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Wednesday, June 8,2011

'Radical hospitality'

Area churches beat back the brimstone at Michigan Pride

by Lawrence Cosentino

Michigan Pride is a safe haven for gays and lesbians, but
you have to get there first. Outside — let’s just say the inevitable
greeter with flier in hand and froth in mouth probably isn’t St. Peter.


“You know there’ll be a guy at the gate, yelling and
screaming and telling everyone they’re going to hell,” Mike Cooper said.
“Then there’ll be us inside, speaking quietly that they don’t have a
leg to stand on.”


Cooper is a minister at Lansing’s Pilgrim Congregational
Church, one of three United Church of Christ churches to team up for the
first time and make a show of Christian counterforce at Michigan Pride
2011, with informational booths, moral support for the LGBT community
and a place to take Holy Communion.


“We thought it was really important to show a united
front, especially in the face of the type of intolerance that has been
shown,” the Rev. Nicolette Siragusa of Grand Ledge’s First
Congregational said. A third UCC church, Edgewood United of East
Lansing, will join the other two at Pride.


The United Church of Christ has a history of being
progressive on social issues, but each congregation makes its own choice
whether to “extend radical hospitality and extravagant welcome,” in
Siragusa’s words.


Pilgrim Church decided to welcome gays and lesbians 15 years ago.


“They are welcome at the church as full partners, from ordained ministers on down,” Cooper said.


Each UCC church has to “live into” its affirmation of
welcome, Siragusa said. “It’s one thing to say you’re open and
affirming, it’s another to do it,” she said.


The booth at Pride is one way among many for a church to “live into” its affirmation.


The “clobber scriptures” — the Bible passages in the Old
and New Testament used for centuries to condemn homosexuality — are
subdued and de-fanged in special Wednesday night Bible study sessions at
Pilgrim Church, beginning a week after Pride and running about seven
weeks.


“Sodom and Gomorrah is a slam dunk,” Cooper said. “It’s
not about homosexuality.” He admitted that Leviticus is a tougher nut,
but the course at Pilgrim tackles the whole Bible, putting the “clobber
verses” into historical and cultural context.


When the pastor position at First
Congregational Grand Ledge opened, Siragusa was in Chicago. She has been
in a domestic partnership for 10 years.


Siragusa’s Chicago friends wondered why
she would want to move to the heart of Michigan, especially after
anti-gay constitutional amendment Proposal 2 passed.


But the more she found out about Grand Ledge, the stronger
the call became. She learned that Grand Ledge passed an
anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in 2000. She
was told her predecessor as pastor, Alan Leach, was openly gay.


“In the middle of Michigan, that was completely unexpected,” she said.


Siragusa, 32, has taken root in her three years with the church, which has about 200 members.


“I’ve never felt unable to be out,” she said. “My congregation — I just love them so much.”


In October, after a nationwide string of suicides among
gay teens, First Congregational in Grand Ledge hosted a Sunday service
with a discussion of how to fight bullying in schools.


“We don’t want to be the next town in the headlines,” she said.


Pilgrim’s Sunday school stresses affirmation of gays and lesbians among impressionable kids.


“Kids, growing up, if they discover they are gay or not, they understand they are children of God,” Cooper said. 


“There’s a lot in the Bible about people who were rejected at that time and how Jesus treated those people.”


A fourth local church, Unity of Greater Lansing, will have
a strong presence at Pride. The Rev. Kent Lederer officiated at Lansing
Pride commitment ceremonies for the past four years, and will do it
again this year.


The denomination was founded in the 1890s. The Lansing church started in East Lansing and moved to Lansing in 1967.


“We believe every human is a spiritual being,” Lederer said.


Lederer, who is gay, got a nasty baptism in civil rights registering black voters in Greenville, Miss., in the 1960s.


“I saw faces so full of hate,” he said. “I never knew people could be that way.”


He estimates about 20 percent of his congregation is gay or lesbian.


Two years ago, Lederer led commitment
ceremonies for 63 couples at Michigan Pride, from all over Michigan and
even some neighboring states. He did about half as many last year, but
he blames the drop on short notice and poor organization at last year’s
Pride, not lack of interest.


Lederer performs commitment ceremonies throughout the year
at Unity Church. He has invited Sistrum, Lansing’s lesbian chorus, and
the Greater Lansing Gay Men’s Chorus to sing at services.


“’Welcoming’ is to mild a word for us,” he said. “’Affirming’ is more like it.”

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