Tiffany Adams said she feared what would happen if her little-known West Columbia church – where gays and lesbians and all others are welcome – “came out,” in a sense, by being featured in a newspaper article.
But Adams agreed to an interview, and last Sunday, she explained why to about 100 of her congregants, who went to Kingdom Outreach Fellowship to celebrate the church’s four-year anniversary.
“I have kept this ministry in my bosom, right here under my arm, and right here in the background for protection,” said Adams – called “Pastor Tiffany” by her congregation.
She added: “But how will you fulfill your mission if people don't know you're here?”
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The LGBT community celebrated a big step forward in gaining acceptance in South Carolina this month, when the federal courts overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban, opening the door for couples in Adams' church and elsewhere across the state to get married.
But the obstacles that keep members of the LGBT community from coming out still exist: in spiritual and other forms, Adams says.
Adams’ own struggles with those obstacles led her to the ministry, where she is the senior pastor and co-founder of Kingdom Outreach Fellowship, one of about a dozen Columbia-area churches that are “affirming” – or welcoming – of the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender) community. “Affirming” means they believe that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.
Her church started in 2010, growing out of a Bible study. For two years, she held services at a local park, then in 2012, the church moved into a rental space in a small strip mall off Platt Springs Road.
As the only black, female, bisexual pastor of an LGBT-affirming church in the Columbia area, Adams says her church has provided sanctuary for a veiled corner of a community she says is difficult to access. It’s also a community in need of an outlet, she said.
“Homosexuality in the black community, it is so prevalent,” Adams said. “It's out there. You just don't talk about it. We had ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ in the black community long before the military had it.”
But while “Kingdom,” as Adams and congregants affectionately call it, is a predominantly black, LGBT church, the congregation has grown more diverse in recent years, attracting Hispanics, whites and straight people. Adams resists being called a “black church” or a “gay church,” pushing her congregants to “diversify on purpose.”
More mainstream now
Some LGBT advocates say their community is becoming more mainstream in South Carolina as organizations like S.C. Equality take an interest in the state and events, such as S.C. Pride, grow and raise awareness.
“Are things in the underground? I don't think they are at all in South Carolina,” said Michael Haigler, a Columbia architect and founder of Openings, a Columbia-based spiritual network for the LGBT community and its allies.
But hurdles for gaining acceptance still exist in the state, though the challenges are different for older and younger generations.
“A lot of people in my generation still aren't free, and it's sad because they go into their workplaces and they're afraid of being fired,” said Adams, 38. “This next generation that's coming up, if the law doesn't change, they're going to live their truth anyway,” she added.
While the LGBT community is celebrating the state’s recent marriage equality, Haigler added, the “latest frontier” for finding acceptance lies in the transgender community and people who identify with genders that do not fit neatly into definitions of masculine and feminine.
LGBT activists have pushed for the state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender, even though some businesses and local governments have done so. A bill that would do that died in the State House this year.
“In comparison, coming out as a gay man or lesbian woman was so much easier,” Haigler said. “Transgender folks are looking at so much more judgment and misinformation and misunderstanding. They are the most brave sector of our expanding Rainbow community.”
‘Gay versus God debate’
Despite the church’s foundations being rooted in the LGBT community, most of the time, Adams said, “We never talk about the gay stuff,” when she’s in the pulpit.
For believers who want to know what the Bible says about homosexuality, Adams has created a workshop taking a look at Bible passages she and others call the “clobber verses” – as in, gays and lesbians have been “clobbered over the head” with them in church, Adams said.
The workshop is the product of Adams’ own desire as a teenager to determine whether the Bible really condemned her emerging attraction to women.
“As I got older and I saw the gay versus God debate, I said, ‘I don't see the debate. I'm not giving up my God.’”
For nearly two decades, Adams said she has been a scholar of the scriptures, pouring over the original Hebrew and Greek Bible verses and various English translations, drawing on her English and sociology studies at Converse College, she said.
A lay minister with no formal training, Adams describes herself as a “Biblical tutor” and a “matchmaker” – connecting believers with the Bible so they can read it themselves and no longer need her to feel a connection with God.
Her workshop provides a close reading of the scripture, she said, so that she’s “not just placating them, and not just comforting them,” she said. “I try to give them the knowledge.”
‘Meet them halfway’
On Sunday, Adams told her congregation to prepare for the next phase of their ministry – branching out and growing in diversity of races, cultures, denominations and sexual orientations.
“It is time for Columbia, South Carolina, the Southeast, the buckle of the Bible Belt to see people of all genders, ages, races, past affiliations, (and) current affiliations worshipping, believing, living together, so that people do see a very viable option for an affirming ministry,” she said.
Adams and her congregation also celebrated another milestone – the congregation’s first invitation from a traditional church to attend a choir event and meal. “It's our responsibility to meet them halfway. We will be there.”
