The Willis Observatory. (Photo Credit: Rev. Chris Ayers)

The memories of being rejected by parents, preachers, churches, family, co-workers, friends and society do not go away. Rejection memories may not carry the same punch as the rejection memories first did or once did, when the wound was inflicted or still open, but they never cease to exist.

I had the privilege of being the pastor at Wedgewood Church in Charlotte, N.C. for 30 years. We were the congregation with the Philadelphia rainbow colors painted on our church’s front doors. Before the rainbow doors, we flew a rainbow flag and a trans flag at the busy intersection of Tyvola and Wedgewood Dr. When someone painted “Fags are piedofhiles” (yeah, surprise, they couldn’t spell) on our doors, we decided to paint our front doors rainbow colors as way of saying we were offering an extravagant welcome to all people. 

Unfortunately, that was not the first or the last vandalism of our property. Early on, someone broke into our message sign and rearranged the letters to read “A LESBO CHURCH.” Several times, someone took the trouble to bring a ladder onto our church property so they could take down our rainbow flag. They never stole it. They simply laid it on the ground (for us to put back up). Transcend Charlotte came to the rescue, raising money for a flagpole security system and even installed it for us.

There was a lot of news coverage of the vandalisms. In interviews, I always tried not to speak about the church first, but to speak to LGBTQ people witnessing another rejection by some in our society. I said, “My heart goes out to my LGBTQ friends for whom this act of vandalism is a reminder of previous hurts they have experienced because of their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity. This is just one more stab in their heart.”

The vandalism stories were carried far and wide, to the point that George Takei (Sulu on Star Trek) tweeted about one of the stories. Every Charlotte television station covered the attacks on Wedgewood.

As you can imagine, I got a lot of emails in response to the stories, but the emails that concerned me most were from gay people who lived in rural areas. Invariably, they would write, “I love your church. Can you help me find a church like Wedgewood near me?” I always tried to find them one, but 95 percent of the time there was no church to recommend.  

My wife grew up in western North Carolina in Bakersville, which is in between Boone and Asheville. Her parents died in the last two years, and we have renovated their home and built Willis Observatory, one of the best observatories in the southeast United States. The universe is amazing. Saturn and its rings — stunning.  Jupiter and its four largest moons — stunning. The Earth’s moon with all its craters — stunning. And open star clusters and globular star clusters are amazing too.

Recently, Southern Baptist pastors in the area wrote a letter to the school board requesting teachers and students be restricted from going to the observatory due to the observatory’s “gay agenda.” I list on the observatory’s website that, as a retired liberal clergyperson, I continue “to work for the equality of all people, especially LGBTQ people.” On a Facebook post referring to a song in the movie “The Prom,” I wrote that we would encourage students to celebrate their DNA and help them realize they are perfectly made, which is just another way of saying we want all students to “reach for the stars.” All that was too much for the Southern Baptist preachers to swallow. The pastor who ignited the uproar lives right down the street from the observatory and is the father-in-law of my wife’s cousin.

A long time ago my article published in The Charlotte Observer, “Homosexuality Is Not A Sin: The Christian Education of a Baptist Minister” was copied and distributed at the uproar-starter pastor’s church.  Nobody should have been surprised by the observatory’s core values which include diversity and inclusivity.

All the uproar reminded me of the LGBTQ people living in rural areas who contacted me over the years seeking information on gay-friendly churches near them, churches which typically didn’t exist.  

Urban gay-friendly churches need to figure out how to reach out to LGBTQ people in rural areas. Urban gay-friendly churches have used Zoom and other streaming platforms for worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon churches will return to their sanctuaries and buildings. What if those churches, using their newfound media skills, developed outreach programs to gay people in rural areas? The need is great. I can imagine Zoom Bible studies, Zoom worship services and Zoom support groups for LGBTQ people in rural America.

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