Reverend John Gage ’92 was officially installed as senior minister at United Church on the Green only a little over three weeks ago, but it took him no time at all to become a celebrity at his local Starbucks.
When he stopped in for his morning coffee one Thursday, Gage said, he was surprised and thrilled to learn that every barista working that morning had seen the commercial he filmed urging members of the New Haven community to become a part of United Church on the Green.
“They’d all seen it airing on Bravo during ‘Project Runway,’” Gage said.
The commercial, which was funded by the church and filmed by Comcast, is the first step in the church’s campaign to reach out to New Haven citizens who feel marginalized by traditional religion. Gage said the church is especially concerned with welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender worshippers. While he identified New Haven as a city that generally welcomes its homosexual population, Gage said many religious homosexuals still feel that there is no place for them in the Church.
Parishioner Fred Walker first raised the idea of advertising the church at a Board of Stewards meeting last August.
“I felt that with John taking over, it was time for the church to be renewed with new vigor,” Walker said. “John has been able to reach out because he is able to use language and phrases that mean something to young people today. What he says isn’t holier-than-thou. It’s holy, but it isn’t holier-than-thou.”
In the ad, Gage, who served as the church’s associate pastor for six years before becoming senior minister, is shown walking up the steps of the church wearing a rainbow stole and stating that while almost every church in the world hangs a sign saying “All are welcome,” too many people discover that “All” does not include them. The ad concludes with Gage sitting inside the church, the large black cross tattoo on his arm fully visible. He tells the camera that at United Church on the Green, he and his congregation are building a community where no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are invited and welcome.
“The idea, and the last thing I say in the ad, is that at United Church on the Green in New Haven, our faith is over 2,000 years old, but our thinking is not,” Gage said.
In all of the church’s promotional literature and on its Web site, a commitment to being open to people of all backgrounds is heavily emphasized, with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons mentioned specifically.
Ruth-Anne Olson, who has attended United Church on the Green for almost a year, said she loved the commercial because she felt it captured the essence of the church’s mission.
“The idea of being open to anyone, whoever they were and wherever they might be in life’s journey, really appealed to me when I started coming here,” she said.
Gage, who is openly gay, said that while reaching out to a particular demographic is not necessarily the church’s primary focus, providing a place for members of the LGBT community to worship is an integral part of his ministry.
“Back in 1989, [the church] took the step of voting to welcome all people and specifically extending that welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons,” he said. “I feel like because we can make that leap and because a lot of churches can’t, that we have a responsibility to do that.”
Gage said he feels that this responsibility extends to a number of communities in New Haven besides those who may be discriminated against for their sexual orientations. United Church on the Green’s current mission is to provide a home for all families, including interracial couples and single-parent families, he said.
“We really feel that we’re trying to get away from that cookie-cutter idea of a nice white Christian family and say God makes families in all shapes and sizes,” he said.
United Church on the Green was dedicated to being an open and accessible haven for people to worship long before the vote to accept homosexuals, said Walker, who has attended the church for 35 years.
“The church has been pushing the envelope since the very beginning, and not only on this issue,” he said.
In 1971, Walker said, the church opened its doors to demonstrators participating in the Black Panthers riot. As other churches boarded up their doors, United Church on the Green fed the demonstrators peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and allowed them to sleep on the pews, he said.
Gage said that the same principles remain an integral part of the church’s mission today.
“The goal is to let people know that contrary to what is put out there in the mainstream media and our country, there is more than one authentic and faithful way of following Jesus,” he said. “Unfortunately, all we hear, in the media especially, is an increasingly right-wing kind of Christianity. There are a lot of people who aren’t served by that kind of faith, and we offer an alternative.”
Religious studies professor Dale Martin said he also sees a discrepancy between the actual accepting environment of most churches and the public idea of what organized religion stands for.
“I think a lot of people in society have misconceptions of what church is all about,” he said.
Martin’s recently published book, “Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation,” discusses some of these misconceptions. One section of the book discusses how many people link Christianity to traditional family values, which Martin argues are “not that traditional after all,” dating back only to the 1950s.
“The Christian right really gets most of the coverage,” he said. “People think that the old-fashioned heterosexual nuclear family is the Christian ideal. That isn’t true in the scripture and it isn’t true in a lot of churches.”
Shannon Craigo-Snell, also a religious studies professor, said she agreed with Martin’s assessment of New Haven’s churches as being more open to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons than most people realize.
“It’s a great thing for people to be more aware of that,” she said.
But Craigo-Snell said a church advertising itself on television — regardless of intention — is somewhat unconventional.
“It is of course a little bit strange to have a church making a commercial,” she said. “We aren’t used to that.”
Still, she said she would consider the ad reasonable if it were thoughtfully produced.
The church’s current commercial is part of a continuing campaign known as ‘God is Still Speaking,’” Gage said. In 2004, the church released its “bouncer ad,” which Gage said has become somewhat infamous. The ad, which featured two bouncers standing in front of a church and turning people away, was turned down by NBC and CBS. According to Gage, the networks felt that the same-sex couple shown being denied entrance to the church turned the commercial into an advocacy ad for gay marriage.
“That was the beginning of our trying to speak to people in a language that they understand,” Gage said. “You have to shock people a little bit and step out of the box a little bit to let people know you’re doing something different, by using humor or just by me being a guy with an earring and a tattoo and a funny-looking beard.”
The current commercial, which has been on the air for several weeks and will continue to run for approximately a month, is being shown in New Haven, West Haven, East Haven, Hamden and Branford.
Within a week of the commercial’s debut, it was met with a huge response from the gay community in New Haven and around the world. Gage said his e-mail inbox is full of messages from people around the country who had heard about the church and wanted to write in with their support.
“They’re not going to come to church — they’re too far away,” he said. “But they’re amazed to hear of a church that’s offering this kind of welcome.”
Since the commercial’s debut, the church has seen a 30 percent increase in its attendance, Gage said.
Walker recalled one person in the congregation who balked at the idea of filming a commercial when the advertising budget was first finalized, but he said that he has heard no complaints since the commercial aired.
“Generally speaking, the congregation moves forward as a group,” he said. “Even if someone is dragging their heels, there is forward movement.”
While he said he sees no problem with the church advertising to attract worshippers, Martin said he could understand some members of Gage’s congregation being hesitant at the prospect of their church being seen solely as “the gay church.”
“You want your church to be seen in all of its variety and fullness, for all that it does,” he said.
Although Martin said he has not seen the commercial, he wishes that more New Haven churches would reach out to potential worshippers with as much success as Gage. He said he feels that many people pass by his own Episcopal church, Christ Church New Haven, and automatically associate the Gothic cathedral with a stodgy, exclusive atmosphere.
“In reality, we have a gay Christian reading group that’s advertised in the church bulletin,” he said. “I wish we could get out the word. People don’t want to go to church because they have a preconception of what that means, and it’s really not true, at least not around here.”
While Gage identified New Haven as a city where many homosexuals feel free to be themselves, he still feels that life as a religious homosexual in this country remains a challenge.
“If you grew up in a faith tradition, you make the decision: which part of yourself are you going to amputate?” he said. “Are you going to cut off your faith so that you can be free in your God-given sexuality? Or are you going to cut off your sexuality so that you can continue to be part of a community of faith?”