By Jhaneel Lockhart
When Juanita Kirton joined Riverside Church in the early 1980s, she was a single mother looking for a church that would accept her not just as a black woman but as a lesbian. There, she found comfort in the Inspirational Choir, and in Maranatha, the church’s LGBT ministry that is made up of openly gay members, as well as straight people allied with the cause.
“It took me about 10 years later before I even came out and felt comfortable in the church within my own skin,” says Kirton. “But Maranatha helped foster that and support me in that coming out process.”
Maranatha is one of a growing number of programs created by churches in New York City to provide a welcoming home for openly gay, lesbian and transgender Christians, defying a tradition in many houses of worship that shuns homosexuality.
Through its LGBT ministry, Riverside Church, just north of Columbia University on the western edge of Harlem, focuses on the needs of its gay members by hosting events like an annual Christmas party and participating in the New York City Pride Parade each year. By preaching a message of inclusion for all, churches like Riverside help gay members feel that they are a part of God’s family, though many of them have heard the complete opposite for much of their lives.
At the Park Avenue Christian Church, at East 85th Street and Park Avenue, the message of the day is diversity. It’s posted by the signature bright red doors at the church’s entrance and on almost all the printed materials they hand out, from a brochure for the Couples Ministry to an introductory pamphlet for new members.
“A phrase that we like to use is the ‘divinity of difference,’ that difference is not a deficit or deficiency, but it’s to be celebrated and embraced,” says Rev. Alvin Jackson, the pastor.
The Park, as it is often called, was one of the first churches in The Disciples of Christ denomination to call an openly gay pastor to service, according to Jackson. And in the late ’70s, the church passed a resolution that it would be open and affirming to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“It’s not a matter of political correctness, but it’s theological correctness,” says Jackson, whose church has gay members in both the congregation and leadership positions and has performed several weddings.
Metro Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan has not married any same-sex couples, but the pastor, Tiffany Triplett Henkel, says this is not because it is unwilling to do so, but because their space is so small and the church doesn’t do a lot of weddings in general.
“I don’t think there has ever been a time when someone of any sexual background or sexual orientation would not have been welcome and affirmed here,” says Henkel. “But I think in the early ’90s, we became a little bit more intentional about presenting ourselves in that way, and even more than that, more intentional about saying ‘OK, we say we’re a church where all are welcome, we need to practice that in every way we can.’”
With that, Metro has taken several small steps toward promoting an image of openness. It has joined the growing number of churches that participate in the New York City Pride Parade each year, and there are gay members in the congregation and in leadership positions, according to Henkel.
“Our policy is that we are open to all, ‘a church for all’ is sort of the phrase that we use often times,” says Henkel. “Metro Baptist church, a church where all are welcome.”
Metro is in the minority of Baptist churches that do not condemn homosexuality. “This is the way that we understand what it means to be people of God, people living out the gospel of Jesus Christ and that is that our doors are supposed to be open and that we fully believe that those that walk through the door are created by God,” says Henkel. “And instead of trying to squelch them or change them in any way, we believe that we should actually encourage them to be more of who they are.”
Other churches see the issue as one that doesn’t need discussion.
“Honestly it’s just not even a dialogue,” said Mother Shelley McDade, pastor at the Church of the Ascension at West 11th Street. “We all know that we are open, it’s who we are, so coming together it really is much more about God and the music and worship. We just don’t segregate people out.”
There are no special committees or programming at the church, where more than half the congregation is gay, lesbian or transsexual, according to McDade.
Church of the Ascension, which was once called The Open Door, is part of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which does not allow its bishops to perform same-sex marriages. But bishops can “bless” civil marriages, meaning they can hold a ceremony after the marriage has been performed by a government official.
Tricia Sheffield, an associate minister at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, remembers when the New York State Marriage Equality Act passed this summer.
“I thought we were all going to cry and laugh and scream; it was fantastic,” says Sheffield, whose church had been marrying gay couples long before the law passed, and had invested a lot of time and effort lobbying in support of the law. The week after it passed, three couples were married during Sunday service, drawing cheers from the entire congregation.
A thin strip of paper pasted on a bookshelf in Sheffield’s office reads, “You’ve been called by God to love people. That’s all,” giving insight into why the church supports people of all backgrounds and interests.
“I think it’s pretty clear,” says Sheffield. “How could we reject anybody? When you say you’re going to hurt someone, and to hate someone, and to reject someone, then you’re not living out the gospel of Jesus.”
It’s this kind of diversity and acceptance without distinction that Kirton, who met her wife at a routine Second Sunday meeting, appreciates most at Riverside.
“They’re accepting everyone, and when they said everyone, it meant that I could come in as a gay person and there’s no sign on my forehead,” says Kirton.