Bering Memorial United Methodist Church in Montrose is “a lighthouse to the LGBT community”
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Tom Fricke
See also: Bering UMC’s Rev. Jerry Goree retires
“For more than 25 years,” says senior pastor Rev. J. Ernest “Ernie” Turney, “Bering Memorial United Methodist Church has been a lighthouse to the LGBT community, a safe haven, a place to come and not be judged, to serve God in joyful worship and to be helped in many, many ways.”
From its beginnings in 1848 as part of a mission conference for German-speaking immigrants in Houston, the congregation purposed to be a group of Christians who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk, explains Mark Albright, the church’s historian.
The congregation at 1440 Harold Street in Montrose got the opportunity to show the LGBT community how God works through its members when the AIDS epidemic began to wreak its devastation in the 1980s.
“We started what became Bering Omega Community Services,” says Turney. “We funded a dental clinic and an adult day-care center and acquired a residential hospice for people with HIV.”
The church’s Wednesday Night Spiritual Support Group for people with or affected by HIV became the cornerstone of the Bering Support Network (BSN). It’s one of the longest-running HIV/AIDS support groups in the country, already serving more than 4,400 people.
Rev. Jerry Goree, the support network director, says the church’s practice of celebrating Holy Communion at every Sunday service can be traced back to the 1980s, when the church held “three, four, sometimes five funerals a month.
“People weren’t sure if they would ever have another Communion if it was every three months,” he explains.
Albright joined Bering after moving from Pennsylvania to Texas in 1979 to perform in the musicals Lone Star and Annie Get Your Gun in Galveston.
“I grew up as a preacher’s kid,” he says. “I liked it. It worked for me. I was a loquacious and precocious child and my father was a United Methodist Church clergyman in the Central Pennsylvania Conference. He served wonderful little churches in Central Pennsylvania.”
Albright, who now lives in Montrose and teaches history and economics at St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic college preparatory school, says, “Out of the blue, I ended up volunteering for one of Kathy Whitmire’s campaigns for mayor. I met Bering’s then-pastor’s wife, and she invited me to attend Bering. I did, and I stayed.”
Worship services on Sundays are held at 8:30 a.m. in the church’s chapel and 10:50 a.m. in the sanctuary, says Albright. Dress is casual, but services are traditional and formal.
“The weekly attendance hovers around 180 people,” says Albright. “It’s a wonderful assembly, with rich, spiritual worship. There’s a great deal of sharing and talking before and after—and during—the service. You feel a powerful connection to the community.”
In November 1991, Bering became a “Reconciling Congregation” when its membership voted to adopt the UMC’s “Reconciling Statement,” which states: We proclaim that all people are created in the image of God and affirm that each person, regardless of age, economic status, faith history, ethnicity, gender, mental or physical ability, marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identification, is a beloved child of God and worthy of God’s love and grace.
As such, the church’s work is guided by core principles of: (1) personal and social holiness; (2) peace with justice; (3) resisting oppression with a commitment to ending institutional racism, sexism, and economic injustice; (4) integrating sexuality with spirituality; (5) hospitality; (6) full equality in membership, ordination, and marriage for LGBT children; (7) stewardship; and (8) committing to honesty, integrity, excellence, equality, justice, dignity, civility, diversity, inclusion, and creativity.
“I started coming to Bering Church in 1992,” says Goree, describing himself as “late,” not coming out until he was 43. “I had so much shame,” he explains. “I was in denial for so long. I always knew that God loved me; my problem was with God’s people. Some Christians are so judgmental, sometimes.”
At Bering, says Goree, who’s now 70, “I met people in similar situations.”
His own personal struggle “was very good preparation,” he says, for serving as BSN’s director, as well as Bering’s minister of congregational care. “I can relate to so many people and their needs.”
“Jerry has been working here a lot longer than I have,” says Turney, whose assignment as Bering’s senior pastor began in September 2008. He and his wife, Ann, arrived a few days before Hurricane Ike hit Houston. “We were without electricity for the next three and a half weeks,” recalls Turney. “It took nine months before we were back in the fellowship hall, but our homeless ministry [Open Gate] never missed a beat.”
