Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Gay Pride

A special Villager supplement

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Reverend Jacqueline Lewis blesses Julian Arcila, center, and John Taylor from the Upper West Side.

Same-sex couples find sanctuary at Middle Collegiate

By Jefferson Siegel

Can love be legislated?

It’s a centuries-old conundrum, rife with religious edicts, contradictory laws and ingrained traditions. While the current administration in Washington eschews scientific fact for evolutionary theory, it attempts to mandate that biology trump emotion and affection.

Just last week, in an attempt to counter dismal poll numbers, the president played to his rapidly dwindling base by proposing a Marriage Protection Amendment. It was as successful as the Montagues and Capulets were in managing their children’s love lives.

Since the Stonewall riot of 1969 in the West Village, tolerance has made inroads in many facets of life. However, two prominent holdouts have been church and state, blocking the legalization of marriage and recognition of life partners for purposes as varied as health and life insurance. Lately the church, the last place one would expect to find sanctuary for L.G.B.T. beliefs, is becoming more inclusive.

Last Sunday, Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village held a service that would give traditional church leaders conniptions. With Gay Pride Week starting this Sunday, Middle Collegiate incorporated a group blessing of same-sex couples in its Sunday morning service.

The church wasn’t just paying lip service to the beliefs of some congregation members. The ceremony was part of a monthlong series of events meant to affirm the house of worship’s recognition of its community’s varied beliefs. The church’s calendar lists June as “Pride Month” and will even include a float in the Gay Pride March on June 25.

Sun streamed through the church’s front doors last Sunday, an appropriate metaphor for illuminating new ideas in a once-cloistered sanctuary. The choir’s opening song, Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story, and a rainbow flag draped over the pulpit left no doubt Pride was in the house.

Jacqueline Lewis, the church’s recently installed senior minister, walked the aisle before opening the morning’s service, welcoming and hugging all within reach.

“We’ve been planning this for a year,” she said of the couples’ blessing ceremony that morning. “Last year we didn’t know if the time was right to do it, but we really wanted to do a celebration of all the ways we love each other.”

Lewis exuded warmth, intelligence and understanding as she spoke to the congregation. Her sincerity was evident in the words she offered parishioners.

“This is one of our most important social justice issues,” she intoned. “As we pray today, I think we should think how we can be advocates.”

The blessing was one offering of a multimedia morning program. Mary Jo Lombardo’s imaginative puppet show found a frog and a toad opening an invitation to Joni and Hermionie’s wedding. One frog is confused.

“You know,” the toad explains, “the two women who moved in together last spring.”

“Huhhh?” the frog replies, “I thought they were sisters, I thought they were roommates, I thought they were friends.”

Reverend Lewis took umbrage at religion’s “spending so much time worrying about who loves who and so little time feeding every hungry mouth.” She asked for forgiveness for this obsession of the church. She recoiled at news of the beating of 38-year-old Kevin Aviance the night before and just blocks away. Aviance had been viciously beaten by four men shouting antigay slurs after he left an East Village gay club.

“Think about the fact that a gay couple still has to negotiate to get [a partner] into a hospital room to be with a loved one,” Lewis offered. “Can you imagine what it’s like to be inside yourself and to be rejected just for being you?” She called Middle Collegiate a “pocket of resistance in a church that’s not ready.”

Two by two, three couples proudly walked to the front to receive Reverend Lewis’s blessing. Keith and Kevin Slatten-Poss, members of Middle Collegiate since 2002, walked hand in hand as applause filled the sanctuary.
“We had hoped, but never thought we’d see it,” Keith said of the blessing ceremony.

“All we can hope and pray for is the laws of both society and churches will both catch up to what’s really going on out in the world,” Kevin added.

“Denominations may not change,” Keith continued, “but individual congregations are.” The pair, together five years, had a civil ceremony in Vermont and are registered as domestic partners in New York.

“It was hard to understand,” Kevin said, “that people in our church, for the first time in my life, were O.K. with who I loved and were not judgmental of that. They were here, with me,” he said, emphasizing the last two words.

Julian Arcila and John Taylor from the Upper West Side started coming to Middle Collegiate a year ago. They were unaware of the morning’s blessing ceremony and hesitated to walk to the front, but only because Arcila felt he wasn’t properly dressed.

“We came in feeling fairly alienated from religious traditions,” Taylor explained. “I think that gay people, like everyone else, are spiritual people and have spiritual needs and things to offer to a spiritual community.”

“We wanted to bless the same-sex couples,” Reverend Lewis explained after the service. “We wanted to bless all the flesh.”

Asked if the blessing ceremony could serve as inspiration for a more tolerant church, Reverend Lewis nodded.
“I hope so,” she said. “All of my colleagues of the four Collegiate churches are committed to the full inclusion of the L.G.B.T. community. I think when people worship together, the church gives people a chance to just be together in community. Pretty soon,” she concluded, “you’re not a category. You’re a person. I think that’s the first level of justice.”

Before joining her congregation for an after-service brunch, Reverend Lewis added, “Africans have a Zulu expression that says, ‘When I see you, you exist.’”

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