By Paulette Niemiec
You walk into a church on a Sunday morning. Looking around, you nervously gaze at those sitting in the pews. You walk slowly with hesitation toward a chair off to the side in the rear of the building. You might sit and hope the man standing at the pulpit doesn't scream at you, "God Hates Fags! Get out!"
This hypothetical is far too often the case when someone who is gay, lesbian or transgender decides to attend a church service or religious gathering. Yet the opposite is beginning to happen at a spattering of local Evangelical Lutheran Churches who are practicing a new policy and program designed to embrace the LGBT community in Michigan.
"You assume you are entering a hostile environment when you are gay, lesbian or transgender and enter a church," says Wendy Wellman, chair of the Southeast Michigan Synod Diversity Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression. "That's not the case when you enter one of our churches," she explains, describing the atmosphere encountered at a Lutheran church that has implemented the newly reformed Reconciling In Christ program.
It was introduced for the second consecutive year at the Joint Assembly for the Northwest Lower Michigan Synod and the Southeast Michigan Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Church last month. The program is led by Rev. Matthew Bode of Spirit of Hope in Detroit and Wellman, who organized a workshop at the Synod entitled "Our Congregation is Already Welcoming. Why Do We Need to Say So?"
"You have a chance to walk into a safe place to worship," says Wellman. "When you walk into an R.I.C. Lutheran Church, you are embraced by the congregation and all who are present will welcome you if they recognize that you are new, especially if you are gay, lesbian or transgender," she says.
Many have questioned why such a program needs to exist – after all, aren't all churches welcoming to newcomers? Are not all Christians called by Christ to be warm, kind, caring individuals?
"We know that's not always the case. So many churches say 'We are welcoming,' but in reality, they'd rather you not be there if you are lesbian or gay," says Wellman. "We have to face reality and make a point to declare to the whole world, 'Yes, we do love and care about you if you are gay, lesbian or transgender.'"
The purpose of the workshop and the table set up at the Assembly was to spread the word about this program, which, although initiated in 1983, has not been very popular until recently. Now, with 10 churches stretching from Muskegon to Port Huron, including St. Phillip Lutheran Church in Trenton and Ann Arbor's Lord of Light Lutheran Church (Wellman's Congregation), the Reconciling in Christ program is starting to gain some recognition in the Lutheran community. Wellman and Bode hope assemblies like the one last month will help the movement grow.
"We need to be aware of how we sound to the rest of the world," says Wellman. "Once you start the process, you will continue to blossom."