Highlands United Church of Christ will mark Sunday its declaration of an “open and affirming” status, which it says will make it the first of its denomination in Clark County that celebrates the sexuality of gay, lesbian and transgender people as a gift of God.
“This shows we are committed,” said Jan Kushmaul, who as moderator is the lay leader of the congregation.
“Jesus didn’t reject people,” said Kushmaul, “and neither do we.”
The worship service will begin at 10:30 a.m. at 1910 St. Paris Pike.
The decision came after a nine-month study period, Kushmaul said, and was approved by “nearly everybody” in a formal vote Jan. 13.
Pam Dixon, a congregation member who took part in the study groups, said the decision is in line with the congregation’s statement of its calling to do justice and pursue peace.
Calling the effort to establish the equality of gay people “hopefully the last civil rights struggle this county has to go through,” Dixon said that while she is not gay, “I don’t want to go to a church that doesn’t affirm gay people.”
“I believe one reason … people are saying they don’t have a church affiliation is because the mainstream Christian church is decades behind on these social issues, especially gay rights and even some women’s rights, like contraception,” Dixon said.
Rev. Gary Percesepe, Highlands’ pastor since 2006, said “not only do we tolerate people, we affirm them in their sexuality. Your sexuality is a gift from God to be celebrate. You’re not weird, you’re loved.”
Percesepe was an active voice in the unsuccessful push to persuade Springfield city commissioners to include sexual orientation in the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. Several people cited religious beliefs for why they opposed the measure during commission meetings, as well as other reasons such as they didn’t believe discrimination was an issue in Springfield.
The congregation has exercised its option under denominational rules to bless gay unions, Percesepe said, something he said isn’t prohibited by Ohio’s constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
“Marriage is a civil institution,” he said. “People come to the church for the blessing of the church. Many churches won’t give the blessing, we do. It’s as simple as that.”
Rick Incorvati of Equality Springfield called the declaration great, noting that many churches remain opposed to gay rights.
Members of Equality Springfield will meet with the Highlands congregation for breakfast and fellowship following the service Sunday.
Incorvati also volunteers with Youth First, a Springfield support group for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters.
“We are not beyond the stories of parents kicking their kids out of the house when they say they’re gay … A church should be there for young people providing stability, not degrading them, and that’s a step Highlands has taken,” Incorvati said.
“A church should be there for young people providing stability, not degrading them, and that’s a step Highlands has taken.”
— Rick Incorvati, Equality Springfield