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Kate Wallace, a deacon of First Christian Church, poses for a photo Tuesday, June 25, 2019 at First Christian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

When Kate Wallace came out in 2011, she did not doubt she would still be loved by her friends and family. They had always been loving. They had always been supportive.

What concerned Wallace was her future in her faith.

"I remember sitting in the church, in the pews, and kind of giving up that dream of if I would get to walk down the aisle and get married in a church," Wallace said. "Would I be able to raise kids in a church?"

Wallace moved to Chattanooga in 2016. The 35-year-old was able to marry Ajay Peckham in October 2017 following the 2015 Supreme Court decision that granted nationwide protections for same-sex marriages.

But Wallace knew she wanted to remain connected to her Christian faith. She wanted to raise a family in the church. She did not know if she would find an open and affirming church in Chattanooga.

Wallace's church in Kansas City where she grew up, affirmed the inclusion of the LGBTQ community in Christianity, but the church is in the minority among American Christian institutions. Centuries of persecution based on sexuality or gender identity have pushed countless people away from the Christian church.

But, within a religion that has historically denounced them, people who identify as LGBTQ are nevertheless choosing to remain or reconnect with the church.

A church is a place for community, Wallace said, which is why she sought out a house of worship when she moved to Chattanooga. She wanted a place that would support her, even in a state and region that is more religiously conservative than the rest of the country.

Wallace is a deacon at First Christian Church on McCallie Avenue, where she welcomes guests on Sunday and leads a small group. In mid-June, in the church and surrounded by her faith community, Wallace and her wife, Peckham, celebrated a baby shower.

Love, hate, the same Bible

While less religious than the general American public, about half of Americans who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are Christian, the majority of those being Protestant, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center.

However, the religious community remains less accepting of the LGBTQ community than the American public. A 2013 Pew survey found two-thirds of Americans who regularly attend religious services said homosexuality conflicts with their religion and should be discouraged.

Across the country, conversion therapy — the pseudo-medical practice of therapy to change a person's gender identity or sexuality — is practiced. A 2018 study of college-enrolled adults found an association among gay, lesbian or questioning students between an importance placed on religion and higher odds for ideas of suicide. In early June, a Knoxville detective and pastor gave a sermon calling for the government to execute people in the LGBTQ community.

Chattanooga, a city known for its religious traditions and numerous churches, received a score of 45 out of 100 on LGBTQ inclusivity from the Human Rights Campaign. Many religious traditions view homosexuality, and other variances of sexuality and gender identity, as sinful. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention considers homosexuality a form of sexual immorality that should be opposed by all Christians similar to acts of greed or racism. Similarly, SBC views transgenderism as being in opposition to God's design.

John MacArthur, a California pastor and author, says some people "refuse to acknowledge the sinfulness of homosexuality."

In a January column titled "God's response to the gay agenda" posted on Billy Graham's website, he writes: "Why does God condemn homosexuality? Because it overturns His fundamental design for human relationships — a design that pictures the complementary relationship between a man and a woman."

He said God's stance on the issue is spelled out in the Bible in books Genesis, Leviticus, Ezekial, Romans, Corinthians and Jude — and there's no room for compromise.

"No matter how much you desire to be compassionate to the homosexual, your first allegiance belongs to the Lord and to the exaltation of His righteousness," he writes. "Homosexuals stand in defiant rebellion against the will of their Creator who from the beginning "made them male and female."

Requests for comment from local conservative faith leaders were either declined or unreturned, but other conservative forms of Christianity echo a similar belief.

The SBC, Roman Catholic Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Orthodox Jewish movement have rules against same-sex marriage. Clergy in those groups, as well as in the National Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God, are forbidden from performing same-sex marriages.

While residents like Wallace are welcome at places like First Christian Church, she knows her very existence is considered foul at nearby houses of worship. She knows those churches are reading the same Bible as her.

"It's hard," Wallace said. "Existing in the same city, I just try to be a beacon of that message of love. And knowing that two doors down someone is reading the same verse in opposite ways is hard. But I think Jesus calls us to love that person just as much as I myself am asking to be loved."

In the past 15 years, more churches have become accepting of members of the LGBTQ community. According to a 2014 survey of American Churches, the percentage of American congregations whose leaders said lesbian or gay people could be full church members rose from 37% in 2006 to 48% in 2012.

First Christian is in the process of determining whether it will become an official open and affirming church to members of the LGBTQ community. At least 14 churches in the Chattanooga and North Georgia area have that label.

Wallace said the designation is important. She has always felt welcome and accepted at First Christian, but does not know if she could stay if the church votes against becoming officially open and affirming.

