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Metropolitan Community Church welcomes new pastor, Rev. Ray Neal
Metropolitan Community Church welcomes new pastor, Rev. Ray Neal
by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

Rev. H. Ray Neal will be installed as the new pastor of Metropolitan Community Church Seattle Sunday, May 10, 12:30 p.m. at the Chapel of Temple de Hirsch Sinai in a special worship service. The service will be officiated by Rev. Elder Ken Martin, Region One Elder for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

Metropolitan Community Church Seattle is the first, and therefore oldest, welcoming, affirming, inclusive congregation in Seattle, founded by and for persons of the GLBT community and their straight allies in 1972. Internationally, the Metropolitan Community Church has grown to 43,000 members ad adherents in almost 300 congregations in 22 countries.

There's a good chance that the first time you meet Seattle MCC pastor, Rev. Ray Neal, it may not be at a church service. In fact, the first meeting between Rev. Neal and myself took place at a Gay Seattle Facebook social Wednesday.

The first thing you notice about him is he doesn't dress like a traditional pastor. He wore a light blue shirt and black jeans - had it not been for the white collar and gold chain with a cross medallion, I may never have found him in the crowd of nearly 200 attending the social networking party. He smiles a lot and - through years of experience, no doubt - is a wonderful listener. The pastor is extremely social. Throughout our meeting he introduced me to a number of people, all of whom he met just minutes before.

Rev. Neal gets around, so to speak.

"I often visit the Cuff and other local Gay and Lesbian bars to keep in touch with the real members in our community," said Rev. Neal at our meeting Wednesday. "Many are often surprised to see a pastor at a Gay bar, but I can't help but think that is exactly where we would find Jesus were he physically walking the streets of Seattle today."

Jesus always sought out those who were rejected by the greater society and welcomed them into God's Community of Love, he said.

Rev. Neal and his partner of five years, Mark Cooley, relocated to Seattle from Tennessee two months ago.

"Seattle is an amazing city with the largest concentration of LGBT persons of any metropolitan area outside of San Francisco, CA itself. The opportunity to build a church that speaks out boldly for the marginalized persons of society is unlimited," Rev. Neal told SGN. "We are and will be on the forefront of all human rights issues, but especially those related to equal rights for LGBT persons and for a truly proper biblical understanding of the positive relationship between sexuality and spirituality."

The pastor is well aware of a stigma that exists within the LGBT community about religion and being a member of a church. It's everywhere you go, on TV and in newspapers: someone, somewhere, inevitably telling the LGBT community we are not welcome in church and are hell-bound for living in sin. Can God and Gay exist within the church?

Rev. Neal seems to think so.

"No one should be ashamed of the fact that God created him or her Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, or Bisexual," Rev. Neal said. "Our sexual orientation and gender identification should be a reason to celebrate the abundant life God has promised to each one of us."

The fundamentalist Christian right has got it all wrong, he said. "Yes, you can be a proud Queer Christian!"

With an attitude and enthusiasm like that, it's no wonder attendance numbers at MCC Seattle doubled since his arrival. There is no bible-thumping and damnation at a Rev. Neal sermon.

"My sermons are based on my own experiences and those of others," he said. "I try to rediscover the real Jesus and share his very radical ideas about love and acceptance of all persons in my sermons and teaching. We [at MCC Seattle] focus on uplifting persons and helping them discover the abundant, happier life God offers to all of us."

Rev. Neal has had plenty of experiences to draw from. Like many in the LGBT community, the pastor knew at an early age he was different from the other kids. A strict Southern Baptist family raised him in Chicago, IL in the midst of a devoutly Catholic neighborhood - he did not know anyone who identified himself or herself as Gay. While recalling his personal struggle, Rev. Neal asked, "When you believe you are the only one like yourself, just who do you go to for answers?"

There wasn't anyone, he said. He set out to convince himself that he could have a wonderful life with a wife and children, dog, and a suburban home with a white picket fence - all of which he got. Rev. Neal spent many years in the closet raising four children and staying faithful to his wife.

"You can only do that for so long and not suffer the health-related consequences of stress and depression taking a terrible toll on your life," he said.

Feeling this, Rev. Neal reached out to teachers and pastors and other people he thought he could trust. He said they told him his feelings would go away when he met the right girl, started dating, and settled into married life. Others warned him to keep what he told them a secret and never tell anyone else.

"I know how horribly wrong that kind of advice is to give Queer youth," sad Rev. Neal. "It usually produces deep, dark depression resulting in the highest suicide rate for LGBT youth when they are told they must reject their own selves in order to please family, friends, and God."

While at seminary study for the pastorate young Neal realized, "God knew I was Gay before I knew I was Gay, because God planned it for me that way," he said. "I wasn't being a sinful person because I was Gay." It was after that realization that Rev. Neal began to change his ways.

"I argued with others who kept telling me and Gay persons in my congregations that we should be ashamed to be Gay," Rev. Neal said.

His stance and support of others who were being marginalized by the leadership of one church cost him his pastorate and health he said. His marriage ended and he immediately joined a Gay men's discussion support group in Knoxville, TN. He also began attending MCC Knoxville, which he recalls was an amazing congregation who boldly shared with him their hope, grace, and love.

"They restored my faith in myself and invited me to resume my pastoral ministries with them," he said. "They took a broken person and, with God's power, brought healing and hope back into my life."

But that is exactly what church should be, he said: a place of hope and healing where broken persons can discover love and acceptance and begin again to live abundant, happy life that God wants to give them.

Armed with lessons from his past and hope for the future Rev. Neal looks forward to reaching out to the LGBT Seattle community in any way possible.

MCC Seattle currently meets Sundays at 12:30 p.m. for worship in the chapel at Temple de Hirsch Sinai on Capitol Hill. The service last an hour to an hour and a half and always include communion offered to everyone in attendance whether or not they are members of MCC Seattle or of any church.

Sunday, May 3, MCC Seattle is offering a book study at Online Coffee, 1400 Pine St., at 10 a.m. The book, The Children are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships by Rev. Jeff Miner, focuses on the positive scripture passages rather than the negative ones.

To further show support for the LGBT community, MCC Seattle is planning to have a strong presence in the PRIDE 2009 parade, as well as PRIDEFEST that same afternoon.

Although your first meeting with Rev. Neal may be outside a church, he'd still like to get you there.

"We love to make new friends, and hardly a Sunday goes by that there isn't a new face in the crowd," he said. "We may be small compared to other churches, but we try to create a mighty powerful worship experience for all who are present."

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