Jun Torres was casually scrolling through Blued, a gay social network app, in May 2021 when a direct message caught his attention. He was being invited to an online worship service by the manager of the account of “a church for LGBT.”
He followed the link to the Facebook page of Open Table Metropolitan Community Church (Open Table MCC) and read the page’s introduction: “A progressive Church that celebrates and affirms LGBTQIA+ people.”
Intrigued, he joined the Zoom livestream as a casual observer. And what started as curiosity gradually turned into weekly attendance at the church’s Sunday service.
“The church ensures that it is a safe space for every LGBTQIA+ person, or even heterosexual persons, attending the services,” says Torres, 35.
At that time Torres was part of a Southern Baptist Christian church, and he had never felt fully accepted by the doctrine that only “tolerated” his sexual orientation as a bisexual man.
He recalls willingly undergoing a deliverance ministry on Zoom in which church members gathered “to pray the evil” of homosexuality “away” from him. “Days after, I realized … it doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t feel true to myself,” he says.
Torres eventually left the Southern Baptist Christian church. He fully committed to OpenTable MCC in January 2022.
Open Table MCC is the most prominent LGBT-affirming church in the Philippines. It is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), a Protestant denomination of progressive Christian churches.
A spiritual formation curriculum was recently implemented for “Batch 1,” six (formerly eight) members who joined the church in 2022. The 16-session program that started in December 2022 includes informal lectures, group discussions, arts and crafts activities, a retreat, and a short immersion activity.
Recalls Torres: “[We did] journaling … Some of us were asked to visit places of worship of a different religion … We sometimes create candle decorations in relation to the topic being discussed … There is something physical usually, aside from the discussions and sharing.”
Batch 1 is set to complete Session 8 by this month of September.
The curriculum is aimed at inculcating in Open Table MCC members the five values of truthful living, communication, inclusion and diversity, social justice, and community through catechism. These are integrated with topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (or Sogie), HIV education, sexual health, and social analysis in feminist and queer liberation.
Church for ‘the outcast’
The Stonewall riots, a series of confrontations that took place in 1969 between the police and gay rights activists in the United States, sparked the gay rights movement and led to the formation of numerous gay activist organizations in that country and around the world.
In Los Angeles a year earlier, gay Pentecostal Minister Troy Perry was recovering from a suicide attempt after returning from military service. And then his boyfriend Tony Valdez was arrested at the police-raid-turned-political-rally at The Patch, an LGBT bar.
When the LA cops began making arbitrary arrests, bar owner Lee Glaze amassed a crowd by yelling: “It’s not against the law to be homosexual and it’s not a crime to be in a gay bar!” Later he handed out flowers and led the crowd to a “flower-power style” demonstration at the Harbor Division Police Station.
Valdez was released the next day, but he remained very much affected by the violence he endured at the hands of the cops who arrested patrons at The Patch just because they were part of the LGBT community. Conversations with Valdez reignited Perry’s vocation and moved him to establish “a church for all of us who are outcast.”
Perry put out an ad in the magazine The Advocate announcing that he would hold a worship service for gays. On Oct. 6, 1968, in the tiny living room of his home in Huntington Park, California, he was joined in religious worship by 12 LGBT individuals.
This small gathering became the first Christian LGBT congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).
Within three years the MCC drew over 1,000 members. It found a permanent place of worship in a building it purchased on 2201 South Union Avenue in Los Angeles.
Word of the MCC’s existence soon spread throughout the United States. LGBT individuals visited the church and wrote to Perry about their wishes to practice the faith in their own communities. It was around this time that the church began referring to itself as “LGBT-affirmative.”
The MCC has since spread to 37 countries worldwide, with 222 affiliated churches and over 43,000 members.
MCC in PH
In 1991, a group of Filipino gay men wrote the UFMCC of their intention of establishing an MCC church in the Philippines. Rev. Richard Mickley, a New Zealand MCC pastor, learned of the letter and traveled to the Philippines on his own to assist the group.
Around 50 LGBT persons gathered to attend the mass celebrated by Mickley at the National Cathedral of the Holy Child on Taft Avenue in Manila and to sign a petition calling for the establishment of an MCC church in the country.
MCC-PH, which became popularly known as MCC-Manila, was established soon after the Philippines was granted formal recognition by and affiliation to the Metropolitan Community Church.
On June 26, 1994, MCC Manila and Pro-Gay Philippines, a gay-rights group in Metro Manila, organized a pride march in Quezon City—a first in the country and in Asia.
At present, there are three MCC chapters in the Philippines, all in cities in Luzon: Open Table MCC in San Juan, MCC Marikina and Northern Sanctuary MCC in Baguio. Once a year, UFMCC elders visit the Philippines to provide financial aid and training support.
Ecumenical and progressive
The Metropolitan Community Church is an ecumenical Christian church. Though most of its members as well as its rites belong to the Protestant Christian denomination, it affirms that Christians of different religious beliefs should be one in promoting the Christian identity.
