Growing up in the South as a queer person is very unique. You are constantly bombarded with words of hate, either from local church communities or strangers who feel they have the right to speak for God. It makes it so much worse when you yourself identify as a Christian. You believe in God and want to follow Jesus, but where can you go when you are in a sea of homophobic churches on every corner? Well, you look for an affirming one.
We live in a time where many LGBTQ+ people are standing up and demanding space, and there are some churches who recognize this need.
I had the privilege of interviewing a Southern church pastor from Elizabethton, Tenn. Rev. Dr. Brian Wyatt is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton. He has been ordained in the Presbyterian church for 19 years, holding a B.A. from Furman University and a M.Div. and D.Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary. Prior to coming to Elizabethon, Rev. Dr. Wyatt served three other churches full-time. He is a proud husband to a wonderful wife and a loving father to his son.
I asked Wyatt about First Presbyterian’s history with LGBTQ people, and he had this to say: “Long before I arrived, at some point in the early to mid-1990s, the Session at the time voted affirmatively to be a fully inclusive and welcoming church. The national PCUSA denomination went through a period from 1996-2012 of not being fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals, but First Presbyterian Church operated in violation of national PCUSA standards by continuing to uphold a policy of inclusivity. That continues to be a core part of our identity as a church…In addition to including LGBTQ+ individuals at every level of church leadership, we have a committee (called the More Light Committee) whose task is to coordinate and promote ministry and outreach with the LGBTQ+ community. We also host a monthly covered dish dinner for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies throughout the community.”
I personally can attest to their core values. My husband and I actually got married at this church in 2013, a few years before it was legal in the state of Tennessee thanks to the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. We were married by John Shuck who was the pastor at the time.
When asked what is important when it comes to being an affirming church, Wyatt responded: “As a pastor, I believe God loves and values all people without regard to differences in race, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, or any human division, and the Church is called to do the same. Any form of discrimination by the church or its officers is an affront to the God who created us all.”
In regards to dealing with hate within the local community, Wyatt shared that “As a church, we have occasionally suffered from vandalism due to our progressive and inclusive stance. As pastor of this church, I — as well as my predecessor — have often been excluded from ecumenical community events involving other churches or clergy.”
Despite some push back from some locals, First Presbyterian has stood strong in the face of adversity. They have held true to their belief that all individuals have the right to a faith community, and nothing will stop them from pushing for a more inclusive and affirming church for everyone.
They are considered a go-to church in my area. When I first came back to my Christian faith, this was the first church we heard would welcome my husband and me. If you are looking to visit, I asked Rev. Dr. Brian Wyatt to give a run down of what one could expect when visiting his church for the first time.
He explained: “Our worship begins every Sunday with a call to prayer done on a Tibetan singing bowl, usually played by one of our youth. That’s followed by a Trinitarian greeting, a short, responsive call to worship, and a hymn. After the hymn, we have a few minutes to greet one another, and every attempt is made by several folks to make sure that any visitors or newcomers are welcomed. We then move into a time of silent, meditative prayer, followed by a scripture reading and an anthem by the choir. Next comes the sermon, followed by a hymn and the offering. At least once a month, we celebrate communion, and that takes place just after the offering. After the offering (and communion, if celebrated) are over (collectively our “response” to hearing the gospel proclaimed), we end the service with another hymn and a blessing. Once a month, we also have an informal coffee time after the service. While there is no formal recognition of visitors during the service, we have greeters each Sunday who are asked to keep an eye out for new faces and make sure they receive a personal welcome. If they are willing to leave contact information, we send a welcome email including more information about the church.”
I, for one, am thankful for churches like First Presbyterian. Without them, many LGBTQ people would be left without a church home to go to when seeking a place to practice their faith.
Community is very important to an individual’s psyche, and this church offers so much more than a building to worship in. They offer support for those who have none. They offer love to those in need. And above all, they offer a safe place to simply be. I look forward to the future when this is the norm. But in the meantime, we will keep fighting and speaking out.