Michigan's NorthRidge Church: When 'Non-Denominational' Really Means 'Homophobic'

Chris Azzopardi

Because I didn't know how to tell her, my mother was one of the last people I came out to, but it's funny – she's always been the first to have my back. She'd never let anyone shame her son – even her own church. Not now, not ever.
That unwavering support was demonstrated yet again last week when she approached me, looking more angry and letdown than I'd seen her in a while. Her longtime church isn't as accepting, welcoming or progressive as she, and a lot of other parishioners, thought.
NorthRidge, a massive, hip and inviting establishment located in Plymouth on North Territorial, seems to welcome, with open arms: parishioners who are divorced, those who have had sex out of wedlock, even convicts and other "sinners." Their marketing is perfectly in sync with today's youth culture – it's pithy, it's non-judgmental, it's downright comical sometimes. "Come one; come all," they seem to proclaim. Except if you're homosexual. Because being gay? That's just unforgivable in the eyes of God, at least according to NorthRidge.
On March 25 and 27, the pastor emailed the entire congregation, including my mom, using Him to rationalize an offensive, embarrassing and deplorable truth: NorthRidge is anti-gay. So anti-gay, in fact, they turned their backs on World Vision – a Christian-based humanitarian aid for poverty-stricken children – when it was announced the charity had recently decided to employ gay people … gay people with big hearts, gay people with strong characters, gay people wanting to reach out to needy children.
NorthRidge responded in a particularly polarizing and foolish way. Citing the Word of God as justification for their inexcusable self-righteousness and un-godly condemnation, they wielded pervasive church hypocrisy to shun the gay community.
As for my mom, she was feeling outraged, but also deceived. Understandably, she thought NorthRidge was a forward-thinking, "non-denominational" church free of judgment. It's the image they promote. Sighing as she handed me a printout of the email she sent me earlier in the day – with the subject "I'm fired up! I'm done with NorthRidge!" – she noted this blurb:
"Unfortunately, without notice, WV has just announced a significant change. They have decided to hire (and endorse as fulfilling the biblical standards of sexual purity) individuals involved in same-sex marriages. In so doing, we believe that they have compromised the clearly expressed truth of God's Word about marriage and sexual purity."
"Marriage" and "sexual purity"? So how about the divorced? How about those who've engaged in pre-marital sex? Maybe World Vision, the nation's 10th largest charity, should prohibit everyone – even "sinners" with tattoos – from working for them.
After NorthRidge released two letters detailing why denouncing homosexuality is more important than committing to the hungry mouths they promised to feed, World Vision reversed their decision to hire gay employees. The charity ultimately caved to pressure from NorthRidge and other congregations around the country, casting married gay Christians aside days later, reversing an honorable, common-sense decision.
Now, I've been to NorthRidge. Several times, in fact. Nearly 10 years ago, I introduced my mom to the church after finding it to be a welcoming place that wasn't preachy, political, and seemed far more progressive than its recent turn of events revealed. Maybe it was the latte you could grab at the coffeehouse before mass, how they turned a Kings of Leon song into a spiritual experience, the hashtags used in their promo materials – but no, it was more than that.
It was Pastor Brad Powell.
Powell spoke about faith, but not in a forceful or restrictive way. Kind, fair, compassionate, loving – that's the God I came to know through him. That's the God my mother came to know through him. NorthRidge was an inviting place of worship, and it gave me, my mother and other faith-seekers false hope.
But even worse, they've used "God's Word" to justify their discriminatory denouncement, choosing to single out one specific group of people – the gay community – as if others at NorthRidge, at World Vision and around the world are also, in some way and according to the church, not "compromising the clearly expressed truth of God's word." It isn't just hurtful – it's hateful and hypocritical. It's everything but Christian.
But NorthRidge, it turns out, isn't as "non-denominational" as it might appear. Behind the smoke and mirrors is a creed rooted in strict Southern Baptist beliefs. That mega church serving mochas before mass used to be in Detroit, and it used to be called Temple Baptist Church. In service from 1934 and 1951, Temple was known to be so fervently conservative it barred African Americans from attending. If banishing minorities is part of NorthRidge's mission statement, they should be really proud. I mean, Fred Phelps certainly would be.
In light of the church's shamefully biased declaration, they cornered World Vision into making the unfortunate and dishonorable decision to un-hire gay people in same-sex marriages, reinstating NorthRidge as a partner – but only for now. In a second letter, Pastor Brad writes that he "will remain skeptical," and that if the church does not believe "their confession and repentance is genuine," they will not pursue any further opportunities with WV.
"Since it's impossible to fulfill our mission without both showing His love and telling His Truth, we believe that the partnership we began with WV to advance our mission now threatens it. Rather than helping to expand our capacity to show God's love, their decision will significantly hinder and hurt it."
Hey Brad, you know who else this hurts? It hurts that gay parishioner who, year after year, volunteers his time to "The Glory of Christmas," working tirelessly to get those lights just right for the production that annually pulls in lots of money for your congregation. It hurts that 11-year-old who read your letter condemning him, who now believes he's not worthy of God's love … or of life, period. It hurts that mother who goes to Sunday mass and has to tell her son that she can no longer attend because the church has turned against him. It also hurts all those needy people you almost abandoned because of your poor, disgraceful handling of a circumstance that wasn't even about gay people in the first place – it is, and always was, about helping people in need.
My mom worries she'll never find a church that affirms her beliefs. To be frank, I've long given up on it.
I'm discouraged by homophobic dogma I find at every corner, but I do hold out a sliver of hope thanks to a woman I met while attending a retreat at Christian music icon Amy Grant's Nashville farm last fall. The retreat was magic, bringing together fans from every walk of life. My mom was there with me, and so were many other people. We connected with strangers, some similar, but most very different. We shared stories about our lives, and fans asked about my experience of speaking with Amy Grant for her first gay press interview. Unbeknownst to me, within earshot, was a pastor's wife. I heard her talking about the congregation she serves, and I just froze. My heart skipped a few beats. I felt the way I usually do when I know I'm within a pastor's presence: judged. I figured we'd have nothing in common. I figure she'd condemn me. I figured she'd be another Brad Powell.
I figured wrong.
This woman expressed not just the enlightening takeaway she had from that Grant interview (it ended with Grant asserting that the only relationship with God that matters is the one he has with you and only you, emphasizing the inclusion of "everybody"), but I'll never forget this: She and her husband – the pastor – shared it with their congregation. Her God was the kind, compassionate, loving God that my mother and I – and many other faith-seekers – thought we'd found at NorthRidge.
So, it is a hopeful thought to know these pastors do exist; you just won't find them at NorthRidge – a revelation that is both sad and surprising.
But most of all, it's heartbreaking.
It's heartbreaking to the gay community, and to allies like my mother, but it is most heartbreaking for the thousands of children who lost their sponsorships over a disagreement that had nothing to do with them.


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