By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: April 2, 2009
WHEN David Juhren gives directions to the new headquarters of the Loft, the region’s well-known community center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, he says, “Look for the rainbow flag out front.” Then Mr. Juhren, the Loft’s executive director, likes to add, “And it’s not ours — it’s the church’s.”
The rainbow flag, known as a symbol of diversity and inclusiveness, has been flying in front of the Memorial Methodist Church here for many years, long before the Loft moved onto the church campus in January from a higher-priced site downtown. To the Rev. Joe Agne, pastor of Memorial Methodist, welcoming the group is a natural extension of the hospitality his congregation offers to people who have been shunned by the parent church. To Mr. Juhren, the center’s new home represents an opportunity to reach out to a faith-based organization.
They’re calling the relationship a covenant. To be sure, the Loft has a lease and pays rent. But the arrangement goes beyond a financial agreement. The Loft and the church have promised to “commit to mutual hospitality, respect and support of each other’s missions” and to work toward “inclusiveness of our shared communities.”
If it all sounds warm and cozy, keep in mind that the 8.2 million-member United Methodist Church prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy members and holds that same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian tradition.”
As in most mainstream Protestant denominations, the larger membership is deeply divided over these issues.
Mr. Agne has been arrested twice for protesting what he saw as homophobic policies at a General Assembly meeting of the United Methodist Church. He has long advocated the inclusion of gays and lesbians in Christian life. Last month, Memorial Methodist introduced Rainbow Vespers, a service specifically designed to be welcoming to gays and lesbians and their families.
“The Bible has been used as a weapon to exclude every targetable population in history,” Mr. Agne said. “What we look for in the church is the heart of the message in scripture. And from my perspective, the heart is that wherever Jesus was, he looked around to see who was the most marginalized person, and he said, ‘I am with that person.’ ”
(Mr. Juhren described himself as “a person of faith,” and he has also studied the scripture. “The Bible has been translated twice already, and there’s a lot lost there,” he said. “In its current translation, it’s an abomination for two men to sleep together, but it’s also an abomination to go down to the Red Lobster and order a shrimp cocktail.”)
The United Methodist Church has not protested the arrangement with the Loft. “It’s really a matter of renting space, and we’re pretty open in terms of hospitality,” said the Rev. Noel Chin, superintendent of the Metropolitan District of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. “We look at it in that vein; it represents the church’s intention to reach out.”
Mr. Agne said that some members of the congregation might be skeptical, but “we decided somewhere along the line that our niche as a congregation is to be welcoming and inviting to those who have rejected the church for understandable reasons.”
Some members of the Loft’s board of directors were concerned about the move to the church campus, Mr. Juhren said. Many members of the Loft have been hurt by their own denominations. In a church service to welcome the Loft, the Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, a staff member of the church who is leading the Rainbow Vespers, voiced their anxieties rhetorically: “Why are you seeking refuge in the lion’s den of a homophobic institution that is the United Methodist Church?”
Mr. Juhren said that the Loft wasn’t looking at the Methodist church in its entirety, but rather at this specific church, where the group’s members knew they would be welcome.
“One of the things that the L.G.B.T. community understands is that if we are going to get anywhere on gaining our equal rights, gaining marriage equality, on further acceptance of us, we know we have to reach out to the faith-based organizations,” Mr. Juhren said. “Many of us are individuals who were raised in churches and who early on were given a faith, and that faith sometimes has to be so strong to weather the spears and arrows of the hostility that are often thrown our way.”
The Loft, he stressed, is not “a gay club,” but an advocacy and community service organization, financed by state and federal grants.
One program, for instance, provides support to gay senior citizens, who often do not have children to help to care for them, and who do not receive benefits when their long-term partners die. The new space has meeting rooms, a lounge with a large TV, a library and cyber-center, room for the Loft’s help line and administrative offices.
The space was most recently occupied as a day care center for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Before that, it had been used as the regional offices of the United Methodist Church. Mr. Juhren’s office, which is flooded with natural light, was once the office of the United Methodist bishop of New York.
“For the Loft to trust enough to come to the campus of Memorial, that was an incredible witness to us,” Mr. Agne said. “It’s not lost on us that we’re part of a bigger system that has got some real problems. This was a risky move on the Loft’s part and a real testament to the people of this congregation.”