In these increasingly divided times, we see far too often people of faith and faith leaders painted with a broad brush, thought of as unaccepting of LGBTQ people because of the actions and words of just a few loud voices. The reality, however, is that thousands of faith leaders and parishioners alike are incredibly welcoming to the LGBTQ community, and seek to have them join their faith communities in fellowship. One such faith leader is Pastor Martin Eldred of Joy Lutheran Church in Eagle River, Alaska.
Pastor Eldred says that he grew up in a religious environment where many of the teachings spoke against inclusion of LGBTQ people.
“It was sort of the standard line of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’” he said. “They felt it wasn’t in line with God’s teachings.”
When Eldred began college, he says that’s when things began to change for him as far as his own beliefs.
“I met a wonderful man named Bert through one of our mutual friends. Bert came out to us in 1981. I knew him very well, and he was an outstanding person of faith. He explained to us that this wasn’t a choice he made, but it was who he had always known himself to be. It sort of rocked my world, and I realized maybe the stance my church had wasn’t something I needed to accept fully.”
After this experience, Pastor Eldred says he began a process of acceptance, which has continued into the present day.
“Good and faithful people exist within all denominations, and many are working hard to be inclusive and supportive.”
“The more I met LGBTQ people, the more I realized that they were just like everyone else — people of integrity, with great strength and belief in their faith. They weren’t ‘problems’ or ‘mistakes.’”
The Pastor is also glad to see that his denomination of Lutheranism has evolved as well to be more accepting of LGBTQ people.
“They’ve come a long way. Now you can be an out gay person, as well as be married to your partner. The philosophical statement which Lutherans live by is ‘reconciling in Christ.’”
Eldred encourages LGBTQ people of faith who may feel they’ve been dismissed or turned away by their faith communities because of who they are to not give up, and to keep searching for a faith community that will accept them.
“Even here in Alaska, there are many open and affirming congregations,” he said. “Good and faithful people exist within all denominations, and many are working hard to be inclusive and supportive.”
The issues of acceptance and discrimination hit close to home for Pastor Eldred: His son is a gay man who struggled to come out when he was younger.
“He went through a very fundamentalist phase in his faith journey,” the Pastor shared. “He was fighting and fighting against [his sexuality]. Finally, he came out to his mother and I his freshman year of college. We gave him the support and the love he needed. He ended up meeting a wonderful guy, and they’re now married, and my son is a Pastor in the Seattle area.”
While Eldred is glad to see the evolution of his denomination, he is also aware that LGBTQ people often face discrimination outside the sanctity of the church. However, he is very clear that religious liberty and religious freedom are not valid reasons to deny services to anyone.
“The framers gave us a great distinction between private and public spheres,” he states. “My religious liberty stops as soon as I leave my home and enter into a public space. We saw this same issue years ago in the South, when black people were being discriminated against, and ultimately, the Supreme Court said you cannot refuse to serve someone based on the color of their skin. This is no different. You can’t be a baker or own a restaurant or have a business and put up signs saying, ‘we don’t serve these people’.”
It is clear from his experiences and his walk of faith that Pastor Eldred is loving and supportive of all, and preaches acceptance, love, and inclusion in his church. By speaking out against discrimination and embracing the LGBTQ community, the Pastor serves as a true example of what it means to be a supportive faith leader.
“There’s no distinction between the discrimination of earlier years and what’s happening today,” he said. “LGBTQ rights are no different than the rights of anyone else.”