About a month ago, a friend of mine told me about something extraordinary that had happened in his church.
My friend attends Grace Community Church, and they have been making some major construction improvements to some of their buildings. Jerris Duncan, their lead pastor, was at Home Depot buying some lumber, equipment, etc., and the man assisting him had been especially courteous and helpful. As they were loading up the truck, Duncan joked with the guy, saying, “You should come with me; we could really use all the helping hands we can get.” The man responded: “No, I’m not welcome in your church. I'm an unrepentant gay man and I’m not welcome in your church.”
And there it was. We’ve all been in this situation, haven’t we? A moment that tests our character. A moment in which, just for a second, the rug is pulled out from under us, and we have to decide how we’re going to react. What we’re going to do.
How Pastor Duncan reacted, what he decided to do, is the topic of this article.
Shame on the church for that attitude. Shame on the church for him feeling that way. It is a horrible representation for the love of Christ and the grace of Christ.
This was said by Pastor Duncan to his congregation on the Sunday following his encounter. To hear the rest of his sermon on this topic, skip to 39:00 in the video below.
I say that this is extraordinary because Grace is not a Unitarian church, or a church that has openly and actively sought out LGBT people, like Metropolitan Community Church, United Church of Christ, or our own Community United Church of Christ or McKinley Presbyterian. (To learn more about gay-friendly churches in C-U go here.)
Grace Community Church is an evangelical, non-denominational church. You won’t see a rainbow flag hanging outside their door; you won’t see them marching in a gay pride parade. That isn’t their style. Which makes what occurred at their Sunday service on September 30 (and their reaction to it) all the more extraordinary.
When my friend told me about Pastor Duncan’s sermon, I admit that I was skeptical, but not in a negative way. I just figured that this was probably yet another one of those, “hate the sin; love the sinner” type of sermons, a situation in which the church offers a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell home to its gay and lesbian members, letting them know that as long as they stay single and celibate, they’re welcome to sit in the pews (and tithe).
In his sermon, Pastor Duncan said that he wants his church to welcome everyone, to “fill the place out with people who are messed up.” “It’s OK,” he said, “to not be OK.” And this is why I was skeptical. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are not “messed up.” There’s nothing that’s not “OK” about us. When I think of someone who is messed up, I think of someone who doesn't have empathy for others, or who thinks nothing of driving drunk, or who abuses his or her kids. So conjoining same-sex love and attraction with the term “messed up” is offensive and wrong.
But, I know what Duncan meant by his statements; his intent was exactly the opposite of how I interpreted it. Seeing and hearing someone say those words is different than reading them on paper. If you watch the video, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Still, I wanted the chance to say this to Duncan personally. So I wrote to him and requested a meeting. And lo and behold, he agreed to have coffee with me.
Smile Politely: What denomination is Grace Community?
Jerris Duncan: We're non-denominational.
SP: How big is your church?
Duncan: It's around 200 total, adults to children.
SP: So, not a mega-church, not an extreme, fundamentalist church?
SP: Does Grace have gay* parishioners?
SP: Are they out?
SP: And your congregation is cool with them?
Duncan: We love them.
SP: Then it seems that everyone is welcome at your church. I had wondered if the guy at Home Depot had heard something about Grace...
Duncan: I was taken aback. I asked him to repeat what he’d said, and he did. And I said, ‘OK, so did someone from Grace tell you this?’ And he said, ‘No, I have an aunt who’s a believer and since I came out I’ve not been welcome in my family. According to her my … you know … I’m not welcome.’
It bothered me that he felt that way; it bothered me because I know why. I understand. When you asked whether my church was fundamentalist … I get that. I have eighteen years previous history in a conservative Southern Baptist Church in the South. We did some things that bothered me regarding stuff like this, and so I took the gentleman aside and said, ‘I’m really sorry that people treated you that way and you feel that way. If you’re in a place where you’re wanting to explore a relationship with God, you’re always welcome in our church. And I'm very sorry for how people have treated you and made you feel. I can’t apologize for the whole Christian nation, but I can for me.’ That was kind of it.
