With Queer Church, a Halifax minister hopes to offer a truly welcoming place of worship
Arla Johnson says church will be welcoming of 'all faiths, all religions, all traditions'
A Halifax minister wants to provide a safe space for LGBTQ people to express their faith, so she's starting an "inclusively queer" church to embrace those who may not feel comfortable attending traditional services.
"I really think it's time that Halifax, that Nova Scotia had a queer spirited church," says Arla Johnson, a minister at First Baptist Church on Oxford Street. "A church where queers can come and truly feel welcome, feel accepted to join in unity in celebrating the many gifts that each person brings."
Johnson considers herself non-denominational, but she has been involved with the First Baptist Church for about eight years. It's a place where as a lesbian, she says she was able to find a welcoming and affirming community.
But now, she's ready for something a little different. She's decided to start Queer Spirit Church, which she describes as a safe place for queer people and allies to worship.
On Oct. 6, Johnson and her friend and peer Rick Gunn will co-lead their first Queer Spirit Church service at the First Baptist location.
"Some people just don't feel comfortable going into a church where they know the majority is going to be straight," Johnson says.
She says she's encouraging multiple faiths to come in under one roof: "We are welcoming all faiths, all religions, all traditions."
Gunn is the minister of St. Luke's United Church in Upper Tantallon, N.S., and has been involved with the church in general since 2002. He met Johnson in theology school. As an "out and proud" gay Christian, he says he was happy to help when she proposed her queer church idea to him six months ago.
"I think if we can give a space for young people or people of any age to feel like this is a safe space for me to be queer and Christian at the same time, then I want to be part of that," he says.
Gunn says although the church he ministers at is inclusive and others like his exist, a church which centres on queer individuals is needed during a time when many people are still being persecuted for their queer identities.
"I think welcoming spaces are always needed," says Gunn. "If voices of hate are louder than the voices of love, then yes, we need Queer Spirit Church. We need to be affirming in our congregations. We need to tell those teenagers who are wondering about what clothes to choose and how to feel safe."
'I know God loves me'
Most Baptist churches, Johnson says, are not welcoming of queer people, something she believes is because of rules and dogma that reflect things that Jesus didn't preach.
It's a big reason she wanted to start the church. She says the idea of being both Christian and gay or trans doesn't have to conflict.
"I am a lesbian. I am a Christian and I know God loves me and accepts me for who I am," says Johnson. "I was raised in the church. I always felt accepted in the church. There are times at some churches I've been to that, maybe that's not their stance … but I've always known that God has loved me."
Johnson says although her sermons will consist of mainly Baptist teachings, her primary message will be that God loves all sexes, all races, all genders and all identities.
"We will be proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who I think was the biggest component of social justice and equality for all, and also about the inclusiveness of God's love."
Both Johnson and Gunn are due to be ordained next year, which means they'll be certified to perform certain religious ceremonies such as baptisms and funerals.
They will take turns leading the services at Queer Spirit Church. Gunn plays guitar as well as piano and describes himself as a bit of a goofball — something he's excited to share with the new congregation.
"I love to lead prayer, and I'm excited to lead prayer for hopefully a group that's mostly queer people," says Gunn. "Allies are welcome, but if we're all queer, we don't have to come out to anyone."
'It breaks my heart'
Queer Spirit Church has garnered a primarily positive reception, Johnson says, but there have been some negative comments online.
"I was surprised when we put up our Facebook [page for] Queer Spirit Church, some derogatory remarks and some of the hatred getting lashed at us and even to this day. It breaks my heart. It saddens me."
Johnson says she doesn't blame those people for their beliefs, but she encourages them to be more open-minded.
"They've put God's love in a box," says Johnson. "However, I think they've got to open up. They've got to open up to the inclusiveness of God's love for all."
Johnson says they hope to make Queer Spirit Church services weekly, but for now they'll be on the first Wednesday of the month.
"I think for October, November and December, for these first three trial runs, we'll see what people want because this isn't my church," she says. "It's our church."