When I first attended a service at Community Christian Church in Tempe, AZ, I had no idea what an impact it would have on my life, as well as on my faith. I grew up in East Tennessee going to a small Christian Church well defined in the Stone-Campbell movement. Church was an extremely important part of my life, and continued to be so as I attended a Christian liberal arts college, and later on, a Christian seminary. As I entered my twenties, I began to realize that I not only identified as Christian, I also identified as a gay person. As a result, I began to feel that there was not a place on earth where I truly fit in. As a Christian in the gay community, and a lesbian in the Christian community, I felt lost and confused, conflicted and angry. I began to feel as if I was a mistake, and that God’s grace and love were not, and could not be, extended to me. A wall went up between God and I, and I was left feeling alone and broken.
I moved to Arizona when I was 29 in order to have a fresh start, and after visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Chicago for a weekend and attending their Open & Affirming church, I returned to Phoenix with a burning thirst for the holy. I found Community Christian Church listed on the PFLAG website, and went to a service by myself. At the age of 31, I received the good news truly for the first time in my life. I felt the wall between God and I come crashing down, and a river of peace came rushing into my soul. Here was a place where I was not only loved and accepted, but welcomed with open arms: a place where I was truly part of the body of Christ, and welcomed at the table. On the back of the church bulletin, I read these words and wept openly:
In a world divided by fear and prejudice, God has set a Table that invites us to overcome our prejudices with understanding and our fear with the power of God’s love, shown in Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Jesus’ great commandment to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34), we, the members of Community Christian Church, Tempe, AZ, openly welcome and affirm all persons, including those of every race, age, gender, marital standing, sexual orientation or identity, physical or mental ability, economic status, and nationality. All who seek to follow Christ are welcomed in the full life and ministry of this community of faith, including membership and leadership. We welcome and embrace the God-given gifts that each person brings to the life of our congregation.
I have attended CCC for over three years now, and every Sunday I feel as if my soul is taking a big drink of holy water. I have been baptized in love and redeemed by grace, and my joy cannot be diminished. My church did not come to their decision to become Open & Affirming lightly. They spent an entire year as a congregation in prayer, open conversation, and bible study before coming together to give everyone a vote in the decision. That was a full year before I found the church. And yes, unfortunately a couple of members left over the decision. But multiple people, both gay and straight, found the Open & Affirming congregation they were desperately seeking and needing as a result. Including me. This church saved my faith, and in turn, it saved my life. I am forever indebted to the members of this congregation and the decision they made to follow in the footsteps of Christ and to radically love their neighbor: to welcome me, commune with me, challenge me, and to teach me. It is in this where God’s grace lives, thrives, and redeems.