Saint Mark United Methodist Church is an extraordinary place. I’ve not shared much, to date, about this wonderful church that I serve and what makes it so. In order to frame this post properly, I owe you a description of the context here.
In the early 1990s, Saint Mark, like most intown Atlanta churches, was struggling. Members had moved out of the city center and into the suburbs, and were no longer willing to drive back to their home churches. So, the suburban churches thrived as the intown area crumbled. Real estate prices plummeted. The streets were vacated. The 1980s were not good to Atlanta’s heart.
The only folks who seemed to be moving into the midtown and downtown areas were folks who didn’t feel welcome anywhere else. The 1980s saw a surge of single, gay men buying up property and settling into the area. Things started changing.
The Pride Parade began in Atlanta in the 1970s, and took off in earnest by 1981, around the same time that the AIDS virus began to be diagnosed in the community. If you read the history, you’ll see that these two events – a celebration of life and one’s wholeness and the staggering defeat of death – walked hand in hand throughout the 1980s. It was a heartbreaking time. As the Parade gained strength and turned out record numbers, the responses also grew more public and hateful. Across the street from Saint Mark UMC stood Atlanta First Baptist Church, Charles Stanley’s church. The protests were increasing by the year. One year, a current church member recalls, the Baptists across the street hired guards on horseback. Then, it was violent and absurd. Now, it’s laughable (“What did he think we were going to do? Break in and redecorate?!”).
Like most of the intown churches, Saint Mark, which had been a thriving and active church for the better part of the century, had dwindled to about 100 folks. This church has always had a history of social justice and activism in the world. Bishop Bevel Jones, who served as our senior minister from 1963-1967 has dubbed Saint Mark the bellwether church of the southeast, and it’s true. Our folks have always had the courage to stand up and do what is right, for the sake of the Gospel. When it was apparent that the church was in danger of closing its doors, the people who remained took their call to be the church in the world seriously. They decided that they were going to do what they had always done, which is to minister to the people in need in the community surrounding the church.
The next June, on the Sunday of the Gay Pride Parade, as the Baptists picketed, the old folks from Saint Mark sat outside with a banner that read, “All are welcome here!” and handed out bottles of water to the parade participants. What happened next could have only come as a result of the Holy Spirit blessing this church’s willingness to stand up and say: We are here in love, not hate. We open our doors to the least of these, because that’s what Christ has called us to do.
The next Sunday, people came to see if Saint Mark meant what it said. The following Sunday, those people brought people with them. By the end of the year, membership had tripled. Saint Mark regularly had 200 visitors on a Sunday, though earlier days had seen barely 100 members in the pews.
The 1990’s and the turn of the Millennium saw renewed life at Saint Mark. We refer to it as the “Miracle on Peachtree.” During that time the congregation grew to over 1,900 members, an especially miraculous renewal considering that the church had been on the verge of closing (see the 1996 article from Whosoever Magazine). We were the first Atlanta church to begin an active AIDS ministry, and as we welcomed in hundreds of hurting and dying people, we also buried more than one could imagine.
This is a remarkable place. It is a church in the truest sense of the word – a community of disciples, who are so aware of the power of God’s presence in their life that all they can do is sing praises. We are, on occasion, cranky and nitpicky. But we are also filled with grace and the ability to name God’s powerful claim on our lives. Each week, through the open red doors, we look out over the property that used to be inhabited by First Baptist Atlanta. They moved to Dunwoody in 1997, and their presence in Midtown Atlanta is now only a memory, as the sanctuary was razed and in its place now stands a lovely park.
As you can imagine, each member here has a story to tell. There are recurring themes of abandonment, disownment by family and church alike, and a subsequent re-claiming of one’s place in the family of God in Christ. We have an amazing children’s ministry, that looks like the whole of the kingdom of God, as these children have come from all over the globe to be loved and cared for by wonderful people. The witness of these loving parents remove any speculation that same-gendered parents are eroding traditional morality. I see them every week, parenting their children with the same passion, commitment and love that I try to offer to my own little ones. As is modeled in the congregation that I serve, there is no room for hate in the kingdom of God. Each person’s story I hear is a testament to that.
One of the most remarkable stories comes from Bill and Matthew, who were recently featured in a piece on NPR. Bill, who is African-American, and Matthew, who is Caucasian, have been together for thirty-five years. That’s right. Bill and Matthew are a bi-racial, homosexual couple. The odds of these people meeting, falling in love and staying together for nearly four decades are so unlikely it’s not worth computing. Consider the climate in which they met, 35 years ago in 1973. They had to be very creative with their relationship so that they could live and travel together and not be questioned.
Their story is much longer than what’s presented in these few minutes, but I wanted to share it with you. Love, indeed, makes a family. And I am proud to know this one.
by Arun Venugopal and Brian ZumhagenNEW YORK, NY December 13, 2008 —WNYC’s Arun Venugopal attends the Connecticut wedding of two men, Matthew Malok and Bill Whittaker, who’ve been together for 35 years. And WNYC Weekend Edition Host Brian Zumhagen gets an update on the situation in New York from Alan Van Capelle, Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda.
As you read, listen, consider and hear… think of the stories of people you know. We all have family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors who are members of a community that has been abused, at worst and misunderstood, at best. Some of the most loving families I know are non-traditional in makeup. This might even be true for you – maybe you were raised by your grandmother. Maybe you were brought up by one parent. Maybe you had a great and loving family system, regardless of who and how it was comprised. Maybe you had a perfectly “traditional” family that was utterly dysfunctional.
Be patient, friends. Be aware. Know that God is Love, and in our loving we find the holy breaking in and healing what needs to be healed. As we share our stories and listen to them being told, may God’s presence guide us as we move toward living as a full and welcoming community.
You can find a picture of Bill and Matthew here, at Love Makes a Family’s website.
For more information about LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) rights and issues, visit some of these
Human Rights Campaign – Working for equal rights for the LGBT community
Reconciling Ministries Network – a grassroots community of United Methodists who are pushing for change in the denomination
Georgia Equality’s – Working for LGBT rights in Georgia
Mega Family Project – Providing support for Georgia’s LGBT families and children
Chris Kids Rainbow Project – Provides a safe and supportive residence for homeless and runaway LGBT youth
AID Atlanta – Providing support and services for people with HIV and AIDS
Methodists United – A blog of the stories of GLBTQ&S United Methodists around the world
(promoted from Reverend Mama)
- Sermon: “To Err on the Side of Love” - June 30, 2013
- Why I’m in favor of Same-Sex Marriages (Or: My most controversial post to date) - January 7, 2009