Sunday mornings at Christ Chapel/MCC in Santa Ana appear straight out of small-town Middle America.
The men and women of the congregation are well dressed and well mannered. The bulletin board tells of the next potluck social and Bible study. The service itself is equally folksy: the gentle admonishments, the hymns to an all-loving Lord Almighty.
It is all very Main Street . . . until prayers are asked, and a startling number are for friends who are victims of AIDS . . . until services end and couples of the same sex stroll out holding hands.
Christ Chapel is not your typical church: Nearly all of its 120 members are homosexuals.
Furthermore, Christ Chapel belongs to the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a 32,000-member movement that holds to a defiantly minority view in the world of organized religions: that the Scriptures do not condemn homosexuality or find it a sin.
Such a view horrifies the Moral Majority and others of the Christian right, who believe that MCC churches are unfit for membership in the Christian community. They contend that the MCC is an unholy claque of sexual deviants, its congregations a mockery of all that is decent, sacred--and normal--in U.S. society and a breeding ground for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
To the Rev. Dennis Chappell, Christ Chapel's pastor, this kind of opposition is typical of the sweeping, unrelenting stigmas that still confront the MCC flock and others in the homosexual community.
"We're all creations of God, and bask in God's love," he said, standing outside the 90-year-old restored dwelling that is Christ Chapel's home in the heart of Santa Ana's historic church row just a block east of Civic Center.
"This means everyone," he added quietly, "including our church, especially now when it (the AIDS epidemic) has made others more fearful, more rejecting."
The numerical strength of MCC churches in the county is hardly overwhelming. The two other congregations here are even smaller: the 55-member New Covenant, housed in a rented storefront in Anaheim, and the 30-member Ocean of Life, which meets in temporary quarters in Costa Mesa.
But the MCC is one of the few openly homosexual institutions in a county that, gay activists believe, has a homosexual population of roughly 200,000 men and women--the overwhelming majority of whom remain in the closet.
In a county famed for its ultraconservatism and its vociferous anti-homosexual forces, the very presence of MCC churches might seem galling and threatening.
Not surprisingly, the county's MCC congregations have long kept a low profile, in contrast with the "gay ghettos" of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and other big U.S. cities, in which MCC members have been far more militant and visible.
"Sure, we're active in Orange County, but it's done more quietly. We can't help but keep this (county's) conservatism in mind," said the Rev. Jack Mossman, New Covenant's pastor.
To MCC leaders, then, bringing their movement to the county is like walking into the lion's den.
"We're talking a real cross section here, the essence of middle-class American suburbia," said MCC's founder, the Rev. Troy Perry. "If we can meet the challenge of Orange County, we believe we can just about survive anywhere."
Orange County's first Metropolitan Community Church wasn't in Laguna Beach, even though that city has the largest concentration of homosexual residents (an estimated 4,000) in the county.
The first church was set up in Garden Grove, and in a gay bar on that city's commercial strip. The minister was Perry himself, who had just founded the first MCC church in Los Angeles and was already becoming one of the most acclaimed--and vilified--gay-rights leaders in the United States.
Garden Grove wasn't Perry's first mission in Orange County. Seven years earlier, he was pastor of a Church of God of Prophecy in Santa Ana. But when he openly declared his homosexuality, he was expelled by the church and separated from his wife and two sons.
Perry's 1970 gay-bar ministry was a rather casual, surrealistic endeavor. "The owner wouldn't let us in on Sundays--that was his biggest business day," Perry recalled.
"But we were able to give services on weekdays. So there I was, holding Holy Communion near the bar, and competing with a blaring jukebox."
The bar ministry was short-lived. It folded after a few months.
Subsequent attempts, starting in 1970 with Christ Chapel in Santa Ana, were just as tenuous. (Laguna Beach was not considered as a site because the mainline congregations in that community are especially receptive of gay churchgoers.)
But Christ Chapel, with 16 members--followed in 1974 by New Covenant, with an even smaller number--somehow took hold, even though services were in living rooms or borrowed quarters and members were fearful of hostile reactions.