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Peoria's affirming churches create safe space for LGBTQ community

The Pride sign outside of Imago Dei church has been stolen and replaced.
Camryn Cutinello
The Pride sign outside of Imago Dei church has been stolen and replaced multiple times.

Peoria's affirming churches are participating in Pride events to make their open and affirming status more known.

Affirming churches perform same-sex marriages, and allow people to become church leaders regardless of sexuality or gender.

The Rev. Debra Avery started with United Presbyterian Church in Peoria in 2020. She has worked at churches in California, New York and Arizona, and said working at an affirming church is important to her because her daughter is trans.

She said her daughter really opened her eyes to the trauma members of the LGBTQ community face.

“The everyday trauma, especially for trans people, but even really just for any LGBTQ identifying person, the daily trauma of having to fit in to school, to community, to jobs, that's a daily chipping away at someone's humanity that the church has been part of,” she said.

Avery is now leading an effort within the church to be more forward about its affirming status.

“It's not just accepting,” she said. “We accept everybody, right? But it's affirming LGBTQ people as fully human, the full potential for them to be ordained as a minister, or as an elder or deacon in the church or to be a member of the church to affirm and support same gender, loving marriages.”

Reverend Debra Avery speaks during an outdoor service at United Presbyterian Church.
Courtesy of United Presbyterian Church
Reverend Debra Avery speaks during an outdoor service at United Presbyterian Church.

She said it’s often hard for members of the LGBTQ community to return to church.

“Like many traumas, it makes you suspicious of anything that looks like where you experienced the trauma, right?” Avery said. “So it doesn't matter how nice a church is, or how kind and loving they are, if it's impossible for people to get through the doors to experience that for themselves, because of the trauma they've had. They may never know.”

Avery says she approaches the Bible with the understanding that it is an ancient texts and the teachings are not always meant to be taken literally.

“You know Jesus says sell all you have and give your money to the poor and then come and follow me,” she said. “Who's doing that? Which church is doing that? Well, I'm not doing that as a person, right? I haven't sold my house and divested everything I have towards poor people, but what would happen if we took that even 10% seriously?”

The First Christian Church opened when Peoria was founded, almost 180 years ago. The church became open and affirming in 2016.

But Mason Fitch, church elder and child of the former pastor, said they have always been welcomed.

“So I came here when I was six years old but growing up, I mean this was like a second family to me for sure and in high school came out as a lesbian and then in 2014 I came out as trans and this church has opened just welcomed me with open arms, there was not even a question about it,” Fitch said.

Church elders serve as leaders and meet monthly to discuss the direction of the church. The elders began the process to become an affirming church, but the entire congregation voted on the final decision.

Elders Mason Fitch and Sandra Surface in the First Christian Church's sanctuary.
Camryn Cutinello
Elders Mason Fitch and Sandra Surface in the First Christian Church's sanctuary.

Elder Sandra Surface moved to Peoria with her partner in 2004. She immediately knew the church was right for them.

“I was afraid coming back here to the Midwest, that I wasn't going to find such a welcoming, safe environment,” she said. “And like I indicated, even before we became open and affirming, this church was a safe environment for me. But the reason it changed after the discernment process was now I could firmly say to other people, ‘This is a safe environment.’”

Surface said the official label means more people will feel welcomed and comfortable coming to the church.

“I've seen the actions, I've seen that people are greeted,” she said. “We have coffee before church, we have people that hang around and talk after church, and any newcomers, whether you're gay or straight, or whatever you are, you're going to be talked to, not because of obligation, but because people really are interested in welcoming you and in saying that you're safe.”

One family left when the First Christian Church was officially declared an affirming place of worship.

Not a sin

Imago Dei Church was founded 16 years ago as an interdenominational church that strives to include people of all races, genders and sexualities.

Pastor Melinda Sparks-Rennar moved to Peoria in 2020 from Alabama. She was a member of the Southern Baptist Church, where women are not allowed to preach.

She decided to leave the Southern Baptists to follow her calling to preach. Sparks-Rennar has children who are LGBTQ, which led her to seek out an affirming church.

Pastor Melinda Sparks-Rennar in the sanctuary of the Imago Dei church, which is decorated for Pride Month.
Camryn Cutinello
Pastor Melinda Sparks-Rennar in the sanctuary of the Imago Dei church, which is decorated for Pride Month.

Sparks-Rennar believes being a part of the LGBTQ community is not a sin.

She did her dissertation on the Clobber Passages, which are often cited by those who believe homosexuality is wrong.

“Those passages may not mean exactly what we've been taught that they mean,” Sparks-Rennar said. “And there could be a different lens to interpret them through. And that's what that meant to me, that you are loved just as you are, you're not sinful, you are not in sin. You are made by God, and you're beloved by God, and God has called you by name.”

She shares this in her sermons.

“I pulled ... a couple of verses out of that, and shared how those verses in the original Greek did not mean what we've been taught that they mean,” she said. “And as I'm teaching that on a Sunday morning, I'm looking across a congregation of people who identify on the spectrum, with tears in their eyes because they had never heard a pastor say that.”

Rennar-Sparks said after coming from a church that had a lot of conflict, working at Imago Dei has been healing for her, too.

“I have never not felt supported or loved in this journey,” she said. “I've never felt picked apart or torn apart by anybody in this congregation. And it is just such a beautiful thing. Being 51 years old, and all the church trauma that I have in the past. I just don't take that for granted, because it's just not common in churches.”

She said the church hasn't received much push back for being openly affirming, but their Pride sign has been stolen multiple times.

Open and affirming churches will be included in Peoria’s River City Pride fest in July with booths and an affirming faith service.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.