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Mennonite church expelled for accepting gays


In this story:

  • Official policy: celibate gays only
  • 'This church accepted me for who I was'

    November 5, 1997
    Web posted at: 12:33 a.m. EST (0533 GMT)

    PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Tony Chiango was dying of AIDS in California when his sister told him about the Germantown Mennonite Church's unconditional acceptance of homosexuals.

    Chiango, raised a Roman Catholic, joined the Germantown congregation from afar.

    "The Catholic Church was never there for him when he was dying in the '80s," his sister, Angel, told the Mennonite congregation. "He wanted to be a part of the unconditional love. And after he joined this church, his spirit grew as his body failed."

    That unconditional love has had consequences.

    "I learned a long time ago growing up as a Mennonite that I could either be a Mennonite or I could be gay, but that I damn well couldn't be both."

    — Joe Miller

    The congregation, the oldest Mennonite Church in the country, learned two weeks ago that delegates voted 178-40 to expel it from the regional conference beginning next year.

    The congregation -- located in a neighborhood in the northwest section of Philadelphia -- will no longer be able to vote on the critical issues of faith and practice that affect the 50 congregations in southeastern Pennsylvania.

    The pastor, Richard Lichty, will be stripped of his credentials. While he will remain pastor for three years, he will not be recognized by the conference.

    Official policy: celibate gays only

    "It hurts," said the 57-year-old Lichty. "This is my church of birth, my church of choice. But the church for a long time has been a follower of the general culture's fear of sexuality, and this just plays into it."

    The Mennonite Church's policy, passed in 1987, allows congregations to accept only celibate homosexuals, said Jim Lapp, conference pastor for the regional conference.

    Many Christians believe homosexual activity is morally wrong, but positions on whether to welcome gay members have been evolving in some denominations. The Roman Catholic Church has taught in recent years that while homosexual sex is immoral because it occurs outside marriage, homosexual orientation is not freely chosen and therefore not sinful.

    "The Germantown church has received people into membership who are living in covenanted relationships, and that became a point of disagreement with the membership of our conference," Lapp said.

    Congregants, gay and straight, consider the policy hypocritical.

    "Sure, we could have one of those situations where the homosexuals could come but never tell -- and we would never ask or be open about it," said George Hatzfeld, a member who is a heterosexual. "Sure, we could just assume that they're celibate. But the problem is we'd never make those requirements of heterosexual couples."

    'This church accepted me for who I was'

    The Germantown church has served as a refuge for homosexuals for a decade.

    Joe Miller, who grew up a Mennonite, joined because he heard the congregation accepted homosexuals and he wanted to return to the religious environment he left as a teen-ager.

    "I learned a long time ago growing up as a Mennonite that I could either be a Mennonite or I could be gay, but that I damn well couldn't be both," Miller said. "But this church accepted me for who I was and that's why I came here."

    The acceptance is growing and with it the debate has spread to conferences in Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa.

    "All of this is the result of a long process and dialogue," Lapp said. "It's the mood of our society, the way in which the issue is headlined. It's in the public consciousness. Many more people are becoming aware of it because homosexuals are more active and outspoken about their rights."


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