Founders MCC, the Los Angeles-based mother church of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, is literally putting new flesh on some of the Mainline Protestant establishment’s old bones.
Three years ago MCCLA bought a complex of buildings that had previously housed the Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church and began a $1 million renovation project. The undertaking isn’t so much an investment in the future as a reflection of what MCCLA is already doing in the here-and-now. Even as workers install central air conditioning, a commercial-grade kitchen and an elevator to make the 94-year-old Spanish Colonial chapel ADA-compliant, the church plays host each week to three Sunday services, about 20 recovery group meetings, a preschool program with a current enrollment of 25 and a Tagalog Bible study class that caters to residents from nearby Filipinotown.
Not bad for a 300-member congregation colloquially known as the Gay Church.
The Rev. Dr. Neil Thomas, MCCLA’s senior pastor, abides that moniker with good humor. But he is quick to point out that while the Metropolitan Community Church shares some common roots with feminist, black and other identity-based theologies that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, his organization today is casting a much wider net.
“Queer theology is a strategy of radical inclusion,” he said. “That means upsetting the dominant cultural myths and challenging the loudest voices in the public square. Basically we’re exploring how we can all be queer together.”
In practice, this notion of radical inclusion has produced a religious culture that accommodates a striking degree of liturgical and theological hybridity. MCCLA deploys Catholic folk iconography along with a range of Protestant worship styles—Thomas wears vestments at MCCLA’s comparatively staid 9am Sunday service and a suit and tie at the Pentecostal-inflected 11am service. He also officiates Mass at the afternoon Spanish-language service.
While spiritual bricolage isn’t unusual for “seeker-oriented” churches, Thomas sees his community’s deliberate and dramatically wide-ranging syncretism as a direct response to broader shifts in the American religious landscape.
“As evangelical fundamentalism is dying in this country,” he said, “we have an opportunity to move past dogmatic binaries.”
This active search for barriers to breach has also led to interreligious collaborations between MCCLA and a number of faith-based groups that have historically been wary of or even hostile toward queer people. Thomas, who was born into a Mormon family, is partnering with a Latter Day Saints mission in Los Feliz to establish a food pantry and a social service program for LGBT youth. And along with nearby Holy Spirit Silver Lake, MCCLA participates in Laundry Love, an outreach program to impoverished families that has engaged congregations from across the denominational spectrum.
MCCLA is in many ways a “mini” megachurch: By providing a wide range of worship, community service and personal growth opportunities for people whose needs are often not met elsewhere, the organization draws congregants not just from Los Feliz but from all over Southern California. Still, its innovations—that is, its relevance to our concerns in the RCCI project—extend beyond a reiteration of the market-driven growth strategies of places like Saddleback Church and the Dream Center.
“We’ll borrow from anybody,” Thomas said in response to a question about the surprising diversity of MCCLA’s religious culture. This open-mindedness is in many ways the organizational embodiment of the kind of individualistic spirituality that has become the hallmark of our “spiritual-but-not-religious” age. If the theology of MCCLA is queer in several senses of that word, it’s also remarkably prescient.
The Gay Church has already begun to attract a few disaffected sheep from the flocks of “straight” churches—in fact, about half the children in MCCLA’s day care program are from non-gay families in the neighborhood. Those radically inclusive developments suit Thomas just fine.
Nick Street is a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.