The LGBTQ community has not traditionally been welcomed into churches with open arms. But with an inaugural mass March 20, the Restoration Church of Connecticut has become the city’s first black LGBTQ-led congregation.
The “progressive” Pentecostal church, which holds services at Elm City Phoenix Club on Wallace Street every second and fourth Sunday of each month at 3 p.m., aims to provide a place of worship for people of all races, genders and sexualities. With roughly 20 founding congregants, the church hopes to grow its membership to around 50 by April 10, when their next mass is held in New Haven. Although the church is still in its infancy, Overseer Yvonne Harrison — the principal pastor — expressed her view that churches must provide a safe space for their LGBTQ members.
“It’s a very isolated, abandoned place when you know that you love God and have a relationship with Jesus, but you don’t have a place to worship Him and remain in communal fellowship,” Harrison said. “We wanted a place where all people felt welcome.”
Restoration Church of Connecticut was co-founded this year by Elder Betty Lorde and Kim Jenkins in response to feelings of isolation from the LGBTQ community that stemmed from the traditional church’s stance on homosexuality.
Jenkins, who was born and raised in New Haven, said she was inspired to establish an inclusive church after belonging to one during the years she lived in the South. Jenkins said she gradually distanced herself from the traditional black church because of their disparate views on homosexuality. Jenkins, who is in a relationship with a woman, said it was difficult reconciling her religious beliefs with her sexuality while growing up in the church, because the traditional churches preach against homosexuality. She said there were also subtle reasons why she felt uncomfortable in traditional churches.
“I love my girlfriend as much as a man loves his wife, but we can’t hug in [traditional] church like they do,” Jenkins said. “We have to wait until we get home.”
After attending a moving service at Restoration Temple Ministries in New York City slightly more than a year ago, Jenkins and Lorde were determined to bring Harrison to New Haven to lead services for the city’s LGBTQ Christians.
Harrison, who is the founding pastor of the New York church, planned to branch off and establish churches in other cities. She held a service in Bridgeport in March 2015, and is officially the current overseer of the Restoration Church of Connecticut.
“My goal is to develop a congregation that is personal, intimate and communal,” said Harrison, who agreed to pastor at both churches. “We have to be the change, make the change, transform ourselves and then transform our sisters and brothers and communities.”
Over the past year, members of the black LGBTQ community have gathered at Jenkins’ home for bible study and “free to be me” gatherings, Jenkins said. These gatherings ranged from cookouts to bingo games to fundraising activities for the church.
Harrison said the Restoration Church of Connecticut chose to use the Elm City Phoenix Club as its base because some of the attendees were familiar with it, since it is often used for community gatherings and social events.
Harrison also said the space is ideal for her congregation for now, but hopes to move to a more permanent space as the church grows.
“The response was overwhelming, with probably over 150 people in attendance this past Sunday,” Executive Pastor at Restoration Temple Ministries NYC Rose Hardy said. “This included Restoration Temple Ministries coming out to support our sister church’s launch.”
The community response has been positive, Jenkins said, who added that it took her two days to respond to all of the phone calls and social media postings she received following the launch.
The church’s current focus is to grow and reach more residents of the city, and to eventually fill positions such as elder and assistant pastor, Jenkins said. Harrison added that after six to eight months, she will decide whether to remain in New Haven full-time or to install a new pastor. Harrison said she hopes to branch into full-time ministry every Sunday and become a “full-time Church.”
“We want to grow, of course. All are welcome,” Jenkins said. “When I see someone that looks like me, I put a flyer in their hands and say ‘This is who we are.’”
Harrison said that on the Sundays the church does not meet — the first and third of each month — members of the congregation will focus on community service, with emphasis on the homeless, nursing homes and young adults facing substance addition.
Transformation of members’ personal lives can transform the entire community, Hardy said.
“The most exhilarating thing, pastorally, is to see someone disconnected from God because of who they are now be restored and refreshed,” Harrison said. “You can see the glow on their lives because there’s a place for them.”