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

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SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: June 24, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771
paige@soulforce.org

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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.

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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

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SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: June 4, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771
paige@soulforce.org

******************************************

(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.

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Bishop Long Meets with LGBT Families: A Story of Family Reconciliation

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SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: June 2, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771
paige@soulforce.org

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(Atlanta, GA) — Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, attended a Sunday meeting with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) families. The meeting, which also included New Birth elders and staff, was part of a nationwide fellowship project called The American Family Outing, which aims to create dialogue between LGBT families and families at six American mega-churches between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 2008.

At least one family was literally reconciled through the meeting. Rev. Troy Sanders, an openly gay minister from Atlanta, was surprised to find his estranged godmother, a member of New Birth, in the meeting. The two shared a public and emotional reunion.

"Before, she didn’t know how to talk about me being an openly gay man," said Sanders, "and I interpreted that as rejection."

"Yesterday she was clear that, while she doesn’t agree with everything theologically, her love for me is not negated as a result of that. For both of us, there is a desire to remain connected," said Sanders.

For Sanders, who has participated in three of the American Family Outing visits, this one had a special character: "The element of family and connectedness seemed to come across very clearly. Whether or not we see eye-to-eye, that connection is not destroyed."

According to several participants in the meeting, Bishop Long made a special effort to be present, in spite of having just returned from Dubai.

In previous weeks, AFO families have visited Lakewood Church in Houston, The Potter’s House in Dallas, and Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD. In these visits, American Family Outing participants and church congregants have engaged in thoughtful and inspiring dialogue and fellowship.

Next week, LGBT families will visit Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. The American Family Outing concludes at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, on Father’s Day.

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.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) is an international fellowship of Christian churches with a special ministry to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The National Black Justice Coalition(NBJC) is a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black same-gender-loving, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. The Coalition works with our communities and our allies for social justice, equality, and an end to racism and homophobia.

COLAGE is a national movement of children, youth and adults with one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer parents. We build community and work toward social justice through youth empowerment, leadership development, education, and advocacy.

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New Birth to Meet with LGBT Families

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SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: May 30, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771
paige@soulforce.org

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(Atlanta, GA) Steve Parelli is a former Baptist minister. His partner, Jose Ortiz, also studied for the ministry and spent several months as a Southern Baptist lay minister. Since meeting and falling in love at an "ex-gay" support group in Manhattan, the couple has learned a thing or two about faith, family, rejection, and redemption.

And that’s why Parelli and Ortiz are leading a group of gay and lesbian families and clergy who will meet with members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church this Sunday, June 1.

"At some point, at some place, constructive conversations must begin between the church and the gay son or gay daughter who grew up in that church," explained Parelli, who was spurned by his family and lost his ministry upon coming out. Parelli has since found a new calling in supporting LGBT-affirming ministries around the world.

Atlanta-based minister Troy Sanders, founder of Preach2me.com, concurs:

"I have a personal investment in this visit, because my family is in New Birth. And when I say family, I mean both kinds.

"I have biological family who are still caught in the conflict between their theology and having an openly gay clergy person as kin, and I have lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters who — for whatever reason — have chosen to make New Birth their church home," Sanders explained.

The visit to New Birth Missionary Baptist Church is part of a nationwide fellowship outreach called The American Family Outing, which issued an invitation to Bishop Eddie Long and members of his Lithonia, Georgia, church to share a meal and conversation with LGBT families and clergy.

The American Family Outing (AFO) is a collaborative project of Soulforce, COLAGE, National Black Justice Coalition, and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

The AFO aims to open dialogue between LGBT families and families at six American mega-churches. In previous weeks, AFO families have visited Lakewood Church in Houston, The Potter’s House in Dallas, and Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD. In these successful visits, American Family Outing participants and church congregants have engaged in thoughtful and inspiring dialogue and fellowship.

Parelli and Ortiz also participated in the visit to Hope Christian Church. For Ortiz, who grew up in an evangelical church, it was a homecoming of sorts:

"In the presence of my fellow AFO brothers and sisters, I was able to affirm myself as a child of God created just as God intended, fully belonging to God AS I AM, fellowshipping with God as his gay child," said Ortiz.

In weeks to come, LGBT families will visit Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Saddleback Church in California.

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.
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Soulforce Releases Video of Bishop Harry Jackson

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SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: May 30, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771
paige@soulforce.org

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(Friday, May 30, 2008) Today Soulforce posted a video of Bishop Harry Jackson’s closing remarks at a dinner meeting with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) families at his Beltsville, Maryland church on May 24, 2008.

"I want to thank you for the spirit in which you have said you were going to operate and in which you have operated thus far," Jackson said to the assembled families.

The conciliatory and grateful tone of the remarks offers a sharp contrast to Jackson’s recent appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network News, where Jackson characterized the families as "irrational," "heathen," and "aggressive."

