- Rachel Piper // photo illustration by Derek Carlisle
On a recent Sunday, half a dozen people gathered in a corner alcove of the Cathedral Church of Saint Mark in downtown Salt Lake City, glad not to be outside during the first real snow of the season. They listened as The Very Reverend Jack Potter—a retired dean filling in for a reverend who could not make the service because of the snowstorm—spoke of the parable in Matthew 25 that says that the Lord, like a shepherd, will separate the sheep from the goats when it comes to those to be saved and those who'll meet an eternity of punishment.
For Potter, the scripture's great message is in the admonishment that the way man feeds his fellow man when he is hungry, clothes him when he is naked and visits him while imprisoned is the same way he shows his respect for the Lord, as the scripture states that "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Despite the literal division in the scripture, Potter sees hope in the ability of all—especially the "least of these"—to find themselves in God.
"There is an opportunity to see God within us, helping us to see where we are and who we are," Potter said. "There is real hope there."
And what is said in subdued tones at the Episcopal service can speak volumes to many in Utah, especially to those who've discovered that who they are—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—has meant a tragic break with the faith and the family they were raised in.
In Utah's religious landscape, dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many have felt forced out of homes and church participation. And for those still hungry for religious fellowship, services held by the Episcopal and Unitarian churches and others can provide a spiritual home.
As far as Potter's concerned, sexual orientation does not bar one from the love of the Lord.
"Those distinctions don't apply," Potter says. "How one feels or however one's sexual orientation may be is that person's business, not mine. I think it's very important that we be open and inclusive and caring and loving."
At the Sacred Light of Christ Church, a self-proclaimed "gay church," the distinctions do matter, but the difference of its parishioners is a matter of celebration. Worshippers come as they are—some in collared shirts and dress slacks, and others in jeans and knit caps. The service begins with a group of performers leading the congregation in an upbeat Christian rock tune with the words to the song projected on a large TV screen, transposed over nature scenes of babbling canyon creeks and cloud shadows passing over rocky mountains. People spontaneously call out " Amen!" and other praises, and reach their hands upward in rejoicing.
Pastor Dee Bradshaw, who has been leading the congregation since 2002, became a member in the '80s and recalls the shock of the scene compared to the restrained LDS services he grew up with.
"The first time I walked in here, I went, 'What in the heck is this?'" Bradshaw says with a laugh.
But despite the different tone of worship, he soon embraced the church's open approach to the gospel, especially for how it creates a safe space for LGBT folks.
"A lot of people that walk in here aren't mad at God; they're mad at a church," Bradshaw says. "And when you talk to them, they realize that, 'Well, it's not God that rejects me.' And that makes a big difference."
In some ways, he sees the church as kind of a spiritual ER, one that helps people reconnect with God after being rejected from a faith. Oftentimes, after Sacred Light has helped them out, they find new faiths.
"They come here for healing, and then they move on," Bradshaw says.
But his congregation usually stays at around 30 to 45 members who come for regular services and classes. These include Bible study and service projects that the ministry undertakes, such as providing hygiene and relief packages for LGBT inmates in the state prison. The church has also just begun serving regular meals to homeless youth in the city, many of whom are LGBT. In 2012, the Williams Institute released a study that estimated that 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, and nearly 7 out of 10 of them are on the street because they were rejected by their families.
Bradshaw says reconnecting people to God often means re-examining the scriptures used to condemn homosexuality. His church teaches from a 2002 book called The Children Are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships, which makes the case that, for example, passages from the Old Testament that say that man "shall not lay with man" were made in condemnation of other belief systems of the day, some of which encouraged heterosexual men to have sex with a male priest to ensure a bountiful crop.
Bradshaw says a lot of these scriptures simply show God's desire to keep sex out of actual religious ritual, and don't condemn it in people's private lives.
Bradshaw has seen firsthand the good works of the church, which has been a part of Salt Lake City's religious landscape for more than 40 years. During a service the week before Thanksgiving, members spoke up for the things they were grateful for. One man thanked the relationship he has with the Lord for steering him away from addictions to sex and methamphetamines. One woman expressed thanks for the experience of her mental illness, which allows her to help others with a similar ailment.
Vince Gutierrez, 57, has been active in the church for decades. He considers himself a "triple threat" when it comes to discrimination—gay, Latino and raised Catholic—and says the anger inside him against God for making him this way is an ongoing struggle.
In his lifetime, Gutierrez has fought cancer and all the abuse and name-calling that every LGBT person deals with on a daily basis. He was beat up in high school and beat up in the Army, restrained on his bed and beaten by other soldiers with socks filled with soap bars.
While in many ways he still considers himself Catholic, he says that at the Sacred Light of Christ Church, he can experience the fellowship of fellow survivors.
"They go out every day and live their life despite it all, and that's what gives me hope and courage," Gutierrez says. "Despite everything that's happened to them they're here, right now living, and caring."