Faith and affirmation: having Pride in the churches of the desert
By Timothy Rawles, July 2020 Issue.
Reverend Patrick Stout’s words have been an earworm inside my head ever since I read them: “We are a part of the community, not apart from the community,” he said of his church. This I thought should be the mantra of all faith-based religions that promise solace in times of need, but if you are LGBTQ, what you think should be a safe place, sometimes isn’t.
Rev. Stout is the Founding Pastor of Community Church of Hope in Phoenix. He is one of many faith-based leaders in the community who is welcoming to the LGBTQ community. In these times of unpredictability, words of comfort and encouragement might come from a place you thought you were traditionally forbidden to enter.
I reached out to three LGBTQ inclusive faith organizations with questions about devotion and acceptance. Not only did I want to learn more about them, I wanted to understand why faith is important and why it’s so polarizing when it comes to the LGBTQ community. It turns out there is a place for you, whoever you are.
Rev. Stout says that faith is something that can help people in these troubled times. It helps to create a bigger picture of life and society. “It assists in alleviating fear because faith leads us to know that through our collective consciences and best choices, we still have the opportunity to change the world we live in. Faith is that part that helps us not to give up but to renew our journey and reconnect with others on a similar journey and truly make a choice to stay in the struggle and make the changes needed,” he said.
His words are encouraging, but what about the fear that is so often inflicted by other Churches, delivered in small doses? Cherry-picked Bible verses from leaders whose sole purpose is to offer acceptance but only on their terms: you can attend our church you just can’t be gay or practice it.
Luckily in Arizona there are many religious leaders such as Rev. Charlotte Strayhorne, who identifies as lesbian and is a co-pastor for the LGBTQ-inclusive Casa de Cristo Church and Apostolic Center. She challenges those cunning strategies.
I asked how one denomination says being gay is a sin, but another church under that same canon preaches inclusivity?
“One would start by defining canon and the interpretation, translation or understanding of that canon,” said Rev. Strayhorne. “Our source is the Bible and our understanding of what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality is our guide.”
“Our understanding therefore is based on the words of Jesus,” she adds. “When examining the four gospels of the New Testament, Jesus had these simple words to say about homosexuality, nothing. So our acceptance of the LGBTQ community is based on the words of Christ. When we begin to exclude anyone from prayer, worship and praise, we step away from the true canon and belief of Jesus. Any church that preaches prejudice as its foundation is not living up to the true teachings, canons and words of Christ.
James Pennington, Senior Minister for First Church United Church of Christ Phoenix, needed more clarification of my question about canon, but kindly offered this: “Canon for me refers to the accepted books of the Bible. It’s all about how you interpret the Bible and if you believe it is to be read in the context of the culture of the day. I have studied both the Hebrew and the Greek, and the English translations are inaccurate about what we call ‘the clobber’ texts or Bible verses. For us being LGBTQIA is not a sin, not a choice, but a God-given gift.”
Minister Pennington says he was agnostic for years and knows what it’s like to live outside an understanding of the presence of a Divine Being.
“It can feel lonely. Faith in a higher power or in the presence of God within each human being (and animal and plant), helps one realize that we are all one. The Spirit of God lives in each one of us, no one is exempt.”
There are 12 LGBTQ-inclusive church organizations listed on Phoenix Pride’s website. That’s a lot for a city that doesn’t even have a stand-alone LGBTQ community center.
“There is always a place of worship that will accept the disenfranchised,” said Rev. Strayhorne. “This was not always the case. I am thankful for the existence of clergy around the state of Arizona that have embraced and lived the true meaning of inclusive, open and affirming. To shun someone from the faith of their heart is a feeble and weak attempt at last-minute control. I encourage those who have been ostracized and shunned to hold on to the roots of their faith and find solace in a place of worship that accepts you for who you are.”
Even as the world is becoming more and more tolerant there are still people who think that violence and destruction are the best courses of action against things they don’t understand.
Rev. Stout recalls being picketed by protestors with bullhorns. “Our building has been tagged. We have been broken into and our property stolen and looted. Hate messages have been left on our phone, Facebook page and our website. I, personally, have been ridiculed on the radio when I joined in a discussion of homosexuality and the church. We still deal with individuals who attend the church who have been hated by family, friends, co-workers, etc.”
Minister Pennington says he has also experienced hatred. “We had a White Privilege series for the whole community three-and-a-half years ago. We had about 200 people through the five-week series. We were picketed by The Arizona Patriots and called many names in the book. When I was identified as an out gay pastor they nicknamed me ‘Pastor Satan.’”
I suggest to them that it could be Arizona. It does have a reputation for being historically conservative, especially Maricopa County, but Pennington doesn’t agree, “I don’t think Arizona is honestly conservative. I moved here from Minneapolis, which is considered quite liberal and progressive, but they had their eyes closed there to bigotry and racism and inequities.”
Speaking of Minneapolis, America has become a hotbed of demonstrations and protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man, after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck and back for nearly nine minutes.
LGBTQ people of every color took to the streets with the mantra “The first Pride was a riot,” referring to the beginning of the gay rights movement and the Stonewall rebellion.
Rev. Stout says the country and the world are always presenting challenges. “We can either fall victim to them or find a new way in the midst of the struggle.” He wants people to know that a great social circle is important as is a well-grounded faith in a higher power. “Getting out of ourselves and into the bigger picture is always important. No self-isolating during challenging times. Learning new ways to cope with fear and educating one’s self about growing, changing and becoming keeps us from being stagnant and ignorant about how to move forward and how to help others moving forward. The easiest way to get out of your own self is to assist another who needs your help. Two are always better than one in confronting what will come next in our lives.”
That sentiment is echoed by Rev. Strayhorne, whose words of encouragement could be straight from the book of LGBTQ Pride philosophies and not necessarily with a religious overtone.
“When we look at all the things that are going on in the world, don’t lose hope,” she said. “From COVID-19, to brutal murder by jackbooted, legally armed thugs, keep hope alive. When the world is in an uproar and the danger zone is everywhere, stand your ground for peaceful solutions.”
Community Church of Hope
Rev. Patrick Stout, Founding Pastor, 4121 N. Seventh Ave., in Phoenix.
Casa de Cristo Church and Apostolic Center
Rev. Charlotte Strayhorne 1029 E. Turney Ave. in Phoenix.
First Church United Church of Christ Phoenix
James Pennington, Senior Minister
1407 N. Second St., in Phoenix.
Thank you to Phoenix Pride for providing this information to these and other LGBTQ-inclusive churches. Visit phoenixpride.org for the complete list.