Lord of Light Lutheran Campus Ministry is perched at the intersection of Hill Street and South Corner Avenue at the edge of University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. Rainbow spiral flags hang from trees, and a large vinyl banner strung across the exterior reads, “All are welcome in this place.” ReconcilingWorks’ multicolor logo is nearby, signaling that the LGBTQ+ community will be met with open arms.
When Merton Spencer first walked through the front doors of the church in 1989, he was immediately greeted by fellow Lutherans. “In the pastor’s sermon, he said one of the reasons he came to this church was because his congregation was officially welcoming to LGBT people. I had never heard that before,” says Spencer, who now lives in Ann Arbor and serves as a regional coordinator for the nonprofit. “That day, my life and my relationship with the church and God changed completely.”
Founded in 1974, ReconcilingWorks began with a mission to spread “Christ’s message” of equality to Lutheran establishments that may neglect or deny LGBTQ+ interest. (It wasn’t until 1991 that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) formally invited queer folk to participate in church life.) Today, the nonprofit runs a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) certification program, which teaches congregations how to be accepting of the entire spectrum of LGBTQ+ sexual expressions, identities, and the corresponding terminology. Such an education becomes vital in creating a safe place for members. “When a congregation is starting to [consider what they] can do to welcome gay people, the most common question is, ‘We’re already welcoming. Why do we need to make gay people feel special?’ ” Spencer says. “Well, they’re really not that welcoming most likely.” Within the last three years, nine RIC congregations have been established in his region, and 13 of the total 20 RIC congregations in Michigan represent 10 percent of the ELCA.
To date, the program has helped guide LGBTQ+ Lutherans, like Rob Montry, who moved from Detroit to Birmingham with his partner and children in 1995. In search of an ELCA congregation, they met with an associate pastor of a church in the area who suggested they become members and sign up to be photographed for the church’s directory. Unbeknownst to Montry, the photo caused controversy. “I was under the impression that the problem was with our membership, which had yet to be officially transferred from Truth Lutheran in Detroit,” he says. “The senior pastor and church council president requested a meeting in which we learned the issue was that we had ‘presented ourselves as a couple.’ ”
The church denied their membership application, a rare case according to Montry, which resulted in the ELCA Southeast Michigan Synod Bishop taking action. Ultimately, based on an interpretation of the model constitution for congregations, the bishop decided not to file disciplinary charges against the church. Montry’s rejection then became the subject of an article in a 1996 issue of The Lutheran, a monthly ELCA magazine now named Living Lutheran, which asked the question: “Should gay couples belong?”
Montry and his partner contacted pastors in hopes of being directed toward a more accepting church. They found Zion Lutheran Church in Ferndale, which became RIC certified. “It is extremely important for my home congregation to be RIC[-certified] as it is a public pronouncement that all people are truly invited, welcomed, and accepted.”
While the congregation in Bloomfield Hills did eventually invite him and his family back to worship, Montry has not returned to the church in 20 years. “The last time I was in this church following that meeting, I was reminded of Christ’s words, ‘And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet.’ ”
For more, visit reconcilingworks.org.