In Orlando, a call for more openness, less fear
After gay nightclub massacre, showing love to LGBT community a focus at Christian conference in Florida.
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Bobby Ross Jr. | Christian Chronicle
ORLANDO, Fla. — Sally Gary couldn’t come to Orlando and fail to visit the site of the gay nightclub massacre where 49 people died.

The founder of CenterPeace, a Dallas-based ministry that provides support and resources for people who experience same-sex attraction, said she felt compelled to pay her respects.



ORLANDO MASSACRE: A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE

PART 1: Loving gays and lesbians

PART 2: Jihad and ordinary Muslims

PART 3: A special connection to a victim's family
“I can’t imagine being here and not paying homage to the brothers and sisters who lost their lives there,” said Gary, a member of the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas.

Months before the Pulse nightclub attack, Gary accepted an invitation to speak at the Equip Conference in Orlando — a biennial event formerly known as the Spiritual Growth Workshop.

The nation’s worst mass shooting — in which 53 people were wounded in addition to those killed — provided “a very in-your-face reminder” of the urgency for churches to become more open and less fearful in discussing LGBT issues, Gary said.

Her message to the standing-room-only crowds that filled her three sessions: The person experiencing same-sex attraction isn’t a guy in a rainbow-colored bikini marching in a gay pride parade.

“It’s me,” said Gary, who grew up in the Tenth and Broad Street Church of Christ in Wichita Falls, Texas, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Abilene Christian University.


Gary’s words riveted Ish Preston, a member of the Medulla Church of Christ in Lakeland, Fla.

The Orlando shooting hit Preston hard.

“I grieved that for days,” said Preston, one of 2,000 members of Churches of Christ from Florida and beyond who gathered at Equip. “I just wanted to know how I could deal with people to help them — and not be judgmental — because I know Christ is for all.”
FEAR BREEDS CONTEMPT
Members of Churches of Christ generally believe that God reserves sex for marriage between one man and one woman.
That understanding of what the Bible teaches presents challenges as Christians respond to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Equip co-director Larry Cline said.

Larry Cline prays with Sally Gary before she speaks at the Equip Conference. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)


“We need to teach so clearly what Scripture says about same-sex marriage,” said Cline, minister for the Hardin Valley Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn. "And that’s being compromised, and our young people are misunderstanding it or not taking a biblical approach on it.

“So we feel like we need to come across harder on that, and sometimes that can come across with a contemptuous attitude and be read as having a lack of compassion,” he added. “It’s a delicate balance, that’s for sure.”
RELATED: Christian universities put on 'shame list'Gary, author of the memoir “Loves God, Likes Girls,” described the shame and humiliation she felt as a girl experiencing same-sex attraction while growing up in a Church of Christ.

Part of the problem is that many Christians don’t understand same-sex attraction, so they fear it, she said.

Fear drives the kind of hatred that prompts a person — in this case a gunman named Omar Mateen, who pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group — to open fire at a gay nightclub, she suggested.

“Where it becomes even more personal to me,” Gary told The Christian Chronicle, “is that (the Orlando victims) could have been so many of my friends 30 years ago. Friends whose families had turned them away — and I’m talking about young men that I was in Christian college with — whose families said, ‘We will have no more of you.’ … Friends who were written out of their families’ wills.

“And so where do you go?” she asked. “You know the stories that have been written … comparing a bar to a place of worship —sometimes we have a little bit of trouble understanding that or grasping that. But when you have been truly isolated, when you have truly been told, ‘You are no longer worthy to be called my son,’ where do you go?”

The sadness felt by the LGBT community at this time needs to be heard and acknowledged by Christians, Gary said.

“When people are hurting, we need love and support,” she said. “It also provides us an opportunity to show Jesus in a way that may do a lot of repair to the damage that’s been done in the name of Jesus.”
‘CHEWED ME UP AND SPIT ME OUT’
Gil Vollmering Jr., an elder of the North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington, Texas, decided at the last minute to come to Equip.
Vollmering has a personal reason for feeling a connection with the Orlando victims: Four years ago, his son, Connor Vollmering, then 15, came out as gay to his youth group.

“It was a painful, hurtful time,” said Gil Vollmering Jr., who has since reconciled with his son.

