bbc.co.uk Navigation

A broad church

  • Jon Kelly
  • 23 Sep 08, 11:43 AM GMT

I've just come back from a church service in Dallas, Texas. What do you expect I encountered there? Revivalist preachers raging against abortion and homosexuality? Fire-and-brimstone denunciations of decadence and immorality?

How about a congregation made up mostly of gay men and women, holding hands as they sang about tolerance and compassion?

Jo HudsonThe Cathedral of Hope couldn't have been further from a stereotypical Texan place of worship if it had packed itself up and moved to San Francisco. Right in the heart of George Bush's red-state America, here was the kind of place that is supposed to exist only on the more exotic fringes of the West Coast, or in the nightmares of Pat Robertson.

But the ministry has been in the city since 1970. With over 3,800 members, it claims to be the world's largest gay church.

I decided to drop by for the morning service. As I took my pew, I noticed that most of the congregants were dressed smart-casual in chinos and polo shirts. Were it not for a preponderance of Obama badges on their chests, I would have said that they looked more conservative than their counterparts at the Radiant Church the previous week.

There wasn't anything particularly camp about it - not compared to most high Anglican churches back home, at least. It was, however, unambiguously liberal. The sermon was delivered by the visiting anti-death penalty nun Sister Helen Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon in the film Dead Man Walking. "I love this place," she declared, to whoops from her audience.

When the senior pastor, the Rev Dr Jo Hudson, began leading the service, I noticed that the liturgy had been tweaked somewhat to accommodate the audience. References to the Almighty were kept gender-neutral wherever possible: "Lord" was replaced with "Creator" throughout. Hymns like Rise Up O Men of God and Faith of Our Fathers were conspicuous by their absence from the hymn book.

Afterwards, I caught up with Dr Hudson. She'd been forced to leave her previous Methodist ministry after being outed to her superiors. I suggested to her that a lot of outsiders might be surprised that the Cathedral of Hope was flourishing in a place like Dallas.

"Well, when you're somewhere very conservative, then liberal-minded people are more likely to want to come together," she replied. "But I don't buy all this stuff about America being divided. At the end of the day, everyone here is a Christian."

Jerry KingShe wasn't the only worshipper I met to have fallen foul of the church's more hard-line wing. Jerry King, 34, had been disowned by his family after they discovered he way gay. His father, a Southern Baptist preacher, had then denounced him from the pulpit.

But Jerry's faith hadn't ultimately been weakened. "I tried for a long time to be an atheist," he told me. "But I just couldn't do it."

He gestured towards the front of the church. "This is the kind of Christianity I believe in: compassion, love, forgiveness."

When I met a married lesbian couple back in Los Angeles, I'd noticed something similar: apparently ultra-liberal people, denounced as the enemy within by the hard right, actually conforming to fairly traditional values.

Ronald BosonIt's true that Cathedral of Hope had previously faced protests from extremists, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Fred Phelps' rabidly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.

But congregant Ronald Boson, 52 - a smartly-dressed financial services professional - told me that the vast majority of mainstream Christians in Dallas showed nothing but courtesy to his fellow worshippers.

"You know, thirty years ago there were places in this town I wouldn't have gone as a black man," he added. "But things have changed.

"It's the same with gay people. Spend some time here and you find we're just like you."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I am disappointed, just when you were doing so well Jon. Where do you find these churches?

  • Comment number 2.

    Love it, Love it, Love it!

    Where DO you find these churches?

    Dang, I am so happy you're finding these wonderful, beautiful, lovely people!


    A buddy of mine is a Gay Theologian down in Austin. I thought he was a complete freak for moving to TEXAS... but he loves it there. He says there's quite a wonderfully loving Christian gay community. Go figure. Of course, as an adjunct prof, he needs to work at Starbucks to get Medical Coverage... but that's a topic for another day.

    Peace to our friends, Peace to you, and Peace to all in the Cathedral of Hope!

    Love,
    Mom

  • Comment number 3.

    --ysbytynewsjunkie wrote "I am disappointed, just when you were doing so well Jon. Where do you find these churches?"--

    I'm not sure what your implication is, but if you want to find an American, one place to look is in the church. The other church he visited in Arizona is very mainstream and looks like the dozens of big churches we have in San Antonio, TX. My parents go to a church with 7,000 members, and it's not even the biggest one here. The church in Dallas is not much different...it just happens to be gay.

    I've read some complaints that Jon isn't seeking out the "average" American. I completely disagree. I appreciate that the BBC election bus isn't seeking out the status quo. If you stop to talk to any stranger on the street, you'll most likely find they are not "typical." In a previous post, you mentioned you know many Americans who are more "normal." If your American friends seem more "normal," don't forget that people befriend like-minded people.

  • Comment number 4.

    To be honest I thought this story was the most happy clappy PC nonsense I'd read in a long while until I saw the Woodborough baptist church were totally opposed to them. Anything that annoys those nutters gets my full support!

