You don’t expect a luncheon on the grounds of a Southern church to create controversy. But it did in Cleveland County, when the outing was a Gay Pride Picnic.
An estimated 285 people attended The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer’s picnic in June 2014. The event drew cheers from some straight and gay residents. It also drew protesters, including one in sackcloth and ashes.
“We had two outsiders – a guy and his buddy, who travel all over protesting – and two men and one woman from a local Baptist congregation,” deacon Pam Bright recalls. “The next morning, a man with a bullhorn interrupted our early service. There were a couple of guys with him, including the one wearing sackcloth. (Police) told them they could not be on our property, and they left.
“The protest that interrupted our service created fallout with some members, and we lost at least one family because of it. Had the protest not happened, I'm not sure how much fallout there would have been.”
Bright says Redeemer has long been open to diversity and welcomed LGBT folks: “The parish gave space for an HIV/AIDS support group for years, dating back to the beginning of the crisis, and the clergy provided pastoral care to the group. Really ‘out there’ support started with the Pride Picnic.”
At the time, the LGBT newsletter QNotes said Shelby was among the smallest North Carolina locales to host a Pride event, following outings in Boone, Manteo and Nags Head.
The city has had an uneasy relationship with gay people for the last 30 years, from the execution-style murder of three men at a gay bookstore in 1987 to the continued re-election of Tim Moore, the N.C. House Speaker who called the special session to pass HB2.
Shelby attorney Paul Ditz, a congregant at Redeemer, says specific incidents have been few: anti-gay graffiti chalked on sidewalks, fliers torn down, nasty anonymous letters in the mail – “usually with a tract inside. But there’s an overwhelming sense of fear in the county of Tim Moore.”
Chris Kratzer ran into a different set of problems. Kratzer, an evangelical pastor for two decades, changed his views and decided “Christians who take a condemning posture toward homosexuality ... have been the primary influence in the marginalization of that community.” So he created The Grace Place, renting space in 2014 at Crest Middle School for “a contemporary ministry where we could agree to disagree on almost any issue.
“I did a series of messages called ‘Alternatives,’ where I ... took a glance at issues through lenses people may not have used. I covered heaven and the Bible and hell, and one session was about homosexuality. I went line by line through passages in scripture people use to condemn homosexuality and shared my interpretations. We lost several people from that. Some were strong givers, which made it difficult to move forward financially.”
Kratzer closed the church in 2015. He thought he’d found another venue. But, he says, “Four days before we were going to reopen, I got a message from the owner that, for spiritual reasons, it would not be available.”
Last year, Redeemer held what’s believed to be Shelby’s first PFLAG event – formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Pam Bright says many parishioners are happy to belong or have joined because of the church’s stance on LGBT issues.
“You won’t see a rainbow flag flying over Redeemer,” says Paul Ditz. “But at least it’s on our welcome cards.”