The meeting was part of a nationwide fellowship outreach called The American Family Outing, which aims to open dialogue by inviting families at six American mega-churches to share a meal and conversation with LGBT and straight-ally families.

Prior to the meeting, a press release from Jackson’s High Impact Leadership Coalition mistakenly suggested that members of The American Family Outing planned to protest outside Hope Christian Church and that Jackson had invited the family members in to "hear the truth of the Gospel."

Jackson’s remarks to the LGBT families clarify the nature of the meeting: "I want to thank you tonight for coming. Again, if you had not invited us originally, if you had not insisted on the dialogue, it never would have happened."

Jackson concluded his remarks by saying "I believe that we have learned quite a bit from this time together."

View Jackson’s complete closing remarks. View the CBN interview.

Speaking to the discrepancy between the two videos, Paige Schilt, Soulforce Media Director said, "Sometimes, when our interlocutors are in the grip of profound misinformation, they do not treat us with respect and integrity."

"It is tempting to withdraw or become defensive — and yet we persist in our witness. Why? Not because we are naive, but because we believe that, ultimately, no misinformation or slander can obscure the goodness and authenticity of our families and our quest for justice," Schilt continued.

In previous weeks, AFO families have visited Lakewood Church in Houston and The Potter’s House in Dallas. In these successful visits, American Family Outing participants and church congregants have engaged in thoughtful and inspiring dialogue and fellowship. In weeks to come, LGBT families will visit Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Saddleback Church in California.

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.

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LGBT Families Share Their Witness with Hope Christian, Bishop Jackson

Dinner Builds a Bridge to Future Dialogue

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SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: May 27, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Paige Schilt, 
Media Director
Cell: 512-659-1771
paige@soulforce.org

******************************************

(Washington, D.C.) On Saturday, May 24, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and straight-ally families shared dinner and conversation with families from Bishop Harry Jackson’s Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland.

According to The Washington Times, Bishop Jackson, who is known for his opposition to marriage equality and hate crimes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, called the meeting with same-gender-loving families "historic."

Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition and a lead organizer of the meeting said, "We knew that there were distinct theological chasms between Hope Christian and our group of lesbian, gay and bisexual folk, and those differences were not expected to be breached in one meeting. However, the purpose was for Hope Christian church families to get to know our families and see that the commonalities we share are greater that the differences."

The dinner was part of a nationwide fellowship outreach called The American Family Outing, which issued an invitation to Bishop Jackson and members of his Maryland church to share a meal and "heart-to-heart" conversation with LGBT families and clergy.

The initial invitation to fellowship was issued in letters dated December 1, 2007, and March 20, 2008. The letters were released last week in response to a press release from Jackson’s High Impact Leadership Coalition, which mistakenly suggested that members of The American Family Outing planned to protest outside Hope Christian Church. (See links to letters below.)

The event was comprised of about 30 people from Hope Christian Church and about 30 people from The American Family Outing (AFO). The conversation began with opening statements from each group. Then moderators from each group accepted questions from those assembled. Rev. Phil Lawson, Soulforce board member and veteran African American civil rights activist, acted as the moderator for the AFO.

Some of the topics discussed were hate crimes protections, free speech, marriage equality, civil rights, and attitudes toward gay and lesbian sons and daughters who come out in evangelical families and churches such as Hope Christian. Many of the AFO families were able to share their experiences of discrimination and spiritual violence in the one-on-one conversation and the larger forum.

"Where do we go from here?" asked Sylvia Rhue. "There is a mutual agreement to continue the conversation."

The American Family Outing is a collaborative project of Soulforce, COLAGE, National Black Justice Coalition, and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

The AFO aims to open dialogue between LGBT families and families at six American mega-churches. In previous weeks, AFO families have visited Lakewood Church in Houston and The Potter’s House in Dallas. In these successful visits, AFO participants and church congregants have engaged in thoughtful and inspiring dialogue and fellowship. In weeks to come, LGBT families will visit Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Saddleback Church in California.

To read the full text of the letter dated December 1, 2007, go to: www.soulforce.org/article/1368

To read the full text of the letter dated March 20, 2008, go to: www.soulforce.org/article/1369

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.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) is an international fellowship of Christian churches with a special ministry to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The National Black Justice Coalition(NBJC) is a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black same-gender-loving, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. The Coalition works with our communities and our allies for social justice, equality, and an end to racism and homophobia.

COLAGE is a national movement of children, youth and adults with one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer parents. We build community and work toward social justice through youth empowerment, leadership development, education, and advocacy.
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Washington Times, "Christians, Gays, Not of One Accord"

Christians, Gays, Not of One Accord

Julie Duin

It was a meeting of opposites: 30 conservative black Pentecostals from Hope Christian Church in Beltsville dining with 30 activists from Soulforce, a pro-gay religious group.