  • Comment number 5.

    What most people miss about the conservative parts of America (which is MOST of America) is this: There is a bedrock belief in freedom, that begins with the freedom to worship, from which flows the freedom to speak freely, pursue the profession of one's choice, etc.

    A church organized specifically to cater to a homosexual congregation will draw some fire from those who disagree, but they will generally be left alone to carry on as they see fit.

    The bedrock value is Freedom.

    Only the Left wishes to suppress speech, worship, economy, etc., in order to attain its utopian goals. The principal untruth they circulate is that those bad Conservatives are sooo mean and oppressive....

    And sure enough, even a homosexual congregation, left to organize their lives as best they see fit, will tend to migrate toward core 'conservative' life values.

    Hmmm....wonder what will this church will look like in 10, 15, 20 years?

  • Comment number 6.

    Now, Jon--for grins, visit a major Episcopal parish as you travel in the Midwest and East Coast.

    It would be interesting to read your observations.

  • Comment number 7.

    Good find, good story -- as a lifelong Anglo-Southerner, I can confirm that much European coverage of the South is sadly accurate, but I appreciate Jon's willingness to look a little further.

  • Comment number 8.

    My dear oldSouth,

    I agree that the bedrock of American individualism is freedom.
    But, what kind of freedom?
    -- Freedom to be oppressive?
    -- Or Freedom from oppression?

    Personally, I firmly believe in the separation of church and state. Only with such separation can we achieve freedom from oppression, for the legislation of theological morality necessitates ethical rules that could eventually lead to inquisition-like exploits.

    Therefore, while I am a Pro-Life Mennonite, I will vote for the right of young women to choose. I may not agree with a woman’s decision, but I will support her freedom to decide. (Similarly, I believe it is wrong to ban Islamic dress.)

    You may wonder whether I am Libertarian because of this perspective.
    Nope. Sorry.

    I believe that our government has a responsibility to care for the sick, hungry, and needy - and to provide an infrastructure of education, fire protection, transportation and law enforcement. Only in such an environment will all of us be given the opportunity to achieve Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

    So – I tend to vote Green, Green Rainbow, or Democratic… depending upon the candidate and district.


    As for the church – I imagine they’ll be fine in 10, 20, or 30 years. Hopefully, they would grow into an integrated community of breeders, non-breeders – of parents, children, and many ‘aunts and uncles’.

    Actually, I have a gay friend in Washington, DC and I pray he’ll return to church. You know, I think there’s a ‘welcoming and affirming’ Episcopalian Congregation near him.
    -- aren’t you Episcopalian? I’m not so ‘high church,’ but perhaps I could send him along…

    Love,
    Mom


    PS: Most folk I know in the homosexual community are actually quite conservative 'normal' people with careers, houses and families. The flamboyant costumes are for parties. At church, you wear a tie.

  • Comment number 9.

    This is a fine piece of reporting. It shows that stereotypes don't hold up when you take a close look. The United States is a diverse nation, and interesting individual stories which contradict the popular conception can be found anywhere.

  • Comment number 10.

    It bugs me how many people think you have to be religious to be conservative and vice versa.

    Most conservative ideas have nothing to do with religion. They are based around economics and business. Granted a large portion of the conservative community in the US is highly religious, or at least claims to be. The thing is, a lot of apples are red, but they don't have to be red to be an apple.

  • Comment number 11.

    To learn more about the United Church of Christ, please visit our denomination @ www.ucc.org. "All are welcome here".

  • Comment number 12.

    Years ago, when I moved from the San Francisco bay area to live in Texas for a while, many of my friends were horrified and certain that I was moving to a place full of intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

    Within a week of moving into a house in Fort Worth, I had 2 very nice ladies from the local church bringing me cookies and inviting me to their services. When I told them I was Catholic (which I remember as be as being considered appalling in South Carolina), they were still very welcoming, making sure I knew where my local parish church was and all the nicest parts of town (including some great local restaurants!).

    Far from being narrow-minded and intolerant, I found the majority of the people of Texas to be friendly, welcoming and not interested in judging their neighbors. Yes, there were exceptions, but strangely enough, I found that the general attitudes were far more tolerant than those in the "liberal" SF bay area, where tolerant more often meant you agreed with the extreme liberals, but anything that wasn't far to the left was intolerant.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm a Dallas resident (well Plano, but that's really just a suburb). I spent the whole time reading this piece thinking "yes this is lovely but where's the account of your experiences at a more garden variety Dallas church?". Presenting both sides of the coin would make this about 5 times more interesting, by showing the true diversity in this city.

    As an Irishman newly green-carded, I know I had many stereotypes about Texas that were false, but many that turned out to be true. I don't think the piece as it stands really informs other Europeans who haven't had the pleasure of visiting this state.

    All the same, Jon, I find myself enjoying your blog more than any other here.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks, Jon, and the BBC "taxpaying" public for the much needed news coverage in the USA. Not even the PBS (which is supposed to be a public service, but financed mostly by the USA corporate-bought government), is capable of doing what you have done in a short period of time. As one who is turned-off by the USA corporate news media, I find it refreshing to read all your blogs. Except for local stations coverage, I haven't listened to the USA corporate new media for several years now.

    My biggest surprise is, why you are still covering without being harassed, molested, tied up and beaten by the police, or ordered out of the country by the right wing conservative Christian coalition Bush government.

    Great coverage, Jon. I, too, find myself enjoying you blog more than any other here. You have done more to bring "Americans" together than the Executive, Judicial and Legislature Branches of Government has done.

    Again, from the bottom of heart, thanks very very much!

  • Comment number 15.

    I'm with Mavortium. I'm wondering why you found a typical representation of all the other places you've visited, then changed your tune when you came to my town.
    This was good reporting, sure. But, I feel a little miffed that you didn't ask an average Dallasite for their opinion.

  • Comment number 16.

    "Far from being narrow-minded and intolerant, I found the majority of the people of Texas to be friendly, welcoming and not interested in judging their neighbors. Yes, there were exceptions, but strangely enough, I found that the general attitudes were far more tolerant than those in the "liberal" SF bay area, where tolerant more often meant you agreed with the extreme liberals, but anything that wasn't far to the left was intolerant."

    As a former East Coast Democrat moved to San Francisco, I agree 100% with this statement. Tolerance does not mean blind acceptance of left-leaning views, but acceptance of those who disagree, regardless of your political orientation.

  • Comment number 17.

    foxtrottango1,

    Do you seriously think that Mr. Kelly, by virtue of reporting for the BBC, is going to be, as you put it "harassed, molested, tied up and beaten by the police, or ordered out of the country by the right wing conservative Christian coalition Bush government"?

    I believe the Bush Administration has been an absolute disaster for our country and the world. Far too many of our civil liberties are being lost under the guise that such actions are necessary for our "protection". There's no doubt that there's plenty of reason for Americans to be extremely concerned and outraged.

    That being said, I'm not sure that paranoid hyperbole like that you expressed does anything to help the situation. Thankfully the Judicial Branch of our government has shown in several instances that it's still alive and kicking by discarding some of the excesses of the Bush Administration. While I don't think the courts have gone far enough, at least there's reason to have some belief that our system still works to some degree. We still have many of our freedoms, including freedom of the press, although that is certainly both under attack and not used to its fullest extent by our silly celebrity-driven media.

  • Comment number 18.

    #17. Not only that. I can think of many cases of police brutality, especially during the civil rights movement when there was a democrat in the white house. Whoever is in Washington has less than zero influence on what rural US cops do. The fact that people think that Bush has nothing better to do that order a BBC journalist 'tied up and beaten' for visiting a gay church is bizarre! Its doubly bizarre that those who oppose Bush so obsessively seem to love Iran, a country where everyone attending this church would risk hanging for their sexuality. The double standards are staggering.

  • Comment number 19.

    #17 and 18 seem to be apologists for the GWB and the GOP administration. typical. The fact is, GWB doesn't need to soil his hand in the recent RNC's beating of civil rights individuals nor the atrocities he has committed throughout the middle east, he has you guys to do it for him.

    Your statement (not a surprise-in view of what is happening throughout international world) blaming those who "oppose Bush so obsessively seem to love Iran or a country where everyone attending this church would rick hanging for sexuality" only attests to your ignorance and arrogance and fear of everyone or everything that doesn't look like you, worships like you, speaks like you or dance like you is "unAmerican, anti-Americanism, a communist, a homosexual, a minority, a liberal, a democrat and furthermore, do not deserve to live in America."

    That is the wonder of the British "tax paying" public pay for this blogs. You lads and laddies are not used to hearing what real citizens feel with today's political corruption going on in the USA.

    You are a good example of not wanting to hear the truths or facts, you just simply ignore them.

    The "love or leave it" groups in the USA are in a catagory of self denials. But take it from me, I, like many, do not like the political corruption, the tearing up of the USA Constitution, the fascism that is visible present in the USA get this: HELL NO, I AM NOT LEAVING IT! I am staying behind to see that USA retain it's place of honor among the civilized nations of the world!

    Comprende?



  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    19. I'm a Brit, not an American. I don't believe in any sort of God and both my sister and best man at my (non-religious) wedding were gay.

    Neither am I apologising for Bush... just objecting to the sort of stupid comment that Justin visiting a gay church will have him beaten up by the cops on the personal orders of Bush. Get a sense of reality.

    I have no idea why my original posting was removed either, although I suspect that not condeming Bush and all his works violates an unpublished house rule.

 

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

BBC.co.uk