The MCC labels itself as progressive, in contrast to conservative or fundamentalist churches. In particular, it believes that a church must be LGBT-affirming.
Progressive churches promote the values of their faith through political activism. The MCC is a regular attendee of LGBT activism and outreach events and has a strong commitment to public relationships and marriage equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
The MCC propagates the message of homosexuality as natural and normal. Unlike other Christian churches that view homosexuality as a sin, it stands with the growing number of biblical and theological scholars who recognize that the Scripture does not condemn loving and responsible homosexual relationships. It thus believes that homosexual relationships and the LGBT community must be affirmed and celebrated.
In the MCC, coming out is a spiritual sacrament—like other Christian sacraments, a vessel for receiving God’s grace.
“That is a moment of empowerment of God’s grace, a moment where they love themselves and where they are finally able to love someone,” says Rev. Joseph San Jose, pastor-in-charge of Open Table MCC.
Relatedly, Open Table MCC has a “Now Testament” practice in which church members examine relevant social issues and engage in discussions based on religious (Bible, catechisms, etc.) and secular (poems, short narratives, etc.) sources. They include their coming-out testimonies in their sharing, as they view their personal lives as part of the living Gospel.
Most progressive churches hold to the belief that the Bible is not the literal word of God. In the Hebrew (Old) Testament, Christians learn about how the Jewish people and the first followers of Jesus experienced God. However, Jesus as the Word of God continues to be experienced by Christians today; He continues to demonstrate Himself to a large number of people in various ways.
“The ‘Now Testament’ means that God continues to speak in multiple diverse ways…” says San Jose. “God speaks in poetry and art … in Lady Gaga and Madonna! He reveals himself in multiple religions … in so many ways. God also speaks in each of our lives, our experiences, our own perspectives. If it is within the framework of love, justice, hope … then God is speaking.”
MCC churches celebrate same-sex partnerships by “conferring God’s blessing” through their rite of holy union. According to UFMCC bylaws, after both persons have been counseled and apprised of their responsibilities toward each other, an authorized member of the clergy may perform this rite.
The ceremony has no legal bearing and is performed simply as a “spiritual joining of two persons.”
The rite of holy union is not limited to church members. It may be bestowed upon any couple at the OpenTable MCC chapel in San Juan or at the couple’s chosen wedding venue. In a year, Open Table MCC officiates at 50 to 70 such unions.
San Jose believes that it is not only unhealthy but also destructive for LGBT individuals to be trapped in an environment that forces them to feel shame and guilt for wanting to be truthful to themselves.
“This space is important to change and transforms individual lives from a life of fear, trauma, and mental health conditions brought about by those fears, to a better life,” he says.
With the MCC’s popularity, other LGBT-affirming churches began to be established, mostly in Metro Manila.
In 2017, Rev. Michael Sotero of the Northern Sanctuary MCC and Bishop Regen Luna of the Inclusive Church of the Philippines made plans to organize an ecumenical fellowship of LGBT-affirming churches.
They believed that doing so would allow LGBT-affirming churches to communicate with and support one another more effectively on relevant issues, and to inspire members to strive to establish more churches in their own communities.
In the same year, Luna created a private Facebook group, the National Affirming Churches Association of the Philippines (Nacap), and sent invites to the official accounts of a few LGBT-affirming churches. Thirteen churches quickly responded; the number grew over time to 37.
There has since been no further action by the Nacap. Members were more occupied with establishing or expanding the reach of their respective churches than with addressing the issues affecting LGBT-affirming churches as a collective.
In 2011, Baguio’s Catholic and fundamentalist churches were agitated by a mass same-sex holy-union ceremony solemnized by Sotero in Ayuyang, a popular wine bar in the city. They officially tried to declare him persona non grata for officiating at the rite.
But the Baguio City Council rejected the complaint, citing insufficient evidence to show that Sotero and the Northern Sanctuary MCC had violated any law.
The Philippines, a secular nation, upholds religious freedom. In accordance with the principle of separation of church and state, one religious group is prohibited from imposing its beliefs on the rest of society.
Article 3, Section 5 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution states: “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”
In 2017, the Baguio City Anti-Discrimination Ordinance came into effect. The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, among others. Violators may be fined from P1,000 to P5,000 or jailed for up to 30 days.
Anti-discrimination ordinances have also been enacted in the cities of Angeles, Antipolo, Bacolod, Batangas, Butuan, Candon, Cebu, Dagupan, Davao, General Santos, Mandaue, Puerto Princesa, Quezon City, and Vigan; in the municipality of San Julian; and in the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Batangas, Cavite, Dinagat Islands and Iloilo.
But no national law protects Filipino LGBT individuals from discrimination. The Sogie bill, which recognizes the fundamental rights of every person regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, continues to languish in Congress, stalled for more than two decades.