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Refuge for the lost

Photo credit: Bill Hughes

Where do the faithful go when a church rejects gays and lesbians? Places like Northwest Community Church, where Rev. Greg Davis is building a safe harbor

“God is still speaking! But are we listening?”

These could easily be the words that launch a Sunday service in just about any Christian church. Today, the candles dedicated to loved ones and prayers of the sick and needy twinkle, stage left. Meanwhile, at stage right, the choir, backed by a band, keeps people on their feet. Throughout the service, the pastor preaches and directs the music — belting out a phrase or two in a rich voice, a glimpse of this very unlikely pastor’s former life as a self-described “Vegas showboy.” Meet Greg Davis, the openly gay pastor of Northwest Community Church.

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And that “showboy” background comes out not only in the sometimes elaborate staging of sermons — like Easter Sunday, when the cross was draped in several dozen feet of colorful fabrics and festooned with lilies — but even in some of the simpler sermons filled with more everyday references he uses to drive points home. For a Father’s Day sermon, just weeks after his own father had passed away, Rev. Davis dove deeply into not only what scripture says about fatherhood, but what pop culture does as well. Images of Ward Cleaver, Mike Brady, and even Archie Bunker flashed on the screen behind Davis as he encouraged the congregation to shout out qualities of each of the characters and how they relate to fatherhood.

After the service on any given Sunday, your eyes might travel around the room and really see the families gathered around the coffee cart. Some of these families have two moms or two dads, and there are as many sporting church-logo T-shirts as there are parishioners wearing Human Rights Campaign gear. Cars in the parking lot are dotted with bumper stickers touting their kid’s academic achievements, sporting silhouettes of athletes kicking soccer balls and promoting “NoH8.” Indeed, at this church, your stereotypical nuclear family — mommy, daddy and a baby makes three — stands out as the odd duck. Something I know from personal experience, as my family attends this church.

But whoever you are, Davis will find you. The reverend bounces through the crowd on Sundays seeking out the shy and the strangers — and there have been many more new faces since Davis came on at Northwest last October. After watching one of his sermons, which he delivers in street clothes rather than the somber collar many clergy don, you would be tempted to see only the exuberance he delivers on his new stage, the pulpit.

“I don’t know that I would attribute it to him being a gay man, but his leadership style is so much more celebratory and uplifting than (more recent pastors),” says Bill Thomas, one of the original founding members of the 12-year-old church. “There’s this really grand sense of worship.”

But it is Davis’ ability to connect with people that often resonates most, as Thomas explains.

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“One thing that is different is that Greg is a member of the LGBT community,” he says, noting that all of the founding members of the church were straight. “For whatever reason, there is that connection that we did not have before.”

Davis says he can see it as well. “There’s a different solidarity.”

In this space bathed in sunlight streaming through the stained glass — the picture of tradition and history — some very stubborn boundaries are being broken. And this isn’t just a Vegas thing. Churches and whole denominations are opening up to openly gay members, as well as church leaders. With the June 26 Supreme Court ruling dismantling a significant portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, it’s possible that there’s never been a better time for faith groups to open the doors to the LGBT people who were once rejected. Pastors such as Rev. Davis are leading the way.

From the closet to the pulpit

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It wasn’t so long ago that the mere mention of a gay faith leader — whether out or in the closet — would have been nothing short of blasphemy. And there are certainly plenty of religious spaces, Christian or any other religion, who have not only hung a “Do Not Enter” sign, but that have virtually nailed the door shut. The prevailing message for much of the history of the Christian church has been pretty clear: You’re not welcome here. That message is one that many members of Northwest Community Church, which shares worship space with First Christian Church in a building off Rancho Drive, have spent a lifetime trying to reconcile even as they acknowledged that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Rev. Greg Davis is no exception.

Growing up in Oklahoma, Davis, 52, was raised Southern Baptist. By the age of 13 he realized two things: He wanted to devote his life to God and music ministry, and that he was gay.

“Music was a big part of my spiritual life at church,” Davis tells me when we meet for lunch a week before the Supreme Court hands down a landmark decision. “Everything I did was geared to that.”

[HEAR MORE: Rev. Douglas Kanai does “Buddhism the hard way.” Hear how on " KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

While Davis describes his childhood in mostly idyllic ways, there were some dark moments. Davis says he was sexually abused, but says when he told his parents, their support helped him move past the experience. Later on, Davis says he did his best to fit into the stereotype of a straight guy. He had girlfriends in high school, but they would always eventually ask him if he was gay.