Gil Vollmering Jr.“I used to think I knew a lot,” said the father, who is part of a CenterPeace parent support group in Dallas-Fort Worth. “And I realize the more I read, the more I study … the more I don’t know. So my whole attitude has shifted to one of humility before Scripture.”

Connor Vollmering is a sophomore at the University of North Texas.

He said he was disappointed in the response he received from his former church family, where both his father and grandfather, Gil Vollmering Sr., serve as elders.

“No one wanted to have a conversation with me,” Connor Vollmering told the Chronicle. “Everyone kind of just chewed me up and spit me out.”

The 19-year-old said he wasn’t looking for affirmation of a gay lifestyle but rather acceptance from people he considered his friends. He later attended the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly LGBT congregation in Dallas, but said he is now between churches.
"I think affirming and accepting are two very different things."
Connor Vollmering, 19

“I think affirming and accepting are two very different things,” Connor Vollmering said. “I would never expect a strong-rooted Church of Christ person to be affirming,” which he views as celebrating his gay identity.

But the youth group and other church members could have accepted him as a person, even if they preferred a different lifestyle, he said. “Instead of forcing your views on someone, just be open-minded and listen to their views. Be loving, kind, generous. Still have a friendship. Once you form a strong friendship, you can begin having sophisticated theological debates.” SIN AND SINNERS
In the days after the June 12 massacre, a dozen members of three Orlando-area Churches of Christ brought flowers — and prayers — to a memorial site for the victims.
The West Orange Church of Christ in Winter Garden, Fla., offered its 600-seat auditorium and reception room free of charge to any victim’s family needing a place for a loved one’s funeral. “As part of the community, we are grieving with you,” the church said in a Facebook post. (No one took advantage of the offer.)

RELATED: Church members sing, pray at Orlando memorial siteWhen the independent Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., said God sent the shooter and picketed funerals with anti-gay posters, members of the South Seminole Church of Christ in Winter Park, Fla., staged a counterdemonstration. The Church of Christ group’s signs cited God’s love and Scriptures such as 2 Peter 3:9: “God is patient, not willing that any should perish, but all would come to repentance.”

Signs carried at the counterdemonstration by South Seminole Church of Christ members. (PHOTO VIA FACEBOOK.COM/SOUTHSEMINOLECHURCHOFCHRIST)

However, even the belief that the gay lifestyle falls outside God’s design for mankind can draw rebuke in a society increasingly open to same-sex couples, said some church members interviewed at Equip.

Cheryl and Nathan Wheeler“We’re trying to just keep preaching the message that God is love. He loves sinners, and he hates sin,” said Nathan Wheeler, minister for the Pine Castle Church of Christ in Orlando, whose wife, Cheryl, was among those who went to the memorial site to pray and sing.

Like Gil Vollmering Jr., Equip co-director Phil Barnes said he has a close family member who identifies as gay. “I’ve learned a lot from him about how the LGBT community perceives us,” said Barnes, minister for the Orange Avenue Church of Christ in Eustis, Fla. “And frankly, what they do, unfortunately, is they kind of latch on to the extreme of our movement.”

But Christians often do the same thing, Barnes said. “Not all homosexuals walk around with hideous costumes, being outlandish,” the minister said. “That’s not the average at all.”

As Barnes sees it, Christians must be willing to show unconditional love.

“We can fill people up with the Gospel and with the love of Christ, whether they’re gay or not,” he said. “We don’t get down on the gossips like we do the homosexuals.”

Co-director Phil Barnes, right, hugs an Equip Conference attendee. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

CenterPeace’s Gary said she strives to meet people where they are — just like Jesus did when he interacted with tax collectors and other sinners.

Men and women must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, she said, but they can’t do that outside a trusted community of believers.

Attendees walk among the exhibits at the Equip Conference in Orlando. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)“Whatever it takes to help someone reconnect with God, that’s what the ministry of CenterPeace is all about,” Gary said. “It’s helping people reconnect in such a way that they can figure out what it means to be a Christ-follower.”

CenterPeace is organizing the upcoming E3 Conference to “equip, encourage and empower” church leaders to address issues of sexuality. That event is scheduled for Oct. 27-29 at the Highland Oaks church building.

After her presentations at Equip, Gary drove downtown to the Pulse nightclub.

She described the experience as sobering. 

And painful. 

“I stood outside with other respectful visitors,” she wrote on Instagram, “not wanting to gawk at a crime scene but to sincerely pay our respect to those who died.”

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