Keeping the Faith
These churches and leaders offer a spiritual home for everyone
By Cara McDonough
Faith can be a complicated issue for many, but particularly for LGBTQ individuals who do not feel accepted by their church community. That feeling of isolation, clergy say, lead some to wrestle with heavy questions about where their lifestyle fits in with their religion. But throughout the state, there are churches and spiritual leaders devoted to being open and affirming – ensuring all people, regardless of their sexual identity, can find a spiritual home. Here are just a few.
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, New Haven Rev. Keri Aubert is no stranger to fighting the good fight. She spent years working for LGBTQ rights around the country, including serving as a project manager for the Episcopalian Church as it developed resources for blessing same-sex unions. Her wife, Rev. Jakki Flanagan, now the emergency department attending chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital, has similar roots in social justice. In her current role as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in New Haven, she doesn’t have to tear down barriers daily. The church, visible from Whitney Avenue with its bright red door and rainbow flag flying above, has a solid recent history when it comes to inclusion. In 2005, St. Thomas’, then under the leadership of Rev. Michael Ray, made national news when it announced that it would perform no marriage services at all until the Episcopalian Church began allowing same-sex marriages. Still, she continually looks for ways to improve the role of St. Thomas’, and the Episcopalian Church as a whole, in being accepting, open-minded and progressive – for the LGBTQ community, but for other marginalized communities, too. “I believe that an individual’s liberation is never fully attained until you fight for the liberation of others,” she says from her welcoming office at the church and day school, decorated with comfortable chairs, rows of books and various knickknacks that entertain visitors of all ages. Some of her regular visitors find their way from Yale Divinity School for a chat, she says, and are evidence that the good fight is far from over. They sometimes break down right there in her office, she says, wondering how they can be both Christian and gay. “I feel like that’s part of my role here,” she says. “To be an out, gay clergy member so that they can see what that looks like. I try to be that voice that reminds them that God loves them just the way they are.” Aubert is an especially compassionate mentor because her own journey took time. She didn’t come out until she was 30 and attended seminary at 41 after working as a chemical engineer. Raised Roman Catholic, she felt called to the ministry but knew she had to find a spiritual home that welcomed her as she was.
The Episcopalian church felt right, and she landed at St. Thomas’ in 2015. Aubert feels that – now more than ever – churches need to speak up, loudly, on issues of social justice, reacting to churches that seem to ally themselves with incredibly troubling movements, like white Christian nationalism. “It’s time to step up,” she says. “It’s as important a time as any for us to be part of the public conversation. This is a congregation [St. Thomas’] where we can do that.” She hopes to continue helping the church find its voice on multiple social justice issues within and beyond the church walls. She hopes that the LGBTQ community at large will do the same. “My dream is that the gay community starts stepping up on issues of race,” she says. She points out the Bible’s overall message is one of acceptance, an idea now more crucial than ever, and proof of religion’s crucial role in ensuring all feel welcome when it comes to faith. “There is a place in Christianity for you,” she says. “It’s all about love.” Faith Congregational Church, Hartford “Justice is in the DNA of this church,” says Rev. Stephen W. Camp, explaining the rich history of Faith Congregational Church, the oldest predominantly black church in Hartford. Its history makes clear that acceptance of the LGBTQ community is part of its overall mission. “It’s really the mandate of how we understand and interpret the faith. Jesus was a welcoming person. He didn’t throw people away, he embraced them. I think that’s what this church has understood over the decades, and we have to find a way to even embrace that more fully,” he says. Camp says not only are gay, lesbian and transgender individuals embraced at the UCC-affiliated church, but the congregation makes sure their sexual or gender identity isn’t a barrier to serving in church leadership roles, like becoming deacons or chairing committees.
Ensuring individuals find spiritual fulfillment while feeling comfortable in a church community is a challenge, and an ongoing process, Camp says. “I have heard stories of people who have searched for a long part of their lives for a place,” he says. “And it can be harder in the black community.” But this acceptance and a continual emphasis on social justice is part of the long-standing goal at Faith Congregational. Established in 1819, in the church’s first few decades, it opened the first school for black children in Hartford, was heavily involved in the New England abolitionist movement, and offered crucial support in the New Haven Amistad slave case. In more recent years, the church has continued to lobby for issues such as public education improvements and then-Gov. Dannel Malloy’s 2016 efforts to promote juvenile justice reforms.
Camp knows that more progress will occur as the church celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2019 – and beyond. “Unfortunately, the church is one of the institutions, like government and education, that moves very slowly,” he says, noting that many faith-based institutions still have progress to make. Yet he is hopeful. “I do think the whole church is changing. I think it is slowly trying to understand how to embrace everyone and have that sense of equality … that sense of knowing that all of us are children of God.” Spring Glen United Church of Christ, Hamden
In 2017, the Spring Glen United Church of Christ (UCC) celebrated an important anniversary. Twenty years had passed since the church voted to become “open and affirming,” the UCC’s designation for congregations that fully welcome people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. “It was pretty early on in the open and affirming movement,” says Rev. Jack Davidson, who has been at the helm of the Hamden-based church for two years. For the anniversary of the 1997 decision, he wanted to do more than celebrate their long-standing dedication to embracing all people, including the LGBTQ community; he wanted to expand that notion. “In 2017, we spent time recommitting to this idea. What has changed in 20 years and how we do we lean into it more?” he says. The year included special events, discussions and public displays. A transgender chaplain came to speak, the church put together an interfaith presence at the New Haven Pride, and an art installation made up of multicolor chairs was placed on the front lawn, accenting the rainbow on the Spring Glen UCC permanent sign, to name just a few. The church’s emphasis on inclusivity didn’t stop at the end of the anniversary year. But what makes Spring Glen UCC’s approach truly inspiring is Rev. Davidson’s insistence that being actively “affirming” means resisting complacency. And that means continually evolving. Weekly sermons repeatedly draw on queer, black and native history to highlight stories of people in the margins. Parishioners of all ages, backgrounds, and gender and sexual identities come to worship as they are. “I’m a white, cis male and part of being an ally is raising up other voices,” he says. As a church leader, this means enthusiastically welcoming the LGBT parishioners who may feel rejected by the denominations they knew growing up. “They are still trying to figure out how to put their two identities together and reclaim their faith,” he says.
One way to help those feeling marginalized? Look to the Bible for guidance, he says. “If you really believe that all humans are made in God’s image, why would you deny someone’s divinity?” he asks, noting the flip side of the messages sanctioning exclusivity that some conservative church leaders claim to find in scripture. “There is story after story in the Bible of Jesus trying to confront leaders and show them a more loving way.” A large sign in Davidson’s office, presented to him when he joined the congregation, reads: “God is Love.” “If anything,” he says. “I want all the children and adults in the world to know that.”