Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
Circle of Hope, a growing church that has attracted hundreds of young, hip congregants with a progressive message and relaxed religious services, has come under fire for what some describe as intolerant policies aimed at silencing gay congregants.
Though Circle of Hope has painted itself as an accepting and compassionate “next generation of church,” former attendee Andrew Stahler says that Circle’s leadership asked him to leave for speaking too publicly about homosexuality.
Troubled by a City Paper article on Oct. 17 that portrayed Circle as open and welcoming, Stahler and other former adherents say the church is trying to have it both ways: drawing in members with a modern image that skirts conservative tenets held by leaders who are fearful of reconciling progressive social-justice values with scripture.
Stahler says that in early 2009 he started attending a “cell,” one of dozens of Circle’s home-based prayer groups, led by Jonny Rashid, who later became a pastor in the church.
“I really liked that they had a social-justice message and that they had a conscience,” said Stahler, explaining his initial attraction to Circle. “I was pretty much in line with a lot of the things they believe.”
Stahler says he “told [Rashid] I was gay the day I met him,” and that Rashid assured him his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue.
And, for a time, being openly gay in the church wasn’t a problem; Stahler says most members he encountered seemed to be accepting of who he was.
“They never let on that there could be a problem. … I went to [Rashid’s] sermons, sat in the front row, engaged in conversations about lots of things — but never about [homosexuality],” said Stahler, who works with ACT-UP, an advocacy group for people living with AIDS.
But these pleasant months in the church made what happened next even harder.
At Center City’s annual OutFest in 2009, Stahler says he assisted a group of activists distributing fliers that listed LGBT-friendly churches. As he handed out hundreds of leaflets, Stahler saw that his own church wasn’t listed. Assuming it was a simple omission, he raised the issue with church leaders later on Circle of Hope’s email list.
A response came swiftly from Circle of Hope founder and senior pastor Rod White.
“We do not want to be divided up by gay political activism,” wrote White in an email. He criticized Stahler for sometimes attending another church and said that if he were truly devoted to Circle, he never would have broached the topic of homosexuality at all.
“You are not in covenant with us,” White continued, referring to an “oath” some congregants take to bond with the church. “Certainly not enough to resist promoting a divisive issue we have been successful at avoiding, so far.”
Stahler says he started receiving emails from Rashid, who wanted to set up a personal meeting to discuss his “role in the church.” At that meeting, Rashid gave him two options: stop talking about homosexuality or leave the church.
Rashid refused to confirm or deny these events, saying he has hazy memories of Stahler.
“I don’t really remember [the meeting] that well, so I’m not able to speak to Andy’s experiences,” said Rashid. “[Andy] never really connected, I don’t have a clear memory of him.”
However, Stahler produced numerous correspondences he had with Rashid related to church business, beach trips, their final 2009 meeting and even recent emails about City Paper’s story last month on the church.
Asked to explain Circle of Hope’s stance on homosexuality, Rashid said flatly, “Our policy is that we don’t have a policy.”
Stahler is not alone in having clashed with this “non-policy” over the years.
John Bright, a theology student who is also gay, got involved with Rashid’s cell a few months before Stahler. He, too, was drawn to the church’s social values, but was wary of the young pastor’s zeal.
“I sat down with [Rashid] in my apartment and said, basically, ‘I’m gay, and you remind me of evangelical culture. If this is going to be a problem, tell me now,’” said Bright.
He was assured enough to attend several church services. But he didn’t stick around long enough to get kicked out.
“After bringing [homosexuality] up several times in non-public situations and getting obviously fearful and evasive reactions, I left,” Bright says. “I had little tolerance for being treated like a second-class citizen in a religious context.”
Bright says he knows at least five other people who left the church over the same issue, describing Circle’s attitude as a sort of “soft bigotry.” He says he believes the church’s mostly feel-good messages and promotional materials featuring friendly youngsters mask deep-seated beliefs dictated by a larger organization.
When White founded Circle of Hope in Center City 18 years ago, it was as an offshoot of a little-known church with Mennonite roots called Brethren in Christ. Circle has maintained a connection to that larger body, which has an estimated worldwide membership of around 80,000. A treatise that the group released on homosexuality condemned homophobia, but ultimately concludes that “homosexual acts” are sinful and that people “choose these acts and they are acts of … rebellion against the pattern of life God wants people to live.”
While Stahler says he believes that, deep down, Rashid is a “gay-affirming” person, he saw the pastor as struggling to reconcile those feelings with White’s demand to maintain BIC’s harder line on open discussion of homosexuality.
Bright put it more bluntly, saying he believes Rashid was just “doing Rod’s dirty work.”
When White was asked by City Paper in an email to comment on the former member’s experiences, he referenced a Bible verse and said “as Christians, they need to come to me directly with accusations.” When told that Bright and Stahler had, in fact, suggested meeting with the senior pastor in person to mediate their issues, White did not respond.
While it may not be surprising that a Christian organization would have trouble devising a coherent position on homosexuality, Stahler said it was important to speak out now in order to help future members avoid the experience he went through. He also hopes to reach current members who are uncomfortable with Circle’s stance, noting that there is no shortage of genuinely LGBT-friendly churches in the Philadelphia area.
But both Bright and Stahler also said Circle members need to examine the role they play in supporting a church leadership that embraces anti-gay Biblical teachings and enforces a code of silence.
“Circle of Hope does a lot of good things. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the ends don’t justify the means when you exclude or ignore whole communities of people,” said Stahler.
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