"It's one thing to say, in theory, that all are welcome at the table but it's another thing to officially adopt a stance that lets people know in no uncertain terms that everyone is welcome," she said. "It's not 'We love you despite the sin (of homosexuality),' or anything like that. It's 'God made you perfect from the beginning. There's absolutely nothing wrong with liking a member of the same sex.'"

 

some text Rachel Lesler, a deacon Northminster Presbyterian Church, poses for a photo Friday, June 21, 2019 at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

 

Coming out, finding a home

Rachel Lesler felt at home in Northminster Presbyterian Church from the moment she first entered the building in 2015.

The church in northeast Chattanooga is open and affirming, which is important for Lesler who is bisexual, but the 25-year-old was also drawn to the church because of an immediate connection with its leader. The church is led by the Rev. Laura Becker, a woman.

"It just makes you feel known," Lesler said. "I know that I could go to a female pastor and that she would understand how demoralizing it is just to have to live as a woman in society, to deal with all the tiny little things."

Lesler grew up in Knoxville in a conservative Christian tradition. Women were not allowed to have positions of leadership in the church of her youth, she said. But at the time, she said, she did not recognize a problem with that. Lesler loved growing up in the church. She was the "church kid," she said. She was active in the youth group. If the church doors were open, she was there.

As Lesler's teenage years faded, she began withdrawing from the church. She was a student at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, when she began to see the full American church experience as exclusive unless a person fit certain requirements, specifically being white and male. She began having questions about faith, questions her friends who were also raised in the church were not having.

She felt anxious and lonely, she said.

While Lesler was questioning her faith, she was also better understanding her sexuality. She began reading progressive Christian thought leaders, such as Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Eliel Cruz and Matthew Vines. Following them helped Lesler see there is a space for LGBTQ rights activism in the church, she said.

"I understood then that I had very subtly been told my whole life that there was only one way to be a Christian," she said. "And that one way meant going to a church in the tradition I grew up in and doing XYZ things exactly the way that they do it. And when I experienced just different ways of being a Christian, the whole world either opened up or the whole world fell apart around me, whichever way someone might look at it."

Lesler came out to her family in the summer of 2017. Her parents and siblings, who are all members of the conservative tradition Lesler grew up in, did not approve, she said.

"It's very clearly understood that my family thinks being gay a sin and there's no getting around that," Lesler said. "So, we just don't talk about it."

Coming out to family members and friends is a difficult process and especially difficult if those people are rooted in conservative religious traditions, said Amber Cantorna, author of "Unashamed: A Coming-Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians." Before that moment, though, members of the LGBTQ community often have to reckon with their own internal, and often negative, dialogue.

"The majority of people, with very few exceptions, are born into straight families," Cantorna said. "You have people who don't look like you who you're exposed to a very young age, so the seeds of shame are sown at a very young age."

Then, coming out in a religious community that shames variances in sexuality and gender can make people question themselves, even if they know what is true, she said.

"It's a constant struggle and fear, still, that many people face," Cantorna said. "Then it makes them question whether they're doing the right thing or if God really loves them."

Cantorna said her book was motivated by the number of messages she received from people wanting help navigating the coming out process. She would often ask them to re-examine how they view God and how they view themselves, deconstructing the theology they know is true compared to the lessons they have internalized from others, she said.

When Lesler would meet people who asked about her faith, she used to say, "I'm Christian but I'm gay" to signal to others she was not part of the Christian history of denouncing LGBTQ people. Today, she just tells people she is Christian. She cannot change the historical baggage of her faith, she said.

"All I can do is live my faith as I see it and be as true to that as I can," she said. "All I can do is look at the person who Jesus was and try and model my life after that and figure out what that means in the 21st century."

In January 2019, Lesler became an elder at Northminster. She invited her family to the ordination ceremony. Her mother and sister came, she said. They never talked about it, but seeing them there meant a lot, Lesler said.

 

some text Dr. Renee McLaughlin sits in the pews of Signal Mountain United Methodist Church on June 29, 2019.

 

Welcomed, accepted

For decades, Dr. Rennee McLaughlin knew she was transgender. But she was married. She had a family. She was involved in her church.

McLaughlin, 54, never thought transitioning would be possible. But when it was, she knew she wanted to keep her faith.

In 2013, she transitioned. A year earlier, she had moved from attending a Baptist church in Soddy-Daisy to the Methodist tradition. Today, she attends Signal Mountain United Methodist Church.

Her faith helped sustain her during the trials and difficulties of transitioning, McLaughlin said.

