Writer: Korie Dean journalism student at UNC Chapel Hill.
It’s 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, and Louise Shulack and Elaine Berry are ready for church.
In the couple’s Mebane home, Gus, a 72-pound golden retriever, and Toby, a 2-pound fluffy white Maltese, play underfoot as Shulack, wearing a purple polo with a Baltimore Ravens logo on the left chest, logs in to her Zoom account.
They meet up with David Gaddy and pastor Jason Gaskin through the computer screen.
Gaddy, sitting in front of a poster that reads, “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters,” begins the virtual service with announcements: someone in the congregation is hosting a podcast series on composting, and two Sundays from now, there’s a church-sponsored trip to the local early voting location.
Shulack and Berry unmute their mic and follow with a call to worship, reading from the second chapter of Philippians and centering themselves and those tuning in on Facebook Live on the ideas of humility and joy.
At some churches, a married same-sex couple leading worship might cause jaws to drop or eyes to nervously dart around the room.
But not at Storied Church.
It’s exactly the affirming, inclusive faith community Gaskin prayed for when he founded the church a little over a year ago—a place for people who have been hurt, let down or broken by traditional churches to find joy and heal their wounds.
And it all started with Edward.
Gaskin had been the pastor of a small United Methodist church in rural Caswell County for five years when, one Sunday in January 2017 he saw Edward for the first time.
He was sitting alone in a pew on the last row of the sanctuary.
No one knew who he was. The mostly elderly congregation gave its implied welcome with judgmental glances and hushed side chatter.
“There was a real xenophobic reality playing out in that community,” Gaskin said.
When Gaskin invited the worshippers up to the altar to renew their baptism, Edward raised more eyebrows by darting to the front of the line, bypassing the conventional front-to-back flow of the service.
Edward stood at the altar, trembling and shaking as he sobbed inconsolably. Gaskin dipped his thumb in the water and made a cross on Edward’s forehead.
“You are a child of God,” Gaskin told him.
In his 10 years of ministry, Gaskin had never seen such an intense reaction to a renewal of baptism. He was sure that Edward would be embarrassed by his outpouring of emotion and never return.
But he did. And after a few months of attending Sunday services, Edward met with Gaskin at the pastor’s home, which doubled as the church office and a Bible study space.
“Jason, I’m gay,” he said through a steady flow of tears.
Gaskin could see the shame Edward had carried for so long weighing down on him.
“Edward, that’s how God made you,” Gaskin said. “Who you are is so beautiful.”
It was the first time someone at a church told Edward he belonged. But he knew he would never feel comfortable bringing a partner to a service or telling the congregation who he really was—and Gaskin knew it, too.
He dreamed of founding a progressive, affirming church that would openly and willingly accept people like Edward.
He shared his vision with his wife, Kiah, on a walk in their Mebane neighborhood.
“You should share your dream with someone,” she told him.
And he did.
In 2019, with the blessing of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church’s New Faith Communities initiative, Gaskin began to form a group of like-minded people in the Mebane community who shared his theology of acceptance.
He offered to meet anyone who would listen to him at local coffee shops in Mebane, like Reed’s—where he met Gaddy, and later Berry and Shulack, who were all hurting from past experiences at church, too.
Like Gaskin, Gaddy struggled to reconcile his own beliefs with conservative leadership at the churches where he worked.
He had been a youth pastor in Mebane for close to 8 years, but when his support of a same-sex couple came into question, he knew it was time to find a new community.
Like Edward, Shulack and Berry, who had been a couple for close to 30 years and married for five, never thought they would be accepted at a traditional church because of their sexuality.
No matter how many volunteer trips they went on or lay councils they served on at Berry’s home church in rural Orange County, they always felt out of place.
“Even though most people knew we were a couple, I wasn’t comfortable putting my arm around Elaine and comforting her,” Shulack said.
Using their respective pain and feelings of betrayal as a source of hope for long-awaited healing, the group worked together to bring Gaskin’s vision to life.
They brainstormed a set of shared values, committing themselves to become a community that embraces everyone, realizes the power of doubt and questioning in faith and knows that everyone’s story matters.
It was a markedly different tone from the conservative churches they were surrounded by in Alamance County, and it wasn’t the right fit for everyone.
But for others, it worked.
The church’s Sunday services started with only six or seven people, but soon grew to 20 or 30, forcing them to relocate from a small side room at Reed’s to larger community spaces, such as the historic Woodlawn School in Mebane.
In early March, at their last in-person gathering before the coronavirus pandemic, the one-room schoolhouse was filled with close to 60 people, dressed in coats because the heating system had been dormant all night.
The pandemic would keep them from gathering in person for close to six months, but on that cold Sunday in March, they were already feeling the pain of separation.
Berry got a call a few days prior.
One of her friends, an early supporter of the church, was in a minor traffic accident months prior.
Now, he was on his way to an ICE detention facility in Georgia, where he would be held for the next three months because of his undocumented status.
Leaning on her wife for support, Berry made the painful announcement to the congregation.
And with tears streaming down their faces, they all held hands as they prayed for their friend’s safety and, in the same breath, publicly demanded progressive policy actions.
It was more than Gaskin ever prayed his vision would become.
As he looked around the room and saw everyone who had journeyed with him to this point, he felt a divine presence.
Amid the deep pain they felt, they each found solace and hope in the community that they had built together, driven by their past brokenness.
The healing had begun.