This story was clarified on April 10, 2012. An explanation follows the story.
Jolene Capozzi remembers the first time she received Holy Communion at Open Door Metropolitan Community Church in Boyds, 17 years ago.
After the wafer was placed on her tongue, tears began to stream down her face.
“I cried my eyes out,” she said. “I was like, this feels really good.”
A lifelong, devoted Catholic, Capozzi said she had never before felt welcome at church. Constrained by her own religious beliefs, Capozzi hid her sexuality until she was 44, was married and had two children.
At Open Door, Capozzi, 61, said she can be a lesbian and still feel loved by God.
In the past decade — but especially in the past few years — congregations in varying denominations nationwide have more rapidly begun to formally welcome gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders to their pews and pulpits, said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, director of the Institute for Welcoming Resources, a branch of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that focuses on providing resources for religious institutions.
Since joining the institute in 2005, Voelkel said she has seen the number of churches that have publicly affirmed themselves as inclusive grow from 1,300 to 4,500. There are roughly 335,000 religious congregations in the U.S., according to Hartford Institute.
While the welcoming movement began 50 years ago, there now is exponential growth taking place, Voelkel said.
The institute is sponsored by organizations within 11 Christian denominations that have established a process in which congregations can publicly become inclusive to the LGBT community. Each process is different, although all require the church to make it publicly known that they are inclusive — via a church bulletin, website or through other communication. In the county, 28 churches have gone through this process.
Some denominations officially recognize these organizations, such as United Church of Christ and the Open and Affirming Program of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, Voelkel said. Others consider the welcoming congregations to be disobedient, such as those within the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church.
Oftentimes, it is events that occur in congregations that spark discussion and change, Voelkel said.
Discussion took off among Christians after Feb. 25, when the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg publicly denied to offer communion to Barbara Johnson of Washington, D.C., at her mother’s funeral, after learning she was a lesbian, said Lauve H. Steenhuisen, a professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University.
The Archdiocese of Washington responded in a statement Feb. 27 that it was looking into the incident. Guarnizo later was barred from ministry and withdrawn from his assignment at St. John Neumann because of “intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry,” according to a March 9 archdiocese statement.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that tradition always has declared “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”
Voelkel said the official policy of the Catholic Church is unlikely to change, but the event definitely got people talking.
It was a wake-up call for Christians, she said
“Homosexuals are saying, finally,” she said, “[they are saying,] you do not see the prejudice that is hurled at us every day. ... Finally the prejudice is displayed, along with the power. Finally it is made overt.”
Open and affirmingAbout 7 miles west of St. John Neumann, at United Church of Christ of Seneca Valley in Germantown, Pastor Carolyn L. Roberts said anyone is welcome at the communion table.
Although the church has been welcoming to the LGBT community since it was established in 1984 — after two years of discussion — in 2007 it wrote a statement to officially become “open and affirming” through the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns in 2007.
The church takes the Bible seriously, but not literally, which allows it to interpret Scripture to be relevant to today’s society, Roberts said.
“We don’t feel that God spoke way back in ancient history and then quit talking,” Roberts said. “We believe that God continues to talk to us in the present.”
About 70 people attend services at UCC Seneca Valley every Sunday, and about 10 percent are openly gay, Roberts said.
Beth Lauriat and her partner, Laura Lineberger, of Montgomery Village, said they have found a home at the church.
Raised in UCC churches, Lauriat said she is lucky to not have faced the rejection she sees others face.
“I probably would have chosen not to come out at church, or stopped going, but I don’t really know because that really wasn’t my experience,” Lauriat said.
More churches will become open, as society continues to change, Steenhuisen said.
Steenhuisen, who has a doctorate in sociology of religion from the University of California, Berkeley, teaches five courses at Georgetown, including one called Religion in America. She visits local congregations to teach about homosexuality in religion.
As the population ages, churches with traditional beliefs will lose members, she said.
“I think that younger people have more open views,” she said. “I think that there are a lot of pressures on congregations to become more opening and more welcoming.”
In a study conducted in July 2011 by the Public Religion Research Institute that surveyed 3,000 people in the U.S., there was a 20 percent gap between people ages 18 to 29 and 65 and older on public policy measures concerning rights for gays and lesbians.
About six in 10 people ages 18 to 29 favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, while three in 10 seniors favor it.
Steenhuisen thinks denominations are having to change in response to their congregations.
“[People] are getting more open-minded, because they have gays and lesbians in their own families, and they see finally that the church is not [open-minded], and they are putting pressure [on] the church to change.”
Since her ex-husband annulled their marriage in the Catholic Church, Capozzi has felt ostracized from the church, she said.
Now at Open Door, her partner, Sara Jocham, wraps her arm around her as they pray each Sunday.
They share a songbook and sing gospel music, exchanging occasional smiles.
“I don’t believe everyone has to go to church to be spiritual or anything like that,” Capozzi said. “But I get to be me there. And I like to share my faith.”
Clarification: Jolene Capozzi was not excommunicated from the Catholic Church.