A House Divided

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Reynolds prefers John 3:16 as a blueprint for his concept of the all-inclusive, accepting "whosoever church": For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

The roots of the whosoever church and Reynolds's sexuality series began at Emmanuel in 1993, when Reynolds formed an AIDS ministry that offered HIV testing and counseling to the African-American community in Colorado Springs. He'd been moved by the lonely experience of a young woman at Emmanuel who'd contracted HIV and had been all but abandoned when she showed up at church, sick with full-blown AIDS.

"She needed love, compassion. She wanted people to be very much aware [of HIV], for us to do prevention, education and outreach," Reynolds says. "Most people were coming of age at that point, as far as awareness of HIV went. They didn't connect that she was ill in that way. They wanted to go run and wash their hands after they were around her."

Reynolds's work with the AIDS ministry wasn't enough to stop the disease from infiltrating his own family. In 2000, his brother, Bart, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. But at home, just like at Emmanuel, it wasn't talked about.

"After Bart told me that he was sick, there were three or four times that I drove over to my parents' house, ready to tell them, but instead I turned around and drove home," Reynolds says. When he finally broke the news, his father said, "If we had talked about his sexuality, we wouldn't be planning his funeral."

Bart had once been the minister of music at Emmanuel; he was well known, and loved, within the church. It wasn't until after his death, in 2002, that the congregation openly discussed the fact that he was gay. "It was kind of like, 'Now we have a male, whose sexuality is in question, with HIV.' That put a face on it," Reynolds says. "When he died, they were able to say, 'Well, he probably did die of AIDS. He lived free and he died free.' In hindsight, they were able to say, 'That was him.'"

Reynolds realized that the silence, and stigma, of sexuality had killed his brother and would kill other brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, too. Communication was the only remedy to the homophobia that lay beneath the silence, so he opened the discussion at Emmanuel. For now, the sexuality talk is confined to the Bible studies, though Reynolds plans to gradually fold some of its themes and topics into his Sunday sermons. By the end of the year, he hopes to have an articulated position on sexual equality worked into Emmanuel's covenant. But he knows that significant change could be a long time coming.

"I'm planting seeds right now," he says. "We don't want to go too fast, but we want to get somewhere. People are scared but excited about this. I've never seen the level of excitement, and that's both positive and negative.

"Even I still come to every one of these classes with fear in my heart, trembling," he says. "And at the end of every class, after everyone leaves, I sit in that chair and wonder, 'What now?'"

Verna Williams has attended Emmanuel for six years, including every one of Reynolds's Bible studies. In her view, homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God. It's not a huge sin -- like, say, murder -- but a sin, nonetheless. As far as Verna is concerned, the Bible is pretty clear about that. It's right there in Leviticus 20:13: If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

But Verna says that homosexuality is nothing that a little, or a lot, of prayer can't fix.

"I don't think it's any higher or lower than lyin', cheatin', stealin' and fornication, and I don't believe that we should take the Scripture and beat homosexuals over the head with it," she says. "But I do believe that when Jesus loved people, he transformed them. I think if you're a homosexual in the church, you should at least try to let God change you."

So a couple of years ago, when Reynolds invited a lesbian preacher to address the congregation on a Sunday morning, Williams, like a lot of parishioners, started to wonder just what kind of church she was sitting in.

When Reynolds asked DaVita McAllister -- a pastor at a church in Atlanta and a friend he had met at an HIV conference in the mid-'90s -- to give a sermon at Emmanuel (as he occasionally does with ministers from Baptist churches all over the country), he struggled with the question of whether to withhold a line from the Sunday worship guide identifying her as a lesbian. But he believed she'd be so potent from the pulpit that no one would care. He prayed about it, and ultimately kept it in.

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond