When most people hear the word "evangelical," they immediately think of people like the late Jerry Falwell , Pat Robertson of "The 700 Club" or Focus on the Family's James Dobson. Far-right fundamentalists, it seems, don't have a monopoly on the word.
Over the last weekend in May, LGBT Christians and evangelicals from around the nation convened in Gastonia, N.C., for a weekend of fellowship, worship, community building and guidance. The Evangelical Network's annual conference was held here on the east coast for the first time in the group's 10-year run.
"We had never done a conference on the east coast," says Ed Ness, The Evangelical Network's media director. "We'd predominately been in the midwest and southwest."
Ness says that the cost of travel is a challenge to many of his group's members. Holding conferences in different parts of the country each year helps those who can't always travel far. Over 100 people attended the conference. Many of the attendees were from the Carolinas and the South, including Georgia and Kentucky. Some came from as far away as California and Canada.
David Thomas, pastor of Abundant Grace Church near Hickory, was one of several local leaders who helped to organize the conference and assist with logistics. He told Q-Notes that he was excited to bring the conference to the state and help heal some of the rifts between LGBT people and their faith.
"Evangelicals have given the word ‘evangelical' a bad rap," he said. "The word comes from a Greek word meaning ‘good news.' It is the good news of Jesus Christ. We believe the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that he came to bring love, peace, deliverance and salvation to liberate peoples' lives."
Thomas was a speaker during one of the conference's several worship experiences. He said he wanted to give people the message that they shouldn't ever let anyone look down on them for any reason.
"If you are a person who believes in God, loves God, don't let people look down on you," he said. "Live a life that exemplifies what Christ's life was about: love and caring for other people."
Thomas, who has been together with his partner, a pastor at a gay-welcoming church in Winston-Salem, for 13 years, founded Abundant Grace Church in 2003. Prior to the church's founding he had helped to lead a small Bible study for LGBT people.
"Our church is created to be a place for all people," he said, "but we notice in the gay community they were not finding what they were looking for." He said many LGBT-affirming churches didn't have enough of an evangelical feel for many folks who grew up in Baptist or Pentecostal traditions.
Candace Chellew-Hodge, associate pastor at Columbia's Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, was a featured speaker and workshop discussion leader at the conference. Her workshop, along with several essays written over several years, is the basis of her book, "Bulletproof Faith," which came out in October 2008.
"The workshop gives folks tools and ways to respond to attacks from other people who say you can't be LGBTQ and Christian," she said.
Chellew-Hodge has been fighting to heal LGBT Christians' faiths for years. In the days when the internet was still some newfangled toy most folks had never used, she founded Whosoever, the world's first online magazine for LGBT Christians.
Publishing new material each and every month, Whosoever covers all sorts of issues and provides resources for those seeking to reconcile their faith and sexuality.
"The most popular topic, by far, is homosexuality and religion," Chellew-Hodge said. "Whosoever has been an amazing resource for people who are looking for ways to talk to family members and friends about being gay and Christian and reconciling their faith and sexual orientation. That can be difficult."
Chellew-Hodge said she's had "more people than I can count" tell her how much of a change in their lives the online magazine's resources made for them. She thinks that the Bible is still the LGBT community's biggest stumbling block. "We want to know that we are okay, that we are not condemned." Chellew-Hodge says the stories she hears of others coming to terms with faith and identity are enough to break her heart.
"It is the reason why I wrote the book, trying to give people a road map on how I got to where I am," she said. "I'm where I don't have to fight with anyone anymore, or argue with anyone. I've stopped taking it personally, because I know that I am okay with my god."
Ness said the conference was a success. Next year, they'll head off to Irvine, Calif., right in the middle of Orange County " heart of conservative California.