This is the article that I wrote for my town’s newspaper. It’s about a couple that struggles to find a church that they long to be a part of but struggle to find one that accepts them for who they are. This is their story:
It has been over fifteen years since Helen Rhenn and Penny Johnson joined Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Bloomsburg as a lesbian couple; they still do not feel entirely safe.
“We feel safe within the church, but it’s the outside that troubles me,” Rhenn said.
All over the country there have been incidents where people of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community have suffered push back in their life. Sometimes the push backs have become violent.
For instance, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, became the scene of mass shooting in 2016 by a man who became enraged after seeing two men kiss. In an Oklahoma church, a man and his boyfriend were pinned to the ground by family and congregation members, who repeatedly shouted, “Pray the gay away.” In Detroit, Michigan, a man killed two gay men and a transgendered woman inside of their own home.
Rhenn said she felt it frustrating to live in fear for being gay.
“What if one day something happens at Trinity?”
Rhenn said she and Johnson needed some of their questions about faith answered, and the best place that they thought could find those answers was at a church.
Their search began on the internet looking for local churches in the Bloomsburg area. The first church that they found was Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ. At that time, the church operated as open and affirming, which the denomination defines as welcoming to everyone no matter the age, race, gender, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. But it had yet to officially declare itself open and affirming.
The first Sunday mass that they attended, both Rhenn and Johnson had the warmest of welcomes.
“When we arrived at Trinity, we were greeted by the most loving and warming bunch of elderly ladies,” said Rhenn.
Congregation members didn’t object to the couple worshipping as a family.
But Rhenn and Johnson wanted to marry, and not everyone in the local church was ready to accept that.
A same-sex marriage had never taken place in the Bloomsburg church. And statewide, such marriages were still not recognized.
The couple said they did not wish to force people to change their opinions.
So they turned to another United Church of Christ minister and made arrangements to marry in front of friends and family in a park near Harrisburg. That way no one could object to the use of a church building for the ceremony.
Even that wasn’t straightforward. In the application to reserve space for the gathering, Johnson and Rhenn said they were having a family get-together. Otherwise, they feared the ceremony would be shut down.
“The ceremony was not actually legal, but was instead Ceremony of Holy Union,” Rhenn said.
Same-sex marriage was recognized by the state of Pennsylvania on May 20, 2014 after Judge John E. Jones ruled the law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
Five months later, on Oct.16, 2014, Penny and Helen would become officially married in the state of Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Trinity officially become the 1,590th United Church of Christ church to officially declare itself open and affirming on Nov. 11, 2018.
Since then, several same-sex marriages have been consecrated within its walls.
“We already felt welcomed, but officially becoming Open and Affirmed church is in the right direction,” Rhenn said.
She’d like to see the church go still further.
“I would like to display public signs showing our support for the LGBT community,” she said.
A sign with an upside-down rainbow triangle or an upside-down pink triangle in the front of the building could publicly declare the church’s support, she said.
But, she said, such a public affirmation could put the church at risk.
“Because of the LGBT symbols, we could find our church attacked or vandalized,” she said.
The congregation could lock its doors during services to protect the people inside, but that would not show that the church to open for people to come in during service and listen, she said.
Having someone by the main door acting as security could help, she said, “but that would make the people inside fearful that something may happen, and those people may stop coming.”
Though Johnson and Rhenn said they sometimes fear the reaction of those outside their church, they do not believe that they should be controlled by that fear. And they said they don’t want other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people to feel alone or afraid as they seek a place to worship.
By Kyle Hummel