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UMC Edges Toward Historic Split Over LGBTQ Inclusion. This Church Showed the Way.

“Everything was upside-down. The values were very different,” he said.

Community of Hope started volunteering with homeless and domestic violence shelters and organizing mission trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala. Members dedicated half of their offerings to mission work.

“Being able to do something for others instead of always being the one that was in need and sick and wounded and broken was really, really important to them,” Penrose said.

As the congregation grew, it welcomed new members by laying hands on them. “At that time, AIDS was such an untouchable thing that the touch really became a sacrament to us,” Penrose said.

Brad Mulholland, part of the core that started Community of Hope, remembers how “taboo” it seemed when Community of Hope allowed him to serve Communion. Now 57, he had been diagnosed with HIV at 21 and told he had two years to live, he said.

Mulholland had grown up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and his partner, Mark Vickers, was raised Pentecostal, but even as they were losing friends every week, navigating “pain and loss and meds and doctors,” he said, they couldn’t find a faith community that would accept them — until they met Penrose.

Shortly before Vickers died of AIDS, the couple celebrated their “holy union” at Community of Hope.

“That congregation just blossomed, not only with people living with HIV and AIDS, but with people that were traditionally not welcomed in church,” Mulholland said. “It really empowered myself and many others to kind of be the church — what we always wanted to be in the church.”

But he also had been on the receiving end of that letter asking LGBTQ people not to drink from Memorial Drive’s water fountains, he said.

And the church that hosted Community of Hope in its basement asked the congregation to leave after a church member witnessed two men kissing in the parking lot, according to Penrose. The church could not be reached for comment.

Community of Hope’s practice of holy unions for same-sex couples also became “very controversial,” Penrose said. She was asked not to wear her robe during the ceremonies, then not to wear her stole, then not to pronounce couples “husband and husband” or “wife and wife” or to bless their rings.

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Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.