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Acceptance through song for LGBT-QIQ faith communities

Harmonies, clapping, drums and horns flow throughout the First Baptist Church as the Gay Men’s Chorus rehearsed the song “Turn It Off” from the hit musical Book of Mormon for their upcoming variety show. John Foo, chorus member, never dreamed he would find a place of acceptance in a Christian community. He grew up in Singapore in a religious family that surrounded him with negative messages of homosexuality.

“The first time I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus, we performed for the congregation and I was listening to Reverend Rose talk about fighting for marriage equality for LGBT people and I just broke down,” Foo said. “I was just not expecting that from a Baptist church, just that acceptance.”

The Gay Men’s Chorus, founded in 2009 in Ithaca, have performances two to three times a year in addition to performing at church services. The First Baptist Church and the Gay Men’s Chorus have a strong and supportive partnership.

At least four out of the over 50 religious institutions in the city of Ithaca identify themselves as welcoming and affirming to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex community. In the United States alone, there are over 5,000 LGBT-QIQ affirming congregations, according to Believe Out Loud, an online network that empowers Christians to work for LGBT equality.

Since 1996, this First Baptist Church has welcomed and affirmed LGBT-QIQ people. A senior pastor since 2007, the Rev. Rich Rose said he understands that people don’t make a choice in their life about their sexuality or their feelings and that all differences are a gift from God.

“Some people here may say ‘Well, that’s the gay church’ but no one here calls it that,” said Rose. “I think we are just the church of a very diverse group of people, people from all different walks of life.”

Religious organizations that are welcoming and affirming are important to Ithaca because of the city’s large LBGT-QIQ population, Rose. The city of Ithaca was named in the top 10 LGBT friendly vacation spots by the Huffington Post in 2012 and Ithaca College in the top 25 LGBT friendly campuses by both the Huffington Post and the NY Daily News this year.

“It makes you wonder about the question which came first?” Rose said. “Was it the influence of some very progressive and open hearted religious communities here that made it easier for sexual minorities to find a home and a safe place [in Ithaca]?”

The First Baptist Church is also part of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, founded in 1993. It is the only national organization devoted to building the Welcoming and Affirming movement within the Baptist traditions. The Rev. Robin Lunn, executive director, said the association also helps people of all backgrounds get ordained.

Openness began with sexual minorities, but now has extended to all kinds of societal participation and openness, Lunn said. Participation can include a range of activism work, like speaking out for marriage equality, all the way to singing in a chorus.

“It is amazing to see how people, especially people of the congregation, are so accepting and open to us, it’s a great energy,” Rolland Lee, chorus member, said. “And it makes me feel good that this season we are growing in popularity…and the acoustics are pretty good in the space!”


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