While there was no rancor or overt anger, there also was no meeting of minds. After nearly 90 minutes of debate Saturday night, no one on either side of the question of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality would admit to changing their minds.

"It was noncombative, nonpunitive dialogue," said the Rev. Troy Sanders, a gay black pastor from Atlanta who was one of the Soulforce speakers. Soulforce members queried after the dinner said they were pleased with their reception, and several said they would attend Hope Christian’s Sunday service.

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of the 3,000-member church, acknowledged the evening was "historic" but made no promises about any changes in teaching or policy. "We’ll have to pray about discrimination issues in the gay community," he said.

Soulforce has targeted six megachurches with its gospel of "freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and all transgender people," and Hope Christian was their third stop on a six-week nationwide tour called the "American Family Outing," Soulforce’s campaign to showcase gay couples with their children.

On Dec. 1, Soulforce leaders contacted Bishop Jackson, asking for a "dialogue on homosexuality and Christianity."

"Even though we disagree on the Bible," said Jeff Lutes, Soulforce’s executive director, "we can relate about our kids. We’re trying to reach out across that divide, make a connection and see what happens from that. Typically, fear goes down when people make connections."

Soulforce got a chilly reception May 18 from the Rev. Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston; He refused to meet with the group. The reception was better May 11 with the Rev. T.D. Jakes and members of the Potter’s House Church in Dallas. Coming visits include the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.

Bishop Jackson was chosen because of his high profile among the religious right. He heads the High Impact Leadership Coalition of conservative black church leaders, instigated the 2005 "Black Contract with America on Moral Values" and co-authored the recent book "Personal Faith, Public Policy."

The Beltsville church hosted Soulforce at a dinner Saturday night, along with a debate in which each side asked the other eight questions. The church posed queries such as "Why do you think gay marriage is sanctioned by God?" and "Why do you think pastors who preach against gay rights are bigots?"

Soulforce questions included "If your child came out to you, how would you want your child to be treated?" and "What programs do you have in place for same-gender-loving couples?"

"We have no programs," Bishop Jackson quickly responded. Rather, they use the services of the ex-gay group Exodus International because homosexuals "need ministry," he said.

That comment did not go over well, judging by the stony looks on the faces of Soulforce attendees.

The bishop acknowledged he was suspicious when Soulforce first wrote him to say they were showing up, uninvited.

"Some of the history of your organization has confrontation with it," he said. "I have been threatened with physical harm by people who are openly gay."

Soulforce representatives got incensed at one question that mentioned survey data on the relative wealth of the gay community and asked why homosexuals "have hijacked the civil rights movement."

Michelle Freeman, a Houston resident attending the dinner with her lesbian lover, informed the group they could not marry, nor get tax breaks, "so in the eyes of the law, we are not equal," she added. Homosexuality "is not a choice, it’s biology. So it’s a civil rights violation."

Dallas Morning News, "Gay Rights Group Visits the Potter’s House"

Gay rights group visits the Potter’s House

Saturday, May 24, 2008
By Sam Hodges

Dallas megachurch the Potter’s House had the welcome mat in place last Sunday for a visiting gay rights delegation but didn’t give ground on such issues as gay marriage.

"We were treated very well," said Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce, a national group that pushes for full inclusion of gay people in churches.

"I think it was an important first step."

Soulforce and three other groups with a gay rights focus have had members visiting prominent megachurches, including Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, in a campaign called the American Family Outing.

A 30-person contingent, consisting in part of gay couples with children, attended the 11 a.m. service at the Potter’s House, a 30,000-member congregation.

"They seated us on the third row, and there were no questions or issues around the fact that some of us were clearly couples," said Deneen Robinson, an elder in Living Faith Covenant Church, a predominantly black church in Dallas that is "welcoming and affirming" to gay people.

After the service, some of the visitors met with staff of the Potter’s House. Bishop T.D. Jakes, the well-known founder and pastor of the church, was recovering from back surgery and did not attend. But he did call Mr. Lutes.

"Bishop Jakes responded favorably to our request for ongoing conversation," Mr. Lutes said.

Both sides agree that they have differences, including on gay marriage.

"Our theology is based on the Bible, and in the Bible it states that a union is between a man and woman," said Curtis Coats III, a spokesman for the Potter’s House.

Mr. Coats and Mr. Lutes said the visitors and church staff found common ground on such issues as the importance of HIV testing, something Bishop Jakes has promoted as part of an extensive outreach ministry.

Shayne Lee, a Tulane University sociologist, said Bishop Jakes’ pragmatism was clear in how the meeting was handled.

"It does show on his part a willingness to engage with people who are different, and, strategically, to keep that dialogue low key," said Dr. Lee, author of the book T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher.