"It's like a Yelp for churches." That's how Church Clarity co-founder Tim Schraeder describes his new endeavor, launched earlier this month.
The crowdsourced database aims to rate American churches based on their support of LGBTQ parishioners. With the help of online submissions, Church Clarity takes it upon itself to analyze the different policies and stated inclusivity of parishes nationwide, based on what's available on their website. The results are then categorized accordingly so users can decide if they're a good match for their out-and-proud lives.
That said, Church Clarity is not calling on these churches to change those policies. As the group's name suggests, they're seeking clarity.
Schraeder, who spent more than 15 years working in marketing and communications for evangelical churches, launched Church Clarity alongside Sarah Ngu, a freelance writer and deacon at Brooklyn's Forefront Church, and George Mekhail, director of strategic partnerships at New York's queer-friendly Riverside Church.
Ngu and Schraeder told VICE about how faith operates in their lives, earlier struggles with their faith (Schraeder spent 10 years in conversion therapy; Ngu says her adolescence was riddled with "a lot of angst"), and how they hope Church Clarity will provide insight to other queer faithful across the country.
VICE: Your site currently features roughly 40 churches in its initial database. How did you decide who to showcase first?
Sarah Ngu: Frankly, this was our first release, so we were trying to go big. We looked at a list of churches, and we thought of some of the big names that people would recognize so we could start a conversation. We also wanted to make sure there was a distribution between categories so that people are familiar with the scoring. Although we're broadening our scope, right now we're focusing on evangelical churches because that's our background.
You solicit submissions from users looking to highlight a particular church's LGBTQ stance. How many have you received? And how do you go about scoring them?
Tim Schraeder: We curated the first batch of churches, but we've had almost 700 scored since we launched last week. All our scores are based on what's easily and publicly accessible on a church's website. Most parishes recognize that people looking for a faith community will go to their website, so they'll usually lay out nicely what can be expected there. That goes beyond LGBTQ issues, of course. But we think it's important that all of that is noted on our crowdsourced form, which people can do.
Now you make it a point to say repeatedly on the website that Church Clarity is not advocating for policy changes, but instead hoping for greater transparency among parishes. But wouldn't it be helpful to use your platform for full-blown activism?
Schraeder: There are already amazing groups out there, like The Reformation Project, that are actively engaged with working with churches; we didn't want to recreate work that other people are doing. We exist for clarity's sake, and we know that we're causing internal conversations now at the churches we're profiling. It causes people to ask questions for the first time. A byproduct of what we're doing is policy change.
Ngu: We want people to be clear about their policies; any progressive movement needs data to do anything. Organizing content helps people take action, and that's what we see ourselves doing.
Schraeder: Yeah, any church that hasn't yet disclosed how inclusive they are is labeled "undisclosed," and we give people their contact information; they can tweet at them, call them, or email them. We have some activism in our blood.
And addressing LGBTQ inclusivity is only the first outlined phase for Church Clarity, correct?
Ngu: We initially thought about tackling race, gender, and sexuality. But when the Nashville Statement [a statement signed in August by 187 prominent evangelicals declaring queerness a sin] came out, we knew we had to handle this first. And now that we see that people actually want this information, it'll help us think about those other issues down the line.
Schraeder: If you're an evangelical, there really wasn't anything new in the Nashville Statement; we knew who was going to sign it. But there were some names not included that raised the whole notion of clarity when it came to accepting LGBTQ faithful.
What's been the response from the queer community? Are they embracing the project?Schraeder: I think everyone is grateful and sees the need for it. I would say, overwhelmingly, the response from the queer community has been positive. People who are interested in what we're doing want to find a spiritual home because they've all experienced the pain of navigating that difficult path.
Ngu: There has been some pushback from "Side B," the gay celibate community, because they feel their experiences will get lost when collecting crowdsourced material. But they're the ones already getting profiles in Christian outlets. Either way, a lot of queer people have been telling stories about how they've been betrayed and misled by the Church.
Have you heard from any of the churches profiled on the website or from religious leaders weary of your work?
Schraeder: We've heard either directly or indirectly from them. It's been a mixed reaction for sure. I think, in general, churches have loved being ambiguous because if they're openly LGBTQ-affirming, they'll lose older folks, tithe money. Churches aren't stupid; they know what's at stake. And because we've created a public forum where we say whose LGBTQ policies are "unclear," we see that we're making parishes uncomfortable.
Ngu: There have been some conservatives with respectful, but begrudging thumbs-up. I would say the most vocal people who are against us are actually people who think of themselves as moderate and progressive; the "I love gay people" kind. This really creates no middle ground, and the truth is, when it comes to policy, there isn't. There's just a lot of discomfort that people feel when someone else holds the power.
Anything we can expect from Church Clarity in the coming days or weeks?
Schraeder: This Tuesday is the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, so we're hoping to get 500 people across the world to join us by leaving posters on the door of their churches. There will be a space for participants to write their thoughts or questions about their respective church's positioning on LGBTQ matters. We'll also hopefully have 500 parishes scored on our site by then.
What would be your message to LGBTQ individuals trying to reconcile both their faith and sexuality?
Ngu: My message would be to people with more of a biblical foundation, because that was my experience. I would say that when you look at the history of the Church, theology and doctrine are always shaped by culture and context. In order to understand the Church, you have to understand how God reveals himself to humankind. And when we open ourselves up to that realization, a lot of things emerge, including the idea that you can actually be yourself.
Schraeder: I would hope that they can see that in Christ, they can be a whole person and that those things don't have to be segmented. There's a seat for them at the table, and they deserve a place in a church community as much as anybody else. We hope that we can point them in the right direction.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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