Brittany Barron’s faith was invincible.
When evangelical megachurch Fellowship Monrovia hired her in 2013, the young preacher took comfort in the fact that God’s plan was working. And why wouldn’t it be? God had watched over Barron her entire life and was present for every moment of her happy, religious childhood in Colorado. God was there for her education as well, when she attended California’s Azusa Pacific University, one of the nation’s top evangelical colleges. And now, God had led the 27-year-old to Fellowship Monrovia, where she could fulfill her dream of entering the ministry. As a woman of color, Barron was impressed by the church’s racial diversity, another sign of the Lord’s grace within her life. Not only was God’s plan working, it had shaped every facet of Barron’s existence. Nothing could shake that foundation.
Until something did.
During her first year at Fellowship Monrovia, Barron received a Facebook message from a woman named Sami Cromelin. Cromelin was interested in volunteering at the church, and Barron welcomed her into the fold. Cromelin’s electric presence impressed church leaders, and they quickly hired her to join Fellowship Monrovia’s rapidly expanding staff. Barron and Cromelin grew close. They shared a love for God, a sparkling sense of humor, and an undeniable chemistry. Soon, the two women realized their connection was more than platonic workplace synergy — they were falling in love.
In the eyes of the church, that was a sin. Still, they carried on in secret.
“I was miserable,” Barron recalls now. “We went on a three-year cycle of saying, ‘Okay, we’re just best friends. Okay, now I love you. Okay, let’s leave everything. Okay, maybe God doesn’t want us to do this. Maybe God doesn’t care. Maybe I don’t care. Maybe you don’t care.’ It was exhausting and got darker as the years went on.”
Finally, in 2016, Cromelin quit her job and broke up with Barron, desperate to free herself from the toxic repression of the church. Barron stayed closeted and continued to work at Fellowship Monrovia, too terrified to leave the only world she’d ever known. “It wasn’t just my job at stake—it was my whole life,” Barron tells me. “It was like: How do I give up my whole life for Sami and not resent Sami? And how do I give up Sami for my whole life and not resent my whole life?”
A few months later, Barron snapped. She denounced the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues during a staff meeting, quitting on the spot. Barron got back together with Cromelin, and the two began the painful process of reconciling their spirituality and sexuality. In an attempt to heal the hurt she felt, Barron wrote a blog post, publicly coming out of the closet. Soon, she was flooded with messages from other LGBTQ evangelical Christians who were dealing with the shame inflicted by their own repressive, conservative churches. Barron was heartened to discover a community of LGBTQ evangelicals struggling to find their place within Christianity.
One of the messages she received was from Cory Marquez, an ex-megachurch pastor who had experienced a similarly traumatic break from his own conservative congregation. Though Marquez was straight, he too objected to the evangelical church’s oppressive mandates on sexuality, race, class, and gender. Barron and Marquez began meeting regularly, bonding over their painful histories. Eventually, Marquez asked Barron if she would like to preach at New Abbey, a “post-evangelical” church he’d founded for progressive Christians. She delivered a sermon at New Abbey that Sunday and became co-pastor shortly thereafter.
“I grew up thinking God was in a very specific place, and gay people were outside of that place,” Barron says. “Then you leave and find out God is everywhere you thought God was not.”
From its outset, New Abbey has been “affirming” — a term that refers to churches that support LGBTQ relationships and endorse same-sex marriage — but with Barron in leadership, the church’s LGBTQ membership quickly expanded. Today, 30 percent of New Abbey’s congregation is LGBTQ. Most of these queer Christians come from conservative religious backgrounds and see New Abbey as a safe space in which they can heal from past theological oppression.
Throughout American history, evangelicals and the LGBTQ community have been at odds. From the evangelical perspective, the core of the issue lies in six Bible verses that the church has interpreted as condemning homosexuality. This very small collection of words has driven a massive rift through our country; in addition to leading a spiritual crusade against LGBTQ rights, evangelicals have spearheaded a legal one. Evangelicals are currently the dominant religious force in the GOP, conservative Christian leaders have gained unprecedented access to Trump’s White House, and, as evidenced by the anti-LGBTQ Nashville Statement, the fight against LGBTQ civil rights is at the forefront of the Christian right’s political agenda. The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple for religious reasons, gay-rights opponent Tony Perkins has been named to the U.S. Religious Freedom Panel, and many fear the Obama-era Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage could be stripped away under the conservative religious agenda of the current administration.
But there is hope. What is happening at New Abbey on a microlevel is an example of a macro trend among a new generation of evangelicals who are questioning the anti-LGBTQ dogma of their religion. According to a 2017 study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 34 percent of evangelicals support gay marriage. Though this number is far from a majority, it does represent a promising 13 percent decrease in evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage since 2013. As American culture moves toward an increasingly progressive view of what is morally acceptable, evangelicals cling to our nation’s morally conservative past, destroying their own base in the process. In 2006, 23 percent of Americans considered themselves evangelical Christians, a figure that has dropped to 17 percent today. And though 26 percent of senior citizens identify as evangelical Protestant, only 8 percent of young people do. Of those younger evangelicals who stay with the church, 53 percent support same-sex marriage.
As a result of this generational shift, a dialogue has begun within evangelical circles about LGBTQ acceptance. Leading the charge is a burgeoning movement of LGBTQ Christian activists intent on changing the hearts of evangelicals across the country. This brave and diverse group refuses to accept the shame offered to them by a conservative, religious establishment, demanding dignity instead.
They are asking this essential question: Can you be queer and Christian?