A rainbow flag hangs from the front of the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer during Pride weekend in Augusta. There’s a basket of condoms in the fellowship hall, brochures on HIV/AIDS in the narthex, and resources for “coming out” on the church Web site.
It’s a unique ministry offered for all people, founded in but reaching beyond Augusta’s gay and lesbian community, said the Rev. Lisa Heilig, the interim pastor. This weekend, the church celebrates 25 years of “radically inclusive ministry in the CSRA.”
The Rev. Nancy Wilson, the moderator and worldwide leader of Metropolitan Community Churches, will speak at a 25th anniversary celebration Sunday. In January, Wilson, a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, became the
first openly gay person to read Scripture at a presidential inauguration event.
“We are honored to have her here,” Heilig said. “She’s an incredible social justice advocate. She’s been doing this work for 40 years and has some stories to tell.”
The Augusta church is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, an international denomination founded by a defrocked Pentecostal pastor in 1968.
For 44 years, the group has offered a “ministry of inclusion” to minorities, especially gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Today, there are nearly 250 MCC churches in 40 countries.
The Augusta church grew from a small band of less than a dozen to more than 60 under the leadership of the Rev. Jeff Pullium. He retired last May after 15 years as the church’s part-time pastor.
“We’ve grown and matured,” he said. “We started as a bunch of gay people who wanted to address their spirituality. We’ve become something more. Now, there’s a diversity
that says sexuality isn’t the only defining factor. We’re a church for all people.”
As the church begins the search for a new pastor, the congregation is setting its sights on what role it wants to play in Augusta.
“They’re very concerned about making sure people in the larger community know there’s a place they can come and worship any way that they are,” said Heilig, who was in seminary to become a United Methodist pastor when she fell in love with a woman, now her partner of 18 years.
It would surprise most people to learn that the congregation is “25 to 35 percent straight,” she said.
“It’s pretty much a mainline church. It’s a worship service,” complete with choir robes, prayers, music and communion, Heilig said.
“We do holy unions. Of course there’s nothing legal about it in Georgia and South Carolina, but to have a ceremony and a rite of passage and commitment to one another is meaningful,” she said.
The church offers baptisms for babies of same-sex couples and is the host of an annual World AIDS Day service. It used to be a site for HIV/AIDS testing and organized anti-bullying vigils in support of gay and lesbian youths.
It also participates in the ministries of the Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries, gives to food pantries and “adopts” a nursing home each Christmas.
Some members report facing overt homophobia, and several declined to be interviewed or have their photograph taken. The church, however, has had few problems since settling into a former Lutheran church on Greene Street.
“It takes a lot of courage to walk through the doors and risk being seen,” said Dr. David Stepp, a researcher at Georgia Regents University and a founder of Augusta Pride. “They’re relieved to hear, ‘You’re good. You’re loved.’ ”
Some members were fearful when the church started holding events and making itself more visible in the community a few years back, Pullium said.
“People were like, ‘People are going to throw bricks through the windows,’ but they haven’t,” he said.
If there’s bullying or discrimination, it’s usually not from strangers, Heilig said.
“Often the bullying and abuse comes from their own families,” she said.
On a weekly basis, people contact the church with questions about what it means to be gay and Christian, or whether such a thing
is even possible, Heilig said. Their first question is usually, “Are gay people going to hell?”
“Here’s my answer: ‘Most of the gay people I know have already been to hell and back,’ ” she said. “If we look very carefully at what Jesus said, Jesus was much more concerned about what we’re doing right here, right now and how we treat each other now than where
we’re going to end up at some point in the future when we die.”
Ann Willbrand grew up Catholic. Fifteen years ago, she found the Augusta church.
“I was feeling a need to reconnect,” said Willbrand, a retired professor at the University of South Carolina Aiken and a faculty adviser of its Gay Straight Alliance.
“Every sermon is about God’s love and acceptance,” Willbrand said. “It’s a welcoming church. It’s an inclusive church. Nobody’s going to walk out after a
service and feel bad about themselves. We proclaim a ministry of God’s inclusive love.”
That’s intentional, Heilig said.
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to stand up every week and be able to say, ‘Everyone is welcome,’ ” she said.