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Pastor's Welcoming of Gays Limits Organization of Nativity Procession

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Another controversy surrounding the Nativity Scene in Bellevue has emerged, this one involving a church's welcoming of gay members.

Last month, a group organized on Facebook in protest of moving the Nativity, owned by the Bellevue Neighborhood Association, from its home of forty-two years at Nagle Park. After the association became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit, it determined that it could no longer display religious symbols on city-owned property like the park.

The association gifted the Nativity Scene to St. John United Church of Christ on Fairfield Avenue where it will be on display throughout the Christmas season this year.

Another tradition associated with the Nativity is an annual procession that includes stops at the five churches in the city. This year, St. John Pastor Keith Haithcock is organizing the procession and has had trouble organizing the other congregations. An email Haithcock sent to one member of the neighborhood association, obtained by The River City News, expresses the trouble he has experienced in gathering participants in the traditional procession.

Haithcock points out that of the five churches in Bellevue, including his own, only his would participate fully. One church leader said that his congregation was too small and too old to join, one never responded, another wanted to avoid the previous controversy over the moving of the Nativity, and the other expressly voiced its opposition to St. John's welcoming of gay and lesbian members.

"The minister and one of his elders even came to my office to tell me that they would not pray with us, read scripture with us, or participate in any religious service due to our interpretation of the Bible regarding homosexuality,: Haithcock wrote. "(They) then proceeded to tell me they were not judging me."

"Needless to say, I was hurt and shocked."

A message has been left with the minister at the church and this story will be updated if the call is returned. In the meantime, Haitchock requested that the church not be directly identified.

In an interview with The River City News, Haitchock, who has led the St. John United Church of Christ for fifteen years and is openly gay, elaborated on the situation.

"In all those fifteen years, although it's been very much public knowledge that our church is a very inclusive and progressive Christian congregation and that we welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people into the full life of the church, this is the first time I have had this kind of reception with regards to my leadership," he said. "Prior to this, everyone has been supportive in the sense that they seem to respect our ministry at St. John. Not just me and my ministry but also the congregation as a whole and the congregation has been in the community its entire existence which is one hundred twenty-six years."

"So it kind of caught me off guard in the efforts to bring people together around the spirit of Christmas and the display that represents God's gift to the world, a message of love, hope, joy and peace. It just really caught me off guard that the response of one of our pastors was less than hospitable. Very directly, the comment was that we do not follow the teachings of Christ."

Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, said that it's the other minister not following the teachings of Christ.

"It's shocking that some of the congregations seem to have lost their way in terms of following the example set by the radical hospitality of Jesus Christ," Hartman told The River City News. "We all know in the teachings of the Bible that Christ oftentimes bent over backwards to be certain that everyone is welcome and included at his table so I look forward to these sheep being found and brought back to the fold where they follow the path of Jesus who truly reached out to and welcomed all people."

Hartman pointed out a recent survey conducted by the Fairness Campaign that discovered 83% of Kentucky voters support preventing discrimination against gays in the workplace and from housing discrimination, and that 70% of Kentucky voters support giving the same rights to gays and lesbians that everyone else has.

"It's commendable that St. John United Church of Christ has taken a position of being open and affirming of its GLBT congregants," Hartman said. "It's perfectly in line with the views of Kentucky voters, including those who are conservative and those who are profoundly religious."

A growing number of Kentucky cities has approved legislation that extend legal protections to gays and lesbians, including Covington, just across the Licking River from Bellevue.

Haithcock, a Louisville native who came to Bellevue from a church in Dayton (OH) after spending much of his career in California, told The River City News that the city has been mostly a positive, welcoming place for him.

"I have had probably a handful of incidents that have been directed at me because of who I am, none of which amounted to very much," Haitchcock said. "But other than that, the community to my face has always presented itself as being accpeting of me. I don't know if their acceptance was full acceptance where they embrace and understand and accept my sexual orientation as being an OK thing, or acceptance in the sense of, OK, you're gay, no big deal, everybody's different but maybe I don't like this or that. I don't know exactly."

Haithcock says he has mostly been treated well, but, "This particular thing has woke me up in the sense that while I've always know there people in the community that probably didn't like the fact I was here and didn't like the fact that I was a spiritual leader in the community. But this is the first time anyone has ever come to me and told me that I didn't follow the teachings of Christ. In my space, especially."
 
The minister also issued a statement following the events. "I have received a number of messages from people in the Bellevue community who shared their support of our ministry and our presence in Bellevue and the display of the nativity at our Church. At St. John United Church of Christ we choose to remember the words of the angel that came to the shepherds in the field the night Jesus was born. “Do not be afraid; for see – I ambringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2.10-11)."
 
The Nativity Scene will be displayed at St. John starting December 1 and the processional, which will still stop at each church in Bellevue, will be December 6. Those wishing to participate can go to the church of their choice starting at 6:30 p.m. Guests will arrive at the Nativity at 7 p.m. to sing Christmas carols, read the Christmas story, and pray together. Children are invited to dress up as people or animals from the Nativity Scene. 
 
"No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at the nativity," Haitchcock wrote. "If you are a member of this Church, a member at another Church, or a member at no Church at all, you are welcome to come to the nativity! All the people!"
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Nativity Scene in Bellevue

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