“They would always question me, ‘Are you gay?’” He says, chuckling. “I was doing the good Baptist boy thing. ‘You know, a kiss leads to …’ I wasn’t trying to get away with anything like the other boys.”

By the time he was majoring in church music at Oklahoma Baptist University, he finally started to reconcile with the truth about himself. Still very timid in his sexual identity, Davis ventured out to a couple of gay clubs. “I was still too scared to actually do anything, but I was curious,” Davis says. When university officials found out, Davis was threatened with expulsion. Instead, however, he was sent to reparative, or aversion, therapy and required to move back into the dorms — the all-male dorms.

“You think I’m gay and you’re forcing me to live in an all-male dormitory?” Davis says with a laugh.

On the subject of reparative therapy — popularly referred to as “pray the gay away” — all Davis says is that it finally stopped when he inexplicably yelled out “No!” in a crowded classroom. By this time, Davis was learning fast that his dreams of one day leading a big, Southern Baptist choir were well out of reach.

“Not wanting to be gay is huge,” he says, the smile fading from his face. “There is that thing inside you that you’re constantly fighting.” (The same week of our interview, news broke that one of the largest reparative therapy organizations, Exodus International, had disbanded its board and abruptly changed direction, with President Alan Chambers apologizing for the damage wrought by his organization.) Whatever memories or scars Davis carries from his experience, he quickly focuses back on music and ministry.

“You’d be amazed how many music leaders in the church are gay,” he says, almost conspiratorially. “A lot of them have really mastered how to live that lie. But if churches really started kicking out all the gays, there’d be no music leaders left!”


The showbiz connection

By the time the AIDS crisis started to hit in the early 1980s, Davis went to study music at the University of Houston. He saw the Christian-based response as not only lacking compassion, but as a sign that he needed to redirect his love of music elsewhere. “(The church’s) response to the AIDS crisis was … well, it was hateful. That’s when I decided to go into show business instead.”

Musical theater took him to major cities in the Midwest, including shows in Wichita, Kansas, Oklahoma City and Chicago. But as the ’80s drew to a close, Las Vegas came calling. On Jan. 1, 1990, Davis got a part in “Forever Plaid,” which he did for about eight years. Almost 10 years later, he was hatching plans to move back to New York City when he took over the music department at Community Lutheran Church in October of 1999.

“I had kind of fallen in love with Las Vegas,” he says. “And then everything I had ever wanted to do as a kid, I was getting to do (at Community Lutheran).” A few months after taking on his new role at Community Lutheran, Davis was feeling another kind of love in his life. In April 2000, Davis met Freddie Harmon at a Sunday country-western dance.

“I saw him in the crowd and just as I saw him he looked up and locked eyes with me,” says Harmon, a native Nevadan and Chief Marketing Officer at the Tropicana Hotel. “As soon as I got home, I called him and left a message.”

One of the first things Harmon remembers Davis asking was whether or not he went to church. In fact, Harmon says, his family was not very religious and he would just “float through” churches of any denomination — Baptist, Mormon, what-have-you — with none of them feeling exactly right.

“It just never felt comfortable at church because of my sexuality,” Harmon says. Having grown up hearing about how homosexuality was a sin left a deep impression. “That kind of resonates with a kid. I don’t think I would have felt comfortable at any church. (I learned that) church and my sexuality didn’t go together.” Cut to 2000, and after a first date the day after they met, Rev. Davis has Harmon at church two days later.

“It immediately took away what I had felt before. Being with Greg made it okay,” Harmon says.

Isn’t church an unusual second date? Harmon laughs. “I just remember loving it at church, like I had been missing it. There’d been a void.”


Filling the void

Perhaps it’s that void that calls so many different types of people to the little-church-that-could on Rancho Drive, well before Rev. Davis took the leadership role last fall. Even though Northwest is a United Church of Christ church, you’ll find Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and even atheists who have finally found a respite amid the stormy waters of religion. Heartbreaking stories of being kicked out of churches they loved (as well as from families they were once a part of) abound.

Dr. Charlotte Morgan is just such a member. Raised in the evangelical Lutheran tradition in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the 53-year-old naturopathic doctor says she was a devoted Camp Fire Girl, spending summers out in the woods or paddling a canoe. Her other favorite pastime was singing in the church choir. “I always loved to sing,” she recalls.

And then, in 1975, when Morgan was 15, a friend’s mom called and told her mother that her daughter had just come out as a lesbian. The friend’s mom concluded that if her daughter was gay, then Morgan must be, too. She remembers her mother asking her point-blank if she was a lesbian.

