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South Florida houses of worship are welcoming to gays and lesbians

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

It wasn't easy finding a new minister for St. John's on the Lake First United Methodist Church in Miami Beach, a ``reconciling'' congregation where gays and lesbians are fully welcome.

Of about 750 Methodist congregations in Florida, ``probably 10 to 20 ministers'' would feel comfortable tending to openly gay congregants, said the Rev. Christopher D. McNeill, a straight married pastor who last summer succeeded Melissa Pisco at St. John's.

``Being reconciling for me means fully living out the gospel,'' McNeill said. ``As Christians, Jesus taught us, he never excluded anyone. When we exclude, we're hindering God's gift to people.''

In addition to South Florida's handful of gay-oriented churches and synagogues, including Sunshine Cathedral and Congregation Etz Chaim, both in the Fort Lauderdale area, there are 193 gay-affirming mainstream churches in Florida, according to GayChurch.org , a Christian website with 6,480 listings worldwide.

``Find a welcoming church near you!'' reads the site's homepage.

There are no gay-affirming churches affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.

``In the Catholic Church, we don't ask what people's sexual orientation is. We open our doors to all,'' Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said.

Many mainstream Jewish congregations -- usually not Orthodox -- welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members.

``The Union for Reform Judaism, it's a total nonissue,'' said Rabbi Jody Cohen, spiritual leader since 2007 at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, who formerly was the union's South Florida regional director.

But back in the 1990s, Cohen had to reassure a local congregation that had been assigned a gay student rabbi.

``I had to meet with the board. They had a lot of fears -- homophobic fears. This man was going to be teaching their children. Was this OK? It was mind-boggling that in the late 20th century I had to talk to these people,'' Cohen said.

``But you try to help them understand. You need to be very sensitive to people when they're coming to you from a place of fear.''

Click here to read profiles of some of South Florida's gay-affirming churches and synagogues.

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