Darren Holman said his Mormon family renounced him after he came out as gay, and he was forbidden from attending his grandmother's funeral. Brandon Petross Oliver, on the other hand, watched his conservative, religious grandmother warmly welcome his engagement to another man. Steve Pieters said his Christian faith gave him the will to live in 1984 after doctors told him he would die of AIDS complications within eight months.
Through stories and song, members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles on Saturday shared struggles to reconcile faith with identity in a program titled "I Rise," an emotional meditation on the nuanced and often-tense relationship between religion and the LGBTQ community.
"A lot of gay men have been hurt, have been harmed by religion, and we hope to heal," the chorus' executive director, Jonathan Weedman, said in an interview Saturday. "We hope that with this concert, we create a dialogue, we create an experience in space, where members of all faiths come together in love and understanding."
In two performances Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the chorus mixed traditional songs from a variety of faiths with pop music and show tunes. That meant the program shifted from the Christian hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing?" to Max Janowski's Jewish hymn "Avinu Malkeinu," as well as haunting renditions of more modern tunes, including Bobby McFerrin's "The 23rd Psalm" and Katy Perry's "Rise."
More than 200 members of Southern California choirs, including Vox Femina, the Selah Gospel Choir and faith groups representing a diversity of religions joined in the second half of the performance. The program also included two soloists: transgender singer Breanna Sinclaire and songwriter Holly Near.
The program was the idea of the chorus' artistic director, Joe Nadeau, who conducted most of the performances. "He designed the concert from start to finish," Weedman said.
Between songs in the first act, several members of the Gay Men's Chorus reflected on their personal difficulties reconciling faith with identity. Some spoke of heartbreak and rejection; others of belonging and community.
Gary Hayashi attended a seminary and tried to convince his friends, family and himself that religion had helped him to "pray the gay away." It took years before he found a different sort of spiritual community, one that showed him love and acceptance, in the chorus.
"I wandered into that great love," he said, to loud applause.
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3:22 p.m.: This article was expanded with additional details about the origin and development of the concerts.