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Some members of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in State College say their church is more progressive than other congregations. The global Methodist Church voted earlier this year to uphold bans on same-sex wedding and gay clergy. (Photo: Steph Krane/WPSU)

Every Sunday morning, the choir at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church sings for hundreds of people at the church’s historic stone building in downtown State College.  

Leading the choir is Russell Bloom. The fact that he’s the choir director at St. Paul’s is no accident.

“I have driven past nine United Methodist churches, including my home church, to come to St. Paul’s,” Bloom said.

Although Bloom is proud to call the congregation home, there is one thing about St. Paul’s and the United Methodist Church in general that makes him feel unwelcome.  

“Any given Sunday, I’m standing up in front of four or five hundred people, so everybody knows the choir director as if everybody knows the preacher,” Bloom said. “Yet, it still surprises me that I have heard comments as recently as three months ago that a congregation member said, ‘We don’t have any gays in St. Paul’s.’ Like hello, have you not seen the choir director, do you not know me?”

It’s not just individuals within the church who, intentionally or unintentionally, make LGBT members feel excluded. Earlier this year, the United Methodist Church voted to uphold what’s known as the “Traditional Plan.” The plan bans same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay clergy in the church.

Greg Milinovich is the senior pastor at St. Paul’s. He says the congregation’s location across the street from Penn State’s University Park campus makes it different from other Methodist churches.

“If you travel very far out of State College at all, the Methodist churches you encounter are not nearly as sort of culturally diverse as we would be,” Milinovich said.

More than 1,000 Methodist churches around the world have taken steps to show they support people of all sexual orientations. A reconciling church is one where members have signed an agreement to welcome those in the LGBT community.

While St. Paul’s is not a reconciling church, more than a hundred members have signed an agreement to be part of Open Table, a smaller reconciling community within the church.

Debbie Harwell is a member of the group, which hopes to educate church members who have more traditional views on LGBT issues. 

“I understand why they believe what they believe. And if they, in turn, will listen to what I have taken from Scripture, you know, maybe we can meet in the middle somewhere,” Harwell said.

During Sunday services at St. Paul’s, Reverend Milinovich announces a full calendar of church events for the next week. He said that despite the mostly full pews, he can’t help but wonder who isn’t attending. 

“There must be countless others who might join us, but don’t because they’re not sure if it’s safe, or have particularly felt unsafe at one point or another because of something that was spoken or a way they were treated, which breaks my heart, but I have to assume that to be the case,” Milinovich said.

St. Paul’s is part of the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church, which stretches the entire length of central Pennsylvania from Altoona to Scranton. Shawn Gilgore, the Susquehanna Conference’s director of communications, said the vote at this year’s Methodist Annual Conference to uphold the Traditional Plan reflects the opinions of the millions of Methodists in the United States and beyond.

“Our church is represented by people from all around the world,” Gilgore said. “This was not just a U.S. decision, or a, you know, members from Africa decision, or folks in the Philippines decision, it was all of us in one room together for four days in February.”

Gilgore also said that despite members in certain churches disagreeing with the Traditional Plan, it is still the law of the Church.

“At this point, our local conference here follows the Book of Discipline, the way it’s written,” Gilgore said.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center this February found that 60 percent of United Methodists in the United States believe that homosexuality should be accepted. A few Methodist churches across the nation have left the denomination over the issue, through an exit plan passed in February along with the legislation that upheld the Traditional Plan.

Gilgore said that so far, no churches in the Susquehanna Conference have announced plans to leave the denomination.

Despite not always feeling welcome by the governing church council, many Methodists feel too tied to their religion to leave.

Bloom, who didn’t come out as gay until he was 48, credits his faith with saving his life.

“I was on a beach, it was at night, and I decided I was going to walk into the water and never come back. I was driven to my knees, driven to my knees. And in my head, the voice said, ‘Get up. I’m not finished with you yet.’ That moment was really my God moment,” Bloom said.

Some see a split into two different Methodist Churches as the way forward. Reverend Milinovich said a division is inevitable.

“I’d hate to see an ugly divide and something that’s not full of grace. But I think one way or another, I think there’s going to be some fracturing and splitting,” Milinovich said.

Bloom said that although he sometimes thinks about leaving the church, his hope for a change in official policy is what keeps him in front of the choir at St. Paul’s.

“There have been multiple times where I could have gone,” Bloom said. “But it’s like, no it’s not ready yet. So I’m still here. I’m still waiting.”