For our church, I think they … every church nowadays has a marquee or banner or website that says, ‘Everyone is welcome.’ And you know better than I do, that’s just not true. You’re welcomed until we find out that you’re, what we consider, flawed. I don't mean that disrespectfully, I just mean that you’re welcome until we find out that you’re an alcoholic and can’t get it under control, or that you’re an adulterer, or whatever it might be. And then things begin to change.
SP: All churches say that everyone is welcome, until they’re not. Most churches, when they really mean it, they have to be pretty blatant about it. They practically have to put a rainbow flag out there. Otherwise, gays and lesbians know they're not included in that “everyone.”
Duncan: I talk to our church all the time about this. Being in a place that everyone is welcome is great. Anybody can come through the door and feel, ‘As a Christian, I’m welcome here.’ The moment something comes up about us that would make us feel like we don’t belong, or we get to know somebody and there’s that moment of angst where, for example, you have an anger issue, that’s when we decide what kind of church we are. For our members who have what the church traditionalists would see as flaws, that’s when we have to think about what kind of church we are.
For me, I’ve come to a place ... coming here to lead this church, we’re all flawed. All of us, and it has very little to do with our sexuality or our issues or … we’re just all flawed. The scripture says that everybody has sinned. Period. Until I see a church that’s just as willing to stand up and say, ‘You are a horrible person in business and dishonest, and yet you’re a leader in our church and that’s OK because you’re nice enough,’ and call that what it is, I don’t understand why we have to have agendas and instigators. It’s a really hard message for me to be a part of.
SP: After your sermon that day, how did your congregation react?
Duncan: I can say as I watched … first of all, I was emotional because it bothered me so much and it was so fresh. Our church was very ... a strong sense of, ‘Yes, this is why we exist.’ There are people in this community that, for a whole host of reasons, feel like they don’t belong. They said, ‘What you're saying as our pastor is that [the church’s treatment of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals] is unacceptable.’
There were tears; there was applause; there were remarks of, ‘That’s right; that’s who we want to be.’
SP: OK, I’m about to get on a soap box now. Is that OK?
SP: So often, when we in the queer community complain about and condemn the Christian church for its interference in gay rights issues, what we get back are believers who will spend however much time arguing with us that Christians aren’t all like that. We call them NALTs. But it’s Christians who are heaping this abuse on us. And they do it because they think that’s what their God wants them to do. I respond with ‘Talk to your brothers in Christ then. Clean your own house. We’re not the people you should be telling this to.’ And what I love about what you did on that Sunday is, instead of arguing with that man, trying to justify Christianity, you went to your fellow Christians and talked to them.
There are gay kids and adults who sit in church every Sunday getting beat up, and they need to know that there are churches out there that they can attend that will be safe havens. That’s why what you did was so important. And that’s why I wanted to meet with you.
All of that being said, one point that I want to make is that being gay isn’t a flaw.
Duncan: I didn’t mean it like that. I want to be careful with my words.
SP: So this isn’t a ‘hate the sin/love the sinner’ type of thing, is it?
Duncan: No. It’s a love the sinner/love the sinner type of thing.
SP: Do you believe in full equality?
Duncan: When you say that...
SP: You know what I mean.
Duncan: No, when you say that...
SP: Marriage, adoption...
Duncan: Adoption, yes. I have … I’m on a journey of figuring a lot of things out for myself. I don’t have a clear cut answer for marriage.
SP: So your congregation welcomes same-sex couples, but they’re not going to marry them.
Duncan: Our leadership has acknowledged that it’s a conversation that we have to have. And that we are willing to have. This is where I need a little bit of grace, because you’re catching me at a transition point in my own life. What matters, what doesn’t matter. What’s worth it, what’s not worth it when it comes to what I do. Where we show grace and where we say, ‘no, this is where we draw the line.’ It’s a hard thing.
We’re in a unique place, because it’s an interdenominational mix of people. Most of the people in our church come from very wounded church backgrounds. It’s how they land here. They come from a wide variety of denominational places — things from women in ministry to the gamut of things that they’ve dealt with, or been hurt by, or been frustrated with. And so we’re kind of this unique place that says bring that.
I’m never going to get away from the fact that I have 25 years now of being, at the core theologically, conservative evangelical. I’m probably not going to get away from that. And that matters.
SP: Were you a Southern Baptist Minister?
Duncan: Yes. Not a pastor. I worked with teenagers and college students. That was eighteen years.
