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Halleluja! Clergy, congregations join in celebration of Pridefest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 28, 2011 - As crowds lined Grand Boulevard near Tower Grove Park for the St. Louis Pride Parade Sunday, they probably didn't expect to see robed priests, ministers and pastors marching along side the traditional flashy, rainbow-adorned individuals.

"What's that?" A young girl asked her mothers as they sat on the curb, watching priests burning incense walking to join the parade, as if they were walking to the pulpit. "It smells good."

Clerics and congregation members said it was important for them to show their support.

"I really believe there are so many statements against gay people, it's important for us that we have a more traditional statement," said the Rev. Mark Sluss, an Episcopalian deacon who attended Pridefest with several Episcopalian congregations, said. "We need to balance against the fire and brimstone message [gays] receive."

"We're trying to follow the gospel as we know it," he said.

"We're trying to provide them with a place of safety and love. And if we don't do that, we've failed," added Jason Samuel, a gay Episcopal priest ordained in 1992. Samuel, who has been attending Pridefest with the Missouri diocese for the past 12 years, remembers when only two religious groups attended Pridefest. This Sunday there were many more.

'God's Love Is For Everyone'

Before the Pride Parade, Bishop G. Wayne Smith, head of the Episcopal Missouri Diocese, held a "mass on the grass" at Tower Grove Park attended by several congregations that canceled their usual Sunday services. In 2009, leaders of the Episcopal Church of America declared that gays and lesbians are eligible for ministry. But, said Sluss, Episcopal churches have ordained homosexuals since 1976.

The United Church of Christ (UCC) ordained its first openly gay minister in 1972. Other denominations have only recently opened up their ministries. In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted down a ban on gay ministers. In May, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved the ordination of gay ministers.

"Most of the [UCC congregations] have declared themselves to be open and affirming of people regardless off sexual orientation, said Tom Ressler, an openly gay UCC pastor, who marched with a group of UCC congregations from around the area.

"We're here to let folks know that God's love is for everyone," he added.

St. Louis' Jewish community also had a large representation in the parade and festival. Marching under a banner that read "Celebrating Diversity: St. Louis Jewish Communities" with rainbow-colored Stars of David, nine congregations and eight organizations braved the heat to show support and express their pride.

"It's quite fitting that we're under a tent," Rabbi Andy Kastner said at the contingency's festival tent. "The tent is a powerful image in the Jewish narrative. And we have all four sides open; it symbolizes welcoming people into our space, as they are -- seeing people as individuals, seeing people as universally human."

Several Unitarian Universalist congregations joined the parade under large banners and T-shirts that read "Standing on the side of LOVE," a campaign headed by the Unitarian Universalist Association aimed at repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.

In addition to mainstream churches, smaller ministries and other religious groups were also represented at Pridefest.

"It's important that everyone knows they are accepted," said Tyrika Howell of Rainbow Covenant Christian Ministries.

As the parade and festival drew to a close and sun-burned, exhausted festival goers made their way to their cars, the Rev. Teresa Danieley and members of St. John's Episcopal Church, an open and affirming church, greeted them with cold water and offers of clean bathrooms and rest in the air-conditioned church after a long day of Pride.

"Think who Jesus was," Danieley said. "He reached out to marginalized people. We're showing an example of what it means to be Christian."

Ryan Schuessler, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon.