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Gay in the 'burbs —Religious leaders speak out in support of LGBT equality

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The media can often depict religious organizations as the forefront of the anti-LGBTQ movement, however most times it takes some digging to realize that the so-called “enemy” is not always the religious community. Three religious congregations have proven that when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, anyone is welcome.

One church in particular not only stands as a landmark for the Lansdale community but as a beacon of hope for the LGBT community. According to senior pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ Sue Bertolette, the church welcomes all individuals to their congregation—including the LGBT community.

“My observation is that those who come to St. John's are looking for a healing place and a place of safe refuge,” Bertolette said.

Bertolette has been active in the LGBT community—participating in PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings and has spoken to LGBT students at North Penn High School.

Bertolette noted that the church doesn’t bring attention to an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but makes sure the message towards LGBT individuals is one of acceptance.

“Many gay folks who have come to St. John's indicate that they know they are welcome by what we don't say and do, just as much as by what we do say and do,” she said.

According to Bertolette, St. John’s has provided a welcoming community since the early 1970s, however, Bertolette believes the church is more welcoming now to the LGBT community than ever before.

Bertolette said she believes that Lansdale is slowly becoming more of an LGBT-friendly environment—especially with the younger demographic.

“I would say the younger generation is very open. I have an adult son and daughter (ages 30 and 28) and for them and their friends, one's sexual orientation is not an issue,” she said.

Sounderton resident and member of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church Dianna Rota, 57, agreed and said that her experience as an LGBT individual has been positive.

“My neighbors are the best, we all hang out and our kids play together,” Rota said.

Rota, who has lived in the Lansdale-area for 50 years, has been a member of Trinity since 1963 and said the church is very open towards LGBT individuals.

“My church makes everyone feel welcomed by not judging you for what you believe or who you are. They are always looking for ways to make people more comfortable, whether it's how to change up the service to accommodate the parishioners or how to help the homeless, the hungry, the lost and the addicted. We have feast on Wednesday for all who are hungry. I can go on and on. It's a great church,” she said.

Rota also said the church offers a wine and cheese social event, where LGBT individuals can talk and meet each other.
“Trinity welcomes and extends a genuine invitation for full acceptance and inclusion to all people, worshipping, learning and serving together as a community of faith. We choose to lead by example of Reconciling in Christ, welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities who want to be part of our worship and faith community,” said Trinity director for communication Jane Jorgensen.

Bertolette said St. John’s UCC currently does not have a space for LGBT youth and there are currently no discussions on creating one, however LGBT youth are welcome to participate in St. John’s UCC’s youth-based activities.

“St. John's youth are aware of the issues LGBT youth face and have spoken about these issues more than once in Youth Sunday sermons,” she said.

With religious groups who spread hate to the LGBT community, Bertolette said the church fights off that stereotype with love.

“We counter the negative and hateful messages of some religious groups with words and actions that communicate welcome and affirmation toward the LGBT community,” she said.

Rota believes individuals are entitled to their opinions, however the negative messages do not bother her.

“As far as the religious part, some people still believe in the Old Testament and I think that's part of it. If they were more open and more Christian, they might have more people joining their churches. As long as know one gets hurt they can think what they want,” she said.

Bertolette said she has received messages anonymously from individuals who bash her church for accepting the LGBT community.

“Periodically I receive anonymous letters from those who are persuaded that gay people are "an abomination" to God and that we are an abomination for welcoming them. Needless to say, that has not prevented us from doing what we believe we have been called to do,” she said.

According to Bertolette, the church currently has three same-sex couples in the congregations and several LGBT individuals.

“I have baptized their children, some have been in leadership roles, and I have performed a number of unity services for gay couples over the years,” she said.

Bertolette said her church abides by their mission for all individuals who walk through their doors: No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here, and we invite people from all walks of life to join us as we journey and search together.

Rabbi Joshua Kalev of Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell said sexual orientation and gender identity is a non-issue for his synagogue.

“Our doors are open to individuals and families of all types and we especially want those who have felt marginalized in the past to feel that they do have a Jewish home. I believe that the beauty of Judaism is that it is an evolving, fluid, alive religion where texts and traditions can be changed based on communal values and beliefs,” he said.

Kalev said Judaism has evolved for the past 4,000 years.

“It is not that we have become more welcoming but rather I hope that we have a better understanding of how we can be more supportive of gay individuals and families,” he said.

Kalev said the goal of the synagogue is to allow everyone the opportunity to explore Judaism on their own terms and find parts of the religion that they can relate to.

“Regardless of sexual orientation or gender, the members of our community welcome anyone who wants to be a part of a Jewish journey. It is because of this that we have numerous gay couples and families and even more heart-warming is the fact that one of our teens recently shared with his peers and members of our community that he is gay. We feel so blessed that our community is so diverse and welcoming,” he said.

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