A few years back a church bought a recently vacated big box retail building about 8 or 9 blocks from my house and converted it to a worship center. The church was a regional megachurch, not affiliated with an existing denomination. I had heard a little bit about it, but wasn’t terribly familiar at the time. I’ve since learned a bit more.
Although they try to wrap their message in language that sounds hip and liberal, and they clearly aim their marketing at a younger demographic, it is anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, and anti-all-the-other-usuals. The head pastor drives a couple of Mercedes-Benzes. His sermons each week are broadcast on giant screens in the neighborhood worship centers. Dissenters in the congregation are kicked out and all church members who wish to remain in good standing (included the kicked-out person’s spouse, if applicable) are instructed to shun the person.
There is a beautiful historic church building in downtown Seattle, with a gorgeous doomed main building. The building is on the eastern edge of downtown, close to Capitol Hill, which has long been known as the city’s gay neighborhood. Years ago the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus (of which I was a member) was one of about a dozen community musical groups that rented space in the church for weekly rehearsals. Every year they asked all the groups that rehearsed to participate in a Christmas concert. It was wonderful to sing under that big beautiful dome. But also sad to see how small the audience was. The congregation had been shrinking for decades, finding it increasingly difficult to even keep the lights on, let alone maintain the structure. The big beautiful building is on a prime piece of downtown property, and it seemed inevitable that the building would be torn down.
A few months ago, the megachurch announced that it would be leasing the property, moving its downtown neighborhood worship center from a converted warehouse space to the building. Their announcement included the statement, “being closer to Capitol Hill is a blessing as we are serving and ministering to those who are infected with AIDS on the hill.”
There were so many things wrong with that sentence. I’m not sure where to begin.
First, it is literally not possible to be infected with AIDS; you can be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but not AIDS itself. AIDS is a specific constellation of symptoms which are a late-term manifestation of an HIV-infection. It is a common misperception, but no one who was actively involved in any serious program to serve or care for HIV-positive people would not be aware of the distinction.
Second, it isn’t the 1980s. AIDS has not been cured, but thanks to the various new drugs, most people in the U.S. who are infected with the HIV virus do not have AIDS. Further, thanks to the drugs, a person can live thirty or more years without experiencing any symptoms. People do still die from the disease, and being on the drugs for decades is no picnic, but there are no longer thousands of people in every gay neighborhood living in near-hospice-care situations counting down the days (and T-cells) until they move into an actual hospice. Some studies, in fact, are beginning to indicate that a person infected with the virus living in a first world country, who begins treatment early, doesn’t even have a statistically significantly shortened lifespan because of it.
Third, while a higher proportion of white people infected with HIV are gay or bisexual than are straight, it is by no means a majority of gay people who are infected. Most gay people, like most straight people, don’t have the virus. In many places in the U.S., one’s ethnicity is a better predictor of HIV infection than whether one is gay and out of the closet.
Fourth, this specific church is anti-gay. Gay members are not allowed. Anyone is welcome to attend, but gay people are not allowed to become members until they become ex-Gay. No one wants to be “ministered to” by someone who thinks you are an abomination. And in the year 2013 if you are the kind of person who thinks that a gay neighborhood is filled with AIDS patients, you are the kind of person who thinks gay people are an abomination. You may not say it aloud, and you may deny it if confronted, but that level of ignorance is only achieved by assiduous avoidance.
Fifth, the statement is in the present tense. In other words, the church claimed to already be involved in some sort of service ministry to people with the disease. The fact that they are obviously unaware of my first, second, and third points shows the statement was a lie. Furthermore, not one single news article or press release in which the church had touted its various charity activities which mentioned anything about AIDS or HIV service could be found before this one statement. Not one.
Sixth, while that building is located close to one part of Capitol Hill, to the extent that the hill remains a gay neighborhood (more on that in a bit), most of the gayborhood is centered on the Broadway business corridor, about a mile walk (most of it uphill), from the church’s location. The church is not really conveniently located close to most of the homos on the Hill. And the Hill isn’t quite the great gay village it once was. The majority of queer people living in the Seattle metropolitan area live outside the Hill. The Hill is still very queer, don’t get me wrong, but one of the reasons the Pride Parade had to move off the Hill is because the neighborhood literally can’t hold all the gay people who want to attend the parade. I don’t live on the Hill, and I almost never go there, for instance.
Seventh, during my years of observation of their worship center in my neighborhood, the attendees drive in from somewhere else, attend the events on their property, and then leave. They aren’t part of the local community. They don’t seem to make the slightest effort to even get to know the local community. This last point may not be entirely fair. I’m a flaming homo, after all, and I don’t really want to get into any meaningful conversation with them. But from what I’ve read on other neighborhood blogs, it seems to be the case there, too. So I don’t see how moving the downtown meeting place a few blocks closer to Homo Hill is going to foster much in the way of interaction, constructive or otherwise, with the locals.
When contacted to explain at least in what way the church was “serving and ministering to those infected with AIDS” the church spokesperson became flustered and said someone would have to get back to the news people. They then issued a statement that claimed they were in “beginning stages of volunteering with the Lifelong AIDS Alliance.” Except the Lifelong AIDS Alliance has policies against proselytizing, which the church stated explicitly as its intention in its answer. Also, the Lifelong AIDS Alliance had received only one phone call from the church months before with no follow-up, and a second one less than an hour after the newspeople started asking questions. Volunteer applications had never been submitted from anyone identifying themselves as a church member.
When this was pointed out, the church backtracked. They made excuses. They bobbed and weaved, saying that they intend to help and repeating that bit about being in the beginning stages.
It’s not nice to laugh, but really, the sheer transparency of the lies, let alone the ludicrous depth of ignorance, demands it. I know, they don’t think they were lying. Someone had made a phone call, right? They planned to do something, right? I bet some of their members have even donated money to the charity. Or, at least went out to dinner at one of the restaurants participating in the annual Dining Out for Life fundraiser. That’s the same thing as serving and ministering to those poor AIDS victims, right?
It has been months, now, and there has been no further talk of any such ministry by the church. I’m not sure whether they were embarrassed about the whole thing, or just realized that there was nothing to gain from any effort. I know that people will say that at least some of them had their hearts in the right place. Jesus said to take care of the sick, right? But see, when the first thing that springs to mind when you find out your church is moving closer to a gay neighborhood is AIDS, that right there says all that needs to be said about how ignorant, bigoted, and self-deluded you are. If you feel god calling you to minister to people suffering and dying from AIDS, don’t move around an affluent city on the west coast, go to Africa, or south/southeast Asia.
This megachurch isn’t the only institution having a hard time grappling with its own ignorance and bigotry, as Stephen Colbert explained in this clip (click on Stephen’s name to watch):