Church gives sanctuary to gay man and his family

Source: New York Times
19 September 2008

Church Gives Sanctuary to Gay Man and His Family

Published: September 19, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. — On that afternoon five years ago, Randy and Jill Keel arranged to meet on familiar and neutral ground. The setting was the coffee bar in a cavernous bookstore here, a place they had used other times in the two years since they had separated. Oddly anonymous in such a public place, they could speak bluntly, and angrily if necessary, outside the earshot of their four children.

Mr. Keel had spent the previous months practicing this day’s words with a therapist. He had known the essence of what he had to say for far longer. “I’m gay,” he told his wife. Ms. Keel, for her part, felt less shock than relief, for something inexplicable about their breakup had just been explained.

After the tears and the hugs came the task of informing their children, who ranged in age from 9 to 16. And beyond that difficult disclosure, another question loomed: what about church? What church anywhere nearby would possibly accept a gay man and his family?

Jenny Warburg for the New York Times

Jill and Randy Keel and their children found a new church after Mr. Keel came out as gay. Photo: Jenny Warburg for the New York Times

Both Randy and Jill had grown up in Southern Baptist churches in small North Carolina towns, and even as their theology and politics turned liberal, they clung to the comforts of the faith’s rhythms and rituals, the thick mesh of community.

While raising their children, they had helped found a congregation in a Raleigh suburb. Mr. Keel taught Sunday school and served as a deacon, and with Ms. Keel took adult Bible-study classes.

They had felt a chill from their pastor and congregation just for being separated, and the stigma of divorce paled next to the prevailing Baptist attitude toward homosexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention officially condemned it as “a violation and perversion of divine standards.” The American Baptist Churches, generally more moderate, called homosexuality “incompatible” with biblical teaching.

“I was wondering where we could all end up together,” Ms. Keel, a 48-year-old psychologist, recalled in an interview this week. “I was wondering where my children could get support. When you have your history in church, it doesn’t make sense to throw it all out. There were parts I wanted to hang onto. But I also wanted my kids to be in an environment where they could say, ‘My dad is gay,’ and nobody would care.”

For Mr. Keel, the prospect seemed impossible. “I never thought church would be a part of our family life that we could continue,” Mr. Keel, a 50-year-old accountant, said in an interview.

Yet on Easter Sunday in 2006, the Keels’ three sons — Adam, Sam and Seth — were baptized, with their grandparents looking on, and with both Mr. and Ms. Keel attending with their respective boyfriends. (Their daughter, Molly, the eldest child, had been baptized years earlier in their previous church.)

What made this unlikely event not only possible but ordinary was the place where it was occurring, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.

For 16 years, since its then-pastor performed a holy union ceremony for two gay men, Pullen Memorial has provided homosexual Christians with an embracing, inclusive sanctuary in a hostile environment.

Pullen’s record of tolerance and advocacy is particularly striking because of the church’s Southern Baptist roots and its location in a conservative state, indeed in the very city that gave Jesse Helms, the stridently anti-gay senator, his political start.

“These gay people are my spiritual heroes,” said the Rev. Jack McKinney, 43, a married father of two who has been the pastor at Pullen for nine years. “Because after all they’ve been through, they’ve held to their faith. What they’ve done, not just to survive but to provide a courageous witness, is inspiring.”

Pullen Memorial has paid a severe price for its idealism. Soon after the 1992 holy union, the church was ousted by the Southern Baptist Convention, the North Carolina State Baptist Convention and the Raleigh Baptist Association.

Besides hitting that trifecta of opprobrium, Pullen’s leadership was attacked by some of its own members. About 30 families left the 800-member congregation, and the architect of the church’s sanctuary reviled the “pseudo-marriage ceremony” as “unbelievable and incomprehensible.”

The church’s bold, controversial stand on homosexuality followed a long maverick history. As early as the 1940s, Pullen’s clergy members spoke in favor of civil rights. Pacifism and social justice were hallmarks of the church in succeeding decades.

While all those campaigns stirred criticism both outside and inside the congregation, none brought on anything like the formal “disfellowship,” to use the Baptist term, in the wake of the holy union.

If the casting out was intended to make Pullen mend its ways or change its identity, then the effort failed. Pullen performs about one holy union ceremony a month, the same rate as for heterosexual weddings, and in 2002 appointed a lesbian, the Rev. Nancy Petty, as its co-pastor.

With 750 members and a $950,000 annual budget, both evidence of solidity, the congregation maintains a membership in the American Baptist Churches. It pays its “covenantal contribution” to a regional association rather than the national body, however, in what Mr. McKinney describes as a quiet protest against the movement’s stand on homosexuality.

Mr. McKinney does not stint in portraying Pullen’s positions on gay membership and same-sex unions as consistent with the Baptist ethos of congregational autonomy.

“The Baptists have a high regard for personal conscience, in the pulpit and the pew, and the freedom to interpret the Scripture,” he said. “They believe in the right of the individual to go to God and work out their faith. And if you’re a singular voice against majoritarian opinion, then your voice can get heard.”

The voice certainly reached the Keel family. Its children have gone through Pullen’s youth group and summer camp. Ms. Keel leads the monthly support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members — and, as her presence illustrates, their relatives. Mr. Keel is enough of a regular to feel guilty when he misses too many Sundays.

“It all seems to be aligned,” Mr. Keel said, speaking of church, family and sexual orientation. “At Pullen, you’re accepted for who you are, not what you’ve done. We’d have a hard time going anywhere else.”


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