Many of Kingdom’s members ended up there because they felt rejected or “marginalized” in their own churches, she said.
In testimonials, one church member talked about how she grew up with a mother who denied her love, thinking it would make her change from gay to straight. Before she found Kingdom, she said, she was plagued with anger and lacked self-worth.
Teenagers who come out in their churches and no longer feel welcome have found their way to Kingdom, Adams said.
“Parents visiting the church to see how I'm taking care of their daughters and sons, once they see that I teach the Bible like any other pastor, they're OK,” Adams said.
“It hurts them to know that their child is no longer welcome in their church.”
First legal S.C. marriage
The church’s LGBT roots also came up frequently last weekend – on the heels of the historic overturning of the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriage.
Marking that milestone, the Friday before the church’s “birthday” service, Adams performed her first legal S.C. marriage.
Melanie Morris, 40, and Allise Riney, 47, of North Augusta have been together for almost a decade, and had a commitment ceremony in 2009, thinking they never would be allowed to get legally married, Morris said.
“People should understand that we're just as normal as everybody else,” Morris said. “We go to church. And in that church, we do the same normal things everybody else does.”
Morris’ mom and Riney’s 21-year-old son Johnathan Stroup, who is in college, were among the family who came to support them.
“This finally happened,” Stroup said after the wedding. “We’ve been wanting for this to happen for a long time.”
Stroup recalls his mother coming out to him when he was 13. She was nervous because, he said, she thought he would treat her differently. But he didn’t see it as a big deal. Instead, it cleared the air and let them move on with their lives, he said.
“When she said, ‘I’m a lesbian,’ I was like, ‘That’s awesome.’”
Pushing toward ‘reconciliation’
Adams’ church is non-denominational, which means it is not tied to the beliefs or prohibitions of any other religious denominations.
Some denominations are open to the LGBT community, including the first affirming church Adams joined – Metropolitan Community Church, which started in 1968 as the “world’s first church group with a primary, positive ministry to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons,” according to its website.
The Rev. Andy Sidden, the openly gay pastor of Garden of Grace in Columbia, said his church is part of the United Church of Christ denomination, also “open and affirming” of the LGBT community.
“There is a movement, an acceptance,” Sidden said. “Many people are opening their closet doors. In my lifetime the change has been overwhelming. Twenty years ago, people didn't think there were more than a handful of gay and lesbian people in each state, and now we have each state coming forward for marriage equality.”
Not all denominations are open to the LGBT community.
For example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement on sexuality says marriage and sexual intimacy are between “one man, and one woman, for life. ... The Bible condemns (homosexuality) as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals.”
Ed McClain, who attends the Washington Street United Methodist Church, attends one of two Sunday-school classes that are open and accepting of the LGBT community, even though the church as a whole has not taken the same stance.
The classes went through a formal process to write up a statement announcing their position on the LGBT community. That process stirred up a lot of discussion within his church, which McClain said was healthy.
But he and other LGBT members who attend the church are not pushing for any broader level of acceptance, he said, adding that such a goal “takes time.”
McClain, with Haigler, is a founding member of Openings, which meets monthly at area churches and conference centers to have a meal together and to listen to a speaker talk about a range of LGBT-related issues.
The group formed to “provide a safe, supportive environment for folks who are (LGBT) or allies who have experienced unwelcoming environments in our standard churches,” Haigler said.
Members are hopeful that more churches become affirming of the LGBT community.
There also is a difference between tolerating an LGBT member in church, and truly accepting that person, Haigler added.
“A lot of churches say, ‘Oh, we're always welcome.’ But when they're tested, the story is different.”
Yet, Haigler said, the stories he hears about the experiences of LGBT Christians coming out in their traditional churches are “getting better.”
“Years ago, there were stories of exclusion and outright hostility. These days, it's more subtle, where churches might say they're welcoming, but they find out that a person comes with his or her partner and kind of gets an awkward welcome or a cold shoulder.”
‘Transitioning with me’
Jayden Spann, 25, said he’s grateful for Kingdom and Adams, who have been supportive of him as he transitions from female to male.
Coming out as transgender can be a “gamble,” he said, recalling the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance to commemorate the lives of people who have been killed because they were transgender or did not conform to “normal” gender definitions. But Jayden said his friends and coworkers also have reacted positively to the news.
At Kingdom, the New Jersey native who moved to South Carolina to be with family a year ago also found his new name.
Adams led a name-changing ceremony for Spann, Kingdom’s first transgender member, during which he changed his name from Sierra.
Adams said she learned about the ceremony at a transgender faith conference as a way to help the church embrace a person’s chosen gender.
Spann said the ceremony meant a lot to him.
“I’m not the only one transitioning,” Spann said. “They are transitioning with me in a sense.”