In an America whose youth is increasingly accepting the idea of gay marriage, gay rights, and actually being openly gay, the largely anti-gay message of mainstream Christianity is not a very inviting one. And thus fewer of us are accepting the invitation. About 55% of atheists in this country are under the age of 35. According to the Pew forum, “the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.” We seem to be fine leaving the party when we know we’re not wanted. But what happens when a church is founded on a policy of “radical inclusion”? What does a club look like when there is no one on the outside?
“Radical inclusion” is just one of the many progressive goals of Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope, a “national church” that accepts anyone who wants to be there. That means Catholics, Mormons, agnostics, and especially the LGBTQ community.
That’s how Phoebe Sexton, the church's Director of Communication, found them. “I showed up here three weeks after moving to Texas and was totally wowed by how awesome the environment was — everyone was so nice, and the worship service was amazing,” she said. Soon they found her a job, and now she’s in charge of helping with the church’s “national” outreach, getting the message out through social media, PR and op-eds. “I know we have a powerful and effective message that has saved and changed lives. And I am hopeful that this message will reach those who need to hear it when they need to hear it.”
Sexton sounds nothing like the “Christians” Fox News would have you think make up the majority of our country. She worries about coming off as “too Bible-thumpy,” and sends me memes of Neil Patrick Harris. “There have been times where on first introduction, I tell people I work for a ‘large non-profit’ simply because I can tell that if in the first sentence of meeting me I say I work for a church, a lot of assumptions will be made about me that I won't be able to overcome.” In other words, she’s someone whose club you’d want to belong to.
The phrase “all-inclusive church” sounds like an oxymoron to most, and Sexton understands that it’s a hard concept for people to understand, or want to join. “People, particularly in the LGBTQ community, have been so bruised and wounded by religious groups and so-called Christians that they have no desire to ever darken the doorway of a church again. So they immediately have a wall up about churches.” She attributes that wall largely to the rigid ideological structure of most denominations. “It's an easy system to be [a] part of,” she says of most evangelical churches. “You don't have to think. ‘This church believes x, y, z and the preacher says this; I go here, so I believe these things.’ To constantly challenge, re-evaluate, and build on one's personal faith and belief system is incredibly hard.”
Cathedral of Hope, founded in the 1970s, has always had a message of acceptance toward the LGBTQ community. Their stature grew in the '80s and '90s as the AIDS epidemic ravaged the country (“no other church would allow AIDS victims to have their funerals/memorial services”). AIDS panic has subsided, but the vitriol from other Christian denominations continues; sometimes it feels like it is harsher than ever. Cathedral of Hope Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson spoke on Fox News the day after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage alongside Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas. Jeffress accuses Hudson of not being a real Christian, and questioning her ability to interpret the Bible if she comes away from it with the belief that homosexuality isn’t a sin. Hudson simply says that her beliefs have nothing to do with his Christianity.
With the constant barrage of soundbites from pastors saying homosexuality is a sin (and the silence on the issue from most other churches), it’s easy to become convinced that it’s what the Bible actually says. You can read more about Cathedral of Hope’s stance on the subject, but it boils down to two main points. One, Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. Two, they believe the Bible is a living document. Sexton puts it this way:
“If I sat down and read a Shakespeare work in a literal manner right now, ignoring the social context of the time, I would be hard-pressed to understand what was going on. I believe the same thing about the Bible. To ignore the cultural and social context around the time that it was all first spoken, it was all first written, and when the Bible was canonized is to muddle what was being said.”
A third argument can also be made for the literal translation of the text. In case you forgot, the Bible was not actually written in English, and has been translated and rewritten so many times that there are myriad interpretations of every word. Including the word “sin.” According to one interpretation by Rev. Alejandro de la Torre, a former Vatican-trained Catholic priest who is affiliated with the chuch, sin can be translated as “forgetfulness.” “So in this reading, a sin is something that makes you forget your relationship with God. It's not a bad thing,” explains Sexton. “It's a mistake you've made that makes you feel separated from God. It's not a bad thing; it's not an abomination." And those mistakes can be different for different people. Drinking a beer may not be a sin for you, but it could be for an alcoholic. And having sex with someone of the same sex may be a sin for a straight person, it wouldn’t be for someone who is gay. It's all in the context of your life style and your relationship with God.
These readings are all “good news” for the gay and Christian community ... in Dallas. But the truth is that there are hundreds of kids who are gay, believe in God, and are probably feeling very confused. This is where the “national church” part comes in. Sexton’s job is to take their message and broadcast it around the world, whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, or videocasts of sermons. “We still hear weekly about people who say they can't be out or open and they're so glad to have heard about us or watched our services online.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because there are many churches trying to broaden their reach this way. And though most of them seem to be of the Billy Graham/Joel Osteen/Fred Phelps variety, committed to keeping America’s view of Christianity as an anti-gay, exclusive religion, it doesn’t mean they can’t inspire in a different way. “I went to an evangelical communication church conference to get more ideas,” admits Sexton. “I think those churches are good models to follow for their communication strategies and abilities.”
No one is expecting Cathedral of Hope to convert the Phelpses (and, with greater consequence, the Romneys) of the world, though Sexton says relishes the opportunity to show them what Cathedral of Hope is all about. But how do you reach out to people who have already been told they don’t belong? Who, even if they believe in God, have moved on from organized religion because they assume they are not wanted? The very technology that allows Cathedral of Hope to reach those outside Dallas is also allowing people of any sexual orientation around the world form virtual communities and support each other.
With the national trend toward non-affiliation (or just apathy), I expected Sexton to speak of much more of an uphill battle. Considering all those statistics about the godless youth, and the years of mainstream Christianity saying there is no place for homosexuality in the church, it should be much harder to find those in the LGBTQ community who want a Christian God in their lives, no matter how open.
But that’s not what the numbers are saying. Sexton has more than doubled Cathedral of Hope’s Facebook community in the past year. She gets emails from supporters around the world and plenty of posts from newcomers who vow to return. And it really is because of this idea of “radical inclusion.” The Cathedral of Hope requires you to at least entertain the idea that Jesus was a voice of God, and that’s it. He doesn’t even have to be the main voice of God. You don’t even have to be entirely convinced there is a God. No matter what, you’re wanted.
No matter how many times they’ve been rejected, people still want community. They want to feel like a part of something bigger. They want transcendence. Religion is one of many ways to feel that, and now that it is an option, many people are proving that years of rejection didn’t shut them down completely. They had faith, and finally it’s being rewarded. (And in certain cases, even those who are part of the more exclusive churches want to come around. A recent comment on Billy Graham’s website asks, “Can you respect people who are not members of your faith enough to allow them to live by their own lights? Or must everybody follow your rules regardless of their belief?” It’s a start.)
“There are days here where I get angry that so much energy has to be spent spreading the message that God is love and love is God,” says Sexton, adding that since Jesus’s biggest point in the New Testament was that we should help the poor, it would be nice if LGBT rights and other forms of exclusions stopped being issues so they could do just that. Ideally, their message of inclusion would draw enough supporters to make them the majority. And perhaps if those other Christians who are so bent on exclusion and actually felt excluded, they would realize the Bible’s real message. That one about being good and forgiving and generous to each other. The one about love. And maybe they’ll remember that “nowhere does the Bible actually address the idea of persons being lesbian or gay.” Or maybe they won’t, but if the accepting and welcoming Christians become the majority, maybe the excluders will become harder to hear.
Image courtesy of this Cathedral of Hope video