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.