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In the fight for equality, education is key
Ruth Ann Eldridge and
partner, Peggy Roush,
found that one-on-one
straight allies for gays
By DAWN RORIE
It is hard to find a congregation that is
more warm and affirming than the one at
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran United
Church of Christ (UCC). Unlike many
other churches in which members only
see each other briefly before and after
weekly services, the congregation at
Bethel is like one big family.
Members at Bethel keep in touch
throughout the week, having dinner with
one another and going out of their way to
care for sick or ailing members who need
a helping hand.
When Ruth Ann Ethridge and her
partner. Peggy Roush, walked into Bethel
Evangelical Lutheran UCC for the first
time, they were immediately welcomed
into the family.
Even though Bethel was not yet officially "open and affirming" of sexual
minorities (as United Church of Christ
leaves this decision up to individual
churches), the openly lesbian couple was
accepted as one of the flock.
When they returned for a second service, Etheridge said members of the congregation not only remembered them from
their first visit, but also knew their names.
"I had never gone to a church like that
in my entire life," she says. In time,
Ethridge became president of the
church's Board of Christian Education,
while Roush began serving as secretary.
In 2004, Bethel decided to follow in the
footsteps of other UCC churches when it
began the yearlong process to officially
become "open and affirming" of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.
The church scheduled a series of "open
and affirming" sessions in order to educate members about the lives and struggles sexual minorities.
Even for a congregation as warm and
ft MORE INFO
Bethel Evangelical Uttieran Church (UCC)
1107 Shepherd Dr.
Ruth Ann Eldridge and Peggy Roush were instrumental in helping educate members of Bethel Evangelical Church (UCC) at a time when the church was considering whether or not to become an open and affirming congregation. Photo by Dalton DeHart.
loving as the one at Bethel, the process
was a controversial one that encountered
some opposition. While many members
were open to attending the educational
sessions, some balked at the prospect of
being exposed to gay issues.
"Some people said that we had taken
over the church. I politely told them that
we had not," says Roush.
The couple responded by inviting hesitant members to their home for dinner.
"We didn't talk about the open and affirming sessions," Ethridge remembers. "We
just chatted and let them see that we are
normal people just like everybody else."
One woman in particular would not
even take the informational flyers about
the sessions, let alone attend one.
Ethridge decided to approach her and
have a private, one-on-one conversation
about the subject.
While the woman made it clear that
although she did not approve of homosexuals in general, she had no problem
with Ethridge and Roush. Ethridge tried
to explain to her that she and her partner
were just like everybody else in the gay
"How can you know if you approve or disapprove unless you educate yourself?"
Ethridge asked her After their conversation.
the woman attended every session, finally
voting in favor of the church becoming open
and affirming. The final vote was 50 to 10,
with the majority in favor of officially opening their church to gays, lesbians, bisexuals
and transgender individuals.
Ethridge says she believes in the
power of one-on-one interaction and
reaching out beyond, as well as within,
the gay community to find allies. Over
the years, she and Roush have been
involved in various gay rights organizations, including Lesbians Over the Age of
Fifty (LOAF) and the Lesbian Health
Initiative, where Ethridge served as a
During her time working with such
groups, Ethridge noticed a lack of coordination among many of the organizations—they were all working on individual projects while hoping to achieve the
same goal of equality.
In addition to the fragmentation she
has noticed in the struggle for equality,
Ethridge points out that the separation of
gays and straights is another factor that
can only hamper the fight.
"We have divided everything into the
gay community and the straight community. It just needs to be our community,"
Because of her views on these issues,
Ethridge is enthusiastic about her new
position as Outreach Chair for Pride
Houston. She is currently in the early
stages of planning a conference for 2006
that will bring together and educate gays
and lesbians, as well as their straight allies.
In addition to educating the public
about gay civil rights issues, the conference will feature presentations that teach
smaller organizations skills such as how
to fundraise and how to put together a
board of directors.
Ethridge and Roush point to their
church as an example of how interaction
and education can bring gay and straight
people together for a common cause. They
say they both feel that being honest about
who they are, as well as being willing to
reach out to others has made a difference in
the way many members of the Bethel congregation see gays and lesbians. Ethridge
says that one lady told them, "Well, if
they're all like you, let 'em all come!"
With a marriage amendment pending
and anti-gay sentiment rising in many
areas around the country, Ethridge says
that the time for the barriers to come
down is now, "If we are going to get anywhere in the future, we're going to have
to do it together."