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Six Mega-Churches in Six Weeks

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What I learned on my summer vacation…

By Paige Schilt • Photos courtesy Soulforce

PaigewedsKaty
Paige Schilt (l) weds Katy Koonce in California, the Rev. Jay Bakker officiating.

This summer, while many families with kids were recovering from the end of the semester and gearing up for camp or vacation, my partner and I, along with our intrepid five-year-old son, were setting off for uncharted social territory. Our family was one of 50 gay-friendly families who visited America’s biggest evangelical churches as part of a project called The American Family Outing.   

The brilliance of our plan was its simplicity. Mega-churches and their leaders wield broad cultural and political influence, so why not invite their families to get to know lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families over a potluck supper or a picnic?

Back in December 2007, Soulforce wrote letters to six mega-church leaders and asked them to match families from their congregation with GLBT families for a meal and conversation. Then, between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 2008, we set off with hopes of attending worship services and sharing some potato salad and watermelon with families who had, all too often, been cast as our polar opposites. If there was a way to navigate around the divisiveness of the culture wars, our little group of families was determined to find it.

JoelOsteen
Joel Osteen greets the Soulforce delegation.

But what first seemed simple was a little more complicated when the rubber hit the road. After six months of letters and phone calls, we arrived at our first stop, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, without having heard a word from the church. But we persisted, and eventually Rev. Osteen did agree to a meeting—not with GLBT families, but with our straight clergy ally, Reverend Jay Bakker.  

Thus we learned one of the first lessons of The American Family Outing: families meeting other families across the gay/evangelical divide is still a radical idea. Although the rest of churches did agree to meet with us, and many met us with grace and warmth, none invited rank-and-file church families to the meetings. For the most part, we met with pastors, senior staff, and their spouses.

I guess mega-church leaders intuit something that most GLBT people already know: when people meet us and our families, when they hear our stories and see our love for each other, they find it much harder to silently support discrimination in the pews or at the ballot box. In fact, opinion research suggests that having a gay friend actually trumps religiosity when it comes to people’s attitudes about gay rights.

LakewoodChurch
Lakewood Church

The churches’ hesitance to let our families mingle with their families brings us to the second major lesson of the American Family Outing: we are already one family. In every city we visited, we met GLBT people whose mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles—even their sons and daughters—attended the non-affirming mega-church we planned to visit.

This was most tangibly borne out in Atlanta, when we visited Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Our clergy leader for the visit was a young minister named Troy Sanders. Unbeknownst to Troy, his godmother had been tapped to participate in the meeting from the church side. The two had been estranged since Troy came out as gay, and they hadn’t spoken in a couple of years. At the end of the official meeting, Troy’s godmother—a small woman in a pink Sunday dress—asked everyone to wait so that she could publicly apologize for losing touch with the godson she still loves very much.  

This moment also illustrates the third major lesson of The American Family Outing: don’t listen to the received wisdom.   I can’t tell you how many people told us not to bother to visit New Birth, because Bishop Long, who led a 2004 march in support of Georgia’s state constitutional ban on marriage equality, was too virulently homophobic. And yet, in spite of Long’s track record, New Birth turned out to be one of the best stops on our journey. Bishop Long was captivated by the question of how to heal the rift with the Georgia GLBT community, and he described himself as open to new understandings about gay men and lesbians.

Which leads me to the last major lesson of the Outing: new understandings of sexual orientation are afoot in the mega-churches. Several of our discussions revealed diminishing support for ex-gay programs. One pastor called the research that props up reparative therapy “frankly embarrassing.” While most of the churches still insist that gays and lesbians must remain celibate in order to serve or become members, there is an emerging acknowledgement that sexual orientation is complex in its origins and that attempts to change it can do more harm than good.

Our journey was alternately rewarding and frustrating, revelatory and just plain hard. But, at the end of the day—and the end of our journey to mega-churches—it’s about love. The day after our visit to Saddleback Church in California, and after eight wonderful years of caring for each other in sickness and in health, through good times and bad, my wife and I were able to be legally married. Our son wore a size 5T tuxedo and held the rings with the gravity of a palace guard. As the pastor pronounced us “spouses for life,” I felt joy mixed with sadness about the mega-churches’ prescription of celibacy for lesbian and gay people. This conditional welcome is so different from the deep and accepting love that I experience in my GLBT-affirming congregation, in my personal walk with God, and in my family.

It is in their acceptance and support that I found the strength and inspiration to spend my summer visiting mega-churches. It’s time to share the love and open the door to all our families.  

Paige Schilt is media director for Soulforce, a national social justice and civil rights organization focusing on freedom from religious and political oppression for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people through relentless nonviolent resistance. She and her spouse, Katy Koonce, reside in Austin with their son, Waylon. Details: www.soulforce.org.

PHOTO CAPTIONS

Blessed bliss:   Soulforce media director Paige Schilt (l) weds Katy Koonce, her partner of eight years, at a ceremony at the Santa Ana Doubletree Hotel in Orange County, California. Rev. Jay Bakker officiated the nuptials, held June 17, the first day same-sex marriage was reinstated as legal in California. The couple’s five-year-old son, Waylon, acted as their ring bearer.

Lakewood pastor, Joel Osteen (far right), greets Soulforce executive director Jeff Lutes (far left), Lutes’ spouse Gary Stein, and the couple’s children. Osteen later met with Soulforce representative, the Rev. Jay Bakker, in an attempt to better understand the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Mission control: Houston’s Lakewood Church’s media broadcast reaches more than 200 million households in the United States. In May, the congregation was visited by 50 gay and lesbian families in Soulforce’s American Family Outing.

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