Despite obstacles, LGBT-affirming church perseveres
Jeff Ferguson got the news in late February the church he has lead since 2011 would once again have to move.
Ferguson declined to discuss the disagreement because his congregation has reached an arrangement with its host church. But the pastor said Citichurch of Dallas, his evangelical nondenominational church with a large LGBT membership, was no longer welcome to worship in the sanctuary of the Irving church where they had been meeting for the last two months.
The congregation had already moved multiple times. Now, once again, Ferguson had to find his flock a new home. After lunch at Lucky’s a few days after getting the boot, he decided to contact a United Church of Christ congregation.
“I remembered President Obama is part of the [UCC] denomination,” Ferguson said. The denomination, of which Cathedral of Hope is also a part, was the first mainstream Protestant denomination in the country to affirm LGBT people and same-sex marriage.
So he got in his car, drove home, and Googled the denomination in hopes of finding nearby UCC churches. One of the first churches to appear on the search engine’s results was Central Congregational Church on Royal Lane.
After canceling worship services on Sunday, March 6, Citichurch resumes worship at the new location this coming Sunday, March 13. Angie Whatley, Citichurch’s pastoral care counselor and longtime friend of Ferguson, said she is thankful for their new home’s hospitality.
“They are amazing,” Whatley said.
An open house held ahead of the church’s first service in August 2011, when six gay men asked Ferguson if they would be welcome at the church, only affirmed the church’s welcoming stance.
“Of course,” he told them.
And they could fully participate in the life of the church, too?
“Of course,” he said again.
No questions asked.
Ferguson said he was raised by a Pentecostal minister but has broken from many of the dogmatic views of his youth. As a guy who has performed at Pride parades and ministered at LGBT Christian conferences, he said he feels like God has a lot of other issues to think about.
Whether because of theological differences or financial restraints, Ferguson, who is 49 years old and straight, is used to moving around. After living in Nashville, Tenn., and touring the country as part of his music ministry, he moved to Orlando, Fla. And, he said, “I thought I’d live the rest of my life in Orlando.”
Ferguson, who speaks with the conviction and enthusiasm of the true believer, never wanted to become a pastor. He was a successful songwriter, singer and teacher.
But he felt “called” to move to Dallas in spring 2011.
He said he can’t describe what lead him — it’s a matter of faith — but the fact that the move would put him closer to Whatley and her sister D’Ann Miller, who live in the area and have managed his music ministry for the past decade, made the decision easier.
Citichurch opened in the spring of 2011 with little money and lots of prayer. It still operates that way, too.
But their faith keeps the congregation together. And their commitment to “an inclusive Gospel,” as Ferguson called it, is a big part of their church’s core mission.
But their unorthodox view on inclusion has clearly also cost them.
“We’ve had a hard time financially,” Ferguson said. “Our clergy are all volunteers. Only our musicians are paid.
“As a fundamentalist, charismatic church welcoming of LGBT people, we’ve struggled to grow [as well],” he continued. “We have elements of evangelism but parts of the evangelical mindset repulse us.”
Kenny Clymer is Citichurch’s assistant worship pastor, leading the congregation in praise and worship every week. A gay man with a graduate degree in music, he grew up in the Presbyterian Church of the United States denomination.
His family was liberal — liberal enough to accept his conversion to the Baptist faith at 16 years old and eventually, his move to evangelical Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal tradition, largely identified with the homophobic, hellfire-and-brimstone theology of Oral Roberts, may not seem ideal for a gay man, but Clymer loved the music and worship.
“I love the excitement, the music and the ability to let go during evangelical services. But I also love traditional services, too,” Clymer said.
Looking online for churches meeting his criteria, he found a video of gospel singer Mark Lowry performing at Citichurch. Clymer visited and the experience stuck. He immediately got involved with the praise team, and three years later he now leads the praise team.
“This church means a lot to me,” Clymer said. “We welcome all people, which is unusual in Christianity. There’s no judgment here, which is very appealing.”
For Ferguson, there is no disconnect between what many see as a non-inclusive tradition and his inclusive church.
“As a Pentecostal, I’ve always thought outside of the box. God made me open to everyone,” he declared. “I just don’t care. I’ve read too many things and been exposed to enough to know [being gay] is a not a choice. It’s a nonissue to God. I believe God still speaks.”
Citichurch of Dallas at 5 p.m. every Sunday at Central Congregational Church, 5600 Royal Lane.
For more information call 214-222-2137 or visit CitichurchofDallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2016.