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On Faith

A Church on a Cultural Divide

Africans and Gays Struggle Together

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page C01

On Faith appears on the first Sunday of each month.

It was to be a celebration of how African immigrants had found a home in a once predominantly white church in Silver Spring. A spiritual leader had come all the way from Cameroon to dedicate a chapter of the Christian Women's Fellowship -- the Africa-based group's first chapter in the United States.

Sue Kaspar, center left, and her partner, Virginia Azuree, have remained as Silver Spring Presbyterian has largely become a church of African immigrants. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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But just before the big event, the Cameroonian visitor, Elizabeth Gana, received an urgent phone call.

One of the church's leaders was gay, the caller said. Silver Spring Presbyterian welcomed gay people.

Gana's first impulse was to withdraw from the ceremony. She asked the church's African members how they could be part of such a congregation.

"It was very, very hurtful," said Lydia Evakise, 46, a Cameroonian immigrant and a member of Silver Spring Presbyterian for two decades. "We are still struggling with the dynamics of how we are going to blend without excluding the Presbyterian Church Cameroon, where we came from, and the Presbyterian Church USA, which we now belong to."

As immigrants fill the pews of mainline U.S. Protestant congregations, they are adding another dimension to the complex debate over gay men and lesbians in the church. Most of them hail from more conservative cultures, where homosexuality is rarely discussed or even acknowledged.

Some have formed their own nondenominational or evangelical churches. But others -- particularly African immigrants who speak English -- have preferred the familiarity of the Presbyterian, Episcopal or other mainline denominations that were introduced to their countries long ago by missionaries.

Sometimes, the result has been a resounding clash of values. Nowhere is that more deeply felt than at churches such as Silver Spring Presbyterian, a place where many African immigrants have met openly gay people for the first time.

Although Africans now make up more than 80 percent of the 350-member congregation, the aging white members -- who include gays and parents of gay children -- are among the most active and are determined to keep the inclusion of gays in the church mission.

Some African-born members have left over the conflict. Others still don't realize that the stained-glass triangle in one of the church's windows is a symbol of gay pride.

The Africans and whites who have stayed despite the tensions have reached an awkward compromise. They have decided that other aspects of their faith should be the church's main focus. And each group, on its own, has refrained from taking actions that might inflame the other side. There are no more church-sponsored gay pride days, and fewer mentions of gay rights during church prayers. Yet at the same time, all new members are told that they are joining a church that accepts gays and lesbians.

Despite the phone call to Gana, last year's fellowship ceremony went forward. She and the Rev. Stan Bliss, the church's openly gay parish associate, sat together in the sanctuary -- and hugged afterward.

"It's really an attempt to be the whole family of God," said the Rev. Currie Burris, the head pastor.

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