The Rev. Patricia Leffler was a late bloomer--personally and spiritually. Even with a 17-year mar riage, seven kids and a house in the suburbs, she didn’t feel she knew who she was or what she wanted.
Finally, at age 37, the missing pieces of her life began coming together. She went to nursing school, divorced her husband, came out as a lesbian.
And, after a lifetime as a devout Catholic, she found herself seeking a new church where she would meet with acceptance rather than rebuke. She found it in a gay congregation.
“I was dealing with the unhappiness in the marriage and in the Catholic Church and going through it all alone. It was just a coincidence that I found my lifestyle orientation and spiritual life at about the same time,” she says.
Now 50, Leffler has her own congregation at Christ Chapel Metropolitan Community Church in Santa Ana, where, she says, many gays and lesbians come wounded from earlier religious experiences that made them feel like sinners.
Her congregants are often deeply spiritual and struggle to reconcile those feelings with the rejection of homosexuality that is doctrine in many of the faiths in which they grew up.
“My main goal is to assure those who come here of God’s love,” Leffler says.
For many gays and lesbians, shame went with the holy water or Hebrew lessons. Social conservatives still denounce homosexuality as anti-Christian and immoral. Conservative Christians staged protests and waved banners at Orange County gay pride festivals as recently as 1991. Today, many houses of worship welcome gays and lesbians but still denounce same-sex love, emphasizing it is the practice of homosexuality, not the homosexual, that God warns against.
Some take their acceptance of gays and lesbians a step further. Southern California is home to a growing interfaith ministry specifically geared to the gay and lesbian community, according to Barbara Muirhead, coordinator of the Orange County Federation, a group of lesbian, gay and AIDS support organizations.
She estimates that about a half dozen churches, temples or other religious organizations focus on gays and lesbians and another dozen are reaching out by advertising in gay publications. That’s about twice as many organizations as a decade ago, she says.
Among the mainstream churches openly welcoming gays and lesbians are Irvine United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist of Orange County in Anaheim, the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, Community United Methodist Church of Huntington Beach and Red Hill Lutheran Church of Tustin.
And for the first time in Orange County, an interfaith religious service for gays and lesbians is planned for the fall. Sponsored by the federation, the service aims to increase awareness of all the religious groups available for gays and lesbians.
“I felt it was time for Orange County,” says Steve Morris, coordinator of the event. “There are so many gays and lesbians who have turned away from spirituality because of the ostracizing they’ve experienced all their lives. The interfaith service is to create a non-threatening environment for gays and lesbians to explore their spirituality.”
Morris, who grew up a Mormon and is now a member of the Huntington Beach Church of Religious Science, which he describes as a nondenominational, New Age church, says many homosexuals are beyond the identity struggles that characterized the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“People aren’t having to spend as much time on the coming out issue these days,” he says. “The more comfortable gays and lesbians feel about themselves, the better they are able to deal with other aspects of their lives, like spirituality. It gives them more time to reflect on God and their spiritual nature.”
Leffler says that helping homosexuals in her congregation feel accepted and loved is one of her major goals. “There is a great deal of spirituality in the gay and lesbian community, but so many of them have been seriously injured by so many churches,” Leffler says.
“I know people who have been told they would be damned unless they give up the gay lifestyle. There are some churches that force them to leave. There are other churches that ‘unclergy’ their clergy who are found to be gay.”
For Harvey Liss, coming out six years ago at age 47 launched a frenzied search for self-discovery. Because it took him nearly a lifetime to figure out he was gay, he figured he had to make up for lost time.
“All those years I didn’t know who I was, except maybe an asexual Jewish agnostic,” Liss says. “I didn’t want to be a homosexual; I thought that meant effeminism and buying a new wardrobe. And I was sure my parents would commit suicide if they knew. So I purposely avoided the gay community, and I never felt welcome in the temple. Now I know who I am and want others to know too.”
Liss says he decided not to spend the rest of his life as unhappily as he had until that point.
“I remembered that Freud said homosexuality was arrested development,” he says. “I wanted to unarrest my development. I joined as many groups as I could; I wanted to investigate everything, make up for lost time.”
Shortly after coming out, Liss discovered Congregation Kol Simcha, a lesbian, gay and bisexual Jewish congregation based in Laguna Beach.
“I had not attended services in a synagogue for about 10 years,” Liss says. “I just didn’t feel comfortable, and nothing seemed to pertain to me. For the first time, after connecting to Kol Simcha, the services were fun. It was so good to finally feel part of a group and know that I was accepted.”
Although many traditional congregations are showing more support to gays and lesbians, the issue for many religious leaders comes down to what the Bible says.
