NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The sermon at Glendale Baptist Church one recent Sunday recalled how Jesus mingled with tax collectors and prostitutes, refusing to snub people for the unpopular things they did.
''What does it mean that God's love is for everyone?'' preached Glendale member Eileen Campbell-Reed, a doctoral student in religion.
''What will happen when we move from the center to the margins, and make friends ... with those that our society smugly thinks of as the disinherited and marginalized? What will happen when they become our heroes and heroines of friendship and faithfulness, forgiveness and grace?''
These were not rhetorical questions.
Listening in the front row in her black sacramental robe was April Baker an unlikely combination of lesbian living openly with a partner and associate pastor of a Baptist church in the South.
Glendale's half-century associations with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention have been dissolved over the past month because of Baker.
Baptist officials said the church's choice to support Baker, currently its only full-time minister, left them with no choice.
''In having a homosexual or lesbian minister, they are clearly endorsing homosexual behavior, and thus have defined themselves outside of the Southern Baptist Convention,'' said Richard Land, president of the SBC's public policy arm.
Glendale's 250-member congregation long ago forged bonds with more liberal Baptist umbrella organizations, including the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
But the church had belonged to the SBC and TBC since its founding in 1951. The loss of tradition hurts, as does the rejection, members of the congregation say.
At the Sunday service in a simple sanctuary decorated with homemade banners and mobiles of paper birds were a diverse mix of members elderly people, a city councilman, a teenager with a mohawk and several children in Tennessee Titans jerseys.
Glendale has long been known as a liberal church, but not one that particularly caters to gays.
When the search process for an associate pastor turned up two of three candidates who disclosed they were lesbians, church leaders took the matter to the congregation. It decided to pick the best candidate for the job, regardless of sexual orientation.
Since hiring Baker last summer, the church has drawn unwanted attention from a local conservative talk radio show and pickets one Sunday by an anti-gay group.
Stewart Clifton, a lay leader, said Glendale wasn't out to court controversy.
''It's something we kind of fell into step by step,'' he said. ''You don't ask people to apply, and based on something they have no control over, then say, 'Sorry, some extraneous thing is going to disqualify you.'''
Glendale bills itself as ''A Caring Community of Equality and Grace.'' In the early 1970s, the church supported the desegregation of Nashville public schools and lost a large part of its membership.
Nationally, conservatives overpowered moderates and liberals to take over Southern Baptist leadership two decades ago. Since 1988 the denomination has severed ties with more than 10 other congregations over the issue of homosexuality.
''Not many Baptist churches moderate, fundamentalist or otherwise have openly lesbian staff members,'' said Bill Turner, a retired Baptist minister who headed the prominent South Main Baptist Church in Houston for 16 years. ''Sexual identity is an issue that's been effectively dodged for some years. ... Even in moderate churches, there's usually a 'love the sinner, hate the sin' mind-set.''
At the SBC's annual meeting in Phoenix last month, leaders proclaimed an initiative to help homosexuals ''find freedom from this sinful, destructive lifestyle.''
Baker, a 39-year-old graduate of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., has worked as a counselor to women felons but never before held a minister's job.
She becomes visibly uncomfortable when asked about the controversy over her sexual orientation. She frowns and pauses several moments to gather her thoughts.
She says the denomination has ''terribly wounded'' gay people.
''I say that the Southern Baptist Convention left me, because the SBC as it is today is not the same spiritual and theological home in which I grew up,'' Baker said. ''I think that there's a distinct call to the church to push the edges of inclusiveness.''
When Kreis White's family was considering whether to join Glendale, he was told about Baker's sexual orientation. He didn't see it as relevant.
''My kids got to help in the soup kitchen yesterday, and Habitat for Humanity is a blast. The activism is what attracted me,'' he said.
Baker's sexual orientation is ''such a small fraction of who she is,'' White said.
''She is also a Braves fan, which I find horribly compelling. She is a gifted speaker, a great pulpit speaker. She is a very spiritual leader for the kids.''
On the Net:
Glendale Baptist Church: http://www.glendalebaptist.org/
Southern Baptist Convention: http://www.sbc.net/
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.