“I think in 1975 I did not know about sex and sexuality. I had barely gotten my period about a year and half earlier. I told my mom, no,” Morgan pauses and adds, “I didn’t think that I was.”

But her mother thought she was lying. And that belief caused a deep rift between the two of them. “That changed our relationship forever.”

A few years later, when the choirgirl was ready to transition from the youth choir to the adult choir at church, she suddenly found herself uninvited to participate. In fact, it turned out the invitation to leave went beyond just choir. At 18, Morgan was shown the exit door to the only church she had ever known, where she’d been baptized, and eventually where she’d mark the passing of each of her parents.

“It was very Midwest — you know how nobody ever talks about anything in the Midwest,” Morgan recalls. “No one said it in so many words that I was kicked out for being gay, but the message was clear.”

When she finally did come out to her mother, the response was unapologetically negative. Her mother suggested she go to aversion therapy, which Morgan would only agree to if her mother went to a meeting at PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays). It was a stalemate.

“My mom said, ‘Don’t tell your dad. It would kill him.’” Six months later, Morgan’s father died of a heart attack.

And with that, Morgan packed up and moved to Seattle, bidding her family and her faith good riddance. “I was done with church. I went on and lived my life.”

But as it turned out, religion was not done with Morgan just yet. In 1997, Morgan and her partner Julie Liebo were starting the two-year process to adopt the first of their two daughters. Together for seven years at that point, they were discussing what they wanted for the child who was coming into their lives. To her surprise, Morgan told Liebo she wanted to have their child baptized, just as she had been as a child.

“She’s Jewish. Neither one of us had been practicing (our religions). She did not get it at all,” Morgan says. “I told her I didn’t care if it was through the Jewish faith or what. I said, ‘I so much believe in God, I don’t care what house it’s in.’”

After some discussion and an urging from Liebo’s father to “Do something!” they finally agreed. But the plan was to find a church and just do a quickie baptism and get out. Neither one had any interest in maintaining a religious practice. Having newly arrived in Las Vegas in 2004, Morgan searched online for a church that was “open and affirming” – the official designation of United Church of Christ churches that welcome LGBT individuals — and found Northwest Community Church.

What started as a quickie baptism has turned into nine years with the local church and Morgan starting seminary two years ago. But while many say they feel a calling by God to go to seminary and become an official religious leader, Morgan says her motivations are different. She wants to be a voice for those too afraid to come out; she wants to be an example to straight family members who struggle with accepting a gay relative.

“I didn’t feel a calling,” she says matter-of-factly. But at her naturopathic clinic, where she guides patients to create mind, body, and spiritual connections, she says she has seen a lot of miracles. “I saw that people have better wellness when they have spiritual wellness.”


Churches on the outs

 “I think the church is coming out,” Rev. Davis says.

And there seem to be people ready to find those “out” churches. According to a 2009 Barna Group survey, 60 percent of gay adults described their faith as “very important” to them, compared with 72 percent of straight adults. And 70 percent of gay people identify with America’s dominant religion, Christianity, compared to 85 percent of heterosexuals. It was a telling moment in July when Pope Francis said, “If a gay person is searching for God with goodwill, who am I to judge them?”

Meanwhile, other Christian denominations, like the Episcopals, have been responding with more concrete and less symbolic gestures. In June the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest denomination in that religion, elected their first openly gay bishop. But it took a few years. The ELCA Lutherans voted to allow openly gay ordained ministers in 2009.

In fact, Rev. Davis told leadership at Community Lutheran Church of his plans to go to seminary the day after that 2009 announcement. The response was that it was great news, he says, but some doubted if there could be a place for him within the Lutheran denomination when he got out in three years.

“I was told that even though the vote happened, it was going to take time for change to really take hold in congregations,” Davis recalls.

He was steered toward the United Church of Christ, as a religion that has a reputation for being less hostile to LGBT faith leaders. But, as Davis explains, only about 22 percent of UCC churches are open and affirming. “You have to navigate a lot of resistance.”

When he got out of seminary, he found a lot of doors, even within the United Church of Christ, to be shut tight.

Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and author of the new book God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, knows something about that. Elected in 2003, the now-retiring bishop writes in his book about facing daily death threats in the high-profile and precedent-setting role. And the agitation was not just from outside the church. In 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to invite Robinson to the Lambeth Conference of bishops in England. It was the first time a bishop had been excluded in such fashion in the centuries-old religion. He went anyway.

