-reprinted from "Southern Voice"
When Dr. Mike Cordle walked into St. Mark United Methodist Church eight years ago, he was the downtown Atlanta church's "last resort," chosen to lead the declining congregation because of his reputation as a high-energy, charismatic pastor. After the service on that first Sunday, in June 1991, he stood outside watching the Atlanta Gay Pride parade go by
"A parade -- this is just like a small town!" he remembers thinking at the time.
A year later, Cordle once again stood outside St. Mark, observing the Pride parade. Looking back on a difficult year that brought only eight new members to a congregation of less than 100, he watched parade participants give his two-year-old daughter flowers, balloons and whistles as they walked by.
"As I watched the people, I saw they looked just like my brothers, sisters, peers, parents... They just wanted to be recognized for what they were," Cordle said.
From that moment on, he said, he felt compelled to open the doors of his church to the gay community.
In the months that followed, Cordle struggled with his "calling," worrying it would be "professional and political suicide" within the Methodist church. But as he became more convinced that welcoming gays to St. Mark was the right thing to do, he presented the idea to church leadership, expecting the worst. To his surprise, they agreed. The next year, St. Mark members stood outside during the Pride parade passing out water to the participants, a centuries old church tradition, and leaflets inviting them to church.
"People cried. They were shocked.... They said, 'Do you know who we are?"' remembered Cordle. "We said, 'Just come and see."'
This year, St. Mark boasts a thriving membership of 1,250, and the church expects about 10,000 visitors. Churchgoers drive from all over the Atlanta area and as far away as Macon to attend Sunday services. Cordle has become a national resource, receiving calls from all over the country from church leaders wanting to know more.
The congregation has formed numerous care and support organizations, including services for homeless people, an AIDS support/care team, outreach groups that travel all OVER the country, a growing throng of children, and a choir renowned throughout the city.
Though many in the gay community cheer the transformation at St. Mark's, some gays and some conservatives in his denomination are more skeptical -- suspecting a skillful marketing ploy to save a dying church.
"I am not that bright," laughed Cordle. "I thought we might get 10 new members. I was taking a chance late in my career, and no matter what happened, it was the right thing to do."
Cordle said he is pained by denomination regulations that prohibit him from performing same-sex weddings like the ceremony for a lesbian couple last week in California, administered by as many as 90 Methodist ministers who risk discipline for participating.
"I would love to be the full pastor for my congregation," said Cordle. "I think the bishop knows this, and feels my pain."
Cordle grew up during the black civil rights movement, and believes that experience began his fight for fairness and justice. He said he speaks out not about sexuality, but about human rights.
"I hear about the 'gay agenda'... but those of us who are straight -- with no agenda have to be willing to stand up because we know it's the right thing, it's the fair and honorable thing to do," he said.
"It's denying part of God's creation to try to make people change who they are, saying we don't accept people the way God created them, ... and I certainly don't have the courage to tell God that."