At conservative church, once-shunned gays fuel growth

USA - It's standing room only at Holy Trinity Community Church as the Rev. Cynthia Andrews-Looper wraps up her sermon for the 10:15 a.m. service, one of three she'll do this morning.

She strays from the pulpit, pacing in front of an architectural rendering of a planned multimillion-dollar expansion to the church.

"Let's make God-sized goals," says Andrews-Looper, a former standup comedian.

Like many of her parishioners, Andrews-Looper grew up in an evangelical church — in her case, Independent Fundamental Baptist — and found she was no longer welcome when she revealed she was a lesbian. She started a Bible study with a handful of other gay Christians in July 1996, which eventually led to starting Holy Trinity, affiliated with the United Church of Christ denomination.

Andrews-Looper used conservative theology combined with a progressive view of sexual orientation to grow the congregation to 600, making it one of the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender congregations in the Southeast.

The planned building expansion, which includes classrooms and a 600-seat sanctuary, will give the congregation room to grow, she said.

Many of Holy Trinity's members had been away from religion for years. Yvette Ridley said she'd grown up United Methodist but dropped out after being told she would go to hell for being lesbian. She listened to Andrews-Looper's sermons on her MP3 player before becoming a regular at services.

"A lot of churches will tell you that God loves you," she said. "And then they will tell you that God does not love you because of who you are."

Candy Akins is a member of the vestry, a group of lay leaders, at Holy Trinity. She and her partner, Anna Landry, have been at the church for about seven years. Both grew up Southern Baptist and say that the church feels like home — the preaching comes straight from the Bible, the message is that only Jesus saves, and the music is contemporary Christian.

Akins said she'd known she was gay for a long time but tried to hide it, knowing that it didn't fit with her old church's teachings. She became deeply depressed.

"It was a sad place to be," she said. "You would think that the church would want to carry me out of that. But instead, they threw me deeper into that depression."

Drawn to church

Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, has studied gay churches for decades. He said that many churches that welcome and affirm gay Christians belong to mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church (USA), and those churches tend to be more liberal.

But he said it makes sense that folks who grew up among conservative evangelicals would be drawn to a church like Holy Trinity.

"Just because somebody comes out of the closet and tells their family or their pastor doesn't mean they are no longer a spiritual person and they don't love their church," he said.

Holy Trinity teaches members to believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth and the Resurrection. Church members say they have a high view of the authority of the Bible but don't believe that it teaches that homosexuality is a sin.

The Rev. Cameron Trimble, executive director of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an ecumenical group that starts new churches and helps revitalize older ones, says that Holy Trinity's theology fits well in the South.

Trimble said Holy Trinity's services work well, too. They offer excellent music programs, most of the church members join small groups that meet in homes, and Andrews-Looper is an engaging preacher.

"You can go to many mainline churches and experience a really interesting essay about God," Trimble said. "At Holy Trinity, you experience God."

Andrews-Looper also is a talented leader, said Trimble, and she took a personal risk in starting the church.

Starting small

The congregation began as an independent church, with Andrews-Looper as a part-time minister. The first years drew small crowds to a space the church rented from another congregation.

"It was 50 people on a good Sunday," said longtime member Michael Tuzzio.

Things began to take off when Andrews-Looper quit her job and became full-time pastor.

In 2005, the church decided to join the United Church of Christ, a denomination with about 5,300 congregations nationwide and about 15 in Tennessee.

They bought a former Free Will Baptist Church on Charlotte Avenue around that time, and owning a building helped grow the congregation. The church now runs three services on Sundays to fit everyone in. The new expansion will include new space for the children's ministry — about 70 children attend Sunday services.

Though about 80 percent of the congregation is gay or lesbian, Holy Trinity members say their congregation isn't a gay church. Instead, it's a church where most of the congregation is gay. And that's a big difference, they say.

Some congregation members say that being at Holy Trinity has made them aware of their own prejudices.

Greg Hubble grew up a fundamentalist Baptist in Virginia, where everyone wore their Sunday best to church. He looked down at a church member at Holy Trinity who had tattoos and got mad when people showed up wearing shorts or jeans.

"I have had to relax my judgments," he said. "I learned to judge very well growing up."

Tad Ritchison said that before he came to Holy Trinity, he'd always been uncomfortable around homeless people. Then he got involved in the Room in the Inn program at the church. His small group volunteers once a month to host homeless folks overnight at the church.

"I always had this narrow-minded thought that the homeless and people who are down and out — they could have gotten themselves out of it if they wanted to," he said.

Getting to know some homeless folks in the program made him more compassionate.

He and his partner, Micheal MacQuarrie, drive from Murfreesboro to attend services and events at Holy Trinity. They don't mind the drive at all.

"I would drive six hours to get here," MacQuarrie said.