One of the most common tropes of the coming-out story is the one where someone struggling to come to terms with his or her sexual orientation must, at some point in the journey, go to the mat with the Big G: God.
Questions of faith and sexuality lie at the heart of society's debate over homosexuality. In Buckle-of-the-Bible-Belt Oklahoma, these debates occasionally reach a fevered pitch " one need look no further than last year's brouhaha about Rep. Sally Kern's remarks that were passed around YouTube to see the passion with which either side will argue its case.
Absent from the political debate, however, is the question of how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals go about addressing their own spiritual needs. Several churches in the metro area are "open and affirming" churches, meaning that they espouse a theology that is friendly to the GLBT community and homosexual relationships.
One of these churches, Expressions Community Fellowship, is moving to N.W. 39th and Youngs, a space right in the middle of the area known as the "Gay Strip" and only a few blocks west of the nexus of Oklahoma City's gay nightlife, the Habana Inn.
"I really felt in my heart that we should be on the strip," said the Rev. Neill Spurgin, Expressions Community Fellowship's pastor.
OKC's Expressions began as a Bible study that Spurgin led for gay Christians who had come from Evangelical backgrounds. At the time, Spurgin was a chaplain of community care at Cathedral of Hope of Oklahoma City, a gay-affirming United Church of Christ congregation, and was serving as the community sponsor for the Gay-Straight Alliance at Oklahoma City Community College.
Expressions began in April 2008 with meetings at the historic Farmers' Market in downtown Oklahoma City before moving to its current location in the Lansbrook Event Center.
Expressions will hold an open house during the OKC Pride festivities at its new location at 4010 N. Youngs Blvd., just off the parade route on the end of the strip, and will hold its first Sunday service in the new location on July 5.
Spurgin, who for years struggled through a slew of ex-gay ministries, hopes to create a haven for GLBT individuals who have wrestled in private with their sexuality and their faith, and to create a space where both may be simultaneously expressed.
"I believe that in the LGBT community that, because of where we live, because of it being so conservative, and the way that people have been raised to believe about themselves and the Bible, that we've lost our spiritual side," he said.
"My goal is to let people see that there is truly unconditional love out there, a place where they can be received by God, because I believe that God lives in every one of us," he said. "I'm an ultimate reconciliationist. I believe that we're all God's kids."
Scott Jones agrees. He is the pastor of Cathedral of Hope, which started as a mission church of the nation's largest predominantly GLBT church, Cathedral of Hope in Dallas.
"Gay-affirming churches provide spaces for people who are just coming out, to find that there is a place where they can continue to be a person of faith and find positive role models," said Jones, an Oklahoma Gazette commentary writer.
"Even in a society which is more and more accepting of gay and lesbian individuals, there will always be a need for a safe space for people who are just coming out to explore their identities."
Jones also believes that gay-affirming churches are able to provide a counterpoint to the prevailing idea that one cannot be both a Christian and a homosexual.
"Much of the conservative Christian community is very anti-gay, and I think they are very challenged by people who do not live according to their very limited stereotypes," he said. "They are challenged by people of faith, who are in committed relationships, who want to live openly, and not as part of the subculture.
"We challenge the rhetoric of the propaganda just by our very existence, even if we're not being advocates or activists."
Jones said that part of Cathedral of Hope's vision statement is "reclaiming Christianity."
"We feel that Christianity in this culture has taken on an image that is not one of radical inclusion, or of relentless compassion, or of hope," he said.
Spurgin, too, has made a concerted effort to make Expressions as inclusive a community as possible, an effort he hopes to continue and to expand upon with the church's new digs.
"Our name, Expressions, comes from the fact that we have people of so many religious backgrounds as a part of our body," Spurgin said. "I want everyone to feel welcome." "Nathan Gunter