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MINISTER OF COMPASSION: Rev. John McLaughlin teaches that Christianity should be radically inclusive—meaning all are welcome at St. Jude’s MCC. Photo by Bethany Turner

“How gay is your church?” Some people have asked this of Reverend John McLaughlin at St. Jude Metropolitan Community Church. His response is simple and noble. “I don’t know—we don’t check cards at the door.”

Given the recent pandemonium surrounding the passing of Amendment One—where even friends bashed each other based on personal beliefs rooted in religion or lack thereof—we couldn’t think of a better time to profile some the leaders of local GLBTQIA-friendly religious communities. What we found during our quest was, regardless of denomination, a few themes emerged between the ministers: interpreting scripture until finding a compassionate understanding; loving all human beings in the way that Jesus Christ loved; and realizing that some scripture is just plain outdated.

While their beliefs are not necessarily the views of all or any encore staff, we are humbled and honored to be able to present “equal-opportunity religion” to our readers.

19 N. 26th St. • 762-5833
Worship Services: 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Reverend John McLaughlin grew up in a Roman-Catholic home. He attended Catholic school for his elementary years and went to church every Sunday. Overall, his Catholic upbringing was a positive experience, though it did spark confusion. “I didn’t hear hatred preached to me,” he recalls. “I remember thinking every now and then that what the nuns were teaching us didn’t sound right, but I have no animosity toward anything that happened.”

During college Rev. McLaughlin shied away from Catholicism. Only 10 years ago, because of a tragic experience, did he turn to God for help once again.

“I didn’t find the Catholic church to be filling me anymore, or a lot of other churches I tried, until I found a Metroplitan Community Church in D.C., I fell in love with the inclusive message and the people there realized I had come home to church.”

The MCC was founded in 1968 by a Southern Pentecostal minister who’d been kicked out of his church because he was gay. He realized God still loved him and wanted to spread this message. MCC completed the first same-sex union in 1969—before it was an issue as it is today. During the AIDS crisis, it was one of the few churches to bury victims or care for their families. Soon after, MCC became known as the human-rights church.

“I certainly see us as on the vanguard of a new Christianity, one that’s not based on exclusion and judgment but on inclusion,” Rev. McLaughlin says.

St. Jude’s MCC in Wilmington is a close-knit church with about 150 members. Last year, the congregation grew by 50 to 60 percent solely because of its inclusive message.

“We don’t exclude anyone here, and we particularly get people from the GLBT community. But we also say that anyone living on the margins of society—which can be a religious, financial or cultural margin—if they’re not being fed spiritually in their location in the community, then we have a message for them.”

The pastor bases his sermons on love being the core tenet of all scripture. He shares, “We insist that our form of Christianity is actually based on what Jesus Christ taught. His teachings in life and ministry were all about radical inclusion. Everyone’s invited; God loves all; never did he condemn; never did he exclude—and so neither do we.”

Rev. McLaughlin neither believes there is one interpretation of all scripture, nor that we are called to live by the laws of the Torah. “The best way for me to look at it is a lot of the scripture that seems to condemn homosexuality—by the way, the word didn’t even exist until the late 1800s—is not talking about homosexuality. It’s talking about same-sex sex, and usually about sex that is rape or abusive, not loving,” Rev. McLaughlin says.

He recalls much of scripture which conflicts the ways we live today. “There’s one in Leviticus that says if your children are unruly, take them outside the city gate and stone them to death,” he says. “We don’t act that way anymore; we don’t condone slavery anymore; we don’t think of women as property anymore—certainly we can think of loving, same-sex relationships as just that: God-given and loving.”

St. Augustine, an early influence of Christian theology, once called his followers to not leave an interpretation of scripture until they have found a compassionate understanding for it. Rev. McLaughlin follows in the saint’s words.

“In response to people that are finding hateful and judgmental interpretations of scripture, I ask: Which Christian tradition are you following? If the father of the church tells us to find a compassionate interpretation of scripture, then that’s what we should do,” he says.

St. Jude’s MCC is known for teaming up with Wilmington Pride and CARE, a support organization for families with HIV/AIDS. St. Jude’s caters to all with a small food pantry, bringing deliveries particularly to those with HIV and AIDS, though there is no St. Jude-led GLBT support group. “We’d rather be part of the community in that effort,” he explains.

“We get so many people who have been hurt by church or are looking for spirituality in their lives that is lacking,” Rev. McLaughlin continues. “A lot of our work is to minister to people when they come here on Sunday and let them know that God is a God of love—that they are accepted here. We minister to the soul of people; we really restore people’s dignity to allow them to go back into the world with their head held high.”

4925 Oriole Dr. • 395-0616
Holy Eucharist: Sun., 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m.;
Wed., 12 p.m., followed by brown-bag lunch

Growing up in an Episcopal church, Reverend Catherine Powell also had a pleasant experience with religion as a child. Her home church was open, warm, friendly and affirming, and that she loved attending the congregation was reason to go into ministry. However, while she was attending seminary, women were not yet ordained in the Episcopal denomination.

Though she was raised in Fayetteville, NC, Rev. Powell worked mostly in D.C. and Boston before returning to the South. “The year that I graduated, [women being ordained] was legalized,” she details. “Of course a moderate-to-conservative diocese wouldn’t be hiring women [then]—it was too new and uncomfortable. Even in D.C. we were kind of an oddity.”

When Rev. Powell did look in the East Carolina diocese, what she found in Church of the Servant was as welcoming a church as she grew up in. “Our gay and lesbian members are just totally with everybody else—they serve on the vestry and sometimes teach in Sunday school,” she says. “This church was formed in the ‘70s and people were much more open and comfortable here—they didn’t ever have to ask, ‘Will we or won’t we [accept GLBTQIA]?’ Because from day one they’ve always had gay and lesbian members.”

