Photos by Glenn Garner
Off a side road in Clinton, Mississippi, there’s a nondescript commercial building with a dirt parking lot. It’s not the traditional white church and steeple with colorful stained glass depictions of Jesus and his apostles. But it’s a place of refuge for queer Christians in the Bible Belt.
Formed in the summer of 1995, Safe Harbor Family Church began as a group of 12, gathering in the living rooms of some of its early members. Created by LGBTQ people who’d been turned away from their previous churches, it became a discreet safe space for all to worship.
“At first, we were kind of a quiet church,” said founding member, Clay Bartnick. “You didn’t know where we were or know about us. We didn’t publicize everything because a lot of the members of the church just weren’t comfortable being an ‘out church,’ so to speak. We were predominantly gay, but we were offering ministry or worship for people who were gay, lesbian, transgender, whatever. We were accepting of all people, and a lot of churches in this area were casting people out of their churches. They had nowhere to go, so we took the refugees. That’s fine with us. God loves them, too.”
After years of avoiding any church or form of religious gathering, I found myself attending a Wednesday evening service at Safe Harbor. As soon as I walked through the doors, I was greeted with the beautiful baritone sound of Christian hymns from Music Minister Alan Black as he warmed up. There was admittedly an immediate sense of calm as I entered, knowing that my identity I’d so frequently had to guard from others was not some dirty little secret or the sinful elephant in the room.
It was the same sense of comfort and safety that filled the rest of the pews. Queer people who risked losing their jobs if outed had a place for their families to worship without oppression. The idle gossip that seems to come with every Baptist and Pentecostal institution in the area was lost on this space that appeared purely content with worship and fellowship.
This was part of the appeal for Senior Pastor Ann Brigham, who’d joined this United Church of Christ congregation last year. Having attended Mississippi College, a hardline Christian institution, she was well aware of the discriminatory attitudes that seeped into everything — especially churches. So, the chance to work with an open and affirming church in the south was enough to bring her back to Mississippi from Northern California.
“It wasn’t until I came to Safe Harbor to interview that I even knew it was primarily an LGBTQ community,” Brigham said. “I was delighted and happy. I never thought I’d find that in Mississippi after being in other places...I think in small communities, there aren’t choices. And that’s upsetting to me that there aren’t choices for the LGBTQ community, that they can’t find safe places to worship and have that part of themselves fulfilled.”
In a place like Mississippi, Christianity is about as ubiquitous as fast food. It’s as though there’s a church within just about every square mile, and the pews are full every Sunday and most Wednesdays (for the enthusiastic Christian who needs that extra Bible study). It’s difficult to find a local business or organization that doesn’t have some kind of involvement with a local congregation.
Although plenty of queer locals still take up membership with one of the many denominations represented in Mississippi, their queer identity is not so often embraced or even acknowledged by their Christian fellowships. And local attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community have only been validated by Governor Phil Bryant’s ongoing support of HB1523, which went into effect last year after much pushback from left-leaning Mississippians. Also known as the “Religious Freedom Act,” it grants local organizations and businesses the right to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people for religious reasons.
For college student and active Safe Harbor member, Luke Morris, finding the right congregation to validate his identity in its entirety was a struggle. But despite the perceived inner conflict of being a gay Christian in a place like Mississippi, he’s never felt doubt in his Christianity.
“For me, it’s not difficult to keep the faith, just because it’s so entrenched in my identity of who I am. It was never a question for me, whether or not other people’s bigotry and backwards thinking was going to affect my faith,” Morris said. “At the end of the day, I know my God, and no one can convince me anything else.”