Fifty years ago, if a Baptist congregation in the South was suggesting becoming Open & Affirming, they’d have been referring to their willingness to accept African Americans as fellow children of God, and allowing the racial integration of their church. Twenty five years ago, Open & Affirming would have represented the Baptist church’s welcoming of single mothers, divorcees and former Catholics into membership. Just fifteen years ago, it would have meant ordaining women into ministry and affirming their God-given call to preach and lead in worship. Today, the phrase, Open & Affirming, is most often equated with the welcoming and acceptance of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning) people into the church.
To better understand the excruciatingly slow progress of the Baptist Church in regards to the afore mentioned issues it’s important to know a few things. Although many Christian denominations are governed by a series of central bodies, Baptists are not. Each congregation holds its own autonomy, centered on the Baptist tenet of the priesthood of all believers. This means that each person is capable of deciphering God’s will for their lives and therefore, each congregation is as well. Led by God in this autonomy, some Baptist churches are light years ahead of sister congregations in terms of their Open & Affirming stance of LGBTQ folk. I’m fortunate enough to be a member of one of those very congregations.
Highland Baptist Church, of Louisville, Kentucky, is one of the most progressive churches in the South. The staff and community of faith have committed themselves to embodying the message of “Open & Affirming” which resonates throughout a region where LGBTQ folk have been shunned, condemned and spiritually butchered by religious communities for centuries. By fully welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people into Highland Baptist, our church continues to give a faithful witness to what “welcome” means in God’s terms. People from across the nation have been inspired and encouraged by the uninhibited love, embodied in the welcoming of Highland Baptist to all of God’s children. The church has and continues to endure heavy criticism by less welcoming faith communities but Highland Baptist’s commitment to love will not be shaken.
On a more personal note, the loving witness of my church has revealed the life-changing truth that I‘ve ALWAYS been welcomed at God’s table. Tears come as I write this because for LGBTQ people of faith, the affirmation that God has loved us from the moment we were created is so revolutionary that many of us are not sure how to respond at first. Years of religious condemnation, bigotry and exclusion have left us gun-shy and weary of any gesture from the church, whether it’s genuinely welcoming or not. Our hearts simply can’t bear one more rejection, yet God’s hand remains outstretched to us, beckoning us home to take our place at the supper table. “Come sit down, son”, I hear God saying to me, “Do you know that I love you more than you could ever imagine? Don’t you ever, ever forget that.” This is the essence of welcome.
In conclusion, let me testify to how a church’s welcome can change a life. Highland Baptist’s love and affirmation enabled me to fully embrace the call to ministry God had placed on my heart at a young age. It was something that terrified me, considering I was both gay and a Baptist. Yet isn’t it funny how often God’s mysteriousness intertwines such seemingly paradoxical terms? Through the prayer and encouragement of the church, I enrolled in Seminary and was ordained two years later in May of 2012. Currently, I lead True Colors at Highland Baptist which is a welcoming and affirming ministry for LGBTQ folk in our community. We are busy embodying God’s welcome and witnessing to its miraculous ability to heal with inclusive and abundant love.