“Absolutely and unabashedly welcoming”: How some Pittsburgh faith communities embrace LGBT worshippers

Rev. Shanea Leonard, the pastor of Judah Fellowship Christian Church, sings along with the congregation during worship. Anita Levels directs the worshipers in song. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Rev. Shanea Leonard, the pastor of Judah Fellowship Christian Church, sings along with the congregation during worship. Anita Levels directs the worshipers in song. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

After former public defender Turahn Jenkins announced in early July that he would challenge Stephen A. Zappala Jr. in a bid to become Allegheny County’s next district attorney, Jenkins quickly came under fire for his views on sexuality and gender identity. He is affiliated with the Bible Chapel, a church that teaches that homosexuality is sinful, a view that Jenkins reportedly said he shares. Because of his stance, many community members, including leaders from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] community,* were not satisfied with Jenkins’ stated commitment to inclusive and unbiased law enforcement. They asked Jenkins to end his campaign, but he’s chosen to remain in the race. The election is scheduled for 2019.

In an effort to understand the LGBT community’s place in the Pittsburgh area’s religious landscape, PublicSource is exploring a variety of faiths, denominations and places of worship. This article features churches and synagogues with LGBT-inclusive theologies and policies. Future installments in this series will chronicle a variety of religious views and trace several Pittsburghers’ personal religious journeys.

At PublicSource, we recognize that religious experiences vary widely. Even within the same denomination, worshippers may have very different attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity based on nuanced understandings of ethics, morality, history and religious texts. We also recognize that faith and sexual identity can be deeply personal and difficult to discuss, but controversy around Jenkins’ candidacy only highlights the need to have authentic conversations about these topics.

According to Pew Research Center, only 22 percent of Americans who identify as straight have no religious affiliation. For those who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, the rate is nearly double. We’d like to know why.

If you or your congregation have experiences or beliefs that you think should be part of our coverage, we’d love to hear from you at info@publicsource.org.

‘We literally embody radical inclusivity’

When the Rev. Shanea Leonard completed her studies at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and became an ordained minister within the Presbyterian Church (USA), she couldn’t find a church with an African-American style of worship that she felt would be welcoming to her as a “black, same-gender loving woman.” She also knew many gay believers who felt unwelcome in most churches. So, in 2011, she established her own congregation—Judah Fellowship Christian Church.

“I really felt led by God to create something that provided a space for people to feel welcome and at home and not feel like they had to hide,” she said, “a place where we literally embody radical inclusivity and stand for justice in ways that other churches were not doing.”

Rev. Shanea Leonard delivers the sermon during worship services. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Rev. Shanea Leonard delivers the sermon during worship services. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Judah holds Saturday worship services in the Upper Hill District and has approximately 60 members. Leonard said it is the only predominantly black church in Western Pennsylvania that’s inclusive for LGBT people, and she’s the only out black pastor.

Julie Frischkorn and her wife have been members of  Judah for four years. The couple is white, and they have two multiracial children.

“We wanted a church that’s inclusive upon multiple lines,” Frischkorn said, “an inclusive space both for the queer community, as well as an inclusive space for people of color.” Frischkorn added that she’s found a “more active faith” being lived out at Judah.

Leonard said that “to make sure that Jesus and justice show up in several ways around the city,” Judah members regularly march in protests and the People's Pride Parade.

Rev. Shanea Leonard leads worshipers in a prayer circle during Saturday evening services. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Rev. Shanea Leonard leads worshipers in a prayer circle during Saturday evening services. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Judah sponsored a July 1 rally in East Liberty that brought together people of faith to protest the killing of Antwon Rose II by East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld. Many Judah members were among the estimated 300 attendees, identified by their purple and yellow T-shirts emblazoned with one of Judah’s taglines: “If it’s not about love, healing and justice, we’re not interested.” Faith leaders from the Pittsburgh Clergy Consortium, a group of clergy that Leonard has convened to support LGBTQIA community members and causes, stood with Leonard in front of the crowd. The consortium clergy had also hosted a candlelight vigil in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Fundamental to these efforts is the conviction that “sexuality is not a sin,” Leonard said. “Regardless of your sexuality, you are who God created you to be, is how we feel.”

