Every Sunday at Cornerstone Church, doors swing open to visitors from every part of the Alamo City and every walk of life. Viewers tune in from across the nation for evangelical services brimming with soaring music and fiery sermons.
This Sunday, as the 40th anniversary of Stonewall — the birth of the gay rights movement — was being observed, the Rev. John Hagee also welcomed a community that doesn’t traditionally attend. They were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The only things distinguishing them from the rest of the congregation were the small buttons they wore that read, “Gay? Fine by Me.”
Hagee addressed them at a reception after the 11 a.m. service and later spoke privately with LGBT leaders.
If any of them expected fireworks from the gatherings, none erupted. Everyone seemed surprised there were no surprises.
The visit, initiated by two Austin-based groups, Soulforce and Atticus Circle, were portrayed as groundbreaking. It was the first in a series of meetings called Sundays of Solidarity, in which the LGBT community will meet with faith communities. Its goals are to have tough conversations, but Sunday’s was to connect with people on a personal level.
Cornerstone members reacted positively.
“We really enjoyed the people we met,” said Buzz Park. “It was a pleasant experience.”
Kelli Busey, who traveled from Dallas, said Hagee’s welcome “couldn’t have been nicer, more heartfelt and productive. He opened the conversation in a very positive way.”
But just as there were no surprises, there were no miracles, either.
“I feel cautiously and hopefully optimistic,” said Jeff Lutes, founder and executive director of Soulforce.
Ultimately, the groups seek a better understanding of LGBT equality and pursuit of equal marriage rights. Lutes said they see “a clear connection between our civil rights and what the church is teaching,” pointing specifically to a sermon by Hagee in which he proposed a constitutional amendment protecting marriage.
Lutes also mentioned a more controversial sermon in which Hagee suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment to New Orleans for its gay pride parade plans.
Church officials declined interviews but did issue a news release saying members of Soulforce and Atticus Circle would meet with its leadership “in the spirit of Christ that commands us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves.’”
Marianne DeLeon of Soulforce met a Cornerstone member who was relieved that the group’s members weren’t “radical.”
“She was awesome,” DeLeon said. “‘God does not hate anyone.’ That’s what she said.”
But differences between the groups surfaced.
“All I can say is I love lesbians and homosexuals like anybody else,” said Joan Longoria, a member of the congregation. “We just don’t agree, because Scripture says it’s a sin.”
Jodie Eldridge, executive director of Atticus Circle, said Cornerstone was selected for the first visit because of its size and “some pretty atrocious things” said about homosexuals from the pulpit. “We hope to inspire other people across the country to do the same thing,” she said.
“We don’t expect miracles,” she said. “But if the dialogue continues, and we change one heart or one mind, over time, then we have been successful.”
Lutes initiated a similar effort last year in which LGBT groups visited various megachurches across the country, including Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. “We had a variety of different experiences,” he said. “Some welcomed us. Some did not.”
If there was one issue in which everyone could agree, however, it seemed to be the quality of Cornerstone’s choir and soloists.
“The music was great,” said Judy Faris of Austin, who was among the LGBT group.