Preaching the 'gospel of Inclusion'
By DEE DUDERSTADTOf the News-Register
The Rev. Kent Harrop likens an open church to the great banquet table that Jesus describes in the gospel of Luke.
Longtime pastor at First Baptist, he believes his church exemplifies this table by inviting all to partake, regardless of sexual orientation.
"At the great banquet table of the Scripture, all of the broken, forgotten people are welcome," the 51 year-old minister said. "I have tried to create that great banquet table. We all try to be at the table."
Harrop took the helm 12 years ago. He followed the Rev. Bernie Turner, a pioneer of openness who laid the perfect foundation for Harrop to build on.
"Bernie Turner had created that sense of openness, and I really appreciate it," he said. "It is a commitment that I have tried to continue. It was one of the things that attracted me to the church."
As a parent, he saw this openness as a distinct advantage for his two young daughters, now 13 and 16. A far cry from his own upbringing.
"I grew up in a very homophobic culture," he said.
"It has been wonderful for their development to grow up in a church that was not homophobic," he said of his children. "It's a really healthy environment, a model of God's inclusive love."
Harrop points to longtime partners Don Hutchinson and Lee Swantek as the perfect example of committed gay partners. Openly gay members of the church, they celebrated 47 years together before Swantek's death in 2002.
"They were as loving as any couple I have ever met," Harrop said. "When Lee died, we treated and honored Don as his partner.
"He was not closeted in his grief. How sad that our society does not value and honor that love."
Unlike Turner, Harrop has worked from the inside out, leading by example. As he has grown in his own personal understanding of Christ's example of love and acceptance he has come to "see beyond the labels, seeing gay folk like everyone else."
The church has not limited its role to providing a spiritually uplifting environment, though. It has also reached out in other ways.
The foundation of its outreach to the gay and lesbian community is Together Works, a support group Turner founded more than two decades ago - an era when it was a much more radical undertaking than it might appear today. And Harrop has continued to embrace the group during his tenure.
He said First Baptist remains one of the few churches in the area that is inclusive. It is the only known church in Yamhill County with a ministry to the gay and lesbian community that does not teach change or redirect their sexuality.
Though some members split from the church when Turner began the overture, those who remained, and those who have followed, have been consistently supportive.
"The congregation as a whole values an environment that is inclusive," Harrop said. "We value and respect differences.
"An open church is a safe place for those of us who have gay family members. It fosters a culture of openness."
Harrop said it's all about "getting to know people beyond the labels, seeing gay folk like everyone else."
He said. "They don't have to hide who they are to be accepted as part of our congregation. We value and respect them."
Thanks to Turner, he said, the church not only set a powerful precedent in the community. It become a leader nationally in the American Baptist Convention.
And Harrop has pushed hard to carry Turner's vision on during his stewardship.
"I am drawn to the gospel of inclusion and hospitality," he said. "The inclusiveness is biblically based.
"We try to live it and invite all. In my opinion, Jesus would have us welcome and include them."
He likes to quote Matthew 25:40, where Jesus says: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
Harrop said he came to his understanding of the gospel over an extended period of time. It was not a sudden revelation.
"My evolution has been a gradual one."
He recalled shutting down once when a friend tried to come out to him. He refused to accept what he was hearing, telling his friend it simply wasn't possible, he didn't believe it.
"The church I served in Ohio for seven years had a 'don't ask, don't tell policy,'" he said, and he accepted it at the time.
"I was a product of the culture I grew up in," he said. "I continue to evolve."
He said parishioners there would confide to him about gay family members, but would not share that with fellow members of the congregation for fear of being ostracized. Here, he said, "We have moved beyond this policy to the point where gays and lesbians are welcome and their families can be open about it."
Harrop said the issue of sexuality continues to haunt America's religious landscape, and it's a shame in his view.
"It's very divisive, in some regions more than others," he said. "It's a sad commentary. It's a value, a value that defines.
"These churches are losing out in having some of the most fabulous members they could have in their church. They are impoverished."
Even in his own church, "There are some who do not agree from a biblical perspective," he said. "We're still evolving."
But he said, "We try to bring everybody to the table. No one should be excluded from Christ."