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After lesbian judge denied Communion, nearby church hosts inclusive service

The Catholic Church where Judge Sara Smolenski had been a member for 62 years shunned her because she’s married to a woman.
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After a Michigan judge was denied Communion at her Catholic church of over six decades because she is married to another woman, a neighboring congregation organized an “inclusive” service in her honor.

“I am so full of gratitude that these ministers, their congregation, have reached out to open this up and do what Jesus would do,” Kent County District Court Judge Sara Smolenski, 62, said of the invitation from First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The invitation came after Smolenski, who has been married to her wife for three years, received a phone call from pastor Scott Nolan informing her that she could no longer receive Communion at St. Stephen Catholic Church — the parish she has belonged to since her baptism in the 1950s.

“This is a church that is a part of who I am. This is a church who helped form my faith,” she told News 8, a local NBC affiliate station. “Why exclude anyone when they have sincere desire to come to God’s table?”

Prior to Nolan’s arrival three years ago, St. Stephen was an inclusive church, according to Smolenski. The church reportedly ran the first integrated Catholic school in the Grand Rapids area, with a student body that was 40 percent non-Catholic. However, Smolenski and other parishioners said the church took an exclusionary turn under Nolan’s leadership.

Parishioner Micki Benz said Nolan has removed gay teachers from the church’s school, and another parishioner claimed a same-sex couple was denied the Eucharist at St. Stephen during their child’s Communion service. “He has made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” Benz told News 8.

Nolan acknowledged that parish and school membership have declined since he arrived, but he said he stands by his decision to deny Smolenski the Communion, saying the teachings of the Catholic Church gave him no choice. The Diocese of Grand Rapids has backed the priest, asserting its opposition to same-sex marriage in a statement released Wednesday.

“No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members,” the statement reads. “This is especially so on matters as central to Catholic life as marriage, which the Church has always held, and continues to hold, as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.”

‘Everyone has value, meaning and purpose’

On Sunday, Smolenski attended a service and received Communion at the First United Methodist Church, which is just a 10-minute drive west of St. Stephen. The service was the fourth “inclusive” session held by the church — a special service started last winter in response to a vote from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that ruled against same-sex marriage and the inclusion of gay clergymen in the church.

“We try to be a hopeful voice that despite these other church’s decisions, our local congregation can tell a different story about God’s love,” the Rev. Joan VanDessel told NBC News.

The service, organized to support Smolenski, began with welcoming words before moving on to prayer. Rev. Tim Tuthill stood next to VanDessel and said inclusion means “everyone has value, meaning and purpose.”

VanDessel hopes the First United Methodist congregation can help heal the divide between churches and the LGBTQ community. While the church welcomes everyone to its regular monthly Communion services, she said the special inclusive services have a more meditated meaning.

“We wanted to invite and sort of have a heart for every LGBT person that’s been harmed by the church,” VanDessel said. “I’m a part of the [LGBTQ] community, too, so for me it’s knowing that experience of being harmed or not having access to the church. I think we wanted to reach out and be a different voice.”

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