Pastor of LGBT-affirming church in small East Texas town wants gays and lesbians to know they have spiritual home in Livingston
Gary Wright has been on many different journeys throughout his life, and at times felt as if he was lost along the way.
But then he experienced a spiritual awakening, one that he knew would eventually, through God’s will, shape his destiny.
Wright is the pastor of Grace Assembly Church, a small LGBT-affirming church in Livingston, Texas. Livingston a small town within a large lake resort community about 80 miles north of Houston and 175 miles south east of Dallas is “kind of in the middle of nowhere,” Wright acknowledged.
But, he added, “God resides in small town America as well, and thank God he does.”
Wright was raised in the Baptist Church, and at the age of 18 began attending Pentecostal services. He said his parents were “very supportive and never downed homosexual folk.” But still, “You just knew what was expected of you and you did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
So as a young man, Wright did what he thought was right: After finishing school he got married.
But he knew all along that something in his life was not as it should be.
“I knew that I had always been gay, but due to my upbringing, I was taught that it was wrong to be a homosexual,” he said.
Then in 1999, Wright finally decided to come out. He had the advantage of having a mother that might not have understood his being gay, but did understand that he was her child and she stood by her son. To this day she is an avid supporter.
After he finally came out as a gay man, Wright said he tried to find as many LGBT friends as he possible could. He also wanted to find someone special to share his life with, and that was a wish that came true.
“I tried looking in all the right places until the right one came along,” Wright said. “I met my partner, J.R. Cook, in November of 1999, and we have been together since that date.”
Wright and Cook both came from similar backgrounds, having both been raised in religious families. And both felt something was missing from their lives when they lost that connection to religion after coming out.
“We were both raised in church all our life. But as gay men we felt like we just did not have any place to go. I felt disenfranchised from everything,” Wright said. “So I began to pray, and it seemed that God was telling me to start a ministry here in Livingston.”
Because Livingston is populated by “just down-to-earth good people,” Wright admitted that he and Cook were “a little skeptical at first” about starting a LGBT-affirming church there.
But they kept going, he said, because “it seemed as if God was pushing me.”
“I really had to pray about this “‘God am I gay to reach the gay and lesbian community?’” Wright said. “This was the burning question in my mind, and God just seemed to confirm it.”
And so began Grace Assembly Church.
Wright and Cook began the church in 2001 with about 25 people both straight and gay in the congregation. The church celebrated its fifth anniversary last February.
“We began the church in a store front, then moved to a residence and from there to a converted garage which by the way, for a bunch of queens to decorate was absolutely beautiful,” Wright said.
They are presently located at 3028 US. Hwy. 190 West, about a mile-and-a-half west of Livingston.
Grace Assembly holds services each Sunday at 11 a.m. It also plays host to a LGBT social group on Friday nights at 6:30 p.m. Wright said attendance at the church services and at the social gatherings averages from 10 to 20 people from all walks of life.
The social group began about two years after Wright and Cook began Grace Assembly Church when the couple decided there was a need to reach people in ways other than through the church. They felt like a social gathering would help bring in some people that they would never convince to come to church.
They started the gathering in their home as a dinner followed by time for conversation and games.
“We call it a social group instead of a support group, because I don’t feel that most folks who come will feel as though they can share their problems right away,” Wright said. “Sometimes we have some pretty deep discussions.”
Although the church is nondenominational, Wright holds a license through Reconciling Pentecostals International, for which Doug Clanton is the presiding presbyter. Wright said that the Fellowship of Reconciling Pentecostals International is a network of Pentecostal ministers, churches and ministries seeking to “reconcile people to God without regard to race, gender, political persuasion, economic or educational status, sexual orientation, nationality, religious affiliation or any other thing that divides.”
“I came out of the Pentecostal church so my ministry is rooted in the Pentecostal style of worship,” said Wright. “The church is my mother, spiritually, and I cannot get away from that. I love the excitement in worship.”
Wright also said he wants to let people know that God loves everyone unquestionably, and he said he tries to create an atmosphere “where every knee can bow.”
“Our community is a little bit closeted, but there is quite a large community of GLBT folk here,” said Wright. “You only have to go into Wal-Mart to see just how many GLBT folks there are.”
Wright said he has worked hard and used various methods to try and grow his ministry, even advertising in the local newspaper try to spread the word that there is a church available to GLBT residents and visitors.
Wright said that some people even call him an “outer” because of his directness in approaching people he believes might be gay about attending his church services.
“You know, you have that instinct to kind of just know when someone might be gay,” Wright said. “When I have that instinct, I will approach someone and say “‘I am a gay man and a pastor. I have a gay church here at Lake Livingston and thought you might be interested in joining our services sometime. If I’m wrong, then I’m sorry,’”
Sometimes his method works, he said, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“I believe we should be adamant in our soul winning. But some folks, you just can’t push religion down their throats,” Wright said. “GLBT people for too long have been told that God doesn’t love them, and it is hard to get somebody to come to something they have been outcast from. It takes a slow gentle process of sharing not only your faith but your “‘story’ as well,” Wright said.
“We’ve all come from somewhere, we were all somebody at sometime, but when we came out as gay and lesbian for the most part we became a nobody,” he continued. “Our church wants to change that.”
The pastor said the church already has “a great group of people” at Grace Assembly, and he expects the church will only grow. Wright believes that there are many more LGBT residents around Lake Livingston that are looking for a sanctuary where they are welcome to worship and to be who they truly are.
“What a wonderful breathe of fresh air to know there are folks out there who were disenfranchised, just as we are, who have come to the knowledge that God doesn’t judge our sexuality any more than he judges our eye color. God looks at the heart,” Wright said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 15, 2006.