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Spiritual Sanctuary : Religion: Gay congregations and some mainstream churches minister to the needs of homosexuals, but not all groups are welcoming. An interfaith religious service this fall will be the first in Orange County.

August 29, 1995|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Rev. Patricia Leffler was a late bloomer--personally and spiritually. Even with a 17-year mar riage, seven kids and a house in the suburbs, she didn't feel she knew who she was or what she wanted.

Finally, at age 37, the missing pieces of her life began coming together. She went to nursing school, divorced her husband, came out as a lesbian.

And, after a lifetime as a devout Catholic, she found herself seeking a new church where she would meet with acceptance rather than rebuke. She found it in a gay congregation.

"I was dealing with the unhappiness in the marriage and in the Catholic Church and going through it all alone. It was just a coincidence that I found my lifestyle orientation and spiritual life at about the same time," she says.

Now 50, Leffler has her own congregation at Christ Chapel Metropolitan Community Church in Santa Ana, where, she says, many gays and lesbians come wounded from earlier religious experiences that made them feel like sinners.

Her congregants are often deeply spiritual and struggle to reconcile those feelings with the rejection of homosexuality that is doctrine in many of the faiths in which they grew up.

"My main goal is to assure those who come here of God's love," Leffler says.

For many gays and lesbians, shame went with the holy water or Hebrew lessons. Social conservatives still denounce homosexuality as anti-Christian and immoral. Conservative Christians staged protests and waved banners at Orange County gay pride festivals as recently as 1991. Today, many houses of worship welcome gays and lesbians but still denounce same-sex love, emphasizing it is the practice of homosexuality, not the homosexual, that God warns against.

Some take their acceptance of gays and lesbians a step further. Southern California is home to a growing interfaith ministry specifically geared to the gay and lesbian community, according to Barbara Muirhead, coordinator of the Orange County Federation, a group of lesbian, gay and AIDS support organizations.

She estimates that about a half dozen churches, temples or other religious organizations focus on gays and lesbians and another dozen are reaching out by advertising in gay publications. That's about twice as many organizations as a decade ago, she says.

Among the mainstream churches openly welcoming gays and lesbians are Irvine United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist of Orange County in Anaheim, the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, Community United Methodist Church of Huntington Beach and Red Hill Lutheran Church of Tustin.

And for the first time in Orange County, an interfaith religious service for gays and lesbians is planned for the fall. Sponsored by the federation, the service aims to increase awareness of all the religious groups available for gays and lesbians.

"I felt it was time for Orange County," says Steve Morris, coordinator of the event. "There are so many gays and lesbians who have turned away from spirituality because of the ostracizing they've experienced all their lives. The interfaith service is to create a non-threatening environment for gays and lesbians to explore their spirituality."

Morris, who grew up a Mormon and is now a member of the Huntington Beach Church of Religious Science, which he describes as a nondenominational, New Age church, says many homosexuals are beyond the identity struggles that characterized the '80s and early '90s.

"People aren't having to spend as much time on the coming out issue these days," he says. "The more comfortable gays and lesbians feel about themselves, the better they are able to deal with other aspects of their lives, like spirituality. It gives them more time to reflect on God and their spiritual nature."

Leffler says that helping homosexuals in her congregation feel accepted and loved is one of her major goals. "There is a great deal of spirituality in the gay and lesbian community, but so many of them have been seriously injured by so many churches," Leffler says.

"I know people who have been told they would be damned unless they give up the gay lifestyle. There are some churches that force them to leave. There are other churches that 'unclergy' their clergy who are found to be gay."

*

For Harvey Liss, coming out six years ago at age 47 launched a frenzied search for self-discovery. Because it took him nearly a lifetime to figure out he was gay, he figured he had to make up for lost time.

"All those years I didn't know who I was, except maybe an asexual Jewish agnostic," Liss says. "I didn't want to be a homosexual; I thought that meant effeminism and buying a new wardrobe. And I was sure my parents would commit suicide if they knew. So I purposely avoided the gay community, and I never felt welcome in the temple. Now I know who I am and want others to know too."

Liss says he decided not to spend the rest of his life as unhappily as he had until that point.

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