Providing Sanctuary : Church Attracts a Growing Flock of Gays and Lesbians

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judy Dahl has started her sermon at Metropolitan Community Church with the usual flourish.

First, there is a string of announcements: The hymnals have arrived, and a fund-raiser to collect bottles and cans will be led by a member, Dahl says.

"Marge is going to be the next church bag lady," she winks, and the congregation roars.

Dahl leads a growing congregation of gays and lesbians who attend the Metropolitan Community Church of Ventura.

Since the 43-year-old ordained minister took over the leadership of Ventura County's only gay church last September, average Sunday attendance has almost tripled from 25 to more than 60.

For the first time in its 20-year history, church leaders are planning to move from the building they share with the Unitarian Church into one of their own.

A lesbian and mother of two, Dahl has quickly become a visible spiritual guide for a flock she believes would be isolated from the church.

"There's not a person here who hasn't been abused by these institutions that say they love God," Dahl said in an interview. "I find it sad that lesbian and gay people can't go to churches."

Dahl's leadership has been an important turn of events for gays across the county, said Claire Connelly, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center in Camarillo.

Ventura County has never even had a gay-pride march, but last fall Dahl organized the first public demonstration by gays and lesbians, Connelly said. The minister also helped establish a counseling program for gays with acquired immune deficiency syndrome and a support group for lesbian and gay parents.

Dahl "is the first minister we've ever had here who is open about her lifestyle," said Connelly, a member of the church for seven years.

Before Dahl came to MCC, "there were a string of ministers who had problems with their own self-acceptance. It was a heavy guilt trip to attend that congregation," Connelly said.

Not all admire Dahl's leadership, Connelly said.

Some congregation members have left after disagreeing over whether the church should become more politically active. And Dahl said she has received threats, which she refuses to discuss.

Other ministers say Dahl's church is not the only flock with gay members.

The Rev. Beth Ann Suggs of the Unity Church in Ventura said gays also belong to Unitarian, Religious Science and Unity churches around the county.

"We happen to have gays in our church, but there's no one who better serves the community than MCC," she said.

Before her ordination in the Metropolitan Community Church, Dahl was a devout Roman Catholic.

Dahl graduated from an all-girls Catholic school in Phoenix, Ariz., and at 17 entered a Benedictine order in Duluth, Minn. She said she spent much of her time not in peaceful contemplation, but in penance, cloistered.

After 2 1/2 years, "I went to reverend mother and said, 'I want out,' " Dahl said. At 20, she became a flight attendant for Frontier Airlines in Phoenix, where she stayed 11 years. She then attended a United Methodist seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and earned her master's degree in 1982.

Dahl said she likes to cite a line from the new Whoopi Goldberg movie "Sister Act." Actor Maggie Smith, playing mother superior, remarks on her reasons for becoming a nun.

"She said, 'It was either that or become an airline stewardess,' " Dahl said, her eyes crinkling. "I just laughed and laughed, because I've been both."

She is more serious when it comes to her personal life. She recalls a suicide attempt in 1976.

In 1989, Dahl wrote a book called "River of Promise" that details her attempt to conceive a child with her partner, Terryl Miller.

Dahl said she was inseminated 18 times in an attempt to conceive. After repeated tries, the couple decided to adopt. Their first adoptive child was taken back by his natural mother soon after he was born. The couple have since adopted two children, Jordan and Andy, now 4.

Dahl is the eighth minister to preside over the Ventura congregation since it was founded in 1972 by the Rev. Ron Pannell of Santa Barbara.

In its early days, the church had only $79 in its coffers, and its first services were held in a storefront on Ventura Avenue. Later services were held in individuals' homes.

"My sense of this church was that it was really frightened of the conservative backlash," Dahl said. "It's been in the closet. It's been isolated."

In the late 1970s, membership flagged to the point where the church was on the brink of closing.

When Dahl came to the church last September, 18 months after the previous pastor resigned, she vowed to make an increase in membership her primary goal.

Dahl led her congregation in a picket around Assemblyman Tom McClintock's (R-Thousand Oaks) Camarillo office and denounced his decision to oppose a bill that would have protected gays and lesbians from job discrimination.

"This was a violent attack on our community," Dahl explained, her brow knitting in anger. "We're not fragmented people. We have spiritual needs and physical needs. And we have political agendas."

The anger is not present in the Sunday sermons she delivers to her congregation, a crowd that dresses casually in tennis shoes, T-shirts and shorts to hear her speak.

On a recent Sunday, Dahl left politics behind and donned a white robe to lead her flock in a rendition of "Jesus Loves Me." Later, she closed her eyes as some members cried softly.

The church members related stories of family members who are dying. Other members spoke of loved ones who have committed suicide.

"We need to heal the child inside us," Dahl intoned.

It is a message that Wayne Allen, 57, a longtime worshiper at MCC, said needs to be repeated. Although he has played piano and attended services at other Ventura County churches, he felt rejected by other worshipers.

At other churches, "they want us to worship and then leave," he said. "Here, we can come as couples and take Communion together."

Members say one indication of Dahl's positive influence on the congregation is that there has been an increase in ceremonies to bless unions between longtime partners.

Mary Schumacher, 31, of Ventura, and her partner, Daphne, two months ago decided to recognize their 6-year-old relationship with a holy union ceremony.

"We just wanted the recognition and the blessings from our friends," said Schumacher as she held her sons, Kalen, 1, and Brian, 5. "It's important to our children."

When the couple wedded, both dressed in tuxedos, they asked Dahl to bless them.

"One of the things that attracted us was that a friend told us there's a great pastor at MCC," said Daphne Schumacher, 35. "I was a born-again Christian when I was a kid, and for a long time I did not want to be labeled as a Christian. But this is where we feel most at home."

Dahl said her hope is that the new location will encourage the church to grow even more.

"I want this church to be as big as it can be," Dahl said. "I think that there's fertile ground here. There's a lot to do."

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