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Intersections: How a church became a beacon of acceptance

Around 30 years ago in the middle of a Bible study class at a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale, something close to a miracle took place.

It was the 1980s. The AIDS epidemic, and the panic that went along with it, was in full force. But Carlos Martinez needed to tell his truth. And so, on a Wednesday morning, while sitting with 30 senior women, Martinez listened to the worries of a mother whose son had died from cirrhosis of the liver and the anguish she felt at how beatings at home could have driven him to become an alcoholic.

And then, he decided it was time to speak.

“I am dying of AIDS,” he said. “I contracted AIDS in a gay singles bar, and if God can forgive me, he can forgive you.”

What the women did next was a moment that former pastor Rudy Torres, who was at the Bible study, told me was the most phenomenal experience he’s ever had in all of his ministry.

They stood up and hugged him. Around 30 Seventh-day Adventist women who were 65 years old and older cradled Martinez in an unexpected outpouring of love and support, at a time when exact knowledge about the transmission of the disease was unknown.

The Glendale City Church, which has now been part of the city for more than 100 years, was never the same again.

“We just created a community where people felt safe and included, and part of the family, which, of course, we all were,” Torres said.

An atmosphere of inclusiveness was born, a place where people of all backgrounds took refuge. Since the Bible study class that changed everything, the Glendale City Church has quietly become known in the Seventh-day Adventist community as a unique place, a house of worship that does not discriminate, but accepts its members as they are.

In fact, more than 200 people in its congregation don’t even live in California, tuning into worship services online every week. Despite the distance, they’ve chosen to be part of the church because of the legacy its pastors have helped create.

This is especially important given how deeply ingrained the religion is for its 18 million worldwide members, one million of whom are in the United States. It’s also significant because of the Seventh-day Adventist official stance on LGBT issues, where gay members are asked to remain celibate, conversion therapy has been known to be used and homosexuality is considered to be inconsistent with biblical teaching.

“I know it gives hope to a lot of people in our denomination, both gay and straight, to say well at least there are some people and some leaders and a pastor who does see me as a child of God, that God desires my happiness and created me this way,” said Todd Leonard. “That he didn’t make a mistake with me.”

Leonard is Glendale City Church’s current senior pastor, and one in a line of leaders who have shaped the church into what it is today. In fact, its precedent as a forward-thinking church was set long ago. Four decades before the LGBT community became one of the most pressing social issues of our time, the church accepted once-known social taboos like interracial marriage and divorce. Now, it has services in Armenian and Romanian, too.

To some members of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, the church’s openness to the LGBT community has been revolutionary, to some revolting. The church has been harshly criticized, with some seeking to thwart their plans for acceptance of anyone who wants to worship, regardless of sexual orientation.

Leonard, who grew up in Atlanta, understands. It wasn’t long ago that he might have felt the same way. But many years ago, as a pastor in a church in conservative northeast Tennessee, he met several people from the LGBT community. He began to wrestle with his beliefs and the compassion he had for the people he met, who were in pain, standing right in front of him and wanting to know if they were loved by God, he said.

“I couldn't talk about it as a theory about whether we should or not, I’ve got somebody right here in tears who longs to be loved by God,” he said. “I finally just said to myself, 'you know what? There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be completely comfortable and welcoming.'”

It was Leonard who first told me about Martinez, who eventually ended up in the AIDS ward at a Hollywood hospital. It was there that he became one of the only patients who had not just constant visitors, but any visitors at all. More than 50 members of the Glendale City Church would show up to see him.

One day when Torres went to see him, the head nurse called out to ask who all these people were that flooded the hospital at all hours to visit Martinez.

“I said, 'we are members of the Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church,'” Torres told me. “And he is one of ours.”

What has happened since Martinez’s legacy sparked a change? Next time, join me as I attend Saturday worship services at the Glendale City Church and meet some of the members who have found comfort in its walls, creating a place that’s less about what your background or sexual orientation is, and more about what truly matters: community.

This is the first in a two-part series of columns. The next column in this series will run July 9.

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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