Pastor Mark Byrd and his congregation are moving this weekend from their cramped quarters at Five Points to a spacious new location at 1000 Sunset Drive off Chesapeake Boulevard in Norfolk.
Along with that milestone, Byrd points to recent pivotal moments in the church’s evolution that have brought it to the forefront of Coastal Virginia’s LGBTQSI and faith community.
When the Supreme Court struck down DOMA in June 2013, he led a celebratory march through downtown Norfolk. A year later, when the 4th Circuit heard the marriage equality case that ultimately led to legalization in Virginia, it was Byrd who mobilized community protests and vigils on the steps of the Federal Courthouse. And when SCOTUS deemed marriage equality the law of the land, Byrd himself officiated the weddings of dozens of same-sex couples both locally and throughout the mid-Atlantic.
For Byrd, who has been the pastor of New Life for only five years, those events have gone a long way towards uniting not only his congregation, but also the whole of the Hampton Roads LGBTQSI community.
“Things have moved very quickly over the past few years,” he said, “and the end result is that our community does have a much stronger sense of unity. But we still have work to do to break down barriers and fill the gaps.”
“I think sometimes our community has blinders,“ he said. “It’s easy to give lip service, but in our day-to-day interactions and support of each other, there’s room for improvement.”
He points to the unmet needs of the transgender community as an example of what remains to be done.
“There’s a difference between acceptance and tolerance,” he said. “We’ve often tolerated the trans community, but have we truly accepted the transgender community as equals, both as individuals and a group?”
While public discussions involving the trans community are removing some of the barriers, Byrd thinks the larger community needs to be more overt in its overall efforts at inclusion.
“Whether it’s about gender, sexual orientations different than our own, race, or even social and economic class, perhaps it’s too easy for local organizations and leaders to say, ‘Well, we’ve invited them, but they don’t come’,” he said.
“If we’re truly serious about not being as exclusive as those who have excluded us, maybe it is time we ask ourselves some honest and tough questions.”
For Byrd, those questions boil down to how each segment of the queer community interacts. Being proactive in ways that make others feel safe and have a real voice is the litmus test.
“We have to truly believe that every segment of the community is vital, then prove ourselves to be that open,” he said.
He also talks about the challenges in addressing the faith needs of a diverse community with wildly varying backgrounds.
“A lot of it has to do with our family upbringing,” he said. “Those with a progressive family history have an easier understanding of what MCC is about. Other folks have been so hurt by the church that if it sounds like church, smells like church, and looks like church, they run.”
His personal challenge is conveying the message that church can be both a safe and loving place to connect with one’s faith and the community.
“The arms of God are so wide and big that they can embrace everyone,” he said. “In practice, that means that MCC is open to all and to exploring your individual faith.”
He refers to the Hampton Roads Interfaith Gathering as an important component of that message.
Nearly four years ago, in the midst of the legal wrangle over marriage equality, Byrd and a dozen local churches organized into the Hampton Roads LGBTQS Inter-Faith Group. Member faith groups represent a broad spectrum ranging from Christian, Pagan, Jewish, Unitarian and others.
The coalition founded the Interfaith Day of Celebration, which coincides with Hampton Roads Pride each June.
“The appeal of the event and the group is that there is a place for all types of worship in Hampton Roads,” he said. “I’m proud of our success, and I think it’s due to our quest to find the common denominator.”
Case in point is ‘Love Unites,’ this year’s Hampton Roads Pride theme.
“No matter what the differences are, you can’t argue with that,” he said. “That’s the holistic approach to community building we are really good at.”
While Byrd finds there is always work to be done within the queer community, he’s excited by how enthusiastically the larger community has embraced it.
“It’s amazing that here in Pat Robertson’s backyard we can get tens of thousands of people from every segment of Hampton Roads to come out and celebrate with us at Town Point Park,” he said.
Raised in a fundamentalist Missionary Baptist home in the western North Carolina mountains, Byrd knows something about being gay in a conservative environment.
“Every Sunday morning, we heard how bad abortions were, how bad black folks are, and how bad homosexuality is,” he recalls.
Needless to say, he struggled with his sexuality, repressed his desires and pursued a career as a Baptist minister. He married, had a daughter, and in his mid-30s found himself as senior Baptist minister at a church that catered to the military community stationed at Quantico, VA.
It was then that he came across Mel White’s autobiography, “A Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America” which detailed the author’s 25 years of being counseled, exorcised, electric-shocked, prayed for, and nearly driven to suicide because his church said homosexuality was wrong
White’s salvation and subsequent life as an openly gay and Christian man was a revelation for Byrd.
“I cried through every single chapter of his book,” he said. “Because his story was my story.”
Afterwards, he left the Baptist church and began the transition to the MCC church. It was a process he calls “protracted and emotionally devastating” but which, with the love and support of his wife and daughter, ultimately saved his life.
“Is reconciling Christianity and homosexuality a struggle, is it a journey? Yes,” he said. “But once I came to the understanding that God’s love is inclusive of everybody, I knew most difficult part was behind me.”
In 2011, he came to New Life MCC as an interim pastor, a gig that became permanent in 2013 when the congregation elected him Senior Pastor. Since then, he has applied the church’s core values of inclusion, community, spiritual transformation and social action not only in his personal life, but also in his congregation and his community.
“We have to remember that despite all the gains that we have made, those rights and privileges can be taken away depending on which way the political winds blow,” he said. “Protection of those rights requires constant work by all of us as one united community.”
“Diversity is a gift from God,” he said. “Inclusion requires an intentional choice by each of us.”