Faith initiative launches to a full house

By Crystal Proxmire

FERNDALE - After centuries of oppression by church leaders of all faiths, believers in God and equality in Michigan are organizing and striking back. "If I don't stand up for my God-given right, by any means necessary, then I can't expect someone else to stand up for me," Darlene Franklin said to the packed community room at Affirmations Community Center. "You need gay people to stand up in their own churches and say 'no more.'" Franklin, who co-founded Agape Spirit Life Ministries with her partner Rev. Deacon Glenda Wyatt-Franklin, was a speaker at the first community dialogue of the LGBT Faith Initiative, which took place Jan 12.

The initiative gives a chance for people of all faiths, or even no faith, to work together towards changing oppressive attitudes in their respective church communities.

"Faith gets a bad rap because of the attitudes of those who fear change, but there are so many people of faith that are supportive," said Affirmations Executive Director David Garcia. Garcia and other speakers focused on the "movable middle" in the faith community, those who do not hate gays yet also don't seem to have reason to stand up for them in their church environments.

"A lot of churches say they are open to all, but what are they doing to embrace the gay members of their congregation? Can two women hold hands and feel comfortable? Do they feel welcome to be themselves or do they have to hide when they are there?" Franklin said.

The initiative will focus on organizing gay and transgender people, as well as encouraging allies to deliver messages of acceptance and equality to their congregations.

Retired Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton became a spokesperson for the gay community after his brother came out of the closet.

"There was a piece in the paper I read recently about Joan of Arc, and it made me think. They condemned her and burned her at the stake, but later she was canonized. So the Catholic Church can change," said Gumbleton, who was one of four featured speakers at the event, along with Franklin and PFLAG Manistee founders Linda Carley Nelson and Tom Nelson.

The Nelsons are a Catholic couple, each with a gay child from a previous marriage.

"When my son came out to me, I woke from an intellectual coma. A lot of people are in that coma," Tom said. "I was extremely right wing, but I was given a gift. I was given a son. I was given a gay son by God.

"One thing I am proud about my Catholic Fathers is that they change. They say they don't, but they do. It's not revolution. It's evolution. Things change slowly. I try to keep a sense of humor about the Catholic Church. That's how I get through."

Social and structural change has come about when individuals stand up, with others following once the path has been cleared. Each speaker on the panel had different approaches to the conflicts within their faiths. The Nelsons have kept a light hearted, loving attitude, while providing resources for other parents and loved ones of those who come out. In addition to starting PFLAG Manistee, they are part of Fortunate Families, a network of 140 Catholic parents in 29 states who are available to talk to other Catholics dealing with their children's sexual orientation or gender expression.

Bishop Gumbleton described the conflict people may feel when their personalities conflict with religious teachings. He noted that Catholics have a doctrine that can help them overcome this conflict. "The saving factor in Catholic teaching is we have, above everything else, primacy of conscience. That means that I must understand my own heart. I make the decision, is it right for me? The church's teaching does provide conflict, but it is solvable in this way."

He also noted that standing up isn't always easy, but that's how change happens. "Jesus paid a terrible price for standing up for what he believed in. He paid with death," he said. "But most people don't go that far. Most people back off. They get to a certain point and they just back off. Jesus didn't do that."

The Faith Initiate will have at least three more community discussions this year, featuring other religious leaders and giving attendees a chance to share feedback and ideas about how to spread acceptance. Attendees filled out surveys that organizers will use to coordinate efforts and meet needs of the community.

Judy Lewis, Affirmations' volunteer coordinator of the initiative, said, "The best part, in my humble opinion, about the launch was the diversity - gay and straight, men and women, multi-denominational, Abrahamic and beyond! Wow, it was awesome," she said.

For more information about the initiative, call 248-398-7105.

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