By Yadira Betances
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.
"It's important for civil rights and it's important for me personally because if it wasn't for same-sex marriage, I won't be married at all," said Hoke.
"It's easy to be cynical about it with politics being what it is, but it's historical. It's a huge step in the right direction," Hoke said.
"My hope is that this is just another step in the arc of the moral universe," she said quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"It's bound to make anyone who is not in favor make them think about it again," Hoke said.
Communities of Faith was established last spring by the Committee for Open Dialogue of South Church, with Anne Wiehe as the moving force behind it. She sent letters to local congregations inviting them to meet, and went to services to speak with the ministers about the mission.
A native of the Netherlands, she grew up in a parsonage where she said she developed a sense of fairness, justice, harmony and peace.
"It comes naturally to me trying to bring people together. Our work will be ongoing until all find a welcoming sanctuary."
Amy Delaney stopped going to church when she first started questioning her sexuality and five years before she told anyone she was a lesbian.
"At first I ended my religious connections and I did miss going to church," Delaney said. "It's overwhelming that I'm accepted for who I am and they make me feel that it's okay."
Before settling at Ballard Vale United, Delaney and her wife attended Unitarian and United Church of Christ congregations.
In December, the governing board of Christ Church discussed and voted unanimously on a statement of inclusion, which read in part, "We desire to know ourselves and one another as God knows us, as beloved children of God and to embody Jesus' own example of radical hospitality. As we say in our welcome to Communion, 'This is the Lord's feast, and all are welcomed to the table.'"
The Rev. Jeff Gill, pastor of Christ Church said the statement was a way to let the public know the congregation does not discriminate.
"For too long people believed, including the church, that homosexuality was about behavior and it was easy to create a moral category this is bad and we don't accept it," Gill said.
Although the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire received a lot of publicity when it elected the Rev. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop, the denomination has not come into grips with same-sex marriage. Episcopal church leaders are formulating rites for blessing same-sex unions, which will be considered at their General Convention this July in Indianapolis.
Despite the progress many denominations have made in being open and affirming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, issues remain.
Last summer, a Methodist church court convicted a pastor for performing a same-sex union. Other denominations like the Presbyterians voted in May to allow openly gay clergy,
Manny Correa had sworn off organized religion, until he started going to South Church in Andover.
After the church voted to become an open and affirming congregation, a woman put her hand on Correa's shoulder and told him, "Now we can truly welcome you to our church."
"This is just such an amazing community. You get the message this is a place that everyone is welcome and I really felt that way," Correa said.