SIMI VALLEY — The choir director of Simi Valley's United Church of Christ, an accomplished pianist with a lilting voice, said the only time she feels wholly comfortable is when she is at church.
And while to some that may seem curious, she said her place of worship has given her the courage to show what she has tried so hard to hide--the fact that she is lesbian.
"Before I came here I didn't want anyone to know me," she said. "But here it's OK to be who I am and it's given me a chance to, for once, feel completely normal."
The woman, who asked that her real name not be used because the world outside the church is often not as understanding or tolerant as the one inside, is one of several gay and lesbian members of the United Church of Christ's 90-plus congregation.
However, members stress that the church is not a gay place of worship, but rather one that has openly affirmed everyone's right to belong, regardless of race, age, ability, sexual preference or doctrinal belief.
But that isn't the only thing that sets the church apart, members say.
The church has become a popular choice for those with alternative lifestyles and beliefs because of its use of the Bible as a continually evolving guide for spiritual development and because church elders encourage members to challenge doctrine in order to make their faith stronger.
"We say we are a non-creedal church, which means that we have no particular creed that everyone must follow to be a member," said the Rev. Bill Greene. "We respect individual choices and the fact that people can make decisions for themselves."
Then again, the United Church of Christ has a history of taking up unpopular causes.
In the early 19th century, the church was the first to ordain a woman as a priest.
In the 1960s, the church took an active role in the civil rights movement, affirming the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., and in the process, making it a target of hatred for those who would kill to keep the country segregated.
Later it embraced the peace movement, fueled by a nationwide furor over the Vietnam War.
In the 1970s, the church worked to carve out a larger niche for women in male-dominated America, and today, it strives to champion the rights of homosexuals.
"Traditionally, we've kind of found ourselves on the edge of things," said Jim Dekker, a longtime member of the church. "But we've always looked at it as being on a journey together, and that, I think, is what gives this church its strength."
Located in a converted house tucked behind a wide lawn on Royal Avenue, the Simi Valley United Church of Christ was officially founded in 1995 after the Church of the Oaks in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley's Shepherd of the Valley Church merged.
Motivated by a declining number of congregants and financial problems, the churches first proposed the merger several years ago as a way to solve those issues. But as talks proceeded, more complex problems emerged that rocked both congregations to the core.
It was during this time that Greene, pastor of Shepherd of the Valley, made it known that he was gay. It was a revelation that, despite his revered status within his church, caused some to leave.
"There were some people that just couldn't handle that," Dekker said. "But it was an issue of justice that, looking back on it now, has made our church stronger. . . . It was our defining moment."
The merger also raised questions about the church's relationship to the community and the role that it would play in members' lives.
Members say the church has become a magnet for those who haven't been able to fully integrate with other, more doctrinally rigorous denominations.
Earlier this year, the church made it official, declaring itself an open and affirming congregation, welcoming gay, lesbian and bisexual members.
"This declaration is a natural step in our evolution as a congregation," said the Rev. Frank Johnson, the church's co-pastor. "The significance in making the declaration lies in the fact that, for centuries, the church as a whole has participated in the oppression of gay and lesbian people and unless we tell them it is not true for us, most gay people will assume they are not welcome."
In its declaration, the church has come to officially regard sexuality as a gift from God and a "mystery that we do not fully understand" that enriches and gives texture to everyone's life and the life of the congregation.
For several years, the church has also been running a number of relief programs within the community, including a program for the homeless and counseling seminars for those living with HIV and AIDS.
The counseling program, which has had dozens of people pass through, has been labeled a success by members and is regarded as one of their most important missions.
"Often we get people who've just been diagnosed," Dekker said. "They're scared, they feel it's a death sentence and that they are completely alone. But in reality, that's far from the case. . . . We show them the preconceptions aren't true and that they can always fall back on us."
In the next few years, United Church of Christ members hope to build a new church on their expansive property and move out of the converted house they have been using.
But until then, church members said they will continue down their path, striving to make the lives of members more complete.
"For me, the church is almost more realistic," said a 62-year-old health professional and lesbian who asked that her name not be revealed. "In my mind, I don't believe God is so concerned with doctrine. . . . It's your faith that matters."