When I served as Associate Pastor of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church on the border of Richmond, Va. and Chesterfield County, our church took a certain pride in having several community groups use our building. It always looked good to have the lights on almost every night, showing that ours was an active, vibrant church rarely at rest, and hospitable to our neighbors.

Ordinarily, any group desiring some meeting space filled out a form in the church office and that was pretty much that. But one group preferred to go around the routine application process. It may have been 1990 or so, and the advocacy group known as Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns (PLGC) wanted to use a large meeting room for its monthly supper and meeting. The group’s leadership rightly suspected that some of our church members would be upset by the presence of the group in our space on a regular basis, so instead of simply filling out the form and awaiting an invitation (or not), PLGC asked that the church staff deal directly with the request, and then take it up with the Session (the governing board of Presbyterian churches). In other words, PLGC wanted to be invited to use the building.

That way, their canny request would demand that the church take a stand. I don’t remember much discussion among church staffers, though I am sure I was there. Staff included the pastor, the church educator, administrative assistant, the church musician, and me. At first we may have been more perplexed by the way the request came in than by the implications of offering hospitality to this “outside” (pardon the expression) group. The item was apparently quickly passed on from staff to Session.

When Session found the item on the docket, there was, as expected, considerable discussion. Keep in mind that in the mid-1980s there was considerable anxiety in the land about the AIDS epidemic. And, even if there weren’t such fear of the then mysterious HIV/AIDS issue (issue? it was nearly paranoia in some quarters)…even if there were no “gay disease,” most churches were inhospitable to gays and lesbians. Perhaps that is an understatement. For most churches in Richmond, there would be no debate, no discussion, no chance that “those people” would be welcomed to worship, much less to membership.

But Bon Air Church was perceived as more open, more involved with social action ministries, and, yes, let us name it: more liberal. And no doubt that is why PLGC came to us, looking for a place to break bread around our tables.

Now, time has clouded my recollection of details, and the purpose of recording these Lenten remembrances of confessions and celebrations doesn’t demand my doing any research through the Session minutes of those meetings. But here is a capsule of what happened. Our Session was a large one, reflecting the size of the congregation. We may be talking 18-21 Elders here. So, of course, we were divided. And the request of PLGC was tabled that first night, with the request that the pastor design an in depth study of the issues involved in a Christian understanding of homosexuality. The Rev. Bob Busey did a masterful job of dividing up the study into several areas that ranged from Bible study, to theological issues, psychological, social, and biological themes.

The process would take a few months, but PLGC knew that and was patient. Though Bob was attempting to offer a balanced presentation at each meeting, I know my colleague in ministry was disappointed when some of the more conservative Elders asked that he invite another Presbyterian minister to offer “the other side.” That neighboring Presbyterian pastor was remarkably fair in his counterpoint, and I think we all felt that due diligence was accomplished.

There were two comments I recall from the Session meeting when the final vote was to be taken. One Elder heatedly complained that “those people” may very well bring AIDS into our church. With flushed face, he said he feared for his grandchildren risking contracting AIDS by using the rest rooms of the church. As he spoke, I tried without success to avoid glancing at another Elder whose adult son was suffering from, dying with, AIDS unbeknownst to anyone else in the room except the pastors. What pain that loving father was having to endure as a loving grandfather showed the depth of his ignorance about the risk of HIV/AIDS exposure.

As the tide was evidently turning toward granting the request of PLGC to use the meeting room, another Elder whom I took to be “on the line” expressed her concern about a positive decision. She said something along these lines: some churches are known as more conservative or evangelical; others are “peace churches,” and some are “food shelf” churches. So, if we pass this, what will WE be? The GAY church?” It was an honest question, and one worth dealing with.

The motion to extend an invitation to use our building for the monthly meeting of PLGC passed, and by a surprisingly wide margin, perhaps a 70/30 split, though again, memory is cloudy.

Many years have passed and attitudes have changed, both in church and the wider culture. In recent years, our denomination has opened its doors to ordination of homosexuals to church offices including the ministry. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is currently voting to allow gay marriage, and some of us are pleasantly surprised that the vote is going so well in the direction of welcome, equality, and freedom. Having supper once a month is no longer a big deal. But 25 years ago, it was, and the leadership of the Rev. Bob Busey inspired my own pastoral ministry as I moved into so-called “solo pastorates” in Vermont and New York.

Next, in this Lenten series: how to paint a sanctuary!

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