BRIDGEPORT — Parishioners at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity have voted to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation, ushering in a new era of welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parishioners.
“Saying ‘All our welcome’ is not enough, especially when churches have a history of excluding people,” said the Rev. Tom Gaulke, pastor at the Bridgeport church, 643 W. 31st St. “We wanted to become something that would bring people together and not divide."
The Reconciling in Christ program is part of a movement in the Lutheran faith that aims to publicly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender believers. For the 500-plus Lutheran congregations and groups that have adopted the ideology, it’s an extension of a philosophy of inclusion where one didn’t always exist.
Gaulke said discussions about bringing the program to the church began earlier this year when he and congregation president Jim Majka began laying out goals for 2013.
That dovetailed with a lecture series at the church that explored faith and sexuality, and from those discussions grew a desire to bring the program to the church, believed to be the oldest Christian congregation in Bridgeport.
"Our No. 1 concern was ‘Was this something that was really necessary?’ The congregation felt that it was. The history of churches — ours, the Catholic church, the Mormon church and you name it — has condemned that lifestyle, and we don’t want to condemn that lifestyle,” Majka said."I think what this vote is that there not place for that type of hate in our church. We want to make sure we’re as welcoming as possible.”
The Sept. 8 vote marks another evolution in First Trinity's progressive history.
The church in 1976 left the Missouri Synod — which declares homosexuality "intrinsically sinful" — for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which has softened its position on same-sex relationships. The parish was also the first to elect a female president of the congregation, the late Hildegard Rastutis, and Gaulke is a well-known advocate for social justice.
In some ways, the church's move to announce its formal welcoming of the gay and transgender communities doesn’t sound all that surprising.
But Gaulke is quick to point out that’s something “heard that from a lot of straight people” but not necessarily from the LGBT community, which historically has been ostracized in many faiths.
And he has a message for prospective parishioners who might make their way to the South Side church, which soon willn include an exterior rainbow sticker, a symbol of gay pride, in addition to a cross atop its steeple.
"Seeing a cross should be a sign that all people can come together instead of being a symbol of exclusion,” he said. “We won’t lure you into the door and try to change you into something.”