Open Gate is a ministry for teens and young adults ages 18 to 24 who are homeless or at-risk street youth in the Montrose area and who regularly congregate within a 10-to-12 block radius of the church.
“Although they come from all areas of Houston and beyond, we have recognized the need to be the church to these young people in particular,” according to a statement on Bering’s website, beringumc.org. “It is our intent to provide a safe sanctuary, free from the biases and discriminations they face on the street. The ministry attempts to engage these youth in healing moments in an atmosphere of radical acceptance and reconciliation. We focus on the essential spiritual core of the gospel message: trust, hope, and love. Beginning with feeding their bodies, it is our goal to nourish and guide them so that they will find their God-given gifts and be able to lead productive grace-filled lives.”
Turney also teaches a new member/Methodism class that explains the history of the Christian church, theologian John Wesley’s understanding of salvation, and the history and structure of Bering Memorial UMC.
In 2008, the church announced its “mission statement” as follows: Bering’s mission is to joyfully share God’s love for all the world through our committed word and action as seekers of Jesus Christ.
The church’s website also explains, “Bering continues to be a leading voice in the movement for full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the United Methodist Church. Homophobia, gender inequality, racism, an unjust American penal system, wealth inequality, poverty, and homelessness are just of few of the other issues about which the Church needs to have a voice in the dialogue. Looking to the future, we are constantly seeking to discern how Bering’s voice can make the most difference, as we strive to mirror the all-inclusive, reconciling love of Jesus Christ in the world.”
Bering UMC’s Rev. Jerry Goree retires
A reception honoring Rev. Jerry Goree, who’s retiring as director of Bering Support Network (BSN) and associate pastor at Bering Memorial United Methodist Church, will be held on October 19.
Church members and friends will celebrate Jerry’s many years of worshipping with and ministering to the Bering Memorial family and wish him well in retirement, explains the church’s senior pastor, Rev. J. Ernest “Ernie” Turney.
“At 3 p.m., we’ll offer Jerry words of appreciation, share stories, and present him with a love offering,” says Turney, who credits Goree with introducing him to many Houstonians when Turney and his wife moved to Montrose in 2008.
“Going to lunch with Jerry, you will see at least two people who know him. That’s always fun,” says Turney. “It might be people from real estate, someone he sold a house to, or one of many people who received care through Bering Support Network. Jerry is just a delightful person.”
Goree plans to continue in real estate when he retires and moves to his lake house in Livingston. “I’m not a fisherman,” he laughs. “I will continue as a real-estate broker, and I’ll work on my house and travel some. The hardest part of leaving Houston will be that I’ll miss seeing people on a day-to-day basis. I’ve made some very strong connections, so I know I will continue these friendships.”
The church’s historian, Mark Albright, explains that Goree began attending Bering as a member in the early ’90s. “He was very actively involved, especially with the Bering Support Network. The fact that he is an ordained minister led to him being hired, first in a part-time position as a member of the clergy staff,” says Albright.
Goree holds a master’s degree in religious education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Arlington.
As an associate pastor at Bering, and minister of congregational care, Goree has assisted in worship services, made home and hospital visits to members of the congregation, attended committee meetings, and performed other duties at the church.
Goree has worked closely with the BSN board to supervise the overall BSN program. He’s also directed and facilitated the Wednesday night Bering Spiritual Support Group, the Tuesday Lunch Bunch, and has been a frequent facilitator of Loss of Relationship groups.
One of his “most meaningful” duties at Bering has been serving communion, he says. “It’s a time for you to get your life right with God. You’re partaking of the body of Christ.”
Goree also looks forward to Bering services on Sunday, October 26, when he will receive a “going-away blessing” and prayer.
What: Rev. Jerry Goree Retirement Reception
When: 2–5 p.m., Sunday, October 19
Where: SPJST Lodge, 1435 Beall Street
Info: call the church at 713.526.1017. Light hors d’oeuvres, desserts, and beverages will be served. Contributions to the love offering for Goree may be brought to the reception or to Bering Church; checks to help underwrite the cost of the reception should be made payable to Bering UMC.
Donalevan Maines wrote about Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet in the September 2014 issue of OutSmart magazine.