Mystic — Lexy Leuszler recalls walking down the street with her partner about five years ago and seeing the sign outside of Mystic Congregational Church saying, “All are welcome here” and a small Pride flag.
When they then heard the Rev. Christa Swenson, senior pastor, deliver an eloquent sermon in which she mentioned her wife, Leuszler said “it was a massive moment.”
“I think we just walked in that day and never looked back because we also saw a congregation that was fully accepting of Pastor Christa. There was no question. People were excited to just come up and meet us. We have developed deep friendships from this ,” said Leuszler.
Leuszler and her partner, Hansol Jung, a playwright, also help out at the church as part of the audiovisual team that helps record and livestream services.
Leuszler, 32, who works as a freelance dramaturge — a story editor for plays and musicals — was raised Catholic while growing up in Kansas, but began to question her in college. While Leuszler, who is a lesbian, never received overtly harmful messages from the Catholic Church, she said sexuality was never openly discussed and she thinks there’s harm in silence. The path forward in catechism classes was always depicted as a husband and wife, and all her pastors were male.
In 2015, she met her current partner, who grew up in a religious household, and, after their relationship became serious, they began looking for a church. They found a Presbyterian Church where there was an openly gay pastor, and Leuszler said it was the first time she had been in a church in which LGBTQIA+ identity was openly discussed and welcomed. When they moved to the Mystic area, they began looking for welcoming churches again.
Leuszler said her experience at Mystic Congregational Church has reopened her relationship to faith and now she and her partner read the Bible every day, which has brought them closer, and it also helped her meet her community. Leuszler said faith is a personal journey and her Catholic family members have come a long way and are very accepting, and her own personal journey to faith has helped them have those discussions.
Leuszler is among individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community who have found a renewed connection to religion in churches that are openly accepting and welcoming of LGBTQIA+ people.
Citing the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, GLAAD has reported that: “Nearly half of LGBTQ Americans are religious, and a majority of all people of faith, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, support protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people. “
Swenson, pastor at Mystic Congregational Church, who has two children with her wife, Sarah Caldwell, said the United Church of Christ has for many years been open to the ordination of gay and lesbian people into ministerial leadership. The Mystic Congregational Church also adopted a covenant to be an Open and Affirming Church. The United Church of Christ designates congregations that “make a public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions” as “Open and Affirming,” according to the UCC’s website.
“I would say there are more and more denominations becoming open to ordained ministers who identify as gay and lesbian (or) transgender, but to be a queer person in leadership in a church is still a minority,” Swenson said.
Swenson was ordained in 2009 by the Presbytery of Hudson River in New York at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, after she declared a “scruple,” or conscientious objection, to the church’s Constitution. At the time, ordination standards required church officers live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage or chastity in singleness,” but candidates also could declare a conscientious objection to any provision of the church’s Constitution.
The Presbyterian Church USA in 2011 allowed the ordination of LGBTQ individuals.
Swenson, who has dual affiliation with the United Church of Christ, said she was raised Presbyterian and in a church community committed to raising people in an affirmative way. Her pastor in college, who was the first person she came out to as a lesbian, was very supportive.
But Swenson knows not everyone has had a welcoming experience with religion.
“Part of the reason that I’m so committed to us being an explicitly Open and Affirming church is because we have to create space for healing for so many people who were so deeply wounded by a Christian Church that for too many years was not welcoming and was explicitly hurtful to gay and lesbian people,” Swenson said.
Chevelle Moss-Savage, a therapist and Interim President of OutCT, said she helps people who have suffered from spiritual trauma by getting down to their personal belief system. If people believe that God makes all things good, she reminds them that belief includes them.
Moss-Savage said some people decide that the traditional church experience is not for them and they find spirituality through meditation or other means or some people go to churches that openly welcome LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“It all depends on the individual,” she said.
Some churches and institutions have taken steps to welcome LGBTQIA+ individuals. The Niantic Community Church holds educational events and supports youth to attend LGBTQIA+ conferences. st. Luke Lutheran Church in Gales Ferry developed and posted a welcoming statement on its website. Sacred Heart University, a Catholic university in Fairfield, has held annual Coming Out Day Celebrations.
The Rev. Adam Thomas, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mystic, said the church performs weddings for same-sex couples and “interprets holy scripture from a perspective of a loving and expansive God, in whose image and likeness we find all expressions of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.”
The Rev. Abiot Moyo said New London United Methodist Church and Christ United Methodist Church in Groton “are both committed to issues of diversity and inclusion.”
A sense of community
Priscilla Newell, 93, of Groton, said that growing up in a small town in central Florida in the 30s and 40s, she had crushes on other girls, but didn’t know what that was all about. She had never heard of homosexuality, and when she started learning about it, she heard what some people thought of it.
“It was scary because I was so afraid of all these terrible things they wrote about people who love somebody, or had emotions for someone, of the same sex, and I was so afraid somebody was going to find out,” she said.
While people expected her to marry a man and have kids and live in the suburbs, that wasn’t her plan. She said she wanted to travel and paint and do all kinds of things. Newell said her career has spanned training Girl Scout leaders and running Girl Scout camps overseas and working in leadership positions for affirmative action and equal employment opportunity.
Newell, who grew up in a family with one-side Episcopalian, and another side born-again evangelical, said the Episcopal Church never mentioned LGBTQ identity when she was growing up. While she enjoyed the rituals, she stopped going to church when she moved to Michigan for graduate school because she didn’t feel a connection, which she said was not related to her being a lesbian. She went to a Catholic church in Europe, where she understood the ritual, but stopped going because she didn’t understand the language.
Newell, who came out as a lesbian at about age 40, didn’t get involved in religion again until she went with her late partner, Mary Wade, who died in 2007, to a Unitarian church in Vermont with a lesbian minister. When Newell and Wade, who were together for 30 years, moved to southeastern Connecticut to be closer to Wade’s daughter, Newell looked up the local Unitarian church, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, and was thrilled to find the minister was a lesbian .
“Finally, I found a religious home,” Newell said.
She said the church has given her a sense of community and belonging.
“I am with a group of people who have the same kinds of feelings about the world, and I’m in a safe place and I get rejuvenated every Sunday,” Newell added.
Looking back, she’s proud she found her way through it all and wants younger people in the LGBTQIA+ community to understand “how far we’ve gone.”
Newell, who marched in the 1960s in Washington, DC for peace, women’s and racial equality movements, continues to go to every demonstration locally, showing up with her hot pink walker.
The Rev. Carolyn Patierno, senior minister at All Souls, said many people have a yearning for a spiritual life and community, and sometimes people come to All Souls having been hurt by their faith tradition of origin.
Patierno said it’s important to build trust that there are faith communities that embrace all aspects of who a person is, including their sexual orientation and gender identity, and to “walk with people as they come to believe and trust that they are loved, that there is a place for them within different faith communities, and that healing is possible from whatever hurt they sustained in being told otherwise.”