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Religion and the LGBTQ+ Community: A Shifting Relationship

Published on 12th December 2017

For many in the LGBTQ+ community who had religious upbringings, it can be impossibly difficult to reconcile faith and identity when one is not accepting of the other. In this piece, we hear personal experiences from an East Lansing pastor who proves it's possible to embrace both identities, an MSU student who had been groomed to become a Lutheran pastor before realizing the truth about himself, and a former Muslim whose religious family still struggles to accept his true identity.

Edgewood Church

"I have that personal experience of knowing what it feels like to have religion used against you"

Englewood Church’s rainbow pole – a visible symbol of inclusivity. Photo/Laina Stebbins

A rainbow pole staked proudly in the Edgewood United Church's front lawn serves an important purpose. As a widely recognized symbol of LGBTQ inclusion, the congregation hopes it will draw in members of the queer community who feel unwelcome or excluded from other religious communities.

“Last year, I received a voicemail message from someone who was driving by with their niece [who] had come out as queer, and felt like there was no place for them in the church and that the church was a place that preached shame and hate and exclusion to LGBT people,” said Pastor Liz Miller.

“[They] saw our rainbow pole and it incited not just a good conversation, but really transformed that young adult's perspective of, like, maybe there's more out there than I realize, maybe it's worth looking into more.”

For the past year and a half, Liz Miller has been the pastor of Edgewood United Church of East Lansing – a small, 150-member brick and cedar-planked church off Hagadorn Road.

Miller’s progressive beliefs, coupled with her identity as a gay woman – she and her wife have been together for seven years, and happily married for three – certainly make her a representative leader for such an inclusive place of worship.

“I love the energy of Edgewood...they're faithfully progressive, and they're unabashed about both of those identities,” Miller said. “I really like that the congregation is not afraid to take a bold stance on justice issues, not afraid to be a voice in the community.”

The church’s highly inclusive philosophy began long before Miller's leadership – decades, in fact.

The church was founded before the Civil Rights movement began, the ideals of which became part of its voice as a congregation, Miller said. Edgewood became established as one of the first “open and affirming” churches in the area.

“Being open and affirming means different things in different churches, and Edgewood’s by far the strongest community that I’ve experienced that in," Miller said.

Miller feels lucky to have grown up as a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), the progressive sect to which Edgewood also belongs. Her father was even a UCC pastor for some time, she said – but things are much different now.

“My dad...was a UCC pastor for a while, but then became a born-again Christian, and is now a very conservative Evangelical fundamentalist pastor," Miller said.

“I have never attended his new church, and we do not have a great relationship," she said. "I have that personal experience of knowing what it feels like to have religion used against you, and to have the Bible thrown at you and told that, you know, ‘I love you, BUT…’”

“The allies in the congregation are the biggest testament…they have very natural ways of making people know that this is a safe place, and that you are welcome here. Even if you’re standing in a group of straight people, they’ll figure it out.”

“Our elders have broken every stereotype…Here, they are often leading the charge.”

“We invite people to include their pronouns on their name tags so we're not assuming someone's gender identity – which is more common in universities now, but not common in churches.”

“Once people experience the welcome, the symbolic and the real welcoming you get from the people once you’re here, it's transformative.”

“It’s hard when you go to Sparticipation…and with the majority of [religious student groups], you’re not going to feel very welcome.”

It can be hard to find LGBTQ-inclusive groups on campus, Miller said.


"'Queering' the Bible"

It can be hard to find LGBTQ-inclusive groups on campus, Miller said, but she recommends the Christian Bible study group “Q-Cross” for Spartans.

Queer-friendly spaces of worship are becoming more commonplace, from UCC churches to student organizations on campuses that lead “queer theology” Bible studies. In these spaces, members of the LGBTQ community can reclaim their faith and heal past trauma alongside peers with shared experiences – and it can be a truly transformative experience.

“Q-Cross @ MSU” is one such student group, and acts as a safe space for queer students at Michigan State looking to discuss and reinforce their faith without fear of prejudice. In the meetings, students and a few religious figures from the East Lansing community sit in a semi-circle, start the meeting with prayers and well-wishes, and take turns reading portions of the selected Bible texts out loud.

Led by Rev. Jenn Tafel, thhe group reads and analyzes these readings through what they refer to as a “queer lens.” By “queering” the text, the participants look for deeper understandings of the situations with respect to to the characters’ feelings and experiences to pull out what reads as familiar to their own personal experiences.

Pulling out these bits of familiarity could be as simple as noticing a group of outcast characters and how they bonded to form a community of their own – just as members of the queer community often do as a means of survival.

Other familiar themes included the oppression and subservience of women, possible same-sex relationships in the Bible, and living outside the acceptable laws and/or norms at the time.

“What is it about being in queer space and/or queer identified that allows us to read these ancient stories in new ways?”

Clues or statements in Scripture that allow us to question if folks were living outside the law/norms
Outcast community – finding one’s place/group within it

Ben Schroff

"You're gonna be a pastor, right?"

MSU senior Ben Schroff grew up in one of the more conservative, orthodox sects of the Lutheran Church called the Missouri Synod.

Schroff attended the Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Michigan from preschool through eighth grade. Schooling was seeped in religious teachings, to the point where Schroff said it bordered on “indoctrination” and made it challenging to accept other ideas or religions – but for the most part, he said, things were fine.

“Where my trouble started to begin was around fourth or fifth grade,” Schroff said. “There started to be some pressure [for me] to be a pastor.”

Schroff’s life philosophy had always been guided by the Golden Rule, which served as his main ideology more than anything religious he was taught. With this being his mantra, it manifested itself in his personality as a clear passion for caring for others. His parents, teachers and pastor took notice.

“You’re gonna be a pastor, right?” they would ask him.

This pressure was, in part, because of Schroff’s “pastor-like” personality traits – but also because there is “a failure right now in being able to bring up new pastors” for the church, he said.

From fifth grade onward, Schroff was hounded by the adults around him about becoming a pastor. His teachers placed him in leadership opportunities and made an example out of him as the studious, faith-based student that everyone else should aspire to be.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, because I was a kid – and they were like, ‘this is what you’d be good at, this is what you should do,’” Schroff said.

After this being told to him so many times, Schroff started to believe and accept that as his future.

At 12 or 13 years old, confirmation began for Ben and his peers. Unlike baptism, which is a decision made by the parents while their child is very young, confirmation is a voluntary, lifelong oath to God given by the child in their own voice when they have more autonomy.