There are two reasons why Rev. Powell feels such a need to be a part of an inclusive church. For one, she attributes her two years of work at a small church during the AIDS epidemic. “At that point, people were really scared because they didn’t yet have the scientific information, but because I was in D.C., we had the National Institutes of Health,” she tells. “My congregation had gay members and people with HIV, so early on we had a support group.”

That group featured hospital nurses and a member of NIH who dealt with hemophiliacs—people who had blood transfusions to alleviate one disease but ended up contracting HIV. “That support group was designed to educate, but it had people who were emotionally involved. They cared about the people who were struggling with this new, horrible thing. I’m sure that further educated and sensitized me.”

As well, Rev. Powell herself faced a portion of backlash in the religious community for being ordained. “I think being a woman priest, where we weren’t accepted, and people said all sorts of incredible things to us about what the Bible said—I experienced that so I know what it’s like,” she says. “It’s not the same, of course, but it’s a little bit of knowing what it feels like to be a target of other people’s prejudice.”

For all Episcopalians, scripture is interpreted not line by line but as an entire message. Rev. Powell asks, “What is the whole story of God working with people about?” Her answer is that it plainly speaks of love, compassion and increasing levels of acceptance.

“God started with one family, then it was a bigger group, then a country,” she explains. “In the beginning, Christians would only accept Jews—then there was a huge uproar and they said, ‘No, actually, anybody.’ The ever-widening circles, I think, are clearly God’s way in history to accept with open arms wider and wider.”

As for religious text that seems to denounce homosexuality, she agrees that the Bible can castigate a number of things. “The language to condemn adultery is just as strong,” she says. “I don’t have any argument except that there are statements against homosexuality—but there are also statements against women speaking in church, too.”

4313 Lake Ave. • 392-6454
Worship Service: 10:15 a.m.

Once a shark on Wall Street, Reverend Cheryl Walker changed careers because she believed her life was in conflict. “I felt the work I was doing was making people who had more than enough richer, while it was also making other people poorer,” she tells. “While attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New York, I was running a small homeless shelter. I was spending my days making people homeless, and then spending my nights trying to fix it. One of them had to give.”

As a minister of UU, Rev. Walker doesn’t believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. She also recognizes it’s quite an old text. “These people did not have some basic understandings,” she says. “They didn’t understand that women and men were co-creators. Given that, their views of women and homosexuality are all based upon some belief that we now know is not knowledge. In their context, they could not imagine a loving, equal relationship between same-sex people.”

Rev. Walker compares the entire story of the Bible to the facts of the 21st century. “Sometimes we say, ‘We’re not working with this text in this area,’ because it’s too rooted in a specific culture and time with a specific knowledge that we have surpassed.”

She says she does not engage those who spew hatred within religion. It is her personal belief that God loves us into existence and loves us still. “If I believe that, I have to be part of a religious community which lives that out,” Rev. Walker shares. “UU doesn’t say some are worthy and some are not. We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we mean every person. For me, it’s just important on a very basic level as a human being, and as an out lesbian, it’s really important for me to be part of a community where I can be myself.”

On Sun., June 10th, UUF of Wilmington will hold a Pride-based service.

3902 Market St. • 763-2220
Worship Service: 11 a.m.

Celebrating nearly 20 years at Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian, Reverend June Highfill says her congregation is a small but growing fellowship of open-minded people. “[We] place great importance on belonging to God and to one another, and believe Jesus’ way of compassion and [non-judging] is essential for every human being to experience and practice.”

As Rev. Powell experienced, three decades ago Rev. Highfill was ordained at a time when women priests were almost unheard of. “I knew I wanted to be a pastor when I was a child, but since I didn’t know of any women ministers, I didn’t picture myself in that role,” she details. “After graduation from seminary, I was called to pastor a small church in Albertson, NC, which was open-minded enough to break through the barrier of that day and call a woman minister.”

Likewise, Rev. Highfill lives her life and leads her sermons in much the same way, welcoming all to Pearsall regardless of controversy. “It’s important to be part of an inclusive church because that best reflects the spirit of Jesus, who was a boundary buster.”

717 Orchard Ave. • 763-5155
Worship Services: 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Though his family was not overly religious, Rev. Richard Levy was introduced to Judaism at the age of 13—when his divorced parents forced him to have a bar mitzvah. He remembers most that there was a lot of drinking and embarrassing moments. “I decided if that’s what God was about, I didn’t want anything to do with that particular version of God.”

At 22, Rev. Levy was supposed to be on a flight from Miami which crashed in the Everglades, killing 250 passengers. For an unknown reason, he switched flights. “It was an epiphany of the highest caliber,” Rev. Levy remembers. “I felt like I’d been given the gift of another life.”

Today, he helps those who are searching for meaning within their own lives, in a place where they’ll feel loved and accepted: Unity of Wilmington. “The whole planet is trying to find something that we already are,” he says. “We are beings of love—and judging, anger and fear are our own creations. God didn’t create doubt, pain and shame—we did. Learning how to love yourself as God already loves you is the journey of a whole lifetime.”
When interpreting the Bible, Rev. Levy asks, “What is it that Jesus modeled?” He says he doesn’t take literally what was written by men hundreds of years after the words were dictated. “Jesus said, ‘God is love. Worship God, worship love, with all of your heart, soul, mind and body. And love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself,’” he recalls.

For those who follow Rev. Levy’s teachings, he says there is one true moment of recognition. “One of the most beautiful things about watching people come into Unity is that they realize the message they were getting when they were younger—the Bible pounded into them or whatever it was—was just a misinterpretation by others who misconceived.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sherry T. Henderson

    June 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    Excellent article! As a member of St. Jude MCC, I invite everyone to visit and feel the love…

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