SP: How long have you been at Grace?
Duncan: Four years. One reason why I needed to move away from that and do what I’m doing now ... we had in the church I came from, a choir. There was a gentleman who had been there for twenty years, and he’d been in the choir. Someone in the congregation figured out that he was gay. And it just … it started off, I thought it was going to be something handled with dignity and healing, but it turned into a witch hunt. And it made me sick.
All of a sudden there were all these stipulations, policy being written where he couldn’t be in leadership. He couldn’t work with children. Well that’s a horrible stereotype. They told him, ‘Unless you repent to the church and agree to a life of abstinence, you can’t …’ He’d been there for twenty years, and it was the most frustrating and heartbreaking thing to watch. I was in a powerless position. When you’re a youth and college pastor on the church staff, you don’t have much voice. And so it began to … it bothered me to the core the way it was handled.
SP: That kind of stuff is what causes suicides. That guy, as bad as it was for you to watch, imagine what he was going through — watching his church family turn on him and write policies about him based on hate and fear.
But what he was doing in that church to begin with?
Duncan: Because it had a massive choir and he loved to sing. And he was awesome.
SP: I guess I understand. People can’t turn that off. You can’t just decide not to believe in God. Again, this underscores my point that we need safe havens. This guy had other church options, but did he even know about them? They don't have to be perfect, but they should be safe.
Duncan: I want to believe that Grace is a safe place. But we’re on a journey of figuring out what this actually looks like. Because we’re probably, in all honesty, we’re probably not going to hang out a rainbow flag.
SP: [what I thought: why the hell not? what I said: uh huh]
Duncan: But we are going to say, ‘We love you.’ I teach our people just to learn this phrase: ‘When somebody shares their story with you, you need to be able to say I’m not your judge and believe it. To the core.’ Because it’s not something that we have any authority to do. I’m not a judge. Jesus said Love, and he said that if someone is perceived to be the enemy, love them even more. And I don’t see you as an enemy, but there’s a gulf, and so I’m going to love you even more, not find reasons to make it a bigger gulf.
How that all works out in the day-to-day function of the church, I’m going to just work it out as we go. That’s the complicated part, not how far do we go, but where is our heart for real? And what’s it going to look like in a year, two years, three years?
SP: You may have gay people in your church that haven’t come out yet. You may have kids there who are gay and you don’t know they are. And they’re listening to you, and they’re not just hearing you say something supportive; they’re looking around, and seeing all of their allies applauding you. That will save lives.
Duncan: I hope so.
SP: We can get to the details and minutia later, but that moment, on that Sunday, was the most important part of this.
Duncan: Obviously, what we do as a church — and what I believe — is that we want everyone to find God. What happens from there on out, I don’t have an agenda. I hold everyone to the same standards.
SP: Sure. It says in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin, but it also says it’s a sin to divorce.
Duncan: What sin are we going to attack? That’s between you and God, and not between you and the church. At some point, I don't know what our policies will look like. It’s a hard conversation that we’re trying to work through.
SP: Does your church endorse political candidates?
SP: I ask because ‘church’ is nothing more than the people in it. It’s one thing to say, ‘We don't think that marriage should be equal. We don’t think that same-sex couples should have the civil right of marriage.’ That’s not acceptable to me personally, but I won’t interfere with their beliefs. The problem for me begins when they step outside of their church and influence law.
I have certain strong beliefs and morals that would impact my neighbors’ civil rights if I voted them into law. So I get it. I understand that it’s hard to separate our beliefs from law. But far too many of my fellow citizens don’t exercise that restraint at the ballot box. That’s where my problem with churches lies. We’re not a theocracy. We should all try to keep our moral and religious beliefs out of the ballot box. Jesus said that divorce is a sin. Should all Christians, then, write referendums and try to make divorce illegal?
Duncan: One of my parishioners asked what this all means in the big picture, and I told her that, hopefully, people like you, Tracy, will know that there’s a church in town where she’s loved. A place that’s trying. And we may screw it all up. We’re very aware. But we don't feel like we can screw up this situation more than our church universal has screwed it up already. It can’t do much worse, so why not try and have a different mindset about it?
