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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Reconciling a Doctrine : Congregations Are Part of a Movement That Welcomes Gays Into Methodism

March 23, 1995|LORENZA MUNOZ

Pastor Ignacio Castuera grabbed both sides of the pulpit at Hollywood United Methodist Church and leaned toward the micro phone.

"If you have been beat up by other pastors who misuse chapters of Scripture to say, 'You are not a gift,' forget them--you are a gift," the white-cloaked pastor told his congregation, half of whose parishioners are gay men or lesbians.

"You are somebody."

Hollywood United Methodist Church is a Reconciling Congregation, part of a grass-roots movement that seeks to bring homosexuals into the mainstream of American Methodism. These congregations of fer a place of solace and spiritual support where they can worship without fear, gay congregants say.

The movement, founded in 1984, has found a base of support on the Westside, home to five of the seven Reconciling Congregations in Los Angeles County, including a campus ministry at UCLA. Nationally, there are 88 Reconciling Congregations; almost a quarter of them are in California.

"This movement works outside of the organizational structure of the church," said Rod Sprott, board member of the Reconciling Congregation, which is based in Chicago. "This is not an official part of the church. It is a movement to create change within the church."

Gays cannot be ministers in the United Methodist Church. The practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," according to church doctrine, although "God's grace is available to all."

Bishop Roy Sano, head of the Los Angeles area for the Methodist church, said he welcomes the idea of reconciliation, but "because of the volatility of the topic, it takes an exceptional leadership in local churches to truly be reconciling in exploring the possibilities. Sometimes even the exploration becomes a congregation divided."

And the movement is at cross-purposes with another, smaller trend within Methodism, the Transforming Congregations, which seek to "challenge the myth that homosexuals cannot change," according to their mission statement.

"I would not want to rule that out," Sano said. "It is cruel to expect changes in some people, but for others who have had very difficult past experiences, they could be transformed."

Transforming Congregations--the nearest is in the Orange County community of Fountain Valley--"promote this hope for change through the Biblical understanding that homosexual behavior is a sin, and as such, will result in judgment," the movement's statement says. They also try to "offer a warm and welcoming place for those struggling with homosexuality."

However, supporters of Reconciling Congregations say the real issue confronting the church is not whether homosexuality is a sin, but rather, "Can we be Christian and homophobic?"

The answer, they say, is no.

"You cannot change your orientation," Sprott said. "The difference . . . is that (Transforming Congregations) take people and try to change them. And Reconciling Congregations take people as they are and accept them."


Gib Manegold, a recovering alcoholic and former drug addict, said it was at Hollywood Methodist that he found the strength to halt his drug dependency, leave an abusive relationship and begin a new life.

"This is the last time around for me," said Manegold, 42, in a soft, almost fragile voice. "Either I get better this time, or I go out there to die."

Manegold said Castuera helped him through the emotional turmoil of kicking his crystal methamphetamine habit and leaving his lover of 10 years.

"Ignacio would talk to me," he said of the Methodist minister. "He listened to me. It took a while to admit alcoholism and addiction. I had to hit rock bottom. God gave me little blessings along the way and one of them was Ignacio."

Others have been able to find their way back to the organized Christianity that rejected them when they became aware of their sexual orientation.

Joe, a 59-year-old animator who asked that his last name be withheld, said he was 16 when he decided to discuss his sexual inclinations with his preacher. What he heard was chilling.

"I was told by the minister that if I could not change those feelings, I had to leave the church," he said.

So he left.

Joe did not come back until 1987, when he happened into Crescent Heights United Methodist Church in West Hollywood and struck up a conversation about Reconciling Congregations with the previous pastor.

"Many people here feel like they have been excluded," said the Rev. Tom Griffith, who has been the spiritual leader of the church since 1988. "We need to say openly and loudly that if you are gay or lesbian, you are welcome. We would be fools if we didn't do that in this community."

Joe said the congregation's welcoming attitude allowed him to worship again without fearing reprisals.

"Many churches have the 'don't ask, don't tell policy,' " he said, "and that makes you very uncomfortable because you ask yourself, 'If they knew, would their whole attitude change?' "

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