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Mennonites protest church exclusion of gays

By MEGHAN BARR, Associated Press

5584439 COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a quiet act of defiance, gay and lesbian Mennonites dressed in bright pink gathered outside the church's official convention in Columbus on Thursday and criticized its leaders for trying to push them out.

About 100 ministers and church members prayed, sang religious hymns and told stories of feeling ostracized growing up in the Mennonite church, which does not recognize openly gay people as official members. The "pink Menno" protest brought the deeply divisive issue to the forefront of the Mennonite Church USA conference, a biannual, national gathering of about 8,000 delegates.

Twenty-seven-year-old Katie Hochstedler, who grew up in Kalona, Iowa, declared herself "a young queer Mennonite."

"I've had to ask myself: Can I continue to participate in a church that's soul is so damaged that it does not follow its own stated values?" Hochstedler said.

With about 110,000 members, Mennonite Church USA represents the largest and most mainstream group of Mennonites in the U.S., most of whom do not shun technology or wear traditional clothing like the more conservative branches of the church. But many progressive Mennonites have relatives who are part of the Old Order, and some women still wear head coverings.

The Mennonite religion is rooted in a 16th-century movement in Europe known as Anabaptism, which coincided with the Protestant Reformation and called for adults to be baptized before joining the church. The Mennonites took their name from Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who broke away from his church in 1536.

The gay rights movement among Mennonites, which for years lacked a visible presence within the church, gained steam several months ago when nearly 1,400 ministers signed a letter calling on the church to allow homosexual members to worship with everyone else.

The definition of what's acceptable and what's not is murky at best. In some congregations, gay Mennonites are welcome as long as they remain celibate. In others, they are shunned.

5584430 Congregations are disciplined - and, in rarer cases, kicked out altogether - for allowing non-celibate gay members to worship with them. Pastors who perform civil unions for gay couples run the risk of losing their ordination.

The issue is complicated by the various regional conferences, which are split on how to treat congregations that decide to be inclusive, said church spokeswoman Kerry Strayer.

Rev. Cynthia Lapp, pastor of a Mennonite church in Hyattsville, Md., said her congregation lost its voting rights within the denomination for welcoming gay worshippers in 2005. She declined to say whether they might face expulsion.

"I was astounded when I talked with a mother who said she was grateful that her gay son and his partner left the church," Lapp told those gathered at the protest. "It was too painful to have him stay and be rejected."

Kristin Sampson, 32, leads a youth group at the Hyattsville church with her lesbian partner, 37-year-old Becca Walawender.

"We heard there were some groups that were like, 'is it safe to bring our kids to the convention if the pink Mennos are there?'" she said. "They don't understand."

Inside the convention center in downtown Columbus, there was an unofficial moratorium on discussing homosexuality because the subject had stirred up such heated debate at previous meetings.

"I would love to talk about it without a lot of fire and sparks," said Naomi Engle, pastor of a Mennonite church in Wauseon, Ohio, who said she agrees with church doctrine that states marriage should be between a man and a woman.

While church leaders did not attend the protest, Strayer said the growing clamor over gay rights is likely to reopen the dialogue soon.

"There's still quite a bit of division across the church on this issue," Strayer said. "And I guess, with the campaign itself, there's some concern that it will only widen the division."

Hochstedler, 27, said it was a shock to her family when she came out in college, but they have since grown into advocates for gay rights. In the small Mennonite church where she grew up, there's a lingering sense of unease about her sexuality.

"I would say people are kind and warm," she said. "But nobody talks about it."

Photos by Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press

Photo 1) Katie Hochstedler speaks as a group of young Mennonites and ministers, wearing pink, gather to protest outside the Mennonite Church USA's biannual meeting Thursday, July 2, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio, pushing for more inclusion of gays and lesbians. For years, a growing number of Mennonite churches have been disciplined and in some cases, kicked out of the faith for allowing gays and lesbian to worship along with everyone else.

Photo 2) A group of young Mennonites and ministers, wearing pink, gather to protest outside the Mennonite Church USA's biannual meeting Thursday, July 2, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio, pushing for more inclusion of gays and lesbians.

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