Cathedral of Hope isn’t a typical church in conservative North Texas. One large stained-glass window features the Spanish word “esperanza,” or “hope,” and below it, two conjoined Mars gender symbols and two conjoined Venus symbols. Rainbow flags fly high on the front lawn, and hundreds of gay marriages have been performed since the Supreme Court ruling in June.
The Dallas church, which is a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), loudly and proudly supports the LGBT community. It is one of hundreds of LGBT-affirming churches throughout the country, churches that were born out of oppression and marginalization, a history similar to black churches, says the Rev. Jeff Hood, minister of social justice at the cathedral’s Center of Hope for Peace and Justice.
“The LGBT liberation experience is unique in some ways,” says Hood. “LGBT churches, in my opinion, exist to help people understand that sexuality exists on a spectrum, gender exists on a spectrum, and I think that by doing that they help us to go even further … I think these LGBT inclusive spaces help us to come together in a very particular way.”
Cathedral of Hope claims to be the largest LGBT-affirming church in the United States. According to Hood, of the more than 2,000 church members, some 90 percent identify as gay or transgender.
For staff at LGBT-affirming churches, the message is simple: God loves all equally.
One of those in agreement is Alberto Magaña, who leads the church’s Spanish-speaking service.
In order to pursue his dream of becoming a pastor, Magaña often had to hide that he was gay. He is originally from Mexico, where he said he was continuously harassed while attending seminary because of his sexual orientation. That struggle brought him to a seminary in Oregon and eventually to a church in San Francisco, where his bishop told him he would have to hide his sexuality in order to be a priest at the church, leading to depression, self-hatred, and a year of therapy.
“Everything makes sense. I had to suffer all of those struggles and feel the abandonment and the rejection and judgment because now it’s easier for me to have more compassion for others who are going through the same,” says Magaña.
Magaña’s time in therapy helped him decide to become public about his sexual orientation. He refused to stay closeted, which led him to Dallas eight years ago, where he found Cathedral of Hope. Magaña has been a pastor for three years at the church and leads the Sunday Spanish services.
Hood thinks it makes perfect sense that Magaña would be forced to leave a liberal city like San Francisco, and be welcomed by a conservative city in Texas.
“I always tell them that other cities aren’t religious enough,” he says. “Dallas is the perfect mix of secularity and religiosity. Dallas is a hybrid that can create a space like CoH.”
Hood credits the Metropolitan Community Church for the growth of LGBT-affirming churches throughout the United States. MCC opened its doors in 1968 as an LGBT sanctuary and has since grown to about 300 churches in 22 countries. MCC is the first church group to develop a ministry with the primary goal of LGBT inclusivity.
“MCC was often the only safe place people could turn to,” said the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, the global moderator at MCC. “We learned that our struggle for equality is similar to other struggles, and we grew quickly because of that.”
MCC churches are located throughout the entire world, in large cities and in small towns and have grown out of the need to provide a haven for people who may have limited access to resources, says Wilson.
Cathedral of Hope opened in 1970 as an LGBT-affirming church with MCC, but later became a member of the UCC. Hood believes that many religious groups are starting to welcome the LGBT community more than ever before as awareness continues to grow.
Desert Heritage Church, a United Church of Christ affiliate in Mesa, Arizona, transitioned to LGBT-affirming in 2008. Its pastor, Paul Whitlock, says about a dozen of the church’s 80 members are gay or transgender.
Whitlock helped oversee the transition, which he says was worrisome but necessary considering the church is located in what the Pew Research Center considers the most conservative large city in America.
“Mesa is very conservative, both theologically and politically,” says Whitlock. “We lost some church members when we became an all- inclusive church, but we did welcome many more.”
“A church of all places needs to be a safe place where people can be who God created them to be,” he says.
Although the church does receive some hate mail occasionally from people around the country who found them on a gay church website, Whitlock says the rest of Mesa pretty much leaves the DHC alone.
At Cathedral of Hope, things are different. Church members often see protesters outside who disagree with the church’s inclusive philosophy.
Juan Lara, a Cathedral of Hope member who is gay, says the protesters don’t concern him.
“I don’t think it’s their fault,” says Lara in Spanish. “I just hope that one day they stop and question whether what they believe right now is truly what they believe in their hearts, or if it’s just what they’ve been told to believe from the generations that came before them.”
Magaña found his home at Cathedral of Hope. His voice gets louder and excited when he talks about discovering the church.
“In this church, you can be who you are and you can celebrate who you are because you are a gift, you are a blessing,” he says. “We don’t have to lie to anyone. This is who we are.”