LGBTQ-affirming churches in Longmont and Boulder County want all members in their community to feel at home in church. Light of Christ Ecumenical Catholic Church and Left Hand Church are just two of the faith organizations working to bring messages of love and acceptance to their congregations and community.
Father Teri Harroun is a priest at Light of Christ. Though ordained into the priesthood in 2009, Harroun has been a part of Light of Christ since its formation 16 years ago. In her experience within the community, she’s seen more pushback for being a woman and a priest in a Catholic church than she has for being a lesbian.
Fr. Harroun, along with the rest of her church, works hard to make sure Light of Christ is a welcoming and inviting place for everyone in the community, regardless of gender or sexual identity.
“We’re not a ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ kind of church, we’re about love. Jesus taught love, love yourself, your neighbor, your enemy, love God, love everyone,” Fr. Harroun said. “Don’t do anything to obstruct love. When you see people who love each other, celebrate that.”
Fr. Harroun believes a well-known message of Christianity is that there is something inherently wrong with each person. However, she feels like this is just bad publicity on the behalf of God.
“Our message is that you are lovable, you are loved, God loves you and we love you. We don’t know if all the people in your life have expressed their love for you in the way you needed to hear it, but we know that we love you,” Fr. Harroun said.
Pastor Kristie Sykes and Rev. Paula Stone Williams make up half of the four faith leaders of Left Hand Church’s co-pastor team. Rev. Stone Williams has given TED talks, traveled frequently for speaking engagements and was invited to participate in the 59th Annual Inauguration Prayer Service by President Biden. She is also a trans woman who became an advocate for LGBTQ communities after she was rejected by churches after she transitioned but never lost her faith.
“We at Left Hand Church believe spirituality is best lived out in community. When humans first came together beyond the level of blood kin, it was not for safety, but to find the meaning of life. People have been gathering for eons to plumb the depths of man’s search for meaning,” Pastor Sykes said in an email. “At Left Hand, we want to do that in community. We are a Christian church, which means our theology is based on the teachings of Jesus, and our leaders are Christians. But we are also a church that embraces doubt, believes certainty is a myth and is committed to being a safe place for people to explore their spirituality.”
Religion and faith are complicated subjects in the U.S., however, that does not dissuade people of all identities from seeking either.
“Fifty-two percent of the LGBTQ+ population identifies with a specific religion, and 48% are Christians, yet fully half of those people have been ostracized from their churches,” Pastor Sykes said.
Sykes also believes the reduction in church goers across the nation is a reflection of how some churches treat people in the LGBTQ community.
“Americans are tired of the conservative church’s rejection of queer people. That is one of the reasons that only 47% of Americans identify with a local faith community, down from 70% as recently as 1999,” she said.
Data from Gallup polls and UCLA’s Williams Institute of Law shows that 4.5% of the U.S. population identified as LGBTQ in 2020, which is around 11.3 million people. Gallup and Census data estimated that 5.3 million LGBTQ people also idenitifed themselves as religious.
“The truth is that many faith communities do reject and condemn the LGBTQ+ community. A recent study indicated that 84% of evangelicals believe gender is immutably determined at birth. Two-thirds of them believe America has been too accommodating toward transgender people, yet only 25% of them have ever met a transgender person,” Pastor Sykes said. “The only way to bridge that gap between evangelicals and the rest of America is by telling stories and truly listening to one another. “
Organizations like the Family Research Council, or FRC — a fundamentalist faith group with strong ties to American Christian Conservatism and former President Trump — call themselves “pro-family from a biblical worldview.”
The FRC website’s section on sexuality includes links to resources that refer to the Equality Act as “unequal, unfair and unjust,” and sexual orientation and gender identity should not be protected by the law.
“We believe that sexual attractions or other subjective psychological feelings do not define a person. Rather, every person is defined by their immutable, in-born biological sex, which is present and identifiable in the DNA of every cell in the human body,” the FRC website states. “We believe our bodies are part of God’s creation. This includes our gender — our maleness and femaleness.”
“I think when you’re fundamental, you have more faith in words on a piece of paper than you do in a God who professes to be love,” Fr. Harroun explained. “There’s this misunderstanding of what those texts are talking about, and it doesn’t apply to relationships we’re talking about today. Even marriage in the bible doesn’t look like what people are fighting for today. Those weren’t mutually loving relationships, those were business deals. And that’s not what marriages are about today, whether hetero or same-sex relationships.”
While most organizations and churches may not be as vocal or forthright about their anti-LGBTQ sentiments, that doesn’t make them anymore affirming according to Sykes.
“One of the most important ways in which churches can support the local LGBTQ+ community, and this applies to even conservative churches, is to be clear and public about their theology. There is not one megachurch in the county that is fully affirming of LGBTQ+ people, but none of them will admit it, ” Pastor Sykes said. “They will say, ‘All are welcome here.’ It is only when you dig beneath the surface that you find out LGBTQ+ people will never be in leadership or on staff. It would help our community greatly if they would just admit the truth — that they do not accept queer people.”
To that end, the website Church Clarity provides a resource for those seeking affirming and egalitarian churches. The information is crowd-sourced and any user can submit a church for verification. The church can then be verified in its LGBTQ policies, as well as its policy on women in leadership. The search group for Boulder contains more than two dozen churches in the county, making it easy to see which faith organizations are most willing to accept and affirm the LGBTQ community.
Terese Hanson, a Longmont resident who uses they, them, their pronouns, considers themself an atheist after growing up with Southern Baptist preaching about the condemnation and sin of homosexuality.
“I discovered that I was gay when I was 11 and was quickly told by my whole family what the church had been saying for years, the whole fire and brimstone thing,” Hanson said. “So I hid out for years for fear for my soul and the loss of my family.”
Hanson’s experience only got harder as they got older. Working at the church in their late teens as part of the day-to-day operations, Hanson said they witnessed hate and hypocrisy within the leadership and congregation.
“I was miserable and suicidal, praying all day, every day, for God to make me different and make me okay, but he never showed,” Hanson said. “I got sick of it all so I decided if I’m going to Hell then so be it, I want to be kind, peaceful, loved and happy. I came out, moved out of the South and never looked back. I look back on my time in the church with great pain and trauma.”
Hanson’s experience was traumatic, but not an isolated one.
Experiences like Hanson’s can radically alter a sense of faith. It can be difficult to reconcile bigotry, hate and hypocrisy done in the name of religion. Still, churches like Left Hand and Light of Christ put the focus on embracing their congregation and meeting them where they are.
“I think a lot of people that come to us need to transform something that they’ve been taught in church. They are trying to heal and grow. We want to be that healing, welcoming holy space for people,” Fr. Harroun said. “But we don’t want to raise a new generation that has to recover from church, we want them to see a church where everyone is welcome, full of radical belonging; where a church isn’t where they go to have it pointed out what’s wrong with them, but that they are welcomed and needed.”
“We want to be welcoming to everyone looking for a place like this,” Fr. Harroun said. “Our whole sacramental experience of God might not speak to you, but you’re still welcome here. And you can participate fully, and we’ll be delighted that you’re here.”