That same year, Robinson married his partner of then-21 years, Mark Andrews, after New Hampshire passed same-sex marriage rights. Robinson says he believes this was important not only because he believes in the covenant of marriage in the religious arena, but also because he believes in the contract of marriage in the civil arena, a contract that confers more than 1,100 rights and privileges. He writes in his book, “Nothing in Scripture or orthodox theology precludes our opening the institution of marriage to same-gender couples.” And Robinson feels strongly that the visibility of openly gay leaders in church is important.

“It matters who’s at the top, or who is in leadership positions,” the bishop says. “When there are LGBT leaders, that signals to everyone that change is happening.”


Fire in the backyard

With DOMA all but dismantled — one remaining component allows states to not recognize same-sex marriages from other states — the fight over marriage rights in the 30 states with bans may ignite anew. And it’s right here in our backyard.

A joint resolution to repeal Nevada’s de facto ban on same-sex marriage passed its first hurdle during the 2013 Legislature. State Sen. Kelvin Atkinson lobbied passionately on the floor for rights and in the process came out publicly for the first time, saying, “I’m black. I’m gay.” Meanwhile, Sens. Ruben Kihuen and Justin Jones, Catholic and Mormon, respectively, ostensibly went against their religious beliefs to vote in favor of the resolution. (In order to be ratified, the resolution will have to be passed again by the 2015 Legislature and then be passed by a vote of the people in 2016.)

When I ask Bishop Robinson why so many are willing to publicly come out, so to speak, for same-sex marriage and gay rights in general, his answer is simple: What’s changed is that so many LGBT people have come out.

“Now that so many people know someone who is gay, they know those (negative stereotypes) aren’t true,” he says. “People have to come out. Harvey Milk said that coming out is the most political thing you can do. And he was right.”

And while seeing an openly gay bishop or even an openly gay pastor at a church will no doubt cause some people to reconsider their ideas about LGBT people, Robinson says the really important thing is that it will save lives.

“The person who I’m most excited about seeing (an LGBT faith leader) is the gay kid struggling somewhere, like I was,” he says, referring to growing up in Kentucky.

Freddie Harmon agrees. “I was the stereotypical gay kid who attempted suicide. When I was in high school, I thought I was the only gay kid in my city. The only gay kid in Las Vegas! To have known that there were other people, and in leadership roles, that would have saved me some heartache.”

Rev. Davis finds his partner’s story to be a common one he hears from members of his church and others.

“People have been hurt. I’ve been hurt. … People are finding our church a refuge,” the reverend says. “It’s healing for people who were rejected (by religion). There are bridges out there. We don’t have to build them. But we have to find them.”

The pastor encourages people to take their stories to whatever religious institution works for them.  And Davis sees hope in undoing the strict doctrine that may have hurt LGBT people in the past.

“A strict religious setting can be a kind of abuse,” the reverend says.


Crazy thing in a crazy town

Earlier this spring, with his parents in attendance, Davis went through his official ordination process in California, earning his degree and the title of reverend. It was in many ways a full-circle moment for Davis, who was happy that his parents could finally see him fulfill the calling he felt for most of his life.

“It was a wonderful experience to have them there,” Davis says, just weeks after his father passed away. “I looked out and I saw my daddy on his feet, applauding. He was so proud.”

A former “Vegas showboy” probably sounds like the last person you would think of to be a pastor at a church. And somehow, in a town like Las Vegas, it fits in its own non-conformist kind of way. Catch the YouTube video of Rev. Davis and members of the congregation doing the “Harlem (Palm Sunday) Shake” and somehow it’s less irreverent and more endearing. Indeed, Davis shrugs off the idea that being an openly gay pastor is trail-blazing in a town like Las Vegas.

“I think it’s a lot easier here,” he says. “It’s a lot different when I go to Texas or Oklahoma. People who do it in those kinds of places are a lot more brave than I am. We’re doing a crazy thing in a crazy town. It kind of fits.”

Now, on any given Sunday morning, you’ll find Rev. Davis up front and Harmon sitting in one of the back rows next to his parents, beaming at his husband at the pulpit while resting his arm on the back of his mother’s chair. As Davis likes to joke, “Freddie is the perfect pastor’s wife.”

And both of Davis’ parents were able to see their son in action at Northwest. When they came after his ordination, Davis had a talk with his father to prepare him for the church’s LGBT membership. In particular, Davis remembers being worried about how his father would react to some of the transgender members. His father surprised him.

“I talked to him after church,” Davis recalls, smiling. “And he was like, ‘Oh her? Yeah, she was real nice. We had a nice long chat.’”