A 22-acre Leona Valley ranch transformed into an ecumenical spiritual retreat for gays and lesbians--thought to be the only one in the country--opened formally Friday by hosting the first known national multidenominational conference of Christian ministries to the homosexual populace.
The retreat center--developed by Catholic laymen James L. Colburn and Kevin S. Reese, partly as a tribute to their previous partners lost to AIDS--has been received benignly by this small ranch and farming community northeast of Santa Clarita, they said. And they surmise that the more culturally conservative Antelope Valley to the east may be unaware of their center's existence.
The message of the Rancho Amanecer Retreat Center and its inaugural conference is aimed at countering what is experienced as an antagonistic climate in the gay community, where "we have felt constrained to apologize for being Christian," said Colburn, the retreat's principal founder and a former set decorator for television.
Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd said that in a keynote talk tonight at the conference he will speak out for the first time against "a minority of anti-religious zealots in the gay movement" who have created a distorted public image in most media "of gays as nonspiritual, anti-religionist hedonists."
Gays who are moral churchgoers are being maligned, Boyd wrote in prepared remarks. "Our profession of faith within the gay movement has too often led to our being treated as second-class citizens and falsely stereotyped as hypocrites and accomplices in social oppression," said Boyd, author of 25 books and poet in residence at Los Angeles' Episcopal headquarters.
Although many religiously conservative churches and Christians remain convinced that the letter and spirit of Scripture condemns homosexual intimacy, a minority of clergy and laity in Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist and other so-called mainline churches continue to argue for a change in Bible interpretation and church policies on this issue.
The Episcopal approach regards Scripture as basic to faith but also considers tradition, reason and experience in deciding what to believe and how to act, Boyd said.
Also planning to speak at the weekend conference, which organizers expect to draw nearly 100 registrants, is the Rev. Mel White, a prominent member of the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Churches, now a 30-year-old worldwide denomination that offers an alternative to established denominations still struggling with issues of homosexuality.
Gay and lesbian Catholics are able to book existing Catholic retreat centers in the archdiocese for gatherings. The independent Catholic gay group Dignity, which has three Southern California chapters, began a weekend retreat Friday at Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino. It is only one of three groups meeting at the wooded hillside retreat, however.
Colburn and Reese contend that Rancho Amanecer (amanecer means "dawn" in Spanish) will provide a more comfortable setting for gays and lesbians. "They can be themselves," Reese said. "Their sexual orientation is a nonissue."
Recalling his arrival in Leona Valley, Colburn said he tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. "I thought I covered my tracks pretty well for the first year and a half," he said. But he later learned that a number of townspeople knew he was gay even before he completed purchase of the property.
"One time the postmistress, an older lady, took my hand and said, 'It's so nice to have you boys in the Valley,' " he said.