For all its 45 years of ministry and 25th General Conference, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) has never held its tri-annual gathering in Chicago. That is about to change when MCC's General Conference 2013 convenes July 1-5 at the Fairmont Chicago. The theme of the conference is "Believe."
Conference director Jennifer Justice said this year's gathering is the largest in the Christian denomination's history, with more than 1,100 people already registered and hundreds more will attend the free worship events.
Truly a global church, MCC will have people attending General Conference from 22 countries outside the United States, she said, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Germany, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Uganda, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.
U.S. attendees hale from 39 states and the District of Columbia, Justice added.
"We live in such a different world," MCC moderator, the Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy L. Wilson said recently over the telephone. At the time of MCC's founding, she explained, "We didn't know if there were gay people in many other places in the world. We were so ignorant in so many ways about sexuality and cultural differences. Now we have this burgeoning LGBT movement everywhere. There is hardly a country or place without it."
MCC has churches or ministries in 43 countries around the world, said Wilson. "In some of those places it's dangerous to be out" insofar as the "struggle for human rights is elemental," she added. "In many of those places people of faith are on both sides of the issues. Religion is part of the problem or an inspiration for change."
The Rev. Elder Troy Perry founded the first MCC congregation in Los Angeles in 1968. At the time most Christian denominations were hostile to gay men and lesbians.
Perry served as the denomination's first moderator. Wilson is only the second. MCC now encompasses 230 to 240 churches, with 80 to 90 in process. Membership in the MCC numbers anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000, said Wilson.
MCC, also known as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, has a specific outreach to LGBT people. And yet MCC is more than the "gay church," it is also "passionate for justice beyond LGBT issues," said Wilson.
As one measure of MCC's commitment to social justice, the denomination will present its most prestigious Human Rights Award to retired Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an outspoken straight ally and advocate of LGBT rights. Senyonjo served the Anglican Diocese of Western Uganda from 1974 to 1998. But his gay-rights advocacy prompted the church to expel him as bishop. Nonetheless, Bishop Senyonjo continues his ministry with LGBT people through the St. Paul's Reconciliation and Equality Centre in Kampala.
At the same plenary honoring Senyonjo, MCC will introduce its newly formed Global Justice Institute, which is done in partnership with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, an organization committed to a "theology of radical inclusivity." The plenary will explore how the institute shapes MCC's global ministry.
Daniel B. Baer, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department, will also speak at the same plenary. President Obama recently nominated Baer, who is gay, as the next ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Two other highlights of General Conference include the Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes Jr. of Riverside Church in New York City. Rev. Forbes, an African American from a Pentecostal background, is considered the dean of preachers in the US.
The gathering's keynote speaker is Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, Calif. His most recent book is Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World.
A few days before and during General Conference, MCC will also host a roundtable on LGBT Hispanic Ministry.
During the phone interview, Rev. Wilson also discussed the role of MCC in the landscape of faith. "Most of our people come from one of three backgrounds," she explained. "About 40 percent were Roman Catholic, another 35 to 40 percent were evangelical, Pentecostal conservative Christian. The rest have no church background."
"MCC has always been a bridge between people who are nervous about church, didn't like church necessarily but wanted community, wanted a place where they were spiritually accepted," said Wilson.
Another characteristic of the MCC, she said, is the tendency of members to be from working class backgrounds, with "a lot of cross over racially, class-wise."
MCC people "want an experience of faith that matches their intensity of experience but without authoritarian, judgmental rules that are very crushing or unwelcoming," Wilson added.
That welcome is expressed in a local MCC congregation called AChurch4Me ( www.achurch4me.org ) and is located in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Rev. Rachelle Brown serves as interim pastor. What makes the congregation distinctive, she said, is its non-traditional approach, what she termed "low liturgy," including "contemporary praise music."
"Our niche," Brown "is those edges of people who don't want to go back to the religious backgrounds where they came from and want to create new spirituality and think about spirituality but not in a dogmatic religion."
"We go with the vision of the people who are coming" to worship, she said. "Organic is the word used."
"It's pretty much led by the laity," which is "the beauty of it," said Brown.
Previously, MCC in Chicago had been a very traditional liturgy, she said.
The day before General Conference gets underway is Chicago's Pride parade. That Sunday morning, MCC plans a worship service at the Fairmont, where the legendary activist and MCC founder, Rev. Elder Troy Perry is preaching.
All conference worship services are free and open to the general public.
MCC will also have several contingents marching in the Pride parade, including an entry for marriage equality and another for global justice.
For more about the conference, see believe.mccchurch.org .
©Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.