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Coming out before God: minister Beth Stroud worked up the courage to come out in her flock. Now featured in a PBS documentary, she may face a trial to determine her future as a pastor.

One spring day in April 2003, the First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood was standing room only. The congregation listened intently as the Reverend Beth Stroud, the associate pastor, gave her sermon. Yet this was no ordinary Sunday service. After months of planning, and years of personal contemplation, Stroud came out as a lesbian.

"I know that God will bless my truth-telling and my risk-taking as God has blessed my ministry," she explained. "I believe that somehow, in my taking this step together with [my church], the life and light of Christ will shine in the world."

Stroud's flock gave her an emotional standing ovation, but the United Methodist Church has launched a formal investigation that could result in a church trial, with Stroud perhaps being defrocked if convicted. However, in Washington State, the Reverend Karen Dammann was acquitted in March in a similar potentially career-ending trial. A jury of 13 pastors cleared her of a charge of practices "incompatible with Christian teachings," though she declared she is a lesbian in a committed relationship.

For Stroud, a 34-year-old Arkansas native and graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, fighting to keep her position is all part of what she considers her calling to ministry. "Growing up in the United Methodist Church, I got the message that Jesus loves me no matter what and that God's love is for everyone," Stroud tells The Advocate.

She quotes from her coming-out sermon: "I have realized that not telling the whole truth about myself has been holding me back in my faith. I have come to a place where my discipleship, my walk with Christ, requires telling the whole truth and paying whatever price truthfulness requires."

What makes Stroud's coming-out story even more intriguing is that documentary filmmakers happened to be there to record the whole event. Alan and Susan Raymond had set out to make a documentary with the simple goal of showcasing the goings-on behind the scenes of a socially progressive Protestant church. Little did they know when they started that Stroud was a lesbian and that her public coming-out would launch a high-profile battle to keep her job. Given the notoriety of Stroud's case, and that other denominations are mulling issues such as gay clergy and marriage rites for same-sex couples, PBS is premiering The Congregation in December.

In the film, viewers see Stroud as preacher and youth minister, "and she's very good at it," says Susan Raymond. "So the question for conservatives is, Why can't she keep her job, especially when the congregation is supporting her? What is so threatening about her?" And the congregation does indeed support Stroud, who received not one but two standing ovations during her coming-out sermon. Its administrative council has since set up a legal fund to help her fight the judicial process.

United Methodist Church is largely seen as gay-friendly, with a tradition of advocating for the equality and civil rights of all people, including gays and lesbians. But clergy must meet requirements set out in its Book of Discipline--and currently the church draws the line at gay clergy. In May at the annual UMC gathering in Pittsburgh, delegates reaffirmed their stance on the issue, approving this statement: "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."

More and more gay people of faith seem to have had revelations similar to Stroud's in recent years, says the Reverend Irene Monroe, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. "Beth is one of the many courageous people who is speaking up on behalf of justice," says Monroe, who is also a friend of Stroud's. "Where it used to be only conservative religious people who stood up and broke away ideologically, now you're seeing many progressive and queer religious folks standing up and fighting for their beliefs."

For now, Stroud continues with her ministerial duties, serving the church she sees as part of her family. In fact, she says that the UMC's struggle is much like what her parents went through when she came out to them in 1990. "When I told my parents, it was not the easiest thing for them to hear. We went through some tough times," Stroud recalls. "But we love each other. We grew, and are not in the same spiritual place now. Since the church is also my family, I hope that the conversation we are having now will take us somewhere different than [where] we are right now. As my family changed after coming out to them, I hope the people in my church have the same experience."

Kuhr is the editor of the New England GLBT paper In Newsweekly.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Religion
Author:Kuhr, Fred
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 23, 2004
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