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Grand Rapids Church Celebrates Reconciliation With Chaplain to LGBTQ People

Grand Rapids Church Celebrates Reconciliation With Chaplain to LGBTQ People
Jim Lucas (left) and Sid Sybenga, interim pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC, at the table of the Lord’s Supper, May 22, 2022.

Twenty-four years after Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church declined to offer a call to chaplain Jim Lucas, because his ministry to gay and lesbian people had a different stance from the denomination on same-sex marriage, the church offered an apology. That homecoming, realized May 17 in Eastern Avenue’s fellowship hall, started months earlier with scones and coffee and a few members of the church, along with Lucas, discussing and listening to him talk about his time in exile, and his hope and longing to come back to the CRC.

Lucas was an ordained CRC minister, and in 1989, when the church he was pastoring closed, he was open for a call. Several churches invited him to preach, but not one called him. Lucas is gay and though he was celibate, he said potential calling churches said, “We're not ready for that.” He was a member and an elder at Eastern Avenue CRC, and the church held his credentials (his status as an ordained minister) for nine years as he awaited a call, but when he asked Eastern Avenue to be his calling church for two ministries: a chaplain's position with Spectrum Health at Butterworth Hospital, and As We Are, a Christian organization that provided faith-based support and advocacy for LGBT people (and their family and friends), the church denied Lucas’ request. As We Are’s position on same-sex unions is that they could “be an expression of God’s grace and within God’s will,” while the CRC postion, established in 1973, is that same-sex relationships are “incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.” Eastern Avenue’s decision to not extend a call led to the termination of Lucas’ credentials with Classis Grand Rapids East.

Abandoned and feeling betrayed, Lucas was unable to worship at Eastern Avenue. “It was too painful for me to endure,” he said. He joined Plymouth United Church of Christ, which welcomed him and provided him ministerial standing. “I genuinely appreciated this welcome,” Lucas explains, “but as the years went by, I discovered that I never felt truly at home in my new church and denomination. I felt as though I was in exile from my spiritual home—the CRC—and longed to be invited back home.”

Lucas’s roots in the CRC include family connections, attendance at Calvin Christian High School, Calvin University, and Calvin Seminary, and serving as an ordained minister for 12 years. “I feel at a deep level a sense of belonging,” he said. “In addition, I greatly appreciate the theological approach of the CRC, particularly its dedication to scholarship and to being both Reformed and reforming. It was because of my biblical and theological education in the CRC that I was able to change my understanding about being gay, come to peace with myself, and conclude that God blesses the marriages of gay couples.”

In 2018 Lucas spoke about this longing to come home in a talk he gave at Sherman Street Church. Sid Sybenga, an elder and interim pastor at Eastern Avenue CRC, heard Lucas speak that day. “We were struck to the heart,” Sybenga said. He and a few others who had heard Lucas’s speech soon formed a group at Eastern Avenue and began to discuss reconciliation and restoration. 

Norm Sneller, a retiring deacon, said that apologizing and welcoming Lucas back was something they wanted to do for many years, starting with the council members who served in 2018. “We were merely closing up and finishing what they started,” Sneller said.

The team that worked on the apology took about five months to write it, asking particularly what would make it authentic. Trish Borgdorff, an elder at Eastern Avenue, said it was important to name what was hard. “We needed to address where we caused harm so we can move forward,” she said. 

On May 17, Lori Keen, the council president, read aloud from the apology while Lucas and others sat in chairs in a circle in the fellowship hall and listened. “We could have stood with you. We could have worked to enlarge the tent for so many gifted and loving individuals,” Keen read, in part. The letter explained that in March 2022, the council approved six affirmations to include LGBTQ people in congregational life and worship. “These affirmations are the fruits of years of relearning, listening, and discussing. They express our stance as a church about the acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons,” it said. 

Lucas said it was a powerful and personal moment. “I forgive you,” he told the church. Later he reflected, “To confess sin in a clear and beautiful way is the essence of the gospel.”

The following Sunday, Eastern Avenue held an evening reconciliation  service where Lucas spoke and served communion.

Kim Bolt, a former elder at Eastern Avenue said, “I needed this moment to reinstate my faith in the church. … Outside the church, the world was sharp, angry, (and) divisive. People hated other people, and at the center seemed to be Christians. We appeared to be the meanest and the angriest of all … but what happened in our fellowship hall on Tuesday is the most biblical thing I have ever been a part of, and I have never been more proud of the church.”

Lucas said there is something very compelling about a body of believers that is so open to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. Of his desire to return, he said, “Who wouldn’t want to be part of a church that practices repentance in such a clear, specific, and powerful way?” 

Since May 22, Lucas has been attending services at Eastern Avenue CRC, while he doesn’t have an official role at the church. His ministerial standing remains with the United Church of Christ. Lucas retired from his position with Spectrum Health in January 2020. Since 1992 he has served as chaplain of faith-based LGBT support and advocacy organizations, first As We Are and now GIFT (Gays in Faith Together) Grand Rapids.

Eastern Avenue’s apology and Lucas’ reinstatement in the congregation came one month before the denomination’s general assembly reiterated and specifically codified the CRC’s position on same-sex relationships. Synod 2022 adopted the 2020 human sexuality report, which reiterates the CRC’s 1973 position, and synod recognized homosexual sex to be included in what is meant by the Heidelberg Catechism’s admonition to “flee all unchastity.” Declaring that “this interpretation has confessional status” took the unprecedented step of making a synodical pronouncement on par with the confessions of the church—documents all confessing members and officebearers must adhere to. What this means for members and congregations who have expressed opposite opinions is not yet clear. Synod instructed another Grand Rapids East church, Neland Avenue CRC, to comply with the denominational position and to rescind its previous appointment of a same-sex married deacon. Neland Avenue’s council voted not to do that and says they will appeal synod’s decision. A statement from Keen, Eastern Avenue’s council president, said, “This spring EACRC affirmed its commitment to full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. The reconciliation with Jim was an important demonstration of that commitment; we needed to apologize for past harms in order to live into our affirmations. We are deeply grieved at the actions of Synod 2022. We remain committed to full inclusion of our LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ.”

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