“We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives,” sang the choir of Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. “It’s time for us to more than just survive. We were made to thrive!”
The Rev. Alisan Rowland chose the Casting Crowns song for her recent installation as the new pastor for MCC New Orleans. “I like the words. It captures this church,” said Rowland, 43. “It feels like they’re survivors.”
Metropolitan’s mission is to “offer a safe and holy place where everyone — with particular outreach to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, queer/questioning and marginalized communities — can worship, receive affirmation and celebrate God’s love.” Fulfilling this mission in New Orleans has been challenging for the local MCC congregation, which opened its doors in the early 1970s.
They’ve overcome obstacles like the tragic UpStairs Lounge fire in 1973, which killed their minister and several members. Congregants have dealt with challenges to the church’s location, particularly post-Katrina, and transitions between interim pastors.
The volunteer-led congregation has relied on each other to take turns leading worship services.
“They’ve always kept things going,” said Rowland, who moved here in August from San Diego. “They’ve had that level of dedication when other people might have said, ‘Wow we don’t have anyone,’ and just maybe given up.’”
She said this is partly why she was drawn to the congregation. “I want to be a part of supporting them into a period of time where they don’t feel like they just have to survive anymore — where they can really grow and just have joy about what they are doing.”
The greater MCC denomination was founded in 1968, as a way of inviting LGBT people, who were generally not accepted in other churches, to worship.
“If they did go to church, they had to stay in the closet,” said Rowland. The denomination now has 222 local congregations across 40 countries. Services are often ecumenical, reflecting the diverse mix of Catholic, Baptists, and other Christian denominations from which members come.
As LGBT rights expand across the United States, Rowland says she’s seen acceptance of LGBT people grow within the wider Christian community — depending largely on the leaders of those churches.
Despite some improvement in the situation, however, the pastor does not think the need for a specifically LGBT-friendly church is diminished.
“There are a lot of denominations who will accept people who identify as LGBT, but there’s a difference between being accepted and being celebrated,” said Rowland.
She added that many people who were rejected by the churches in which they grew up in are emotionally wounded.
“Being able to come back to church and express their beliefs and be in a loving and supportive community is very healing for them.”
Mark Vaughn is vice moderator of the local MCC’s board of directors and co-chaired the pastoral search committee. He said the search for Rowland took months, because the congregation was intent on finding a pastor that would be the right fit and willing to make a long-term commitment.
“Allie is a very talented person who is very humble and is an excellent listener,” said Vaughn. “She leads through facilitating, and that’s something that we were looking for. We did not want someone that was going to come in and be authoritarian with our church.”
In July, the congregation voted unanimously to install Rowland, following a rousing sermon she gave while visiting the church for her final interview. Rowland brought her partner of seven years, Pamela Raptis, and their daughter, Jessica Raptis, with her to meet everyone.
Born and raised in southern California, Rowland was most recently a hospice chaplain. She also worked as a part-time pastor and sang in the choir at MCC San Diego.
“I had this perspective from having been in the hospice field for a few years, about what’s really important in life and what isn’t,” she said. New Orleans attracted the family-oriented Rowland, who is already a Saints fan.
“I think what I love about the people here is that they were so welcoming and loving and their priorities seem to be about spending time with their family and savoring their lives,” said Rowland.
Rowland joined MCC in 1997. “For me there was a little bit of a feeling of coming home,” she said. She felt called to serve while feeding the homeless, describing it as a desire to “give people hope again.”
After receiving her master’s of divinity degree at the Claremont School of Theology in 2010, she was ordained as a minister in August 2013. When she was installed in New Orleans recently, her first MCC pastor, Reverend Tony Freeman, flew in to conduct the ceremony.
Now Rowland is focusing on fulfilling the local church’s mission to be a “force for social justice” as she meets with church leaders to plan increased outreach to the New Orleans community.
Above all, she stresses that at worship services, all are invited to receive communion, regardless of their faith groups.
Rowland believes that MCC can educate both the larger Christian community on LGBT issues, as well as welcome LGBT people disenchanted with religion.
“I think that part of what our denomination wants to do is be another voice saying, ‘You don’t have to view all of religion and church as something that will damage you, or judge you or exclude you in some way. There’s a way to see it as something that is really life-giving and as something that makes positive changes in the community and in the world.’”