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Gay Pentecostals find a place to worship

Adapting the traditions of one of Christianity's most conservative sects, a Tampa church offers services where charismatic beliefs and homosexuality can co-exist.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 22, 2001


photo
[Times photos: Ken Helle]
Associate pastor Marcia McAllister prays for one of her flock at Potter’s House, a Pentecostal and predominantly gay church.
TAMPA -- Marcia McAllister, associate pastor of Potter's House Fellowship Church, is praying, her outstretched hand a vise around the Bible she holds in the air. Those in need of prayer should come to the altar, she says.

"No one can be there for you when you are troubled and depressed and lonely and even suicidal, some of you," McAllister says. "But I am there, saith the Lord."

The pastor, Robert Morgan, begins to sing the old-time gospel hymn Do Not Pass Me By, providing a melodious backdrop as people get up from their brown folding chairs and step to the makeshift altar.

"Deliver in Christ," McAllister says. "Set free. Heal. . . . There's others out there who need you!"

Church leaders encircle those at the altar to pray. McAllister begins to mutter words that even she doesn't understand.

The scene has all the ingredients of a Pentecostal service: the fervent prayers, the piano, the guitar and drums. People spontaneously speaking in tongues.

But look around. The men sit in pairs. The women, too, with their arms resting casually behind their partners' backs. One young man gives his partner a gentle peck on the cheek.

Most of the 75 people here today are gay.

A battle for blessing
Many churches open their doors to gays and lesbians, but a St. Petersburg man has learned the limits of that acceptance.

Homosexuality and Religion: People Behind the Debate
In recent years, many major Christian denominations -- Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians -- have debated the role of gays and lesbians in church.

Predominantly gay churches, synagogues and other houses of worship are not uncommon. Entire movements are dedicated to offering religious worship for gay couples.

What sets Potter's House apart is that it is predominantly gay and Pentecostal, a longstanding religious movement often distinguished by its conservatism and its belief in speaking in tongues considered to have a spiritual source.

The nation turned an ear toward Pentecostals this year when President Bush nominated John Ashcroft for U.S. attorney general. Ashcroft is the son and grandson of ministers in the Assemblies of God, the world's largest Pentecostal denomination.

The Web site of the Assemblies of God USA says homosexuality "is a sin against God and mankind."

But Morgan believes some Scripture, including passages in Genesis, Leviticus and Romans, has been taken out of context. The passages speak of same-gender sexual acts, but the acts were much different from the loving homosexual relationships he condones today.

Morgan once was a licensed minister with the United Pentecostal Church International but voluntarily surrendered his license after coming out as a gay man in 1993 and divorcing his wife in 1994.

"Certainly they're not gay-affirming," he said.

He was seeing a therapist who suggested that he simply join a denomination that accepts gays and lesbians, such as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

But most gay churches he knew of were far too liberal in their views and too stiff and liturgical in their worship for his taste.

He was still Pentecostal at heart, Morgan said.

photo
John S. Helinski, 50, is surrounded by members of Potter’s House Fellowship Church as he prays during a Sunday service.
Morgan co-founded the Fellowship of Reconciling Pentecostals International, a small network of Pentecostal ministers and churches through which he is ordained. It is not affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International.

In November 1998, he held his first Potter's House service. The congregation now meets in the Springs Theater at 11 a.m. Sundays. Members arrive early to set up chairs and the sound system. They create an altar with a music stand serving as the lectern.

Potter's House, he said, "teaches a strict standard of morality." Morgan said he preaches that sex is only for loving, monogamous relationships.

But homosexuality is seldom mentioned during services. That's not what church is for, he says.

"We've had people walk in and out of our services and not even know it was a predominantly gay church," he said.

Still, homosexuals know they are accepted here.

John "Mike" Cumbess, 37, has been attending the church since February. He was raised in a Pentecostal church that preached against homosexuality. Once he came to terms with his sexuality in 1981, Cumbess said, he left.

That was the last time he spoke in tongues until he started coming to Potter's House. Now, Cumbess feels revived and says he's not holding anything back from God.

Melanie Wilkinson, 44, heard about the church from a friend. She first joined a Pentecostal church when she was about 20, hoping that the charismatic style of praise would help exorcise her homosexuality, which she believed was a demonic spirit. That never happened, and Wilkinson, too, stopped going to church.

"I believed the lie," Wilkinson said. "I'm not going to anymore."

Scott Manning comes frequently with his partner. Raised in the Pentecostal tradition, 30-year-old Manning was not satisfied in the more liberal gay church he was attending. There were few "amens" spoken there.

Some of his family members believe homosexuality is a sin. As long as he sins, "There's no way that God will be able to communicate with you" through speaking in tongues, he says they tell him.

But Manning says he knows what he feels at Potter's House is real. For him, the Pentecostal gay church is a dream. "I prayed for this, honey!" he says.

Jenny Page is heterosexual and was once married to a Pentecostal minister. Her gay son persuaded her to visit Potter's House eight months ago, and she's been coming ever since.

When it came to homosexuality and God, Page said, "I had some mixed emotions." But she said the Holy Spirit gave her a message in tongues one Sunday at Potter's House. That would only happen if the anointing was in this place, she said.

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