Mcc at OutFest

‘Life through the eyes of the oppressed’: How LGBT faithful worship in Philadelphia

The Rev. Jeffrey Jordan-Pickett knows all too well how traditional churches treat gay congregants. The former African Methodist Episcopal church minister lost his flock in the early 90s when a fellow bishop saw him leave a gay bar, and reported him to the hierarchy.

More than two decades later, Jordan-Pickett is an out, married gay man and a preacher in Philadelphia, leading one of several hundred churches in the area that’s open to people of all sexual and gender identities. His sermons still center around Christianity and traditional theology. But he says they reexamine the scriptures in a new context in order to “look at life through the eyes of the oppressed.”

“I never thought I would be an ‘out minister,’” he said. “But wanting to change people is a constant prayer.”

These welcoming parishes come in different shapes and sizes. Jordan-Pickett said he doesn’t consider the Who-so-ever Metropolitan Community Church in University City a “welcoming” church, as it caters specifically to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender churchgoers. Others simply say they’re open to everyone. Some are Christian, some Jewish, some Buddhist and some are a mix — but one thing remains a constant: the churches who make the effort see congregants who reap the benefits.

“Most people who come to this church come beat up,” Jordan-Pickett said. “Once they find MCC, it’s like they can breathe again.”

Philadelphia has long had a robust gay community, and with that has come a massive wave of churches that are affirming of that. But there’s a difference between being welcoming, and taking steps to welcome.

While the Catholic church specifically has come under worldwide scrutiny from progressives for its continued stance against the acceptance of anything other than heterosexual relationships, other religions including Judaism, Buddhism and many Protestant sects have abandoned that thinking.

Caroline Winschel, the vice president of the board of trustees at the First Unitarian Church in Center City, said the church was designated in 2008 as “a welcoming congregation,” and has taken steps to reach out to the LGBT community and to hold groups specifically for it.

The church also hired interim minister Rev. Susan Rak, a woman who was once married to a man, has children and attended a Catholic high school, but now identifies as a lesbian. The parish practices Unitarian Universalism, a faith based in liberal Christianity that focuses on opening up and loving others for the sake of spiritual growth.

A rainbow flag flies at First Unitarian. One Sunday, Bob, Nate and Caroline all introduced themselves to me during a greeting period at a service. What’s traditionally known as “the sharing of the peace” was drawn out longer than I was used to. People waved to each other from across the sanctuary. One man who wore a necklace with six rainbow-colored beads shook hands with a dozen people. A woman across the row from him was wearing a sticker that read “embrace diversity.”

In the front of the church, dotted with stained class, striped by its traditional wooden pews, Rev. Susan Rak gathers children together. She’s using iPhones, an apple (the fruit) and the lessons of Rosh Hashanah to teach kids about how the world is connected — no password needed.

Rak, who came out as a lesbian later in life, gave a sermon about the changing of the seasons and how it allows us to “step back from judgement.”

“Homosexuality, it’s always been vilified,” Rak said in her office. “But now we talk about these things, like how love is not restricted, but is really many expressions between people.”

While First Unitarian hired a member of the LGBT community to lead it, other parishes can be less proactive — saying they’re progressive, but not taking those steps for outreach. Last year, Circle of Hope, a large Christian church in Philadelphia, came under fire after gay congregants said it had intolerant practices, according to a City Paper story on the matter.

Whatever the case, church leaders say it comes down to preference for each person, and every parish is different. According to the Yes! Coalition, Philadelphia and surrounding counties play host to more than 250 welcoming congregations. First Unitarian is diverse on purpose. Others are welcoming, but not loud about doing so. And others cater directly to the LGBT community.

It’s why Jordan-Pickett feels comfortable telling people he used to have two closets. In one, he neatly hung his pastor’s robe and tucked away his Bible. In the other, he he kept his rainbow accessories, his wig and the clothes he’d use to dress in drag.

“I never thought,” Jordan-Pickett confessed, “those two closets would come together.”

For a list of welcoming churches in the Philadelphia region, visit the Yes! Coaltion’s guide.

Photo: Members of the Who-so-ever Metropolitan Community Church take part in OutFest. Courtesy of MCC.

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