website banner2

newspaper

Church Tears Down Past, Builds For Future

July 28, 2002|By Joy Wallace Dickinson, Sentinel Staff Writer

The sanctuary of Orlando's Joy Metropolitan Community Church resonates with images familiar to many Christians from their childhood at church: a gleaming cross, a wooden board to record attendance (the top number: 772), a vibrant stained-glass window depicting ancient symbols of faith, including Alpha and Omega -- the beginning and the end.

What sets Joy Metropolitan Community Church apart from most traditional Christian churches is the makeup of its congregation, many of whom are gay and lesbian.

"Everyone is welcome here," the Rev. Carol Trissell, the church's senior pastor, said Monday.

This month marks a special beginning and end for the church, as it says farewell to three buildings scheduled for demolition to make way for a new home for worship.

"We've outgrown our old sanctuary," said John Middleton, director of team ministries, referring to the church's "double-digit growth."

In 1994, membership numbered about 200, Middleton said. By 1998, it was about 300, but in four years, that figure has doubled. The total reached more than 620 on July 21, Trissell said.

To house them, the church has been saving for a 10,000-square-foot sanctuary, complete with balcony, chapel and administrative suite, that will accommodate almost 600 -- triple the number that can be seated in its current worship hall at 2351 S. Fern Creek Ave.

The growth comes in part from "the nature of our congregation," Middleton said.

"We're an open and affirming church," welcoming people of faith who may find themselves feeling unwelcome at other churches, particularly in the South.

That makes for a congregation of committed people who have "asked tough questions," Middleton said, "and made a conscious choice about their faith life" rather than simply inheriting a church home in an unquestioning way.

About 45 percent of church members are former Roman Catholics, and 40 percent are former Southern Baptists, Trissell said, with the remainder coming from a variety of religious traditions.

Member Jim Brent of Orlando, who also works in the church office, joined Joy MCC in 1998.

"It's been a real blessing in my life," Brent said Tuesday.

Many in the church "grew up in some other religion to find later we weren't wanted," said Brent, originally a Southern Baptist.

The church "lifts me up; it's really an inspiration," he said.

FELLOWSHIP FOUNDED IN 1968

Although members' sexual orientation is their private matter -- "we don't ask that at the door," Trissell says, and some members are heterosexual -- the church is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded by the Rev. Troy Perry in 1968 "to serve the spiritual needs of gay and lesbian people," according to its Web site.

From an initial worship service of 11 people in a Los Angeles home, the Metropolitan Community Churches have grown into an international denomination of more than 300 churches in 22 countries with a membership of more than 50,000, church officials say.

Perry is the moderator, or leader, of the denomination.

While many Metropolitan Community Churches form a crucial support for gay people in small towns or rural areas, Orlando's church is one of the denomination's largest, Middleton said.

Begun in 1979 when the congregation met in people's homes, the church initially rented meeting space.

In 1989, it became the first gay and lesbian organization in Orlando to own property when it bought a former Baptist church building, its current home, Trissell said.

BITTERSWEET TRANSITION

The central role the church has played in the gay community in Central Florida makes the transition it is undergoing somewhat bittersweet, Trissell told congregation members in a recent church newsletter.

"I am so excited about all the future holds for Joy MCC," she wrote. "Yet, I feel a sense of loss over losing these dear friends" -- the three vanishing buildings.

Especially full of emotional resonance for church members is the building called the Bailey-Ferris Center. Named for the late David Bailey and the late Paul Ferris, the center housed the church's AIDS ministry.

Looking back more than a decade before current medications were available and long-term survival of AIDS was possible, Trissell remembered when the church led Orlando's first candlelight vigil for AIDS at Lake Eola Park in 1986, at a time when only two other churches in town joined them.

Now, public understanding is much greater and HIV patients are focused on living, but in the 1980s and early 1990s, "a whole generation was lost" to the disease, Trissell said.

Another of the buildings to be demolished, Cardwell Hall, the home of more than a thousand fellowship events, was named for Mark Cardwell, the first member of the congregation to be officially diagnosed with AIDS, Trissell said.

The third building, the 1926 stucco home at 2401 S. Fern Creek Ave., next to the church, belonged not to a member but to a neighbor and ally, the late Mary Lou Young, whose family sold the building to the church.

Church members fondly remember Young for her enthusiasm for the church's annual yard sales, Trissell said. A plaque, purchased by the church in her name, rests in the church's Memorial Garden.

SUPPORT OF GOOD NEIGHBORS

Good neighbors have been important to the church's growth, Trissell said.

While some other Metropolitan Community Churches have sad stories in their past -- a tragic arson fire in New Orleans, for example, in 1973 that killed 12 -- Joy Metropolitan Community Church has "had good experiences" in Orlando.

"We do feel like a part of our community," Trissell said. "We feel very blessed to be a part of the Orlando community."

Joylink button

small-twitter-icon

small facebook icon

Praying Rqst

Contact Us button

Daily Devo button