral scenes symbolize a place of peace and rest, while the hands of the community supporting the clasped hands of two men and two women symbolized the support this church wanted to give the GLBT community. (You can see it more clearly over here...)

Down at the bottom, there are two scriptures - I don't remember the first, but the second is Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The lady who greeted us told us proudly that to the best of her knowledge, this is the only GLBT-affirming stained-glass window in a church the US. (I'm sure it's the only one in a Presbyterian church in America.) The bottom line, she said, was that this church wanted us (and people like us) to feel welcomed and affirmed.

It was all I could do not to weep tears of joy....that anyone would make a commitment in the very structure of the sanctuary to share that message. How could we not feel at home?

This next item will sound ridiculous and trivial, but it's worth mentioning, especially to my Lutheran friends. I've been in churches which fought tooth-and-nail about having coffee in the sanctuary, or even in the narthex. Not this congregation...they have no narthex to speak of, so when the church was being remodeled, they put nooks on both sides of the back of the sanctuary, for coffee-pots and coffee-mug racks (no styrofoam cups here; this congregation believes that "being good stewards of the earth" means not filling up landfills!). A group of members provide fresh baked goods to go with the coffee every Sunday, and it's just expected that responsible people will (a) take their coffee and sweets to their pew, (b) clean up after themselves, and (c) wash their own mugs afterwards! And a stone sanctuary floor means no carpet to get stained...

The church was built in 1911. Back 15 years ago, the massive roof beams were found to have some sort of rot problems, and the church was all but condemned to be bulldozed. A way was found to re-strengthen the beams with some hardening resin, and the church interior was remodeled as well. The seating is now in the form of a T, with seating on either side of the beautiful wooden altar, which is on the floor-level with the congregation. The former altar space is now occupied by a small but respectable pipe organ, and a beautifully restored stained-glass figure of Christ looks down from above the organ.

Chris came from a very relaxed, family/house-church style of worship - where the "prayers of the congregation" were actually done by the congregation, where there were no bulletins, no order of worship, just a retired pastor and his flock gathered in folding chairs and couches around a piano in a community center. I had come from a congregation that regularly had 1,000 people a Sunday for worship, with a pre-printed liturgy in a bound bulletin, multiple hymnals - while not hardly as lock-step as many Lutheran communities are wont to be, it was hardly spontaneous worship.

But I had also come from a group of people who'd introduced me to Taize' (teh-ZAY) singing, to Maranatha's worship-n-praise, and to all-night prayer-vigils locked-in at the church sanctuary. I'd been through the "worship wars," the our-way-or-the-highway worship committee meetings, and encountered people who either believed that synthesizers were of the devil, or people who believed that they'd rather stay home than listen to one more organ prelude. As a result of all that (not to mention the emphasis on high liturgy at seminary, I've generally concluded that more diversity in worship meant more ways to experience God. But it had been a long time since I'd experienced that diversity.

Until we walked into McKinley Presbyterian Church.

Our first Sunday, I was greeted by some of the same Taize' songs I had sung back nearly a dozen years ago - the memory of which literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. As we sang we looked around the congregation - taking in the physical beauty of the sanctuary and the peace of the community. Chris and I were astonished that we were just one among many same-sex couples present, surrounded by a congregation for whom it was just no big deal in such a way that we instantly felt both welcomed and accepted.

As the Christ candle was lit, the congregation was invited to come forward and light candles symbolizing their prayers for peace - something which the congregation has done since the Sunday before the current Iraq war began. The beauty of the pipe organ did not overwhelm the congregation, but seemed to lift it up and support it. The prayers of the congregation were "popcorn-style" (whatever popped up, so to speak), and even the Lord's Prayer was said in a format that came from Tanzania or another African group of believers.

In short, everything was familiar, everything was similar - but nothing was the same.

My ELCA Lutheran friends will understand this image ... you know the kind of worship services that you have at the regional Synod conferences? Where everything's a little edgy, everything's in somewhat the same location, but nothing's exactly as you've known it at your home church and it all feels new and a little strange, but somehow cool?

Welcome to our worship - each and every Sunday.

Today, the Gospel reading was the woman who was bleeding, and touched Jesus' robe. The sermon dealt with healing and restoration - and talked about how the women who bled and the girl who died were both ritually unclean and untouchable. Their healing was not only physical healing, but social restoration - being returned into the community from which they had been excluded.

Today, as communities around the world celebrate Pride Week with parades and marches and so much more, Chris and I simply celebrated being home - being healed and restored to a sense of community in new and powerful ways. It is not so much that we are in a gay-friendly church - it's that we can worship here, and no one really gives a rat's patootie what we are. We are simply two among many of the Children of the Heavenly Father in ways that I have never before experienced - and as the old song says, it's a good feelin' to know....

I am looking forward to the ways in which God will use this community in both our lives.


Sunny said...

How wonderful that you and Chris have found such a place of peace to worship.

I have given up my search for such a place and now worship in God's own house....His wonderful world he created.

I do not ask for more.

Heidi Renee said...

words are few as my joy for you is so full. could not be more happy for you both!

Peter said...

Actually, wait till those people find out who they got with you two--you're the kind of parishoners that churches would kill for. McKinley is damned lucky (and smart!)!

Michael Dodd said...

I'm glad you have found a church home that is home.

I love the window and the courage that enabled the congregation to install it.

Vic Mansfield said...

I rejoice with you, but must admit to some envy, too!

wayne bailey said...

Steve. I am a programming co-chair for an AA round up. I tried to find an email address on here, but couldn't. I would like to talk with you about speaker availablilty. please email me at


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