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Pride 2008: Finding Fellowship, Willow Creek Community Church and the American Family Outing

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By Laura Hawbaker

On Sunday, June 8, twenty-nine families attended services at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. Willow Creek is the fifth stop of a six-week tour, in which the Soulforce American Family Outing—a coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered families—have a dialogue with the leaders and members of America’s Biblically conservative mega-churches. At Willow Creek, the families met with Senior Pastor Bill Hybels and six other church members for a conversation about homosexuality and Christianity.

Willow Creek is an evangelical fellowship with a congregation counting more than 20,000 members. The American Family Outing participants hope that by sharing their beliefs and stories, they will help build a spiritual presence for LGBT families within a religious doctrine that has decried their very existence. “We’re already teaching Sunday school classes, we’re already singing in the choir,” says Dotti Berry, a Soulforce activist who attended the service at Willow Creek. “The question is, when we stand up and claim ourselves as persons of faith and as gay individuals with spouses, are [the churches] willing to quit demonizing us?”

As it stands, homosexuality is a divided topic in the Christian Church. While some believe the tenet of Christian brotherly love should encompass all persons of faith, including LGBT families, others stand firm that it is in abhorrence to God. The conflict has escalated in recent years, certainly, due to gay marriage having become a hot-button political issue. In the middle of this mess are LGBT Christians—people of faith who must come to terms with a spirituality that oftentimes conflicts with their sexuality.

Berry’s wife, Robynne Sapp, sat beside her at Willow Creek. The pair have made it their mission to “change the world through the expression of our love.” Sapp grew up in a conservative evangelical community and “was very much aware that it was not OK to be gay and Christian.” After wrestling with her sexuality for seventeen years, she came to a pivotal crossroads. “If I came to the clear understanding that the Bible does condemn homosexuality, then suicide was an option for me. I didn’t want to live an existence without God.” After reading Mel White’s “Stranger at the Gate: To be Gay and Christian in America” and meeting Berry, Sapp found the family, acceptance and spirituality she had sought her entire life. “I came to the conclusion that God loves me just as I am.”

Sapp was one of the fortunate ones. Also attending services on Sunday were former Willow Creek members Mary Lou and Bob Wallner, whose lesbian daughter, Anna, committed suicide in 1997. Since then, the Wallners have joined the front lines of the gay-rights community. In their family statement, the Wallners write, “Willow Creek was one of the first mega-churches, and we would love to see it be one of the first to publicly welcome LGBT people and affirm them.”

Among the families with children attending the service were Paige Schilt, Katy Koonce and their 5-year-old son, Waylon. Afterward, Shilt participated in the open dialogue with Hybels. “We spent seven minutes with small talk, and then it was right into the meat of our beliefs, and where we agree and disagree.” Schilt describes everyone from Willow Creek as gracious, and she applauds their civil, in-depth conversation. “Bill Hybels has a good grasp of where research is on sexual orientation… he said the causes of sexual orientation—gay or straight—are very complex and aren’t going to be pinpointed. I appreciated that.”

“Where we really differed is [Willow Creek’s] insistence that gay people have to remain celibate,” Shilt explains. “To them, Genesis is the blueprint on how to live out your sexuality. Adam and Eve is the only model for how to be sexual, so they would only welcome celibate gay people to their church.”

While many of the mega-churches the families have visited thus far, like Willow Creek, have been hospitable, others have been mistrustful. In his recent article, “Gay Activists Are Heading for the Church,” posted on The Conservative Voice, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. wrote about the American Family Outing’s visit to his parish, Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. “Our church had a feeling akin to those of U.S. leaders who have to decide whether or not to negotiate with terrorists.” In his article, Jackson described the American Family Outing’s methods as “playing the pity card.”

Against this kind of resistance, the families expressed a desire to stay positive, speak openly about their theological differences and share their stories. Sapp says, “Our society reflects back to us what we put forth, and so we don’t go out in fear. We go out in love, and that’s why we go to Willow Creek. We bring them the truth about our families and love.”

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