Northeastside church is largest of its kind in Midwest.
Standing in the pulpit at Jesus Metropolitan Community Church, Pastor Jeff Miner raises his voice in a challenge for the congregation to share the word of God.
“What Jesus is calling us to do, by our lives, by our actions, by our attitudes, by our behavior, is to be constantly painting a portrait of Christ so compelling that when people see us, they will feel drawn to the beauty of God,” he says.
It’s a scene common in evangelical churches throughout Central Indiana every Sunday.
But, in this church, it also is different.
Miner is gay — as is most of his congregation.
The 13-year-old church, affiliated with the California-based Metropolitan Community Churches, has the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender congregation in the Midwest, according to MCC headquarters. Since it was started by four members of a Bible study group in 1991, the church has grown to nearly 300 members and offers three Sunday services attracting 400 people a week.
This church, Miner said, is a spiritual oasis for a group of Christians who have felt uncomfortable or been cast out of other congregations.
“There’s something here that you don’t feel at a lot of churches,” said Andrea Platt, 41, Pittsboro.
Platt and her partner, Jennifer Barnes, 42, have been attending the church for about five years. Like many in the congregation, they were raised in homes where religion played an important role, but as gay adults had struggled to hold onto a faith that condemned them for whom they loved.
“We came because of the congregation, but that is not why we stay,” Platt said. “We stay because of what we get here. The teaching is so grounded in the Bible.”
Added Barnes: “It’s like we found the genuine Christian community.”
Jesus MCC’s rapid growth in the past seven years is based on an unlikely model — the same high-demand, Scripture-driven evangelical approach employed by many of the churches that rail against homosexuality.
The irony is not lost on Miner. Raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, the Acton native attended Bob Jones University while struggling with what he believed to be an insurmountable clash between his sexuality and faith. That conflict initially derailed Miner’s dream of going into the ministry, so he earned a law degree from Harvard University and went to work as a corporate lawyer.
But years of prayer and study convinced him homosexuality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. Now, he is helping lead many others in the gay community back to God.
“What we are doing is not novel. It is the classic Bob Jones Christian evangelical model translated to a tribe of people untouched by God,” said Miner, 46, who joined Jesus MCC in 1997.
There are no outward signs that the church — in a former industrial building at 2950 E. 55th Place on the Northeastside — is any different from the more than 575 other religious congregations in Marion County.
Even inside, where members share in a lively worship that includes all the standard components — from Scripture readings and hymns to the Lord’s Prayer and Communion — there are few clues this is a predominantly gay congregation.
A nursery bustles with children coloring and playing, and each worship service includes a time when Miner shares Bible stories with members’ children gathered at the front of the church.
Projectors beam Scripture verses and the words to hymns onto walls flanking a large cross that is the centerpiece of the sanctuary. Services are interpreted in sign language, and sermons are recorded to post on the church Web site.
As Miner preaches the Gospel, worshippers caught up in the spirit raise their hands toward heaven and offer “amens.” And after services, they mingle over coffee and refreshments or head off to church-organized activities.
“People are looking for something real and encompassing in their lives, and we’re building a ministry around that,” Miner said.
If clergy and members from churches that condemn homosexuals would attend a service at Jesus MCC with a blindfold on, Miner said, “they would think it is just like their church — until the word gay or transgendered is mentioned, then they would be horrified.”
Some conservative Christians are — pointing to several Bible passages they say condemn homosexual behavior.
David M. Craig, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said views that homosexuality is an “abomination” and “unnatural” come from literal interpretations of verses in Leviticus, Romans and the Sodom and Gomorrah stories. While he does not agree with such interpretations, Craig said they are common in many conservative Catholic and Protestant denominations.
“Intellectual Christians, liberal or conservative, understand that rules have to be read in context,” said Miner, who has co-authored a book that addresses what he calls “the clobber passages.”
Miner said the Bible includes more than 600 rules — from prohibiting work on the Sabbath to requiring women to cover their heads — that are not followed by most Christians, including many who condemn homosexuals.
“The record we have of Jesus’ life illustrates that Jesus always chose compassion for people over strict adherence to Biblical rules,” he wrote in “The Children Are Free,” published by the church in 2002.
Miner sees Jesus MCC playing a role similar to that of black churches, which grew out of discrimination in many white denominations and now speak to life experiences of blacks.
“We can apply the Gospel with great relevance to the life situations of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered,” he said.
In a recent sermon, Miner pointed to empty chairs in the sanctuary and asked the congregation to envision men, women and children who could benefit from hearing the word of God.
“That chair back there represents a teenage boy, and unless someone reaches him with the good news, sometime in the next three years he will take a gun, point it at his head, pull the trigger — and we all know why.”
A wave of “amens” and nods swept across the sanctuary.
Minutes later, Miner lightened the mood by telling members they don’t have to be creepy or pushy to share their love of God.
“We say, ‘Jesus, please, I’ll do anything. . . . I’ll give all my power tools to the poor. I’ll take my Judy Garland albums and break them over my knee . . . but don’t ask me to be one of those weird people.’ “
The messages resound with worshippers at Jesus MCC, who have lived the experiences he shares and are excited to feel that God is with them.
“What we are trying to do is weave Christ into the fabric of our lives,” Miner said.
And many are taking up that challenge. Miner said about two-thirds of the regular attendees volunteer with the church’s more than 30 outreach ministry programs, which range from helping the homeless to support groups for couples and singles.
Jesus MCC isn’t the only area church that is accepting of gays. Ten other “open and affirming” congregations are listed on the gayindy.org Web site. But even in some of those congregations, a gay person might not feel completely welcome, said Nancy McBride, 57, Indianapolis.
“They say, ‘We accept everybody,’ but then they say, ‘Don’t try to be a minister or don’t hold hands or kiss your spouse,’ ” said McBride, a founding member of Jesus MCC.
“We shouldn’t have to have a church started by gays, but that is what it took.”
Now that it is here, Miner and the congregation have big plans.
“We see ourselves 10 years from now with a congregation of 1,000 to 1,500 that not only focuses on our congregation but is spinning off resources to help other congregations replicate the model in other communities.”
Growing visibility and community involvement is important to increasing understanding and acceptance of gay Christians, but it also carries some risk, Miner said. Several other MCC churches around the country have been targets of hate crimes, including arsons and firebombings. So far, he said, the local congregation has not been targeted.
“If we don’t take a stand, there will be at least 100 Hoosier teens over the next decade — and probably more — who will kill themselves out of self-hatred that is fed, in part, by the churches they are growing up in,” Miner said.
“When the message is you are an abomination to God, that doesn’t leave many options.”
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