Birmingham-- For many gays and lesbians, coming out is an overwhelming experience. They face, family, friends, coworkers and sometimes the most daunting of all, their church. The message delivered from the pulpit leaves many at spiritual crossroads. Some feel obligated to be someone they're not. Others try to decide what part of their spirituality to keep and what to discard. Les Lovoy reports on how this faith journey affects gay men and women and their families.
Michael Jordan is senior pastor at New Era Baptist Church in Birmingham. Jordon is unwavering about one thing. When talking about homosexuality, he squints his eyes, clasps his hands and leans forward to make sure you get his message.
"It's like any other sin. Some say, well, we're born with these homosexual propensities or nature. That can be true. Homosexuality can be a generational curse, just like lying, stealing, jealousy, hate, fornicating or whatever, adultery. But, that's why when you get to the scriptures, you talk about, if you can be born a certain way, doesn't mean God made you like that."
Many gay men and women grew up listening to clergy like Jordan, who believe homosexuality is a sin. Birmingham resident Ty Thornton is gay. He was raised a conservative Baptist, and in the tenth grade he left home to attend the Academy of Religion. Later, he attended Bob Jones University, in Greenville South Carolina, where he earned a music degree. His love of music and hymns drew him closer to the church. Its views on homosexuality drove him away.
"I don't remember the year, but I remember sitting in chapel and hearing the president of the university say, sissies deserve to be taken out behind the gym and beaten up. So, that's kind of the mental image I had growing up and how gay people should be treated.
It's difficult, but Thornton attends service church regularly. He plays piano and organ for several local congregations. Sitting at his piano in the his book-lined study in his townhome, Thorton says the music is what keeps him going.
"I reach the point sometimes where I don't want to go to church any more. I am so tired of having being beat up by this subject over and over and over again."
Thornton's is not alone.
"Some people who I talk with on a daily basis tell me about their experiences as I had to make the decision whether or not I was going to take my own life, or live on."
That's Malcom Marlor, chaplain at the HIV/Aids Outpatient Clinic at UAB. He says folks who grew up in more conservative congregations tend to struggle the most with their spirituality.
"Am I OK in who I am? Am I a child of God or not. Am I loved by God, or not? Or does this disqualify me from being able to be with God after death?"
Some gays and lesbians are able to find a spiritual home. Some churches, like Covenant Community Church in Centerpoint, openly accepting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender members individuals. Pastor J.R. Finney is gay, as is most of the congregation.
"Our mission is aimed at those people who have been on faith journeys or no faith journeys, especially in the LGBT community, and let them know they can have a faith journey and they can walk in relationship with Jesus Christ and us as Christians."
But some gays and lesbians would rather not attend a congregation that's labeled "a gay church." They simply feel more comfortable in being a member of a mainstream church. David Gary attends Birmingham's St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Birmingham. Still, he says, it's a compromise. Sitting in a downtown coffee shop, he explains....
"For me personally, I want to be affirmed and to me being affirmed in a church setting means that if I feel a calling to church clergy work that I'll be accepted into that track with no questions asked because I'm gay. Likewise, if I feel a calling to be married into the church, then I'll be married in the church, with no question about me being gay."
And, it's not just gays and lesbians themselves. Their parents are also thrown for a spiritual loop. Marda Sydnor is on the board of the Birmingham chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. It's a support group. She says her family used to regularly attend church. But when her son told them he was gay, everything changed.
"I think as a family, if I had to describe any angst, it's that's its difficult for my husband and me to feel now like we've got a church home. And, it's difficult to find a church home because we feel in some ways that we're being unfaithful to our son."
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago recently conducted a survey of basic characteristics of America's churches. It found that 20 percent of U.S. congregations would approve a gay or lesbian person as a member of the lay ministry. 38 percent of congregants said they would welcome a gay or lesbian as a member of their church. Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, Sociology professor at Duke University, directed the study. He says that number can be ambiguous.
"Because some churches would say yes, we would welcome them as a member because we want to change them, and reform them. So, it's not necessarily an actual welcoming."
Pastor Michael Jordon, of New Era Baptist Church, says he wouldn't welcome someone who's gay or lesbian into his congregation. But he wouldn't ban them either.
"But, to turn around and accept a confessing gay person and say leave him alone, they are right and God made him like that, no, absolutely not. Because if a pedophile come in with the same sin, the church would put me out if I turned around and accept it."
As they wrestle with what they've heard from the pulpit, many gay people still find a way to fill their spiritual cup. Ty Thornton says there are times he can't bring himself to attend church. But it's only a matter of time before he returns. He says when he's not in being in church, playing and singing hymns, he feels like a part of him is missing.
~ Tanya Ott, June 23, 2009.