Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series of columns. Part one was posted June 24.
Carlos Martinez knew what a difference the Seventh-day Adventist Glendale City Church had made in his life. When he told his Bible study group he was gay, he received overwhelming love and support. When he slowly succumbed to AIDS, he received visitors from church around the clock at a time when no one dared to interact with AIDS patients. When he died, Rudy Torres remembers 900 people attending his funeral.
Just before he passed, he told Torres, then a pastor at Glendale City Church, exactly what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind.
Martinez left $7,000 to the church and told Torres to invest it. The church created an endowment fund with the contribution that grew to $2 million, and, with it, created new programs, some of which further helped to create a more compassionate atmosphere.
Soon after Martinez’s death, Torres and pastor Mitch Henson, who was called “among the most courageous pioneers of inclusion for LGBT adventists,” by the Adventist magazine, Spectrum, realized that no other pastors in Glendale were conducting funerals for AIDs victims.
So, the two pastors took it upon themselves to do the job — regardless of the person’s denomination. Their mission was simple: to accept and to love and leave everything else up to God.
Martinez and their newfound outreach set a precedent in many ways for Glendale City Church.
“It has absolutely changed that church into an inclusive loving community,” Torres said. The church never advertised itself as a haven for the LGBT community, but they didn’t have to — that atmosphere was already created.
For most Seventh-day Adventists, being an adherent is not just a matter of religion, it is a matter of life, the kind of thing that manifests itself in everything from education to career and social circles, where coming out as gay means losing pretty much everything one has ever known and starting all over again.
In a denomination with 18 million adherents worldwide, where divorce is taboo, anti-gay summits are held and LGBT members live in a perpetual state of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” according to the LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, the Glendale City Church is one of a kind.
It’s a place where, unlike many other Seventh-day Adventist churches, its members have never had to choose between who they really are and what they believe in.
After an engaging Saturday service, in a room at the Glendale City Church, I met the men from the LGBT community who have found acceptance within these walls. They shared their stories with me, which were at once moving, funny and insightful.
Jesse Martin has been here for 31 years and said the church felt like “home.”
“I just came to a church where I could be me, not flaunting my gayness but just because I wanted to be loved and because I wanted to love everybody else,” he said.
The general acceptance found here is a point everyone made. To some in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, the church was known as the “Pink Church,” because of its ability to attract LGBT members. But to the people who actually worship at the Glendale City Church, it’s just the kind of compassionate atmosphere they’ve always known here.
“There are churches that are gay churches, but this is not a gay church,” said Tom Chatt, who married into the church. “It’s just a welcoming church, where people are welcome, whatever their thing is.”
In fact, after digging into the history of the over-100-year-old congregation, Dave Ferguson found that, going back all the way to the 1940s, the Glendale City Church had become a more diverse, inclusive place, welcoming people who felt isolated from situations, whether it was divorce or interracial marriage.
Ferguson himself was raised as an Adventist. He got married and had a son and tried desperately to change his orientation, knowing that if he didn’t, he would lose everything he had ever known.
After he had come to a point where he knew he was ready to start letting people know who he really was, he transferred to Glendale City Church and eventually got involved with the endowment that Martinez helped created so many years before.
“It’s kind of been full circle with the endowment, that a gay man helped to start it and a gay man helped it to go forward,” Ferguson said.
At the time that Ferguson joined, the Glendale City Church, at least in California, was discreetly known as a place where Adventist LGBT people would be welcomed, and eventually it had enough LGBT members to fill up several pews, which became known as the “Pink Pews.”
Though attendance and membership has dwindled overall, the church occasionally sees new LGBT members amongst the mix.
“Some people have become members here because they were kicked out of their own church,” current senior pastor Todd Leonard said. “They’ll be asked to step down from doing a Bible study or playing the organ or singing in the choir, if they don’t renounce to the leadership their orientation, the church may take action or remove them, so we’ve kind of been a refuge.”
And then, sometimes, this refuge gets people like Daniel Chaney through its doors who aren’t exactly sure what they believe, but know they will be welcomed here regardless.
Chaney, whose father was a preacher, grew up in small towns in rural Montana, struggling with his sexuality.
“When I realized I was not like the other boys, I just accepted that I was going to be cast into hell at any moment. I felt so sinful,” he said. “I never in my lifetime felt that I would see a welcoming church — I thought maybe a welcoming city or community program, but a church?”
Chaney is a singer who has been hired at many churches of various denominations where the messages have been less than welcoming and “ridiculously homophobic,” to the point where he felt a frustrating emotional struggle and eventually quit. But when Glendale City Church called him needing a tenor, the choice to take the job was easy.
“I said, ‘You know what? I will,’ because I knew up here I’m not going to feel like that ever,” he said. “It’s just really refreshing that this church makes a point of their inclusiveness.”
The church is now focused on how to take that inclusivity toward its immediate community. Under Leonard’s direction, a youth orchestra was created to provide for kids in the city who don’t have access to music training because of socioeconomic issues.
Partnering up with other religious and city organizations, they’ve also created an independent program called the Glendale Communitas Initiative to help people in the community move from crisis to stability.
“The desire to be a safe space goes beyond the LGBT community,” Leonard said.
Faith is difficult and complicated and often a struggle, but at Glendale City Church, there’s a particular kind of spirit, not just something you feel or read or hear about. It’s a spirit in motion, one that you can actually see making a big, genuine difference to many people. In an increasingly hostile world, it’s a spirit worth keeping alive.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.