Helen Bonser – Spirituality and Religion

“It was really a blessing for the community.”

[Austin Amerine, the pastor at EMCC] was a wonderful man. He was one of the people that the MCC fellowship sent out to start churches. He was the right one to send here. He was a big, imposing, gentle, teddy bear kind of a guy, with a nice, rumbling, deep voice. When he preached it was just amazing. I think he came from like the Baptist tradition. He was a really good preacher. So, when the TV cameras came and they came to sensationalize the fact that there was a gay church, he always spoke to them in this father[ly voice]. Everybody called him “daddy” because he was this rumbling fatherly voice, very gentle. He was very tender and loving in his talk, even to people who didn’t understand. He educated in his own way. He was here a lot of years, because when he founded this church [in Spokane], it was one he didn’t want to leave. He used to come back and visit many times.

He was a wonderful leader for this church. He built the church. I think when they were chartered with the MCC Fellowship, there was 150 people in the church. My daughter was in the choir. They had a wonderful choir. It was a wonderful place to be in those days, that church—which was closed! The fellowship closed the church here, I think it was, January 2010. They didn’t think it grew enough, that it was big enough, because it shrank a lot. In the gay community here, not everybody gets along with each other just because they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. They had kind of destroyed their own church fellowship from inside with a lot of disagreement and bickering . . . I don’t know what it was all about.

After Austin left, they really failed in ever getting another pastor. The second pastor we had—Reverend David Paul was a really nice young man. I know for the congregation, he did not replace Austin. They were actually very mean to him; they actually got him to leave. Then, after that, the church sent a pastor. They sent Larry Dunlap and his mother. They were a wonderful team. It was while Larry was here, about the late ‘80s, that I joined the church. But [the pastors] were always taken away and moved to bigger churches. [The EMCC] had a rocky history, but when Austin was there it was really a blessing for the community and a good thing. Now there are 18 open and affirming congregations in Spokane. It’s gotten a lot better. At first it was hard.

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I just recently [in 2013] had to go and have lunch with a mom who was just devastated, because her college daughter had fallen in love with her roommate and had come out to her. She was just torn to pieces. Her husband had rejected the daughter, doesn’t want to see her, or have anything to do with her. He told her if she marries her girlfriend, he won’t come. Her sister told her she couldn’t come and visit her in Portland, because she doesn’t want her around her niece and nephew. . . . And this was about religion. It’s about the church that they go to, that still says—because there’s many, many churches that still say—it’s an abomination.

[This mother] wanted to love her daughter and be accepting, but she saw her daughter as an abomination. She was very deeply distressed. I gave her everything I had to offer, but the biggest thing now, as before, is the religion. . . . Who was it? [Jerry] Falwell used to say that AIDS was the punishment that gay people get for being [gay]. There’s a movie called “For the Bible Tells Me So,” that goes through all those times of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s with the churches: the things they said, the things that happened, and the people that got kicked out. One senator is in there. [Richard “Dick”] Gephardt I think it was. His child came out to him, and it changed him completely. His story is in that movie. That movie still today just gives me chills to watch it, but it [shows] better than anything what we’ve had to deal with the churches. . . . It’s been very slow in all the denominations, but gradually there’s been ones that have come around, and come around a little bit more at a time. Now, when I refer people, “There [are] safe churches for you to go to.” I can name a number of them in the Lutheran, in the Presbyterian, in Methodist . . . Of course, the Churches of Christ are very open and affirming. It isn’t just MCC anymore. The Unitarian Church. There’s a number of them.

But if they’re Baptists, or if they’re Pentecostal, or if they’re any of these without-description Christian churches that are very fundamentalist, uh-uh [i.e., there’s no support.] The Mormons and the Catholics have never budged on any of this. Yet there are many gay Mormons and Catholics. So within each church, one thing we found early was they would have little [group]. Like in the Mormon Church, their meeting for gay Mormons is called “Affirmation.” They didn’t meet in the temple or anything. They met out in somebody’s house. But they got together, shared their faith, and talked about what it was like to be gay Mormons. Then there was a Catholic priest here one time, who gave mass and communion to gay people, because he believed it was the right thing to do.

As I’ve watched [religious conservatives] over the years, I’ve understood that somehow when we step forward for gay rights, we are hitting an emotional part of them that threatens their very belief system and their religion. It has to be wrong. It has to be bad. It’s so scary to think that, “Well, people can just marry whoever they want. People can change genders, if they are so inclined. Anybody who used to be a boy can be a girl, and vice versa.” They just can’t put that into their belief system. It’s too frightening. They’ll fight really hard not to have to have that happen.

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Source: Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 14 March 2013.