Is it possible for the LGBTQ community and religious organizations to coexist? The work of Pastor Curt D.Thomas and The Renewed Church Of Los Angeles is proof that it’s quite easy—and potentially where all religions will head.
The fight for LGBTQ rights has had many venues. Gay bars like New York City’s Stonewall Inn stand as a demonstration sites and rallying points for community. Commercial venues like San Francisco’s Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera—now The Human Rights Campaign Action Center & Store—became homes for political activity. Residences like D.C.’s The Furies Collective’s evolved from where a group lived to where discussions about rights and identity were had.
These spaces, largely private or commercial, are often tied to individuals and without a greater organization attached. So could churches—sites associated with ideologies that oppress us—be rallying points for the LGBTQ community?
Yes—and Pastor Curt Thomas can show you how.
Pastor Curt is the man behind The Renewed Church, a United Progressive Pentecostal Church in Los Angeles. Located in a slim brick building off bustling Slauson Avenue, Renewed can be identified by Pastor Curt’s welcoming grin on the the building.
“We did all the work ourselves,” Pastor Curt gestures to his surroundings. “The floors were painted by us. Everything that you see—the halls and everything—we came together and put up the sheetrock and the stage.”
“There are little mishaps because it wasn't professionally done, but it's our space. The journey has been amazing. I've evolved from where I was, too.”
Pastor Curt is a Pasadena, Ca. native and became active in church as a teenager when he began speaking at services. He was so involved that, by college, the church became his priority. Happening in tandem was another major life event-- he was discovering his sexuality.
“I lived in Alabama and I actually had a girlfriend and a boyfriend at the same time,” he says. “The boyfriend knew about the girlfriend, but the girlfriend didn't know about the boyfriend.”
“I was exploring. There's no manual of being gay, so I really didn't know this is what it was. I spent years—from 21 to 26 years of age—trying to figure out who I was, sexually. It wasn't until after the age of 26 that I began to own my sexuality.”
“A lot of people call it coming out of the closet,” he says. “But I never believed that I was in a closet: I think that it took time for me to own my sexuality...It was more of an internalized thing for me.”
At this age, Pastor Curt was working as a youth pastor at a church in Atlanta, Georgia and his differing sexuality cost him his job in the church: he was fired for being gay.
“The pastor's comments to me were, ‘We cannot have a youth pastor that is gay.’ And so the journey moved from there. They gave me two weeks to clean out my office and I had anxiety attacks because, remember, from 16 to (basically) 26, the only thing that I've ever done is ministry. That's how I got paid, that was my source of income.”
“I went on a downward spiral from there: started going out and partying and I didn't want anything to do with church. I drank my first drink when I was 26. It was a Lemon Drop from The Abbey, believe it or not.”
“I started as youth pastor at First Baptist Church in LA and was there for about a year,” he explains. “They couldn't afford to pay me anymore because of the recession. So I ended up leaving and, upon me leaving, I decided that I wanted to start a Bible study so that people like me could come to a common place and actually learn what the Bible really says about us because we are included in the Bible.”
“When you talk about inclusivity and all those great things, [the church] excludes certain groups of people but, really, God includes us. I wanted to start something that would give people a place and a space where they could come and actually develop their spirituality while they embraced their sexuality because I think that that's important.”
So Pastor Curt started a Bible Study with like-minded persons. This was the start of the church, which initially gathered in coffee shops to “drink coffee, tea, and eat sandwiches while we talked about the Bible.”
“After about probably four or five months of us having a Bible study [in 2011], participants came and were like, ‘Well, what are we going to do on Sundays?’ And I was like, ‘I don't know.’ So we moved from having just a Wednesday Bible study to doing a Sunday service. At that time, we subleased a church where there were multiple churches utilizing the space...but then they sold that building.”
Renewed then connected with queer men’s organization, In The Meantime Men’s Group, who were renting a space behind the historic Black LGBT club Jewel’s Catch One. The church used the space for nearly a year and a half, saving until they could get their own space. That happened in 2014 and is Renewed’s current space.
“The journey has been amazing,” Pastor Curt says, reflecting on his fall out and eventual return to the faith.
“I didn't hate God, but I hated church... it took me about two years to actually realize that and to realize that God never will hurt us; it’s people who hurt people. It took me a while to get that. People hurt other people, because they don't understand, and when you don't understand something, normally you lash out.”
That philosophy is what makes the Renewed faith family so special. The approximately fifty member church is a mixed bag of LGBTQ persons and allies. According to Pastor Curt, “You have some people that identify as being queer, you have some people that may identify as being bisexual, you have some people that may identify as being heterosexual but they love the environment, and then you also have Caucasian people that will come.”
“It's a montage of different ethnicities as well as sexual orientation. We have some transgender [persons] that come here. We have people of various forms of gender expression.”
He smiles, “There's one lady in particular who brings her dog to church, too. He's a little miniature poodle.”
Clearly, Renewed is a very unique church, a model of inclusion based in spirituality. What separates his church family from others is that the inclusion that he fosters is unlimited. That’s where the problems between religion and the LGBTQ community arise.
“The problem comes in is when people begin to divide that inclusivity,” Pastor Curt explains. “You go to a church and you say that you're gay or you say that you're this or you say that you're that. Then, people begin to put you in a box: they begin to box you in. I think that that—along with the person being uncomfortable, like I was at the church—is where things are different.”
While this commonality of tolerance versus inclusion seems menial, this small divide, this “Love the sinner, not the sin.” attitude is exhausting to deal with. As Pastor Curt explains, "It's easier for someone to fight a fight that you know that you have a possibility of winning versus fighting something that you know that you'll never win. You will just always regeneratively just be fighting."
"The reason why I started Renewed is because I don't want to fight anymore. We just want a space and a place where people can come and worship God and people can come and be their authentic selves and not have to worry about hearing derogatory sermons that discredit the person or the personality that they are as a person."
As to churches as such pointing to religious texts and beliefs, Pastor Curt has a fairly simple solution. “I think that they need to reevaluate the historical and contextual validity of what the scripture actually says. And I think that if we really have an honest conversation about that, then they'll open up...The reality is that, if we were to really be intellectually astute about what the Bible actually says, then we wouldn't have some of the problems that we have in those areas.”
Similarly, Pastor Curt sees a need for LGBTQ communities to remain regular and to keep their visibility up. A reason why religion and queerness might not mix is because we aren’t actively, repeatedly, standing up and being counted: we have to keep on being us in order for change to happen.
“We need consistency,” he says. “We need consistency in the community to where we keep things on the forefront, just as much as we party every weekend...Creating that consistent community to where we're showing up in spaces and places and we're seeing the bigger picture that this is not just about me, personally, but about the people that are going to come behind me is important.”
“We wouldn't have the freedoms we have if somebody didn't stand up,” he says. “It was because of those revolutionary moments that we have the freedoms that we have today.”
That revolutionary moment can happen in churches, too. Renewed is an example of this and Pastor Curt believes it’s possible for any church to be like his.
“My advice would be to galvanize people around you that believe what you believe. That's number one.”
“Number two would be to find venues and areas that you could go to that are already doing what you believe in your heart, and are not just being tolerant but are really being inclusive of what you feel in your heart.”
“And then number three would be to activate the person that's on the inside of you, to activate that person.”
“We use the John 3:16 model, which is, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’ So that's really for you to realize who God created you to be and that he loves you so much that nothing else matters.”
Pastor Curt smiles, taking a look around his little church, “After I realized that, I was able to not only impact myself but I was able to be impactful to others.”
As they say, you have to practice what you preach.