By Neda Karimi and Nicolas Pennisi
At 8:30 a.m. every Sunday, Aneta Fraser, dressed in a suit and tie, blesses “the sanctuary” with incense. Before mass begins, she greets members at the door with a hug and a kiss, an anomaly for a queer person at a Christian church. That same token of affection shocked her when she arrived at the Long Island Community Fellowship 10 years ago.
Her prior experience at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church was not as welcoming. During a service which Fraser attended with her wife and children, the pastor made it clear that homosexuality was an “abomination.”
That’s when her search for a new home began.
“My family moved to Long Island and I just had to find someplace,” Fraser said. “So we searched and that’s when I found Long Island Community Fellowship.”
Long Island Community Fellowship, or LICF, founded in 2002, is the first and only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Christian church on the island. Their leadership, congregation and mission statement is almost entirely LGBT centered. Ninety percent of the congregation’s 50 members identify with the community.
“It’s a shame that on Long Island this the only church of its kind,” Eva Kehoe, a Sunday School teacher and regular church attendee, said. “I think there should be dozens and dozens more.”
When her daughter came out at the age of 16, Kehoe accepted her with open arms. As a Christian, she knew that mainstream churches would not do the same. This is what influenced her decision to join LICF.
The church is wedged between an electric shop and fitness center in West Babylon. From the curb, LICF looks like any other brick-office building in the industrial complex. However inside, purple-painted walls are adorned with rainbow flags, Christian imagery entwines with LGBT art, and flower arrangements fill the hallways.
LICF is committed to “social justice outreach,” one of the pillars of their mission statement. Outreach Coordinator Joe Finger spreads awareness of LGBT issues that are prevalent in Long Island communities by speaking to pastors of other congregations. His main focus is AIDS and HIV awareness, an issue which he says “hits home” for him.
During the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, Finger lost many loved ones to the disease. His work on the cause is how he honors their memory.
But many Americans are unaware that this is still an issue.
Media coverage of the epidemic declined after 1987, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The amount of media coverage, however, fails to equate diagnosis statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2016, 39,782 people received HIV diagnoses and while 18,160 received AIDS diagnoses.
“We need to re-educate [people about] the disease and bring it back to the forefront,” Finger said. “We need to talk about it into schools and churches. If my little piece of Long Island can get the idea that this disease is still out there, then that’s what I want to do.”
LICF, however, is struggling to connect with younger generations. The majority of the members of the congregation are over the age of 40. According to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of millennials are religiously unaffiliated. The church is missing a whole group of young people, Finger explained, creating a large gap in membership.
Fifty-three percent of young LGBT Americans aged 18 to 29 are religiously unaffiliated compared to one-quarter of LGBT Seniors, according to the Public Religious Research Institution’s 2016 report on America’s Changing Religious Identity.
“Every pastor I’ve met or spoken to is suffering from the same thing,” Finger said of the underrepresentation of LGBT youth in churches. “That’s something we need if we’re going to continue to thrive and grow.”
In order to reach out to LGBT college students, Finger plans to visit universities such as Adelphi, Farmingdale and Stony Brook University. LICF, in partnership with the National Black Leadership Commission, held a Youth Summit on AIDS this past May. Despite falling short of only ten kids in attendance, LICF is hopeful about future summits.
“We’re hoping for a larger turnout next time,” Finger said. “They think we’re against them, but we’re not,” referring to younger LGBT individuals’ perception of the church.