"Gay Days" at the Mega-churches: LGBT Families & Allies Reflect on the American Family Outing

For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771


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 earnest conversation about faith, family, and the status of 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 most influential 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 visited churches in Texas, Georgia, Maryland, Illinois, and California.

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

"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," Bednar concluded.

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.









Soulforce Q Camp

First Annual Q Camp—A Success! 


Q Camp


This summer at Austin, Texas’ Alma De Mujer, Retreat Center for Social Change, 17 young adult leaders came together to learn and share knowledge on topics like: nonviolence, anti-racism, queer activism, media and campaign planning, fund development, and religious analysis.  All of the campers left with strategies and written plans of action for projects in their local communities.  The campers are now off and running, taking what they learned during the training to make change where they live. 

Stay tuned to Soulforce’s blog page (under forums) for an upcoming blog featuring the Q campers and the projects they are doing in their local communities! 

2009 Q-Camp

Film Festivals Featuring "Equality U" and "Ask Not"

Equality U
What happens when a busload of young activists travel around the country to confront anti-LGBT policies at conservative religious and military colleges? Equality U tells the story of the Soulforce Equality Ride and their experiences combating hatred, fear, and ignorance through direct action. Their goal: to engage in a dialogue with university administration and students, explaining the tragic consequences that discriminatory policies have had on LGBT lives. Some schools welcome them, while others have them arrest and prevent them from speaking to students. Incorporating verite footage, interviews, and personal video journals recorded by the six central Riders themselves, Equality U focuses on the personal stories of our lead characters and the journeys they take during this foray into activism. The story comes through their eyes. They’ll make mistakes and they’ll have conflict with the outside world and amongst themselves. Equality U looks closely at their personal struggles over the course of the entire tour, allowing us an intimate portrait of a group of young people on the forefront of social change.

Film Festivals Featuring Equality U

OUTFEST, Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival
Saturday July 19, 2008 2:00pm Fairfax 1

NEWFEST The New York LGBT Film Festival
Wed. June 11, 3:45p AMC Lowes 34th St. – Theater 10
Sun. June 15, 1:30p AMC Lowes 34th St. – Theater 9

FRAMELINE 32 The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival
Saturday, June 21, 1:15p Roxie Film Center

Ask Not
Ask Not is a rare and compelling exploration of the effects of the US military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. The film exposes the tangled political battles that led to the discriminatory law and examines the societal shifts that have occurred since its passage in 1993. Current and veteran gay soldiers reveal how "don’t ask, don’t tell" affects them during their tours of duty, as they struggle to maintain a double life, uncertain of whom they can trust. The film also explores how gay veterans and youth organizers are turning to forms of personal activism to overturn the policy. From a national speaking tour of conservative universities to protests at military recruitment offices, these public events question how the U.S. military can claim to represent democracy and freedom while denying one segment of the population the right to serve.

Film Festivals Featuring Ask Not
TimesTalks at the Times Center, New York City
Friday, June 13, 6pm, TheTimesCenter, 242 W. 41st St.
Director, subjects, & military analysts in conversation after the screening

NewFest: The New York LGBT Film Festival
Saturday, June 14, 6pm, AMC Loews 34th St. Theater (at 8th Ave.)
Director & subjects in attendance

Provincetown International Film Festival
Friday, June 20, 4pm, Crown & Anchor Theater
Sunday, June 22, 4pm, Crown & Anchor Theater

Kansas City Gay & Lesbian Film Festival – opening night film
Friday, June 27th

Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
Saturday, July 19th and Sunday, July 20th


A film featuring Soulforce activism

Ask Not Logo
A film featuring Soulforce activism
Premiers tonight on PBS
9pm Central/10pm Eastern

Ask Not is a rare and compelling exploration of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. This award-winning film exposes the tangled political battles that led to the discriminatory law, and profiles courageous young activists determined to abolish it. As wars in the Middle East rage on, Ask Not reveals personal stories of gay Americans who serve in combat under a veil of secrecy.

Ask Not

ASK NOT’s national broadcast premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens is Tuesday, June 16th at 10pm.
Local times may vary, so please CHECK LOCAL LISTINGS HERE:

For more info about the film and other ways you can take action, visit:




Chicago Tribune, "Willow Creek Welcomes Gay Rights Advocates"

by Manya Brachear

Can the terms gay and evangelical coexist? More evangelical Christians are trying to grapple with homosexuality without straying from traditionally held views that same-sex relationships violate God’s word. A private conversation between leaders of a gay-rights advocacy group called Soulforce and Willow Creek Community Church on Sunday could mark a significant turning point.

The meeting was part of Soulforce’s American Family Outing, a tour of six influential mega-churches around the country between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce, said he envisioned the tour shortly after last year’s deaths of Revs. Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy, icons of the Christian Right. Soulforce was founded by Rev. Mel White, a gay evangelical pastor and former ghostwriter for Falwell.

"There is a growing awareness that many of the leaders of the evangelical community are getting older and even in some cases are beginning to talk publicly about what will happen when they’re gone," Lutes said.

