Maryland church celebrates 30 years of LGBTQ inclusion

Jun 29, 2016 by

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HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Hyatts­ville Mennonite Church celebrated 30 years of welcome to LGBTQ people on June 12.

Hyattsville Mennonite Church lead pastor Cynthia Lapp directs a choir during the congregation’s worship service celebrating 30 years of LGBTQ inclusion on June 12. — Kate Stoltzfus

Hyattsville Mennonite Church lead pastor Cynthia Lapp directs a choir during the congregation’s worship service celebrating 30 years of LGBTQ inclusion on June 12. — Kate Stoltzfus

More than 170 members and friends gathered to mark Hyattsville’s anniversary of official inclusion to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer members.

The sanctuary was draped in rainbow-colored cloth. Several sister churches sent letters of support that were read during the service. A potluck lunch featured rainbow-colored foods.

“Hyattsville has time and again chosen that, for us, being faithful witnesses to the love of God calls us to acts of hospitality, justice, healing and peacemaking, even when those actions are counter to the status quo expected by the broader church,” said associate pastor Michelle Burkholder in the sermon.

The celebrations were poignant in the face of tragedy. Hours before the congregation gathered, a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. The attack, which left 49 people dead, was the most horrific act of targeted violence against the LGBTQ community in history and the worst mass U.S. shooting.

During a day of celebration, there was an acknowledgement of the pain beyond church walls in a world broken by division, both in the Mennonite church and across the country.

Early leader

Hyattsville was one of earliest leaders of LGBTQ inclusion in the Mennonite church. The congregation welcomed its first openly gay member in 1986 after six months of discernment, passing a statement that affirmed a spectrum of understandings about human sexuality. A clarification of the statement in the 1990s allowed any faithful LGBTQ person to become a member without individual vetting. Melvin Schmidt, lead pastor from 1994 to 2003, said Hyattsville got mixed messages from conference ministers over the years about whether the church’s stance was acceptable.

But it wasn’t until 2003 when Hyattsville chose Larry Miller, who is gay, as a delegate that Allegheny Mennonite Conference brought a complaint against Hyattsville. Through a 10-year period of discipline, Hyattsville representatives could not vote at conference meetings or serve in leadership positions. Cynthia Lapp, lead pastor since 2007, was put under review.

The church remained connected to Allegheny while continuing to live out its principles — including congregation-wide approval in 2010 for Lapp to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. In March 2015, in a 72-70 vote, Allegheny reinstated Hyattsville to full membership. The decision was a complicated one for both sides, with many issues left unresolved. Lapp told Mennonite World Review it was nice to have full membership, but the decision did “not feel like a full welcome.”

Burkholder acknowledged in her sermon that Hyattsville’s journey of welcome was not without challenges. There was remembrance of the pain LGBTQ people faced as the congregation learned, over many years, how to be fully welcoming. Some members who disagreed in that time left the community.

Joined by others

In the last three decades, many other churches across the U.S. have issued statements of welcome. More than 60 are listed on Pink Menno’s website. During Hyattsville’s period of discipline, Philippi (W.Va.) Mennonite Church took on discipline in solidarity.

“Being a welcoming community to any who are seeking a place to grow and love in the presence of God is the highest calling of the life of the church,” the congregation wrote in a letter to Hyattsville in early June. “We have witnessed your determination to be faithful to this calling even when both cultural and theological understanding pulled at you from every side.”

Burkholder, who has served as Hyattsville’s first openly queer pastor since 2013, is “profoundly grateful” for a role she knows she would not be invited to fill in many other Mennonite churches.

Lapp and Burkholder said the journey of inclusion is just one part of Hyattsville’s mission.

“Our identity is in Christ, not in the institutional church, and that allows us to set aside our ego and do this work,” Lapp said. “The church cannot stay silent on these things.”

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