Almost 30 years ago, 12 LGBTQ individuals from the Jackson area decided they needed a safe place to worship together, where they would neither be told that they are going to hell because of who they love, nor that they need to change their “lifestyle” in order to be good Christians. They firmly believed they could be people of faith without having to deny their sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. These 12 people founded Safe Harbor Family Church as “a shelter for the storms of life.”
At that time, there were quite a few storms. Many feared that if their employers knew that they were LGBTQ, they would be fired. Families of others disowned them when they “came out.” Still others faced harassment and discrimination daily.
In the 1990s, LGBTQ individuals and issues were not widely represented in the media, and people of the same sex could not legally marry one another. On the whole, Christian churches in Mississippi did not work against these injustices. In fact, they often perpetuated the discriminatory practices common in society at large.
Even now, nearly 30 years later, there are no clear, comprehensive non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community in Mississippi. Moreover, in 2017, House Bill 1523 went into effect, which allows religion to be used as “a justification against LGBTQ Mississippians at work, school and in their communities.” Anti-trans legislation is currently on the rise.
For these reasons, Safe Harbor continues to be a vital community for LGBTQ people in the heart of Mississippi.
Safe Harbor Church: Community of Love
Upon arrival in Jackson, one of the first things on my to-do list was to find a local congregation in my denomination, the United Church of Christ. The UCC is not well-known in Mississippi, but has a long history of “firsts”: it was the first historically white denomination to ordain an African American person, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay man and the first Christian church to affirm the right of same-sex couples to marry. Mississippi has four UCC-related communities: Safe Harbor Family Church (Clinton), Union UCC (at Tougaloo), Tougaloo College and the Back Bay Mission (Biloxi).
When I arrived in 2013, Safe Harbor was meeting in a warehouse on Flowood Drive in Rankin County. Needless to say, the building was nothing to look at. There was a simple sign out front and a greeter waiting at the door to welcome me to the community. As I took a seat inside, it didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t a “normal” congregation in terms of demographics. The whole spectrum of the LGBTQ community was represented. In fact, I wondered whether I was the only straight person in the room.
When I returned the next Sunday, one of its long-time members exclaimed, “Wow, you came back!” Indeed. I went back because of the spirit of love that I experienced during my time there. And I kept going back—through three pastors, two locations and online services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through all of those changes, one thing has remained the same: The spirit of love within this community is palpable.
I have had the privilege of pastoring Safe Harbor Family Church since January 2021. I have never experienced a community like it. If you were to visit Safe Harbor’s campus this Sunday, the beauty of creation would envelop you in the parking lot, as trees tower above and all around you. As you walked into the sanctuary, you would see magnificent stained-glass windows on every side.
Sitting in the warm wooden pews of the sanctuary, you might see a trans woman in the early stages of coming out sitting next to a mother with her recently baptized gay teenager; a lesbian couple holding hands as they and their teenage daughter sing along to contemporary songs; a gay couple sitting toward the front of the sanctuary, waving a peace sign to a young family during the passing of the peace; a resident of Grace House circulating the offering basket; a lesbian in recovery celebrating the anniversary of her sobriety during the prayers of the people; a bisexual trans teen surrounded by his youth group—a handful of LGBTQ teenagers and allies.
This inclusive, grace-filled community comes from all walks of life to grow in relationship with God, one another and creation.
The Christian Church has hurt many LGBTQ people who have made a legitimate choice to step away from organized Christianity. When a local church has spiritually abused someone, telling them they’re going to hell for being themselves, or they’ve been excluded from church leadership because of who they love, or whatever the case may be—it is a wise decision for them to leave that abusive situation.
Safe Harbor exists for those who want to experience healing from spiritual abuse. We are committed to justice and advocacy for the hurt, the hungry and the excluded. Trusting in God, we follow Jesus’ teachings and embody the Spirit in joyful celebration. We exist for those who want to nurture themselves, their relationships, and their children in a community that covenants to resist injustice and follow the way of love. The fact that such a place exists in the heart of the Deep South is a wonder and a gift.
Safe Harbor meets on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. at 1445 Clinton-Raymond Road. Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome at Safe Harbor.
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