DENVER — This Pride month, Ashley Hope celebrates not only her identity but also her freedom to serve in a Christian leadership role as member of the LGBTQIA community.
"I had just come from working in ministry and actually been let go of that position because of my choice to marry my wife," said Ashley Hope, the program coordinator for community outreach at Denver Community Church (DCC).
Hope first attended the church nearly three years after hearing a recommendation from a friend.
"I'm not unaware any moment I'm here ... of the pain it took to get here — the closed doors both literally and metaphorically it took to get this place. But I think seeing is just the first step, but I think the knowing element is what is coming next," she said.
Hope said she feels Denver Community Church strives to do both.
In 2017, church leadership shared a message on social media actively welcoming members of the LGBTQIA community to attend.
"So, we say as the elder team of Denver Community Church to our LGBT brothers and sisters, we officially encourage you, invite you and support you." said the video message, in part.
Nearly two years prior to that message's release, lead pastor Michael Hidalgo and other elders held conversations surrounding theology and inclusion.
"It became far less about theology as we continued on," Hidalgo said."We invited in friends from the LGTBQ community and said, 'We have no agenda other than asking you to spend two hours with us. Tell us – actually, you can come tell us whatever you want and we're going to listen, we're not going to challenge you. ... We'll ask clarifying questions and seek to understand.'"
Hidalgo said the more stories they heard, they felt called to seek forgiveness.
"We learned by listening that we weren't a healing presence with and for the LGBTQ community, we were actually a wounding presence," he said.
According to a study published in 2018 by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, religious faith was tied to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions for survey participants who identified as LGBTQIA.
"It's presented that you can't be both gay and a Christian, that you can't be both trans and a Christian," Hope said. "It was said so many times in so many ways, 'You can't be both.' And the reality is you absolutely can and that's such a small piece of the brilliant human that you are."
"We have done wrong and we need to recognize that, and we need to make a move towards opening our doors more widely — recognizing that God has long embraced this community before we did." Hidalgo said.
In the four years since the church's initial call for inclusivity, the LGBTQIA community in the congregation has grown, and the church has increased its visibility within the gay community.
"I was working down there [at Denver Pride festival] and I was volunteering. I saw a mom and a dad with their arms around their son who was probably no older than 13 ... and he had a rainbow flag shirt on. On his parents' shirts it said, 'I love my son,' and I thought about what has that family gone through. To have families like that come to Denver Community Church say, 'We were kicked out but we're going to trust you,' it's overwhelming," Hidalgo said, through tears.
The church also has an LGBTQIA community that meets weekly.
However, both Hidalgo and Hope acknowledge that their church and others still have wounds to heal.
"Now we're seeing through stories and a set of eyes, and hearing through a set of ears, that we never heard from before," Hidalgo said.
"The LGBTQIA community is one community that has been pushed to the margins, but there are many more where that came from," Hope said "I think inclusion is too small of a word. I think we have to start with belonging. We're told we exist to belong, when in reality, because of our existence ... we do belong, we are loved, we are seen, we are known. I think Pride really does, for me, it gets at that. It gets at that. It says show up however you can, as whoever you are and we'll celebrate that. And that's what I hope DCC is saying too, and I've experienced that."