EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

May 11, 2012

Welcoming everyone

Coalition of Merrimack Valley churches promotes equality, inclusiveness to gays

NORTH ANDOVER — Growing up, Tad Bickford was active in church and went to worship services every week, but when he accepted his homosexuality, he stayed away.

"I left silently because I thought I was going to be rejected," he said.

It wasn't until he attended a musical event at North Parish Church in North Andover that he got in touch with his spiritual side again.

North Parish Unitarian Universalist is one of nine congregations in the Merrimack Valley that recently formed "Welcoming Congregations of Faith," a coalition of churches that promotes equality and inclusiveness extending to gays, lesbians. bisexual and transgender people.

"Traditional religious teaching has said this is bad, that you're not welcome here, but we have to reverse the message," said the Rev. Lee Bluemel, pastor of North Parish.

The other participating congregations are, Ballard Vale United, Christ Church, South Church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation and West Parish, all of Andover; St. Paul Episcopal of North Andover; Christ Church United in Lowell and Universalist Unitarian in Haverhill.

"Our goal is to create a communitywide awareness that there are many faith options for the LGBT community in the Merrimack Valley," said Linda Zimmerman, a member of South Church.

The coalition is trying to spread the word about its goals and maintains close links with other support organizations such as the Merrimack Valley Alliance of Lesbian and Gay Youth and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

While each religious denomination has a different view on the subject, members of the coalition were bolstered this week by President Obama's public statement of support for same-sex marriage.

The Rev. Lara Hoke, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover said yesterday she was a little "surprised" but "thrilled" with Obama's support.

"He talked about his position evolving and I'm glad it evolved to this," said Hoke, who has been married since 2004 to Emily Ferrara.

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