WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Reconciling a Doctrine : Congregations Are Part of a Movement That Welcomes Gays Into Methodism

Pastor Ignacio Castuera grabbed both sides of the pulpit at Hollywood United Methodist Church and leaned toward the micro phone.

"If you have been beat up by other pastors who misuse chapters of Scripture to say, 'You are not a gift,' forget them--you are a gift," the white-cloaked pastor told his congregation, half of whose parishioners are gay men or lesbians.

"You are somebody."

Hollywood United Methodist Church is a Reconciling Congregation, part of a grass-roots movement that seeks to bring homosexuals into the mainstream of American Methodism. These congregations of fer a place of solace and spiritual support where they can worship without fear, gay congregants say.

The movement, founded in 1984, has found a base of support on the Westside, home to five of the seven Reconciling Congregations in Los Angeles County, including a campus ministry at UCLA. Nationally, there are 88 Reconciling Congregations; almost a quarter of them are in California.

"This movement works outside of the organizational structure of the church," said Rod Sprott, board member of the Reconciling Congregation, which is based in Chicago. "This is not an official part of the church. It is a movement to create change within the church."

Gays cannot be ministers in the United Methodist Church. The practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," according to church doctrine, although "God's grace is available to all."

Bishop Roy Sano, head of the Los Angeles area for the Methodist church, said he welcomes the idea of reconciliation, but "because of the volatility of the topic, it takes an exceptional leadership in local churches to truly be reconciling in exploring the possibilities. Sometimes even the exploration becomes a congregation divided."

And the movement is at cross-purposes with another, smaller trend within Methodism, the Transforming Congregations, which seek to "challenge the myth that homosexuals cannot change," according to their mission statement.

"I would not want to rule that out," Sano said. "It is cruel to expect changes in some people, but for others who have had very difficult past experiences, they could be transformed."

Transforming Congregations--the nearest is in the Orange County community of Fountain Valley--"promote this hope for change through the Biblical understanding that homosexual behavior is a sin, and as such, will result in judgment," the movement's statement says. They also try to "offer a warm and welcoming place for those struggling with homosexuality."

However, supporters of Reconciling Congregations say the real issue confronting the church is not whether homosexuality is a sin, but rather, "Can we be Christian and homophobic?"

The answer, they say, is no.

"You cannot change your orientation," Sprott said. "The difference . . . is that (Transforming Congregations) take people and try to change them. And Reconciling Congregations take people as they are and accept them."

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Gib Manegold, a recovering alcoholic and former drug addict, said it was at Hollywood Methodist that he found the strength to halt his drug dependency, leave an abusive relationship and begin a new life.

"This is the last time around for me," said Manegold, 42, in a soft, almost fragile voice. "Either I get better this time, or I go out there to die."

Manegold said Castuera helped him through the emotional turmoil of kicking his crystal methamphetamine habit and leaving his lover of 10 years.

"Ignacio would talk to me," he said of the Methodist minister. "He listened to me. It took a while to admit alcoholism and addiction. I had to hit rock bottom. God gave me little blessings along the way and one of them was Ignacio."

Others have been able to find their way back to the organized Christianity that rejected them when they became aware of their sexual orientation.

Joe, a 59-year-old animator who asked that his last name be withheld, said he was 16 when he decided to discuss his sexual inclinations with his preacher. What he heard was chilling.

"I was told by the minister that if I could not change those feelings, I had to leave the church," he said.

So he left.

Joe did not come back until 1987, when he happened into Crescent Heights United Methodist Church in West Hollywood and struck up a conversation about Reconciling Congregations with the previous pastor.

"Many people here feel like they have been excluded," said the Rev. Tom Griffith, who has been the spiritual leader of the church since 1988. "We need to say openly and loudly that if you are gay or lesbian, you are welcome. We would be fools if we didn't do that in this community."

Joe said the congregation's welcoming attitude allowed him to worship again without fearing reprisals.

"Many churches have the 'don't ask, don't tell policy,' " he said, "and that makes you very uncomfortable because you ask yourself, 'If they knew, would their whole attitude change?' "

Although Reconciling Congregations openly welcome gays, most are not interested in becoming predominantly gay churches, pastors said. The strength of the movement lies in diversity and inclusiveness, they said.

"I would feel absolutely defeated if this church became solely gay," said Castuera of the Hollywood church, which joined the reconciliation movement in 1991. "We want our church to be big enough to accept all of us. We are open to everybody."

This is important for some gay churchgoers as well.

"I never like everything being the same," said Robin Deibler, a lesbian who attends Crescent Heights United Methodist Church. "I like to learn from many different kinds of people."

That these congregations include people of various sexual orientations helps decrease homophobia, according to one activist.

"Reconciling Congregations are incredibly important," said Lorri Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. "You've won more than half the battle when you get people talking . . . with the facts rather than the vitriol. Once you get to know a gay or lesbian person, you cannot continue to hate."

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Three non-Methodist churches on the Westside have also joined the movement to formally welcome gay parishioners--two congregations of the United Church of Christ and one Presbyterian church. The most extensive effort, however, has been launched by the Methodists--not always with wide acceptance in the church.

Many believers quote Scripture to say homosexuality is a sin, citing passages such as this one from the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:26 (Revised Standard Version): "Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error."

Said the Rev. Jim Hill of San Diego, president of the National Advisory Board of Transforming Congregations: That passage "states very simply that such actions are against nature. The whole thing is an abomination."

Same-sex relations were also condemned in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Leviticus.

Pastor Sharon Rhodes-Wickett of Westwood United Methodist Church said the issue has been addressed in her congregation, but not at length.

While some congregants would support the idea, "there are people who, based on Scripture, believe that homosexuality is not (an acceptable) practice," she said.

Said Pastor Terry Van Hook of Culver Palms United Methodist Church: "It is an issue we are aware of, but our pet project is the ecology issue," he said. "We do not have enough resources to dedicate to a Reconciling Congregation movement."

Depending on the church, the road to becoming a Reconciling Congregation can be challenging.

The process requires study, discussion and prayer, followed by a vote for "the explicit, intentional and public inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual persons," according to a resource paper produced by the Reconciling Congregations movement.

The congregation puts itself on the record with a statement of reconciliation and registers itself with the national program. It is expected to help the cause with volunteer work and financial contributions.

Often, congregants question whether the issue is so controversial that it may split the church, or if having gay congregants will keep others away.

"Some of the single (heterosexual) women thought that having more gay men in the church would scare away the heterosexual guys," said the Rev. Jim Conn of The Church in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, which became a Reconciling Congregation in 1987.

"The fears were clearly not borne out," Conn said. He said about a quarter of his congregants are gay.

Joe says he is grateful such congregations give him and other gays the chance to belong.

"Everybody treats me with respect and love," he said, his voice trailing off. "I feel needed because I am the organist. Many people stop by and thank me. They know I am gay and they still thank me."

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