SP: What is your opinion of the ‘clobber verses’? What do you do with those verses? How would you address a parishioner that brought them to you and said, ‘The rules are right here, in the Old and New Testaments.’
Duncan: There are ‘clobber verses’ for a host of things in the bible. We are all sinners and separated from God. All of us. That’s the largest clobber verse of all. I don’t do what I do so that I can beat people up; I do it because at one time in my life I was hopeless and I found hope.
It’s hard because there are very clear things about homosexuality. There are clear things about unity in the church, about a gluttonous spirit, a haughty spirit, an angry tongue. They’re there; I think that the Bible is real and true because of what I’ve seen in my own life. But I don’t think the Bible teaches me that my job is to take those clobber verses, go find all the people who are committing them, and clobber more.
We see it this way at our church: If we can remove the stumbling blocks between where we are in life and the cross, the cross is a big enough stumbling block. The work of Jesus, that whole concept — that’s a big stumbling block, spiritually. So why would we spend time creating obstacles for people to get to that place? Why? When you get to that place, we’re going to hold your hand and walk you through, whatever that means for you. On the other side of that, whatever gets you through your discipleship and your growth and how you choose to live, that’s a process of spiritual growth that's a mystery that’s between you and God.
It gets complicated. But what I say to you is, ‘As you grow in your faith, you determine what’s best, and I am here with you because I’d rather walk with you than give you a reason to not walk at all.’ But if I’m going to call one type of sin out, then I’m going to have to go around the room, starting with me, and call me out for my own shortfall. If you go the route that sin is sin, if they’re all considered sin, why single this one out as the one thing that says … I don’t know, I’m struggling.
SP: First, I’ll say that I don’t think that being gay is a sin. But, I think that the reason that a lot of churches single this one ‘sin’ out is that people who commit other types of sin — adultery, theft, greed — aren’t open about it. And they’re repentant. They hide their sins. But gay people are out. They're saying that this is nothing to be ashamed of. So I think that’s why churches single homosexuality out. Believers who sin, even if it’s regularly, even if they don’t intend to stop sinning, are quiet about it. The queer community? Not so much anymore. We’re not trying to stop being what we are.
Duncan: It’s something that we’re trying to figure out. Part of my mission with you is as much for you to learn about our church and me as for me to continue my own education and growth in speaking with you and have a friendship with you. I didn’t expect you to come here and convert. But if we can’t have a conversation about where we come from, then why are we doing what we’re doing with such passion? If it’s just going to be standing on one side barking at the other, nothing will be solved.
SP: I don’t need someone to be 100 percent on my side to consider that person an ally. That’s not what I'm about either.
Duncan: We’re going to probably draw some lines. It won’t be political. And there’s a big difference between political agendas versus figuring out how we function as a church in such a way that extends grace to everyone. Period. To every category that the scripture calls sin, we must extend grace.
SP: I try to put myself in the mind of a believer in your congregation who is gay. She’s been told all of her life that she’s ‘wrong,’ and that unless she accepts forced celibacy, and spends the rest of her life alone, God will consider her an abomination. That goes against everything we are as human beings.
And then last Sunday, she was told that she’s loved, and that she can love others. She learned that not only will she be able to give love, she’ll get to be loved, to raise children if she wants, and that God loves her too...
Duncan: And even if she doesn’t step over into that, she’ll be in a place where she can hear it.
SP: To be able to go to a church where you’re not being verbally and physically abused for being who you are, that’s so important.
Duncan: We’ve done an amazing amount of damage as a church. We’ve done a lot of things poorly. I’m not going to be able to fix the church universal, but I can make sure that the place where I have responsibility for leading shows generosity and grace.
And that’s it. That was my conversation with Pastor Duncan. It was one of the most uncomfortable and enjoyable conversations I’ve had in a long time, one very much worth having, and worth leaving my comfort zone to have. I hope he feels the same. It couldn't have been easy for him to sit across from me and talk about this. I really respect how Duncan has reacted to all of this, from its beginning in that parking lot in Home Depot to now. I respect that he and his board aren't shying away from this conversation.
Thank you, Jerris Duncan. All of your congregation is lucky to have you.
*This article addresses sexual orientation only. Pastor Duncan and I did not discuss gender identity or expression.
Photos of Grace Community Church courtesy of Eric Ponder.