Faith and Pride at Bethel Congregational
For 15 years, Neomie Lemke and her family were part of a conservative evangelical church. Then her older daughter came out as gay and genderqueer, and her younger daughter started questioning her own gender identity.
Lemke had personally never harbored negative views about the LGBTQ community — but her church was a different story.
"We've come to find out there's a lot of trauma around that," Lemke said about raising her children within the conservative church. So she made the decision to leave the church that had been her spiritual home for a decade and a half, and started attending services at Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in Beaverton instead.
Bethel is part of the United Church of Christ, which has more than 5,000 churches and almost 1 million members across the country. The Church has long been a progressive Christian denomination — it was the first to ordain a female pastor in 1853, and the first to ordain an openly gay man in 1972. In the 1980s, the Church passed a resolution inviting its churches to consider becoming "open and affirming" to the LGBTQ community. Not every church within the United Church of Christ is open and affirming, but Bethel adopted the policy in 2001 or 2002, just a year or two before David Randall-Bodman became senior minister.
For the minister, being open and affirming means "not just tolerating the LGBTQ community, but really affirming them and welcoming them. They can have full membership, they can be ordained, they can teach Sunday school. Anybody who has gifts for ministry is welcome here. Part of our motto is: no matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."
Randall-Bodman has officiated many weddings for LGBTQ folks, baptizes the children of LGBTQ parents, and welcomes the Washington County PFLAG chapter — that stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — to use the church as a meeting space.
He also joined a group of Bethel church members in marching in the annual Pride Northwest parade in Portland last year, something the church has been doing for about a decade now. The parade is held on a Sunday morning, so Randall-Bodman "skyped" into the church service while marching.
"I told you, there's a way for us to be two places at once, and here it is," he joked to the congregation.
This year, Lemke volunteered to organize the Bethel Pride group for this weekend's parade. This will be her and her daughters' first Pride parade.
"I've always wanted to go to the Pride parade, but I just never had anybody to go with," Lemke said. "I came from a church that really was homophobic and harmful when people came and they talked about it. You're scaring people away from God... I've always had it in my heart that love is love."
Lemke enlisted her sister to make rainbow capes for her and her daughters, saying she wants to go all-out for their first Pride.
When Randall-Bodman attended Pride last year, he said he received mixed reactions from people in the crowd. Many members of the LGBTQ community have had negative experiences growing up in more conservative Christian denominations, such as Catholicism or Mormonism. In fact, many of the parishioners at Bethel are people who originally belonged to those churches.
Randall-Bodman wore his clerical collar to Pride, something he doesn't do often around the church.
"I think it's important for people to know that I am an ordained Christian, and I'm here," he said. "Last year, I got essentially two ends of the spectrum, from 'who the hell do you think you are? I know what you are, you're just a wolf in sheep's clothing, so I'm not buying this,' to people who were just overwhelmed, and would come up and hug me. People I didn't even know, because they were just so moved that someone who is clearly connected to the Christian church is there with a message of love. Some people were in tears, having never seen a clergy member out marching in Pride."
Lemke will soon become an official member at Bethel. When the family was still part of the evangelical church, Lemke's younger daughter started considering herself an agnostic or atheist. But as soon as she attended her first service at Bethel, she wanted to become a member.
"She noticed right away that she was very comfortable here," Lemke said. "Seeing gay couples with their kids here is just another visual of, you can be here, too."
Lemke has already had one friend from her old church follow her to Bethel, and she hopes it's a trend that continues.
"She's struggling in her family with some things around LGBTQ issues, and feels so welcomed," Lemke said. "At the old church, there actually were people of the LGBTQ community, and they just plugged their ears when hurtful things were said because they still do want the love and community and they believe in the Christian faith. It's hard to find a place in evangelical Christianity where you can be you. Finding a Christian church here at Bethel that has that is amazing."
Randall-Bodman has seen an uptick in visitors and new members recently, something he attributes to a divisive political and cultural climate.
"We have more and more people seeking a place that's built around compassion and care and love and grace, and doesn't believe that bullying and misogyny and mistreatment of people in other cultures is okay," he said. "It's not okay."
While more and more churches within the United Church of Christ and other progressive denominations become more accepting of the LGBTQ community, Randall-Bodman knows there are still a lot of Christians and church leaders who disagree with his decision to march in Pride parades, marry LGBTQ couples and embrace queer families.
He's made peace with that.
"There are plenty of conservative Christians praying for my soul because they think I'm a heretic," he said. "But you know, I can use all the prayers I can get."