Sixth Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Vincent Kolb is pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill and a member of the clergy consortium that Leonard leads.

Kolb emphasized that in order to be faithful to “God’s movement in the world,” church leaders need to understand “intersectionality”—the way marginalized social categories such as race, class, gender and other forms of disadvantage can overlap and compound each other. Kolb believes that too often, white, cisgender people have taken leadership roles in community activism at the expense of people with marginalized identities. (According to the LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at University of California, Davis, “cisgender” people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people use the term to call attention to the privilege of people who are not transgender.)

The Rev. Vincent Kolb is pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

The Rev. Vincent Kolb is pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Twenty-one years ago, Sixth Presbyterian became a More Light Presbyterians congregation, a designation among Presbyterian churches that shows a commitment to making LGBTQ members full participants in the life of the church. Sixth Presbyterian’s website reads, “We intentionally use inclusive language in our worship. This includes using a variety of feminine, masculine, and non-gender images in referring to God and humanity.” A rainbow flag hangs at the church’s entrance.

Like Judah, Sixth Presbyterian is part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In recent years, the denomination has voted to remove restrictions on the ordination of gays and lesbians and to allow churches to host same-sex marriages. As a result, many churches have left for more conservative denominations.

Katherine Davoli has been a member of Sixth Presbyterian for 11 years and is now a ruling elder. She is also a part-time student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but she said the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination removed her from the ordination process because she engages in polyamorous relationships. She is married to a transgender woman, and they have a third partner who lives in the same household. Despite the denomination’s prohibition of her ordination, Sixth Presbyterian still allows Davoli to preach and lead worship services.

“As a queer person, I have had to wrestle with my identity as both a Christian and queer from very early on,” she said, noting that she attended Oakland Catholic High School. “So, I did a lot of internal work about my calling to be both of those things as a teenager.”

“I have come to think about sexuality as a calling,” Davoli said. “I feel called into same-sex relationships.”

Davoli studies the Bible with people interested in the Christian faith and invites them to attend Sixth Presbyterian, but she acknowledged that faith “looks different for different people.” For some, “even darkening the door of [a church] can be a panic attack-inducing activity.”

Dignity and Always Our Children

Donna Bachner is Catholic—but she attends Catholic Mass each week at an Episcopal church in Squirrel Hill.

She worships with Dignity, a national movement of LGBT Catholics who worship together openly even though the Catholic Church views “homosexual acts” as “objectively sinful,” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dignity was founded in 1969 and has 75 chapters throughout the country. Bachner, a lesbian, has been attending for about 25 years. She used to join her grandmother for services at St. Joseph Church in Mt. Oliver as well, but that parish closed.

Dignity members “want to be more spiritual,” Bachner said, “and not have the stigma of being gay being something they can’t talk about.” Participants are predominantly older, although recently the group has attracted a few people in their twenties.

Donna Bachner, 61, sits on the stairs of the Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill for a portrait. Bashner said she stayed with the church because of its acceptance to all communities and people. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Donna Bachner, 61, sits on the stairs of the Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill for a portrait. Bashner said she stayed with the church because of its acceptance to all communities and people. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

At Pittsburgh’s weekly gathering, a Catholic priest leads Mass for five to 15 attendees, although according to Bachner, “The priests really aren’t supposed to come and say Mass for us.” Then, they share a meal prepared by one of the members.

Bachner said Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh told Dignity’s president that the group cannot hold Mass in a Catholic church, but she isn’t fazed.

“I feel the church is run by people, and people have their own opinions,” Bachner said. “And so, my opinion is what we’re doing is right. His opinion is that it’s wrong. But I can’t let that affect my living ... I feel closer to God rather than a particular church.” The Diocese of Pittsburgh did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

According to Dignity’s website, the group believes “[LGBT] persons can express their sexuality in a manner that is consonant with Christ's teaching. We believe that we can express our sexuality physically, in a unitive manner that is loving, life-giving, and life-affirming.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has clarified this teaching, stating that a person with a “homosexual inclination” is not disordered or sinful “as a whole,” but “acting on such inclinations, however, is always wrong.”

Alecia Moss of Greensburg, whose son came out as gay when he was a junior in high school, takes issue with the Catholic Church’s views.

