On Saturday night at Grace Episcopal Church, the organ-led hymns, the group prayers and the call for communion were centered on sending one message to the Chattanooga community: all are welcome.
The church off Brainerd Road at Belvoir Avenue hosted its second annual Pride Mass over the weekend, drawing dozens of people to the pews for an open and affirming service the week after the city hosted its Pride celebration. Rainbow-colored runners hung over the altar, and the pastors wore rainbow-colored stoles.
The service focused on the idea of acceptance, including prayers to remind people in the congregation that God made and declared everyone as "good." Grace Episcopal has long been a safe church for LGBTQ people and the church wanted to extend the invitation to the wider Chattanooga community, said the Rev. April Berends.
"It's designed not only to be a place of healing but also a celebration of the diversity that we find in our community and an affirmation that God does not withhold blessing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity," she said.
Jacob Elam said it was reassuring to hear the message of inclusion from the church leaders, as well as an acknowledgment of the ways in which Christianity has marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, something he had not heard before in a church.
"I was surprised how they tailored it and some things really stood out, especially when the preacher said the church had sinned," Elam said.
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, the SBC views transgenderism as being in opposition to God's design.
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. However, nationwide a growing number of Americans and religions in America now support same-sex marriage, according to an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Meredith Jade Garrett, author of "Unseen: Intersecting Faith & Sexuality in the Bible Belt," delivered the sermon on Saturday, reminding people that it is OK to have questions and doubts. Part of her motivation to write the book and speak at an event like Saturday's was to be the kind of faith leader she never had as a child, she said. The author said she was strengthened by the dozens of people who attended the service.
"This is something I never thought I would see in the South with the faith community I grew up with," Garrett said, noting she was "getting to be in the charming South and an affirming church. It's the best of both worlds."
Other visitors to Grace described the service as genuine and welcoming. Amber McClane, who attended the Pride service last year, said the message reminding people that the Christian god is one of love is important.
"To come to a place of faith and not just be tolerated but accepted as who you are is very freeing," she said.
Near the end of the service, everyone in the church was invited to kneel at the altar to receive communion or be prayed over. The Rev. Isaac Blevins, who helped lead this part of the service, said the evening was an invitation for people who identify as LGBTQ to find a religious home, as well as people who are simply searching for a sense of community.
"Offering people assurance that they are welcome is the closest we can get to living out the Gospel," Blevins said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249 or on Twitter at @News4Mass.