At the same time, some contemporary evangelical leaders are demonstrating new attitudes. Rather than preach about divisive issues such as homosexuality, they tend to focus on more positive messages about humanity as a whole, Lutes said. Though the approach is friendlier, he said, it fails to address how Christians should treat gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families.

Rev. David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, a Baptist college in Atlanta, said Willow’s welcome reflects this new attitude.

"Younger evangelicals … are embarrassed by the hard line against homosexuality that has come to dominate the public stance of the evangelical right," said Gushee.

"They do not believe that homosexuality is a [or] the major social problem and do not believe that the major ‘family values’ issue is homosexuality."

Conservatives say the immorality of homosexuality is spelled out in the Old and New Testaments. They hang their argument on seven verses in Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, Corinthians and Timothy.

Those who advocate acceptance of gays assert that many of those passages refer to same-sex behavior acts in the context of idolatry, prostitution or violence. They say the Bible does not speak to homosexuality in the context of long-term committed relationships.

Churches that accept gay and lesbian members are referred to as welcoming and affirming congregations. That is not a term that applies to Willow and many other evangelical churches.

Betty Schmidt, a longtime elder at Willow Creek, said pastors there simplify the argument by pointing to only one verse, Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

"Traditionally Christians have founded their basis for human expression for sexuality … going back to that model," she said. "That is not a stretch for anyone who adheres to God’s word."

Willow Creek offers two ministries for gays and lesbians. "A Safe Place" caters to those who are "struggling with same sex attraction" and wish to remain celibate to honor what they believe Scripture teaches. "Someone I Love" counsels families who are grappling with how to accept a gay relative.

Though Willow’s Web site offers links to clinics that profess they can alter sexual orientation, Schmidt said that is not the church’s mission. If a gay or lesbian Christian wants to join Willow, they must believe that same-sex behavior is a sin and try to remain celibate. The same is true for anyone who might be engaging in sinful behavior, Schmidt said.

"We’re very … welcoming of anyone who comes to the church and is seeking and struggling with whatever it is," Schmidt said. "There’s help in God’s word and help in community and linking up with other Christians."

But welcoming was not enough for Mary Lou and Bob Wallner who returned to Willow with Soulforce on Sunday after leaving the mega-church in 2002. As members of Willow for eight years, they hosted a Bible study in their home for gay Christians and tried to persuade elders and pastors to reconsider the church’s theological stance.

"We realized we could not worship at a place that did not affirm monogamous gay partnerships," Wallner said. They later moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they are one of only a few heterosexual couples in their church.

What do you think? Should gay and lesbian families be free to call themselves evangelical Christians?

Chicago Tribune, "Gay Christians Meet with Rev. Bill Hybels"

Gay Christians meet with Rev. Bill Hybels and others at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington

Soulforce urges understanding on a tour of mega-churches across the nation

By Robert Mitchum and Manya A. Brachear | Tribune reporters
9:17 PM CDT, June 8, 2008

For Dotti Berry, healing the rift between religious conservatives and gay-marriage advocates could be as simple as replacing both sides’ stereotypes with a human face.

"You can’t hate someone whose story you know," Berry said Sunday in Fox River Grove. "My hope is that by meeting people, they’ll come to realize that what they might have been taught is not computing."

Berry — visiting from Blaine, Wash., with her partner of 7 years, Roby Sapp — had just returned from testing that theory Sunday afternoon at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, one of the Midwest’s largest churches. Alongside a group of gay Christians, their family members and clergy — including Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker — they met with Willow Creek leadership, hoping to begin a cordial dialogue about how the church views homosexuality.

The effort was one of six visits this spring organized around the nation by the gay-rights advocacy group Soulforce, each attempting to bring together gay families with leaders and members of influential mega-churches to discuss religious attitudes about homosexuality.

Members of the group that visited Willow Creek was optimistic after their meeting with the church’s leaders, including senior pastor Bill Hybels. They were treated with respect and open ears, even if only limited common ground was reached, they said. "It was a good first step today," said Berry, 54.

Willow Creek was one of the first to welcome Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va., to worship and engage in dialogue with Hybels, church elders and staff, said Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce.

"Bill Hybels is to be commended," Lutes said. "They were the first church that responded to our letters and to begin to have conversations with us and show willingness to meet face to face. By being willing to sit down at the table with us, they’ve demonstrated courage."

Other pastors have not been as welcoming. Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., accepted the invitation but at the last minute insisted on a debate, and Rev. Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston did not respond to Soulforce. But he welcomed Bakker when the group showed up to worship.

Bakker, 32, who has led his own Revolution Church since 1994, said he was drawn to help Soulforce’s efforts by the group’s willingness to engage religious leaders, not fight them.

"I liked it because it wasn’t protesting, it was trying to have conversation," Bakker said Sunday. "I know from experience what happens when Christians start gossiping and rejecting other Christians."

Bakker said he came under fire when he supported homosexuality and gay marriage three years ago. But he commended Willow Creek leadership for Sunday’s meeting.

"They listened, they ate with us, when a lot of churches struggle to show hospitality to these groups," he said.

Betty Schmidt, an elder at Willow Creek, described Willow as a hospitable congregation, even though the church does not accept gay and lesbian members who don’t stay celibate.

"It’s a very warm and welcoming atmosphere," she said. "It would certainly be my experience that we would never single out or identify or discriminate against anyone."

Schmidt said she feels strongly that people do not choose to be gay, and many in the Soulforce group said they were happy to hear similar sentiments from several church leaders Sunday.

But others said such influential churches as Willow Creek could do more to adjust their views on homosexuality and treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families.

"I think for instance Bill Hybels could say just a few words from his pulpit without either opposing us or condoning us to make the world a lot safer for my children," Lutes said.

Gay Dads to Celebrate Father’s Day at Saddleback Church

For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771


(Lake Forest, CA) This Father’s Day, June 15, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and straight-ally families will spend their holiday in a way that is simultaneously extraordinary and profoundly commonplace: they will attend services at Saddleback Church, the mega-church founded by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life.

The following day, the families will join leaders from Saddleback Church for a private meal and conversation. Warren and his wife Kay are expected to attend.

The visit is the conclusion of a six-week journey, a gay-friendly 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 major mega-churches to match families from their congregations with LGBT 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.

As of June 16, 2008, The American Family Outing will have met successfully with all six of the churches. The meetings have ranged in size and depth; Lakewood Church welcomed the families to worship but would only meet privately with one of the Family Outing’s clergy leaders, Pastor Jay Bakker. In contrast, Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia met personally with LGBT families from Atlanta and around the country.

"The meetings have been an occasion to clear up misperceptions on both sides and to begin to focus on what we have in common," says Jeff Lutes, Executive Director of Soulforce and one of the organizers of the American Family Outing.

Lutes and his partner, Gary Stein, along with their three kids, will be participating in the visit with Saddleback Church. Members of the Lutes-Stein family have also visited Lakewood Church and The Potter’s House in Dallas. They will also join families visiting Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois on June 8.

"It’s not your average summer vacation," says Lutes. "But it has been an amazing experience. In the end, we’re doing it to make a safer world for our kids, so it’s all worth it."

Clergy leader Jay Bakker will also join the families for the visit with Saddleback.

To read press coverage of The American Family Outing, go to: https://soulforceactionarchives.org/article/1367

To find out more about California dads participating in the visit to Saddleback, contact Paige Schilt, paige@soulforce.org.

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.








Southern Voice, "Soulforce Worships With New Birth"

Soulforce worships with New Birth

Long says his anti-gay stance ‘mischaracterized’ by press
By MATT SCHAFER, Southern Voice | Jun 4, 6:46 PM

After weeks of negotiation and anticipation, the gay Christian activist group Soulforce peacefully met June 1 with Bishop Eddie Long, the leader of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, the largest church in Georgia.

Long, who returned to the U.S. that morning after a weeklong trip to Dubai, met with Soulforce members after 17 hours of travel followed by an emotional sermon.

Long made national headlines in 2004 when he led thousands of people through downtown Atlanta in a march protesting several issues, including gay marriage.

Soulforce met with Long for roughly 30 mintues after the 10:30 a.m. worship service. The meeting was closed to the press, but both New Birth and Soulforce representatives said it was a productive, civil and sometimes emotional conversation.

"From the respect of New Birth, I can tell you that they thought it was productive. They were happy to have them worship with them," New Birth Spokesperson Dan Renee said.

Soulforce member Dr. Dionne Bates, an Atlanta area psychologist, attended the meeting with her partner Dr. Kathi Martin, a pastor at the First Metropolitan Community Church in Atlanta.

"Not only was [Long] open with regards to talks about homosexuality, he was able to say that there are some things that he does not know, and some things that he has to learn," Bates said.

"One of the things that he expressed is that his name has really been bashed in the media as far as the gay and lesbian community," Bates said. "What I would like to walk out of this meeting with is that people’s consciences are changed. We don’t want to go back, but we want to go forward."

Long reportedly told Soulforce and the New Birth leaders at the meeting that several of his actions and comments have not been understood.

"It’s not just the gay community, there are a number of issues that he feels the press has mischaracterized," Renee said.

The church has repeatedly declined to schedule an interview with Southern Voice, but Renee said he would pass along a new invitation.

During the meeting, Rev. Troy Sanders, an Atlanta pastor of preach2me.com, said his estranged godmother made a public apology to Sanders and the larger gay community.

"We haven’t worshiped together in five years, and had not talked in two," Sanders said. "Our relationship was strained because of LGBT issues. When I tried to come out to her she kind of shut down and pulled away."

The meeting ended with Soulforce members offering to lead workshops at New Birth on human sexuality. Renee said the church is considering its options.

"There’s not going to be a sudden change of everything. I think you’re going to see a gradual exploration of those topics," he said.