“I cannot tell my son how he should live his life, who he should fall in love with, any more than I can tell my brother or my neighbor,” she said. “I have two daughters. I couldn’t tell them that they had to be nuns. So why should I tell my son how to rule his life?”

About a year ago, Moss started Always Our Children, a group for lay LGBT Catholics and their families that holds monthly meetings for support and discussion. The group assists parents in particular, who can be caught “unawares,” according to Moss.

Moss has spoken about Always Our Children with Bishop Edward Malesic of the Diocese of Greensburg. Malesic gave the group permission to meet, though he has not made Always Our Children a diocesan program and instead suggested to Moss that she lead at the parish level at her church, St. Vincent Basilica Parish in Latrobe. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Greensburg, Jerome Zufelt, confirmed in an email that Bishop Malesic “supports Alecia Moss’ group and her work.”

Moss has been helped by the Westmoreland LGBTQ Interfaith Network, a support and training collaboration convened by Ted Hoover of the Persad Center.

“Absolutely and unabashedly welcoming”

As a youngster growing up in what he describes as a “fairly orthodox” Jewish faith tradition, Alex Ebbert-Marx was told that acting upon desires for another male would make him an “abomination.” Ebbert-Marx left the faith, but eventually found that he missed the culture and traditions of Judaism.

When he moved to Pittsburgh a few months ago, he began attending Bet Tikvah, a self-described “queer-centric independent minyan” that attracts up to 25 people to monthly Shabbat services. According to its website, it “is not affiliated with any particular branch of Judaism.” Ebbert-Marx said he knew when he moved here “that the LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh was strong.” He characterized Bet Tikvah as “absolutely and unabashedly welcoming.”

“I like the idea that they’re excited to have new members,” he said, “and that they’re open to diversity, not only of the type of [LGBT] people that attend, but also their backgrounds within Judaism.”

According to Bet Tikvah member Deb Polk, some people even come from non-Jewish or secular backgrounds. Polk feels Bet Tikvah is “a very close and caring community ... not a big congregation where you sort of feel anonymous.”

Worshippers gather at Rodef Shalom in Shadyside. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk/PublicSource)

Worshippers gather at Rodef Shalom in Shadyside. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk/PublicSource)

Bet Tikvah meets at Rodef Shalom, a Shadyside synagogue with nearly 900 member families. Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi, Aaron Bisno, is very supportive of the partnership with Bet Tikvah.

“There should be no question in anybody’s mind who identifies in any way with the [LGBT] community that we see them as part of our community,” he said. He pointed out that Rodef Shalom hired a gay assistant rabbi and began performing marriage ceremonies for members of the LGBT community years ago.

“We’re not going to withhold any part of what we do as a congregation,” Bisno said.

Rodef Shalom also hosts Outrageous Bingo, a monthly drag event that raises money for PGH Equality Center and the Shepherd Wellness Community.

Although Bisno conceded that “the battle isn’t over,” he celebrated what he sees as “a tidal wave, earthquake, seismic shift” in society’s changing attitudes toward members of the LGBT community.

Rabbi Alex Greenbaum at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills sees this shift as generational. After he gave a sermon two years ago on supporting gay and lesbian couples, his high school son said he “didn’t go far enough,” that he needed to affirm others on the sexual-orientation and gender-identity spectrum, such as people who are bisexual or transgender.

“Sexuality and gender is much more fluid for my high schooler than it is for us adults,” he said. “My generation is so hooked on labels and labeling everyone — ‘Well, what are you? Gay? Are you homosexual? Are you lesbian?’ I find that my kids don’t need the labels as much as we do.”

Calvary United Methodist

When Yvonne Hudson and Lynette Asson began attending Calvary United Methodist Church regularly in 2003, the congregation had about 60 members. Asson’s uncle, who baptized her as an infant, had become its pastor. Church members, including other gay couples, seemed welcoming.

