A place to call home: Houston churches embrace LGBT population
During Pride Houston last year, one of the nation’s largest LGBT pride parades, a family of three – Brandon Peete, his wife Hilary and their 2-year-old son, Felix – were beaming, covered in beads of all colors, soaking in the megawatt-energy of the night. Buckled snug in his stroller, Felix couldn’t get enough of the neon lights and bass-thump spirit that Pride Houston has become synonymous with.
“You can imagine the stimulation all around,” Peete said. Sitting in his office, his eyes filled with tears slowly, then all at once. “It was not only a proud moment for me as a priest… But as a father, to be walking was really…” Peete’s voice cracked; he couldn’t finish his thought.
He isn’t alone. If Christianity and homosexuality were once separate forks to be chosen on a road, policy and liturgical practices suggest they’re now converging more than ever. In Houston, growing pains between the LGBT community and political right (see: Human Equal Rights Ordinance sermon subpoenas) cast a cloud over collaborations between Houston’s churches and the gay community.
That leaves the city’s expanding LGBT community between a rock and a hard place, as many aren’t aware of Houston’s gay-friendly churches. The disconnect between Christian, LGBT services being offered and the gay community’s awareness of those services negatively impacts all involved – the churches fail to gain members, and the LGBT community is left without spiritual fulfillment.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. –Psalm 46:1
For students on campus, there isn’t a Christian organization that caters exclusively to LGBT students, according to the Get Involved directory of over 300 student organizations. Other than A.D. Bruce hosting the Transgender Day of Remembrance annually, there are no active collaborations between the LGBT Resource Center and the religion center. And the largest Christian organization on-campus, Christians at UH, welcome members of the LGBT community without publicly affirming their lifestyle.
Peete and Rev. Lisa Hunt are looking to change the conversation for Houston’s growing LGBT community and be a resource for UH students. At St. Stephens Episcopal Church on West Alabama, Peete, Hunt and the rest of the clergy are actively catering to the gay community and making sure the community at-large knows what they’re doing.
“We’ve been very present in the conversation publicly around the human rights ordinance in the city of Houston,” Hunt said. “The Christian community is very pluralistic in Houston. It’s not monolithic, despite what some might portray.”
In 2012, following a three-year trial period, the Episcopalian church standardized the blessing and witnessing of lifelong covenants. St. Stephens, located just 10 minutes from UH, became one of the state’s first congregations to offer this to the congregation.
“That produced a real bump for us (in membership),” Hunt said. “I’d say the newest (membership) wave for us is transsexual folks.”
… I was a stranger and you welcomed me. –Matthew 25:35
Policy is only half the formula for changing a reputation. The real challenge, said Hunt, comes with redefining the image of close-mindedness Christianity is currently shrouded in.
So, how does a single institution change a conversation that started thousands of years ago? By “showing up,” said Hunt, “when policies are being created… and to provide language and stories of people who could be marginalized and people whose stories could be forgotten.”
College students that attend a St. Stephens service can expect full inclusion and biblically-based discussions around their experiences. Members of St. Stephens meet every other Thursday night at a restaurant in Montrose to hash out different questions that arise from the Scripture “over beer and laughter.” The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Feb. 12 at Revelry on Richmond.
“Not a week goes by that we don’t welcome a newcomer to the community that is from the LGBT community,” Peete said. “I can say that with great confidence.”
As actively as St. Stephens dissipates waves between Houston’s churches and Houston’s gays, they’re far from being the only ones. PrideNet, a public LGBT listing site, mentions 21 churches in the Houston area as being gay-inclusive or having almost exclusively gay congregations. But that’s a small slice of the pie – the Yellow Pages list over 3,000 total churches in Houston.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good… that it may give grace to those who hear. -Ephesians 4:29
“Would Jesus discriminate?”
The question was posed to a congregation of 200 at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, located off T.C. Jester Boulevard about 20 minutes away from campus. Behind the pulpit and choir rafters, two giant LED screens were mounted on the walls, each begging the question of whether Christ would embrace gays.
“Many churches say, ‘We welcome anybody and everybody,’ and that’s fine until a gay couple sits in a pew and holds hands,” -Reverend Troy Treash
Its congregation is unique – Rev. Troy Treash estimates that 90 percent of his membership is made up of members of Houston’s LGBT community. Leaning back in his armchair a couple days before Sunday’s service, Treach broke down a common misconception that can work against the gay community: the difference between a welcoming church and an affirming congregation.
“Many churches say, ‘We welcome anybody and everybody,’ and that’s fine until a gay couple sits in a pew and holds hands,” Treash said.
Throughout the service, the leading clergy bounced around the line dividing a universal liturgy and one geared for gays. There was a solo performance of Frozen’s “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” with the line “conceal, don’t feel” performed as “conceal it, don’t reveal it, don’t let it show.” It received a standing ovation.
The meat of the sermon centered on discrimination against lepers in the books of “Luke” and “Leviticus.” The lepers were shunned from the community and forced to dress in draping rags. When approached, they often had to announce that they were unclean to prevent transfer of the disease.
“Can you imagine how an ill person might lose their identity?” Rev. Vickie Gibbs said, drawing a comparison between being judged for an illness in Biblical times and being judged for your sexuality today. “Can you imagine how the illness can make them an object of pre-judgement and (cause them to) lose their humanity? And for the person to not be known as a person with an illness, but as the illness itself.”
“Thank goodness that doesn’t happen today,” she said. The congregation erupted in laughter.