Among those who have addressed the topic with their congregations is the Rev. John Huffman of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. In a 1989 sermon reprinted in pamphlet form, he states: “The Bible contains a wide variety of references to a homosexual behavior. All are negative. Not one single passage endorses homosexual conduct as acceptable to God’s will.”
Huffman and other conservative Christians point to the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which Huffman’s sermon says “highlights the perverted practice that caused the destruction of those lands.” Others cite New Testament’s First Corinthians to argue that homosexuality is not compatible with Christianity.
Pastor Ken Schoening of First Assembly of God in Garden Grove says his denomination doesn’t approve of homosexuality, although, like Huffman and many mainstream clergy, he believes homosexuals are loved by God.
“Our view is that homosexuality is contrary to God’s purpose and design, so homosexuality is something we do not approve of,” he says. “However, I make a distinction between the lifestyle and the individual. The homosexual is a person, after all, and God loves him like he loves all people. But according to the Scriptures, he doesn’t approve of homosexuality and would desire a change in that person’s life.”
Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Orange, says that in opposing homosexuality, the church emphasizes the act over the orientation. “The church says homosexual acts are wrong by their nature because they exclude the possiblity of procreation, of begetting new life,” he says. “But discrimination can never be morally allowed against homosexuals. They must be respected because of their innate dignity as a child of God.”
Conservative Christians often quote the Old Testament’s Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to defend a stance against homosexuality. “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination,” states Leviticus.
Schoening cites Old Testament’s Leviticus as well as the New Testament’s Romans (1:24-27) and First Corinthians (6:9-11), which he says condemn homosexuality. But not all Christian clergy believe homosexuals are sinners.
“We aggressively make it clear that lesbians and gays are not only welcome in our church, but we make no distinctions in our religious approach as far as sexual orientation,” says the Rev. Maurice Ogden of Unitarian Universalist of Orange County.
“Unitarian Universalist, in its moral, ethical and theological views, is not based solely on the Scriptures,” he says. “We have a wider view than that. We don’t make arbitrary judgments on what is sinful or not sinful, and the fact that something is in the Scriptures does not make it binding.”
The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a Christian denomination that ministers primarily to gays and lesbians, says in its literature that biblical passages such as Leviticus cited by Christian conservatives should be viewed in context:
“These words occur solely in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, a ritual manual for Israel’s priests. The meaning can only be fully appreciated in the historical and cultural context of the ancient Hebrew people . . . rituals and rules found in the Old Testament were given to preserve the distinctive characteristics of the religion and culture of Israel. But Christians are no longer bound by these Jewish laws. By faith we live in Jesus Christ, who said nothing about homosexuality, but a great deal about love, justice, mercy and faith.”
Many gays and lesbians point out that the acts described in the Bible are not about the kind of same-sex love embraced by today’s homosexuality.
“References to homosexuality in biblical times were not based on romantic love” but on illicit, quick sexual encounters,” Liss says.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of Congregation Eilat of Mission Viejo agrees.
“The Torah did not prohibit what it didn’t know,” Artson wrote in a 1991 essay, “Rethinking Sexuality: Judaism and Homosexuality.”
“Rabbinic passages all speak about homosexual acts outside the context of a homosexual relationship,” he writes. “The nature of the sex is casual, almost circumstantial. There is not a single case in the Tanakh, or in any Rabbinic legal literature until the middle of the 20th century, that deals with homosexual acts in the context of homosexual love.
“In short, our sages did not speak of the constitutional homosexual because they were unaware that such a person could exist.”
Leffler, who grew up in a strict Roman Catholic family, says she believes the love that Jesus spoke of clearly includes gays and lesbians.
“There is no place in the New Testament where Jesus puts down anyone for being different,” she says. “His showing us his all-inclusive love also shows God’s love.”
Several years after coming out as a lesbian, Leffler went back to school, studying religion to become a deacon. A year later, in 1984, she returned to the seminary and became a minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. The denomination has more than 300 churches, including 14 in Southern California.
Two years later, she went home to Indiana for her mother’s funeral and learned that her mother, who was ashamed of her daughter’s divorce, lesbian lifestyle and new ministry, had not told any of her relatives of her life since she left her husband. Her mother viewed her daughter’s new life as anti-Catholic.
“Her Catholicism is not my idea of spirituality,” Leffler says. “She just couldn’t accept who I was. That’s one of the reasons why I think my lifestyle helps me minister to those who feel unloved and rejected. I’ve been there.”
Now she echoes the title of the Rev. Troy Perry’s book on religion and homosexuality to sum up her own sexual and spiritual orientation: “The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay.”
The Interfaith Service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Huntington Beach Church of Religious Science, 2205 Main St. (Seacliff Village Shopping Center), Huntington Beach. An open house with representatives from a variety of religious organizations will follow the service. For information on the service, call (714) 385-1450.