From the moment Ron Hill and life partner Kee Sourjohn stepped foot inside Celebration Community Church on the Near Southside, they said it felt like home. The two had basically given up on organized religion. But the message of Rev. Carol West, one of love and respect for people from all walks of life, was welcoming and refreshing to Hill and Sourjohn.
“A lot of people in the LGBT community have been injured by churches,” Hill said. West’s purpose, he continued, is to “repair the damage that has been done. We were told that we’re going to hell. She reminds everyone that we are all loved by God.”
Thirteen years ago, she left the men with the same message she still leaves everyone now: “Welcome home. I hope to see you next week.”
Celebration Community Church (CCC) recently marked several milestones. The nondenominational church is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary while senior pastor West recently reached her 19th year leading the congregation. Last week, CCC formally dedicated the Rev. Carol A. West Community Center near its main fellowship hall. The 5,300-square-foot space’s primary role is to serve the LGBT community, but it will also be available for private event rentals and public events.
“We thought there was a tremendous need for this space in our community,” West said. Fort Worth’s LGBT community, she continued, “doesn’t have a gathering place. Getting here has been a process. It has taken all of us working together.”
Hill spearheaded much of the fundraising effort as CCC’s treasurer. The capital campaign began five years ago with a simple goal: Every one of the church’s 400-plus members would contribute what he or she could. Some wrote checks for several thousand dollars, Hill said. One individual, a homeless woman, donated a roll of quarters. About 300 people contributed to the venture, Hill reckoned.
“Even if they gave a dollar, they had some ownership in the building,” he said. “I felt it was important for everyone to give something.”
After a few years, half of the $1.3 million goal was reached through individual donations. Last month, West married her partner of 30 years, Angela King, in the community center. The ceremony, themed “It’s about time,” was well attended and was a poignant inaugural event for the new space, Hill said.
The treasurer added that the building will act as a revenue-generating locale for wedding receptions and private events. LGBT community partners, like the youth-mentoring group LGBTQ Saves, will have use of the space for a reduced price while free community-minded programs will be given access at no charge.
The growth was needed, Hill said. Already, the LGBT-focused charity offers several outreach programs, including a safe space for transgender teenagers to meet and a donation collection site for the end-of-life-counseling nonprofit AIDS Outreach Center. Possibly CCC’s most impactful outreach program is the Barron House Counseling Center, whose services, booked by CCC, are priced on a sliding scale based on financial need. The lowest end, for those with low incomes or no health insurance, is free.
“A large part of our outreach is to our own congregation,” Hill said.
CCC also has special programs for older members, most of whom grew up being taught that homosexuality is a cardinal sin. West is well aware of those few biblical passages.
“Because so many people have been told that they are not loved by God, that they don’t fit into God’s dominion, they feel they aren’t part of it,” West said. “We call those the ‘clobber passages.’ That’s not true religion. Religion should not be used as a weapon.”
While CCC didn’t seek to be Tarrant County’s flagship LGBT-friendly community space, that is its role for now. Fort Worth’s public officials have largely welcomed the gay-friendly church. Mayor Betsy Price and City Councilmember Ann Zadeh both recently attended a CCC Sunday service. Fort Worth Police Department officials have been supportive, Hill said. Most of those good vibes are due to past missteps on the part of local peace officers, though.
Memories of the 2009 police raid of the Rainbow Lounge still weigh heavily on the minds of many in the LGBT community, Hill said. That year, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials and Fort Worth police officers forcibly entered the gay-friendly bar and detained and questioned more than a dozen members of the LGBT community. Several bar patrons were handcuffed. The church now has a “strong relationship” with local law enforcement, Hill said.
Sharon Herrera, founder of LGBTQ Saves, said her nonprofit plans to make extensive use of the new facility. Churches provide a safe space for parents to drop off their children, she said. Several years ago, in the wake of several much-publicized LGBTQ youth suicides across the United States, Herrera held LGBTQ Saves’ first event, a winter prom, at CCC. Her group recently held Teen Pride, a teen-focused gay pride event, at CCC.
When reconciling mainstream Christian theology with the faithful who have chosen to marry or date someone of the same sex, Fort Worthians are increasingly accepting and welcoming, West said.
“We talk about homosexuality in the bible” at CCC, she said. “We talk about the things that we’ve been taught that aren’t necessarily so. In the early days, there weren’t any churches [in Fort Worth] that were openly accepting of LGBT people. Now, we see more and more churches opening their doors and their hearts while talking about God’s love and acceptance. I look forward to the day when we don’t have to have churches with an LGBT outreach mission. That day will mean [the LGBT community] is accepted everywhere.”