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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / A cross is pictured in the sanctuary of First Christian Church on July 11, 2021.

Since her earlier days of membership at First Christian Church in the 1960s, when her now 58-year-old son was still a baby, Jean Blackburn has served in positions of leadership, from the chair of the finance committee to president of the congregation.

But her most recent church committee responsibility was extra important, she said. It was personal.

First Christian has always been a loving and accepting place, Blackburn said, but as a child her son was not able fully express himself in the community.

"He was nurtured and cared for and loved but there was a part of him that was hidden, and he wasn't open to saying what was happening for him," Blackburn said.

In 2019, Blackburn joined the church's congregationwide conversation about officially becoming an open and affirming church for members of the LGBTQ community. The church's denomination had voted to affirm all LGBTQ members during its general conference in 2013 but the statement was not binding for individual churches, which are given autonomy similar to some other Protestant traditions.

For years, the church on McCallie Avenue was supportive of LGBTQ members and allowed them to serve in positions of leadership. The church's senior minister, the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, performed a same-sex wedding in the church. But he had to notify leaders in the congregation, he said.

The Disciples of Christ congregation often sided in support of all of its members, but there was always a pause when a question arose around gender and sexuality. Not anymore, Gilvin said.

"The conversation is different. It's not every time the question comes up, do we have to make a decision?" Gilvin said. "The decision has been made: Yes, this is a church for all people. Full stop."

Last fall, around 85% of the congregation voted to accept a welcoming statement officially marking First Christian as open and affirming. The congregation is celebrating the decision as it resumes in-person worship services this summer.

"We host the table as Christ did, offering a wide welcome to membership and full participation in the ministries of the church to people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races, ethnicities, nationalities, disabilities, family structures, backgrounds, economic circumstances and theological and political perspectives," the statement reads, in part.

Churches and faith communities have grappled with responding to questions of gender and sexuality for decades. The United Methodist Church is expected to split into a more liberal and affirming denomination and a more conservative or traditional denomination, though the official split has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though more than half of American Christians say homosexuality should be accepted, according to the Pew Research Center, some of the nation's leading faith communities, including Baptists and Catholics, reject same-sex marriage and argue people in the LGBTQ community should deny their sexual desires. The majority of Christian churches welcome the participation of people in the LGBTQ community but ask them to change, the reason why LGBTQ advocates argue there is a difference between that and a church being open and affirming.

Support for laws restricting bathroom use to a person's sex at birth have gained significant support among conservative Christians, who have mobilized to fight for what they argue is a Biblically informed view of gender.

Theology played a central role in First Christian's decision, Gilvin said. The church rallied around the idea that all are welcome and accepted at Christ's table, he said.

Church members led the discussion at First Christian, Gilvin said, and they were intentional about understanding different members' viewpoints and understandings.

A church committee organized one-on-one meetings, as well as a panel of people in the LGBTQ community to discuss their experiences with the church and a panel of clergy serving at open and affirming churches to discuss what it is like to lead their congregations. Members then weighed in on the official statement the church would adopt, ensuring the language was precise.

Katie Wylie, who served as the congregation's president during the discussions, said the entire process was collaborative.

"With any process like that, there's always going to be a few rumblings, but the vast majority of the congregation supported it," Wylie said.

Harriet Sutton, who served on the committee and is a mother of two adult children in the LGBTQ community, said the panel discussion was important so church members could hear firsthand what it is like to grow up in a Christian environment that does not support a person's gender or sexuality when it does not fit the traditional understanding.

"I think that's good for people to hear real stories of how people have been impacted by the church and how they're treated and how the church reacts to their being in the LGBTQ community," Sutton said.

Kate Wallace, a member of the committee and a mother of two children age 2 and younger, said it "means the world" to have her family supported in the congregation. Her family and her children will never need to question whether the church really means what it says when it comes to acceptance of all people, she said.

"They have a place, a place that's open and affirming, and there's really never a time in their life when they sort of have to come out as children of gay parents or anything like that," Wallace said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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