San Antonio Express News, "Gay Couple Looks for Welcoming Church"

Gay couple looks for welcoming church

Jeorge Zarazua

Publication Date : May 11, 2008

San Antonio mom Della Nagle thought it would be a simple task: Go to some of the nation’s largest churches, visit with members and prove to them that she and her wife – yes, wife – can be part of a Christian family, too. But with the first church visit scheduled today in Houston, Nagle and her lesbian partner, Ruth Pinkham, whom she married in Canada, are facing a rude awakening.

Of the six mega-churches contacted to participate in the nationwide crusade, the American Family Outing, only two have agreed. The first church they are to visit, Lakewood Church of Houston, ignored its repeated requests until last week, when a spokesman said the church couldn’t accommodate the group. "We just don’t really have the staff," said Don Iloff, who said five or six other groups already are scheduled to visit the church this weekend.

The American Family Outing was to kick off its campaign at Lakewood today to coincide with Mother’s Day. The movement was to continue until Father’s Day, with gay families and their clergy supporters visiting megachurches throughout the country from California to Maryland to promote "meaningful dialogue" about homosexuality and Christianity.

Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce, the Austin-based civil rights and social organization spearheading the outing, said the group was essentially asking churches: Can you show hospitality to strangers with whom you disagree?

"Having a meal and talking with us does not mean that you support our beliefs," he said. "It’s simply people coming together and bridging a divide. We’re just hoping that somehow, someway we can get a little bit past the divisiveness around this issue."

But just getting a chance to talk has proven difficult. The effort has been assailed on the Internet and has provoked the Family Research Council, a conservative group that opposes gay marriage, to launch a crusade of its own, asking supporters to form "Church Crisis Response Teams." "Pray these churches will be girded up, each member protected from unclean spirits and false doctrine," states a council-written prayer. "May God give their leaders wisdom to instruct them how to deal with these sadly deceived people who propagate sin and deception!"

Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, called the effort a mere publicity stunt, adding he doesn’t see the purpose of such dialogues when the differences are irreconcilable. Sprigg also criticized the campaign’s self-proclaimed goal of dispelling "divisive tactics." "It seems to me in this case they’re the ones trying to create division," he said. "They’re the ones that are being very confrontational, and I think it’s unfortunate that they’re the ones who are bringing this confrontation into the sanctuary of churches."

The reaction has floored the San Antonio couple, both schoolteachers in Northside Independent School District and parents of eight children, four of whom continue to live with them at their Northwest Side home. "I’m just awestruck," Nagle said. "The way it was explained to us is we want them to see we don’t have three heads and horns. We’re just normal people. We get up every morning and take our kids to school, and work and come home and take them to church and do all the things we’re supposed to as parents to help them be raised right."

Pastor Jay Bakker, son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner, is the clergy supporter helping gay families try to reach out to Lakewood Church. Bakker said he’s somewhat shocked Lakewood hasn’t agreed to participate, especially because its pastor, Joel Osteen, preaches about inclusion when it comes to other social matters.

"How can we make any change if we’re not even sitting down and talking?" he asked.

But Lakewood spokesman Iloff said the church doesn’t have the necessary staff to arrange dinners between members of its congregation and visitors. Iloff also said he was unclear as to what Soulforce meant by "meaningful dialogue," and he expressed concern that the organization was trying to politicize the issue. He did, however, say Lakewood welcomes all visitors. "It doesn’t matter who they are," Iloff said. "They’re more than welcome to come worship with us."

The two churches that have agreed to participate in the American Family Outing said they don’t see anything wrong with meeting with gay families and sharing meals with them.

"I think we’re OK with having a discussion with an organization no matter who the organization is, regardless of their position," said Ron Ercoli, staff psychologist at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. "It’s simply having a dialogue."

Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., said while he’s against same-sex marriage, he is respectful of gay people. "I’m not surprised that many of the churches are shrinking away from this, because it is controversial and it is volatile," Jackson said.

Lutes said a third church, the Potter’s House of Dallas, also agreed to participate, but Ann Fields, a spokeswoman for the church, said she couldn’t confirm that and declined further comment. And, Lutes said, there’s ongoing discussions with a fourth church, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The fifth, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, near Atlanta hasn’t responded to the group’s request.

Nagle and Pinkham both said even if Lakewood doesn’t participate, they still plan to attend worship services at the church this weekend with their children. "I don’t think God will give us more than we can handle," Pinkham said. "So, wherever we go, whatever we do, I believe we will be in God’s protection."