"Having that core set of beliefs and having my God there as that rock, as that unmoving, unchanging focus in my life was really, really important at that time and has continued to be so," she said.

While seeing hateful remarks about transgender people from those in the church is hurtful, McLaughlin said she relishes the diversity of the church body. Everyone has their failings, she said. The Old Testament passages that are often used to denounce transgender people, such as parts of Deuteronomy, can be an opportunity for satire, McLaughlin said, pointing out the book also decries eating shellfish or mixing fabrics in clothing, something she and many other Christians do.

Shortly after McLaughlin transitioned in 2013, a friend invited her to return to the Baptist church she left. She spent a lot of time thinking about it, about the pronouncements by the Baptist church against people like her, she said, before agreeing to attend. She was welcomed. The experience checked her own stereotypes about religious people, she said.

In the past 50 years, an increasing number of churches have moved to include LGBTQ people, such as the United Church of Christ, Lutheran Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The United Methodist Church is currently debating whether to follow rules voted on in February by the church's international body to ban LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings. Methodist churches across the country, including in Chattanooga, could be expelled from the denomination if the rules go into affect in 2020.

The past 10 years have been a turning point for the inclusion, said Matthew Vines, executive director of The Reformation Project, which advocates for greater LGBTQ involvement in churches.

The move among mainline and progressive Christian churches to accept LGBTQ people is pushing the inclusion conversation to more conservative branches of the Christian faith, Vines said. The process may take years, a decade or even decades, but it will happen, he said.

"The conversation is starting in ways it had never happened before," Vines said. "Once people who are in the community and who are loved in the community start to come out, you can never really reverse that effect."

But inclusion will require a reckoning with history.

Many of the church's teachings on sexuality have been destructive to members of the LGBTQ community, Vines said. Church teachings should produce good fruit, Vines said, referencing Galatians 5. Instead, the teachings have devalued life among the community, pushing people toward substance abuse or self-harm, hurting people who are made in the image of God, he said.

Jesus was someone who protected and defended people on the margins of society, not someone who pushed people toward those margins, Vines said.

 

some text Jeffrey Castellaw was photographed at Hope House on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on June 26, 2019.

 

'Heartbreaking'

The summer before Jeffrey Castellaw came to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was the best summer of his life.

It was fall 2016 and Castellaw had gone months without going to church — a routine he had been forced to keep for nearly two decades between growing up in a religious family and attending a series of private, Christian schools.

Castellaw remembers being nine years old and hearing his Sunday school teacher say that all sinners are able to turn away from and overcome their sins, except homosexuals. This was confusing and troubling for Castellaw. He did not know he was gay at the time, only that in "High School Music" he liked Zac Efron a lot more than Vanessa Hudgens.

Castellaw, 22, continually heard conservative Bible interpretations denouncing homosexuality from his pastors and teachers in Western Tennessee. The teachers at his school signed contracts affirming they would not condone homosexual behavior. The messages he received made him question whether his life had value, whether he should even live, he said.

"It was really shameful growing up hearing that, especially hearing that in a pew on Sunday, then hearing it again in the classroom on Monday," Castellaw said.

Nearly a decade would pass in Castellaw's life between the Sunday school memory and when he came out. He was a junior in high school when he told his Bible teacher, someone Castellaw said he looked up to for introducing him to the book "Torn" by Justin Lee, which argues for the inclusion of homosexuals in the church. When Castellaw's parents learned of his sexuality, they viewed it as a phase in his life. They still do, Castellaw said.

The inability of the Christians he grew up with to accept his sexuality pushed Castellaw away from the faith, he said. Soon after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, he watched on Facebook friends he had considered like family giving a standing ovation to a preacher at a local church who denounced homosexuality and same-sex weddings.

"I was seeing these people I had literally grown up with basically shame my existence," Castellaw said. "I would say that was the beginning of the end of my Christian identity. I had felt personal rejection from my family before, but I had always expected that. To see so many people who had claimed to support me was just so heartbreaking."

Castellaw said he is spiritual, with a spirituality that leans toward Christianity, but he will not identify as Christian. He loves reading Christian theology books and listening to Christian music, such has Hillsong United and the K-Love radio program. He even leads the music worship service at a church near campus during the school year.

When he thinks about music he feels drawn back to religion, he said. But he will not identify as Christian.

"It's an ongoing battle," he said. "There are times when I really want to be able to identify as Christian and I just can't. And then there are other times that the thought of identifying as a Christian just disgusts me. I really don't think I'll ever be able to fully immerse myself back in it the way I used to be, no matter how hard I want to, no matter how hard I try."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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