Yvonne Hudson and Lynette Asson in the sanctuary at Calvary United Methodist Church. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Yvonne Hudson and Lynette Asson in the sanctuary at Calvary United Methodist Church. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

The North Side church’s building needed significant work, including repairs to its 30-foot, drapery glass Tiffany windows. With nearly $1 million in support from community members and the Allegheny Historic Preservation Society, the windows were restored, and “as the building was restored, a lot of other aspects were restored,” Hudson said. Asson and Hudson helped increase the size of the choir, which they still sing in, and they put on plays and concerts. Lay leaders and church staff led initiatives to make the church even more welcoming to the LGBT community in order to attract and retain more people. Calvary now has 300 members.

These efforts laid the groundwork for Calvary’s recent decision to become a Reconciling Ministries Network church, a designation that some United Methodist churches take to express a commitment to including people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. As a denomination, the United Methodist Church has been reevaluating its beliefs on sexuality and may soon see churches split from the denomination over LGBT issues. Calvary’s proactive decision to become a Reconciling Ministry church ensured an inclusive stance.

“I think a lot of us made the decision to stay ...[We] saw that as an opportunity to be part of a change, and to be somewhere we could make a difference from within, rather than just leaving,” Hudson said. “Sometimes you say more by being present than by being absent.”

A rainbow flag outside of Calvary United Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

A rainbow flag outside of Calvary United Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Hudson has also been assisting with Circle of Faith, an annual gathering of religious organizations and individuals who are part of or who support the LGBT community. Some 250 to 300 people attended their annual picnics from 2013 to 2017, according to leader Jeff Miller. He said that group members - especially “overworked clergy” - don’t feel the need to meet this year. Hudson, who maintains the group’s Facebook page, said the gatherings have helped people from the LGBT community meet people from welcoming congregations in a “neutral place.”

‘How can you not be welcoming?’

“I think the question for my denomination will be whether we want to hitch ourselves to the past or ... be part of the way that the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing through the church right now,” said the Rev. Steven Tuell, a professor of Hebrew and the Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a member of a United Methodist Church.

“It comes down to how we read the Bible, finally and ultimately,” he added.

Tuell said that six or seven Bible passages are usually brought up in discussions about homosexuality. In particular, he cited the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Paul’s letter to the Romans and laws listed in the book of Leviticus. He claims it’s “highly questionable as to whether or not we even know what [these passages] mean.”

“None of us simply take passages in scripture and apply them directly, immediately and uncritically to our lives,” he said. “We couldn’t do it. The Bible is a big book ... There are some things the Bible says that we would all freely recognize are culture-bound or context-bound.”

Davoli at Sixth Presbyterian said she looks to the Bible for guidance on how to engage in human relationships. "The Hebrew Testament is where we get most of these prohibitions and it has instructions about plenty of things that we as Christians tend to dismiss - what to eat or not eat, what to wear or not wear. But the rules about same sex behavior are about human relationships. If we're going to say gay relationships are not just tolerable but are holy, blessed, sacred, we need to have a strong theological reason why - not just: 'Since God seems to have relented on the neighboring commands this is probably OK.' Sixth Church lets me use our pulpit to make those more substantive arguments and that's part of why I love them."

Rabbi Bisno of Rodef Shalom argued that according to the Torah, “everyone is created in the image of God,” and therefore everyone is “equal, unique and [of] infinite worth.”

Tuell believes that for Christian faith communities, the discussion comes down to this: “When you can look someone in the eye, and when you recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives, how can you not be inclusive? How can you not be welcoming?”

If you or your congregation have experiences or beliefs that you think should be part of this series on the Pittsburgh area’s religious landscape and the LGBT community’s place in it, we’d love to hear from you. Email us at info@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Madeleine Davison.

Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at mark@mnkramer.com.

Editor's note, Aug. 7: A previous version of the article misstated the reason why Rev. Leonard founded Judah Fellowship Christian Church and misidentified the parade its members participate in. Judah members march in the People's Pride Parade. In addition, the article didn't clearly state the source of funding for Calvary's restoration and did not accurately describe Katherine Davoli’s views and role of Sixth Presbyterian Church.  

* Terms

Sexual Orientation The scientifically accurate term for an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual (straight) orientations.

Gender Identity A person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same.

LGBT Acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. In some cases, individuals or organizations utilize other acronyms, such as LGBTQIA, in which “QIA” refers to queer, intersex and asexual. When sources explicitly use a collective term other than LGBT, PublicSource defers to that use.

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide)