Thursday, February 9, 2012

Is That the Same Church?

I saw that someone had posted a note on the Facebook page for the PFLAG meeting.  It was put there by a priest who saw that the meeting was happening at St. John's Episcopal.

"A PFLAG meeting at St. John's?  Not the Tallahassee I remember."

Yes.  A sea change has occurred at the old Episcopal church on North Monroe, Calhoun and Call Streets.

It wasn't that long ago that the rector of St. John's would devote two Sunday sermons... a part one and part two apparently... on why homosexuals were the scourge of the earth, or at least the church.   Gays were the diseased appendix in the body of Christ that needed to be removed.  And the Episcopal Church was clearly going to hell for refusing to perform the operation to rid itself of this organ.  His vitriol was felt beyond the walls of the building making its way into the newspaper and on the television news.   And those of us who were on the outside sensed that we were to remain on the outside.

He is no longer at St. John's.  There was a schism and he took 1/3 of the congregation and most of the vestry with him while leaving the church with $400,000 in debt.

Many priests and ups and downs later, St. John's has arrived at a new place, particularly for the LGBT community.  And one of those new places is the presence of PFLAG on the second Thursday of the month.  The group has been meeting there for almost three years.  It's not widely known among the congregation that there is a gathering of parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays because there is still a tension over how "non-church" groups can alert the church population to their  existence.  But there are many people who do know we gather there, and say, "Yay!".  The current rector, for one, was pleased to see that there was a PFLAG group meeting at his church.  We happened to be celebrating our two-year anniversary the night that he and his wife had come to town to interview.  He saw our meeting sign on the door, and he was glad of it.

And the good news is spreading.  Visitors are feeling the warmth of our growing inclusion.   Just this week, I met a gay couple who had been searching for a church that would be a good fit for them.  They were raised Roman Catholic, but don't want to go back down that route. They saw me at a mixer for the LGBT rights group, Equality Florida.  And in another one of those moments of, "The last thing I expect to hear at a function with gay people is...", one of them turns to me and says,

"You go to St. John's.  You sing in the choir, right?"

(Wrong.  I explained I'm a Eucharistic Minister which looks like the choir by our vestments, but definitely is not the chorus of angels.)

They had come to St. John's.  It happened to be the Sunday of our annual parish meeting.  There was one service, with all these people crammed into the pews.  And then there was a parish photo.  A couple at the church who are active and outgoing people noticed these gentlemen strangers.  They welcomed them in, and insisted that they needed to be in the photo.  That act helped make these guys feel like they were part of a family.

They asked me more questions about St. John's, the clergy (they were very excited to see a woman presiding at the table!)  They wanted to know what our beliefs were about the Eucharist and the meaning of the body and blood.  I gave them my interpretation from being a cradle Episcopalian with four years of EfM and continual curiosity:  we accept the host and wine as body and blood of Christ made real for us when we take it into our bodies with faith and thanksgiving for the sacrifice he made on our behalf.

"I like that," said the one.  His partner smiled and nodded in agreement.

We could have gone on further, but were interrupted in that moment.  As I left, I encouraged them to come back. They said they would.  The worship had felt comfortable, the people had been friendly, they now know that I'm a Eucharistic Minister and an active member, and they wanted a church home.  I left the conversation feeling blessed to have shared such a moment.  My church home, once such hostile territory to the gay community, was now seen as a church where one can be gay and Christian and no one will deny your place at the Lord's Table.

This is what happens when the incarnation of Christ becomes present in today's world.  When the members of the church, in concert with our clergy, put forth a welcome that is active and inclusive.  This is how the kingdom grows and becomes more like heaven on earth.  And it is good.


phoebe McFarlin said...

As we pray often.. Thy kingdom come.. our way of turning words into action as we welcome everyone who wants worship the loving God.

Anonymous said...

St. John.s has come a long way. I love going to church there.