Church group builds bridges at gay festival
An experimental ministry group from a conservative Baptist church in New Jersey, USA, has been unexpectedly building bridges at a large annual lesbian and gay festival in the famous Asbury Park - and has found it a positive experience.
Over 150 mainly young people from Millington evangelical Baptist church in Basking Ridge, NJ, decided to attend the event on the initiative of the Rev Tim Lucas.
Their ministry team, called Liquid, appropriately gave out free bottles of water on a scorching hot day. They were greeted with suspicion by some participants, but received a more positive response from many others.
Mr Lucas' church does not accept homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. But he told the New York Times this week: 'We want to dismantle the invisible hierarchy of sin that many evangelicals promote that puts gays and lesbians at the top of the list. That sense of self-righteousness and superiority runs rampant in our church like a cancer.'
Liquid says that part of its aim was 'to challenge stereotypes of ëChristians.'' Declared Mr Lucas: 'We're not going there to hand out tracts,' he said. 'These people have been marginalized and hurt, often by us...If they say, ëWhat are you doing here?' keep it simple. Just say, ëWe're here to show you God's love.''
Mr Lucas admitted that Liquid's stance was likely to draw criticism from other conservative Christians, including members of their parent church, which had not been invited to participate in the festival.
It may well be, he said, that 'we'll earn the wrath and condemnation of religious folks, and find more people on the fringe, much like it was for Jesus.'
The pastor explained to the NYT that he had had little contact with gay people before now, and described himself as 'an ex-homophobe whom Jesus is changing.' Four years ago, when his wife wanted to invite a gay colleague to dinner, Mr Lucas said he had rejected the idea, using an anti-gay slur.
Chris Newkirk, Liquid's director of communications, admitted that he was surprised by how many of the people he talked to at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Festival were Christians, and how many had been hurt by the church.
Newkirk said that in conversation with a lesbian couple he was moved to apologize for wrongs done in the name of Christianity. 'In a sense that's what we're doing here,' he said to a New York Times interviewer. 'But I didn't expect to utter the words out loud.'
Mr Newkirk said that he was a committed follower of Christ, not an endorser of everything that passed for Christianity.
The Liquid ministry team hope that they are opening up a new way forward for conservative churches in relation to the lesbian and gay community, based on listening and mutual respect - but without hiding differences of viewpoint.
Most US evangelicals see homosexuality as sinful and deny the validity of covenanted relationships among gay an lesbian people. But some, like radical evangelist Tony Campolo, have shifted towards a more affirmative position.