You're gay and a Baptist preacher. Ain't that a bit weird? 

Let me assure you that it's more than a bit weird. When I go to functions with gay people, I am most often the only Baptist minister in the mix. When I attend gatherings of Baptist ministers, it is highly unusual for another gay man to be in the room. I am a guy on the margins of two very distinct worlds.

The truth is, however, that there are lots of gay Baptist ministers out there. Do you really think there would be any good music in Baptist churches if it weren't for the gay men directing in the choir loft and playing on the organ (not that organ)? No way. Of course, the catch is that most of these men are not open about their sexuality. Some just don't want to talk about their personal life, but most know they can't reveal their sexual orientation or they would be canned. Long before the military adopted it, Baptist churches were perfecting the policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

It's really not so weird for me to be a Baptist minister and be openly gay. Baptist congregations are actually the churches most likely to have an openly gay minister. I know it sounds crazy, given that our cultural understanding of Baptists is drawn from the very public and theologically flawed beliefs of Southern Baptists. But the Baptist tradition is one founded upon freedom: freedom of the individual to come before God, and freedom of the local church to make its own decisions. Baptists threw off the oppressive hierarchy of the Catholic and Anglican traditions and founded their theology on the autonomy of each local church and the priesthood of all believers.

As a result, Baptists have the freedom to be as backward and bigoted as they could possibly desire and as progressive and cutting edge as they are called to be. There's no church hierarchy that forbids sexism and forces the ordination of women, nor is there a governing body that prohibits the calling of gay men and lesbians to be pastors of a local congregation. With that freedom comes a broad diversity of theology and practice. This is how Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, Charles Stanley and I are all ministerial colleagues within the Baptist tradition. Yeah, that is weird.

I am proud to serve a congregation that has been, as Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. said, "a headlight rather than a taillight." Since the 1950s, Oakhurst Baptist Church has spoken the truth of the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ as it has embraced people of all races, genders, ages, sexual orientations and abilities as leaders of the congregation. Because of the freedom of the Baptist tradition, Oakhurst can call me its minister. That freedom also extends, however, to other churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, Georgia Baptist Convention and Atlanta Baptist Association who can and did choose to boot us from their fellowship. Of course, with freedom comes responsibility. And I am certain that one day these churches will have to take responsibility for the abusive and hateful actions they have taken toward lesbian and gay people and their congregations.

I know it sounds weird, but I am deeply grateful to be a part of the Baptist tradition that honors and celebrates the freedom of the individual and the church to follow the radical call of God. As a gay man, I can't imagine doing ministry in any other context.

What's really weird: I can't seem to find a man in this town who wants to date a liberal, gay, thirtysomething, Baptist minister. Go figure.

Christopher T. Copeland is associate pastor at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur.

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