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Religious leaders reflect city’s LGBTQ-friendly values

October 21, 2018

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Jewel City has made its mark as one of West Virginia’s most LGBTQ-friendly places, boasting the best university for LGBTQ individuals in the state as well as scoring the highest in the state on a recent Human Rights Campaign study.

A recent project by Fairness WV, an LGBTQ civil rights advocacy organization, highlights yet another facet to Huntington’s status as a place that is welcoming to its LGBTQ residents.

The project, titled “Faith is Fairness,” showcases 55 clergy members of a diverse selection of religions and political opinions across the state who are openly accepting of LGBTQ people. Fairness WV interviewed people who identify as both conservative and liberal, including conservative youth pastor and legislator Delegate Josh Higginbotham, a Republican representing Putnam County. Every rabbi in the state was interviewed, including those who have retired, as well as the temple president from New Vrindiban Hari Krishna temple; a Muslim woman who is the vice president of the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry; possibly the only Lakota in the state, Bob Pirner in Barrackville; and two Catholic priests.

Fairness WV Communications Outreach Specialist Billy Wolfe said the clergy members were very easy to find, and they could have easily found many more to interview, despite stereotypes that depict West Virginia and religion in general as anti-LGBTQ.

“I think that in the work that we do, whether it’s at the state level or whether it’s at the municipal level working with nondiscrimination, the other side will put certain faith leaders front and center to speak against nondiscrimination,” Wolfe said. “It can be easy to get bogged down in this debate of sort of obscure passages in the Bible that some argue it’s condemning same sex marriage.”

The five clergy members who represent Huntington in the project are retired Presbyterian minister Bonnie Boyce, former First Baptist Church minister Donte Jackson, retired Presbyterian minister Jan Williams, Highlawn Presbyterian Church’s Rick Wilson, Rabbi Jean Eglington of B’Nai Sholom Congregation and Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church Associate Pastor Alan Williams.

“The voice out there is so loud that says you have to conform to certain things in order to be a Christian,” Williams said. “Because of that, people who generally seek God, desire God and to know God feel excluded from the club of Christianity.”

Johnson Memorial is one of three United Methodist churches in West Virginia that is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization that works toward LGBTQ inclusivity in United Methodist Churches. Williams said Johnson Memorial began taking steps to be openly inclusive around 2008 by opening the conversation in small groups and then in 2014 moving to a full congregational vote to join the Reconciling Ministries Network.

An overwhelming majority of the congregation, which has an average age of around 60 years old, voted to openly announce that no matter what a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is, they are welcome in Johnson Memorial United Methodist, according to Williams.

The inclusivity of Huntington’s faith community does not end with these five faith leaders interviewed for Fariness WV’s project - many churches across the city participate in Mayor Steve Williams’s Open to All campaign.

One of those churches is St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the Rev. Lisa Graves performs same-sex marriage. She does this under the guidance and guidelines of the state’s bishop. Graves said the Episcopal Church has historically worked and advocated on behalf of marginalized groups, making a formal declaration in the 1970s that all people are created and loved the way they are created by God, and affirming that they ordain LGBTQ clergy in the early 2000s.

“One of the reasons we’re able to be so welcoming now is because we went through that debate 10 to 15 years before other churches,” Graves said. “What it boils down to for us is if you claim God is love, and that Jesus is the character of God which is love, then you have to say God loves all people. We make promises in our baptismal vows that we will respect and uphold the dignity of all persons, and if you make that kind of promise to God, you have to take that pretty seriously.”

Graves said openly inclusive churches are particularly important for college towns like Huntington because for young people who have been hurt by the church, going to a new one can be intimidating, especially if it is ambiguous as to where the church stands on issues surrounding one’s identity.

Alan Williams said Johnson Memorial does a lot of counseling involving those who have been hurt by the church.

“They come here looking to see if it’s OK to share their identity with us,” he said.

Both Graves and Alan Williams said that, though the official stance of each church is to be open and welcoming to LGBTQ people, congregations are full of many people with diverse opinions and they can only speak for their personal views. Wolfe said this sentiment was common in every interview that was conducted. Alan Williams said occasionally there will be a congregation that is not ready to make the leap toward inclusivity even though the clergy is, and that they just have to keep teaching through scripture.

“Most of Christ’s ministry was with people who everyone else kind of shunned, so we can use that as an example all the time,” Alan Williams said. “Just keep preaching about that. We don’t have to say that it’s a sin or not a sin to be gay, we don’t even have to discuss that. We can just say that Christ taught us to treat all the people the same. Ultimately I think that when people get to know people who are different than them, then they see they are people too.”

LGBTQ acceptance is a divisive issue in the religious community, even going so far as to cause a congregational chasm, such as the one that occurred in 2016 with Huntington’s First Presbyterian Church. The Herald-Dispatch reported at the time that a number of the members of the First Presbyterian Church in the Tri-State broke away from the church in a disagreement about the Presbyterian Church in America moving in a more liberal direction on issues including homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

“We felt the most peaceful resolution was to leave,” Patrick Hall said. “We felt like we didn’t leave the denomination. We feel like the denomination left us.”

At the time, Hall was an associate pastor at the newly founded Christ Presbyterian Church, which congregates at B’Nai Sholom Congregation on Sunday mornings when the synagogue would be otherwise unused.

The Rev. Skip Seibel, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, said his church entertains a diversity of thought on issues including same-sex marriage.

Mayor Steve Williams said when he started his Open to All campaign, he had a “fascinating” number of faith leaders and their churches coming forward with willingness to be active participants.

“The fact is that’s a leading indicator of where the hearts of the people of Huntington are,” Steve Williams said. “We are a city of churches, we have a lovely mosaic of faith in our community and I think that’s what makes our city as strong as it is.”

Wolfe said the state’s population centers, like Huntington, naturally had a higher concentration of LGBTQ-affirming churches, but the project as a whole reflects well on the entire state.

“It takes that negative stereotype of West Virginia and shows that it’s not the case,” Wolfe said. “There are many people of faith who believe in inclusion because of their faith, not in spite of their faith.”

Graves said the state, despite stereotypes, is a naturally welcoming place for people of all walks of life.

“There is that Appalachian sense of welcome and hospitality,” Graves said. “Someone may theoretically not realize they’re inclusive, but truly I do think West Virginians have a heart for the stranger. There’s always a sense of needing to be hospitable. I think this is a very kind state even though it’s certainly a state with diverse opinions.”

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Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com

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