In many respects, the single-spired redbrick church on a quiet tree-lined street in Toronto’s Riverdale neighborhood is a typical Christian place of worship. Inside are heavy oak pews, a large wooden cross draped last week with a purple Lenten sash and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows—one depicting Jesus as a shepherd, surrounded by lambs. But spanning the altar, beneath the imposing pipes of a magnificent organ, a passage from the Book of Isaiah, painted in large gold letters on a red background, hints at the significant difference between this Sunday morning flock and most mainstream Christian congregations. It reads: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” For the predominantly homosexual congregation that gathers at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT), that inclusive message forms the cornerstone of their spirituality. “I used to feel like I was going to go to hell, that I could never be loved again by God,” says lesbian church member Pam Koch, 32, a former Pentecostalist. “But you know, the good news is God doesn’t hate homosexuals.”
In recent years, churches of all denominations have struggled to come to terms with the controversial issue of sexual ori-
GAYS AND THE CHURCH
entation. Many conservative Christians, citing much-debated biblical passages, continue to insist that homosexuality is a disorder and an abomination in the eyes of God. Some denominations, on the other hand, teach that while the orientation is itself blameless, homosexual behavior remains sinful. More liberal Christians, like some followers of the United Church of Canada—which in 1988 decided to allow the ordination of openly lesbian and gay ministers—now fully accept homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. But the issue clearly remains divisive.
A number of activist organizations currently promote greater tolerance of lesbians and gays within mainstream Christian churches— including Integrity for Anglicans, Dignity for Roman Catholics, Aware for members of the Christian Reformed Church and Affirm in the United Church. But those groups often share an uneasy relationship with religious authorities. About 25,000 lesbian and gay Christians and their friends have opted to join the various congregations of the Metropolitan Community Church, an ecumenical Christian de-
nomination that has grown to about 270 churches in 18 countries since outcast gay Pentecostal minister Troy Perry founded it in Los Angeles in 1968.
There are 19 branches in Canada. The largest is the Riverdale church, one of two in downtown Toronto, which has blossomed from only three members at its founding 20 years ago to a weekly congregation of nearly 500, according to senior pastor Brent Hawkes. The church’s annual • Christmas Eve service nearly fills the city’s 2,812-seat Roy Thomson Hall.
Like Koch, many members of MCCT’s congregation say that they experienced discrimination within mainstream Christian churches. Ernest Laçasse, for one, a 57year-old bookkeeper, was a minister with the United Church from 1971 until 1976, when he was asked to resign because of his homosexuality. “I was devastated,” says Laçasse, who added that, despite that hurt, he never lost his faith. Similarly, Kevin Haft, 35, was “shunned” by his evangelical Baptist congregation, an experience, he says, that left him “bitter and isolated from God.” But Haft, like other members, says that the Metropolitan Community Church, and its strong emphasis on participation and community service, has made a positive difference in his life. “I saw that there was a church that was still loving,” he says. “Very few of them are.”
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