- Community can be found in many places, but in the south, church is everything.
In fact, the south is by far the most religious region in the country.
A recent study indicates that an overwhelming 90% of southerners believe in God.
And over 80% say that religion is an important part of their daily lives.
But many churches still reject LGBTQ people, who often have to decide between hiding who they are or being cut off from the biggest source of community they've ever known.
But that's not the case in every church.
I recently traveled to one of the most devout places in the country, Mississippi.
And right there in the capital of Jackson I found a church with an openly gay pastor who's mission it is to welcome anyone and everyone into their community of faith.
Hi, you must be Pastor Lowry.
- Rob Lowry, good to have you with us.
- Dyllón Burnside.
- Good to meet you.
- Nice to meet you.
- Welcome to Fondren.
- Thank you for having me in your church today.
This is a really beautiful space.
How long have you been a minister in the church?
- I'm going into my 20th year of ministry.
(congregation singing) - What's your journey been like as an openly gay minister?
Have you always been out in the church?
- I've not.
I came out almost 11 years ago.
And that was the end of a really long personal journey.
When I went to seminary, the church, at the time, had a ban on gay clergy.
You could not be ordained if you were openly gay in the Presbyterian church at that point.
I got ordained, I got married, I got divorced.
- You got married to a woman?
- Uh huh.
I got married to a wonderful woman, but our marriage didn't last.
Not being out was, waking up every morning and living my day dishonestly.
See, what the community learned when Jesus healed that man in the cemetery, the world has to change with the gospel.
One day, in the middle of the day, it just dawned on me that the only way for me to truly be the person I feel called to be in the church was to be the person I truly feel called to be entirely.
Being openly gay and being out in the world, that's the only way for me to wake up in the morning and start telling the truth every day.
Jesus reaches into the world and brings compassion and love and healing and wholeness where there was none.
- And so, when you decided to come out, what kind of responses did you get from the church?
- It was sort of a 99 to one ratio of people who were tremendously welcoming and embracing, friends, my family, my colleagues, all, I mean without exception were wonderfully welcoming to me.
- That's incredible.
You realize that's like not the experience of most people.
- I realize exactly how lucky I am.
I really do.
- [Congregation] Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
- I grew up going to a private Christian school.
I was in church every day.
It was my life.
I worked at a church that was non-denominational but had southern Baptist roots.
I led a team of about 50 volunteers.
I, too, never thought that being out was an option.
I had sort of suppressed these thoughts, these feelings for so long just thinking that I'd be able to pray it away.
- [Rob] Yeah.
- I told my pastor that I was attracted to men, and I lost my job.
And it took me years to be able to walk back into a church.
What that experience did for me was made me question everything that I thought I knew to be true about God, about the church, about myself.
And so, I had to figure out a new way to engage with God, and a part of that was leaving the church.
Now, that life seems so far away.
- And figuring out how to build that community has been a really difficult journey to figure out how to get there.
- The world has learned.
The world has grown.
We are growing into a new people, a new community.
Part of your life, your journey, coming out, is about sharing that part of you.
Sometimes it happens like mine did where I'm surrounded by a community that embraces me.
Sometimes it happens like your story where all of a sudden this bedrock in your life is drawn out from under you.
When I encounter folks feeling cut off from what they knew and sort of adrift, what I tell them is build a community.
Find a community that honors who you are, because the one thing God wants out of this is for you to know that you are valued and honored.
You're not on this earth to pray away the gay any more than you are to pray away the straight or anything else.
- What do you think it was about the particular community in which you existed that made them so welcoming that you think other people can learn from?
- In this community right here is not defined by a bunch of people who live and think and act alike.
In this church, I've got people who are lifelong, deep, political and social conservatives and I've got young trans people who are coming and sharing their gifts with us.
We bear witness to the fact that agreeing with people is not what makes community.
Loving people is what makes community.
So, I think that we're demonstrating in who we are what can be possible in the world.
And I think that's just vitally important today.
- Wow, that sounds like something I could get behind.
Where do you find community?
- I find community everywhere.
- I find community in theater.
- I find community in being a gamer and that's G-A-Y-M-E-R. - I find community all around me.
- The folks I go to the gym with.
- My book club.
- In play parties.
- Through group chats.
- Going to physical places.
- Taquerias, in barber shops.
- Through my activism work.
- Through art.
- I like to build community everywhere I go.
And then help those communities build and grow together too.