When a small church in West Hollywood switched denominations because it’s congregation was fed up with anti-gay sentiments from its national organization, the move made waves and headlines.
Yet, on Sunday, at the newly-named West Hollywood United Church of Christ, it appeared to be business as usual, with Rev. Dan Smith marshalling prayers and inspiring the congregation to be better Christians. While not much has changed, church members have a renewed sense of optimism, with the Presbyterian Church in the not-so-distant past.
“People just feel like a great weight has been lifted,” said Renna Killen-Bove, of North Hills. “I think it’s a really good move for this congregation, because many people have felt oppressed by the Presbyterian Church.”
On May 12, the church officially transferred from the Presbyterian Church to the United Church of Christ (UCC). Smith, who has been a pastor for 28 years, said the congregation was unanimous in voting for the change.
“It’s been fabulous,” he said. “Totally fabulous.”
Smith said the church has been on the forefront of various progressive movements, offering services to protestors of the Vietnam War and keeping a keen eye on the Civil Rights movement. It also provides an AIDS ministry and feeds 7,000 homeless individuals per year. The church, which opened in 1913, opened its doors to the LGBT community in 1965.
“We just always continued in that realm,” he said.
That was certainly the case as it operated under the umbrella of the Presbyterian Church, which Smith said opened the door to the possibility of ordaining LGBT pastors just two years ago. For more than 30 years, members of the West Hollywood church had visited other area churches to open a dialogue about the acceptance of LGBT people, he said.
“It just wears you down,” Smith said. “We actually succeeded much better in other denominations than [the Presbyterian Church].”
The reverend said he was the Presbyterian Church’s first openly gay pastor — mainly because they didn’t have a policy on LGBT pastors at the time. He was ordained in the 1970s, days before a ban went into place. Smith said an avalanche of intolerance followed.
“It just kept getting worse and worse,” he added. “I’ve always been really lucky because I’ve always been in West Hollywood. It’s a fun, dynamic place.”
After being ordained, Smith learned of a friend who couldn’t be ordained by the Presbyterian Church, and the West Hollywood church was not allowed to hire a new gay pastor if the need arose, he said.
Eventually, the congregation had had enough. Their efforts to help the Presbyterian Church evolve were “going nowhere,” and some people wouldn’t join the congregation due to its affiliation, he said.
The church began negotiations, which lasted more than one year, to transfer to the UCC, which has been ordaining LGBT pastors for more than 40 years. The West Hollywood church held a series of congregational meetings and met with other congregations from the UCC.
“It was pretty intensive,” Smith said.
When it came to a vote, approximately 50 members of the congregation, which is about 60 percent LGBT, voted to approve the transfer, he said. Although no real changes have occurred to the local ministry, the UCC offers its members more freedoms and affirmation, Smith said.
“It’s been 100 percent joyful,” he said, adding that West Hollywood became the first to leave the Presbyterian Church due to its stance on LGBT issues. “It’s a much more supportive context.”
Members of the church are pleased with the recent development. Gerald Chester, of Los Angeles, said the switch is, in a sense, an evolutionary process for West Hollywood.
“It is a change that allows us to further serve the community,” Chester said.
Killen-Bove said people often ask why the church decided to switch denominations now, when the Presbyterian Church is beginning to make changes.
“It’s just been so many years of being oppressed and being fatigued by the fight. …God created us as we are,” she said.
The West Hollywood United Church of Christ, 7350 W. Sunset Ave., will host a “Proud to be UCC” worship celebration at 5 p.m. on Sunday. National members of the UCC will attend, and the public is invited.
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