What happens when an Evangelical church welcomes LGBTQ members


Story by Zach Putnam
Video by Zach Putnam and David MacKay

I was nervous when I first met with Pastor Adam Phillips. It had been years since I was last inside a church, and I was afraid he would smell the heathen on me. It’s not surprising in hindsight, but at the time I was relieved to find the pastor to be warm and welcoming, and completely nonjudgmental about the status of my soul. He reached out to me because he had a story, and he wondered if I could help him tell it.

Phillips’ church was being kicked out of their evangelical denomination — precisely because of his welcoming and nonjudgmental attitude. When the administrative leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church heard that Phillips intended to welcome the LGBTQ community into his newly founded church in Portland, they withdrew all their funding and support, and set his congregation adrift. Phillips, who had devoted most of his adult life to the ECC, was in shock. His future was suddenly very unclear.

When SOJC Assistant Professor Wes Pope tasked my Multimedia Journalism Master’s cohort with producing personality profiles, I immediately thought of Pastor Phillips. I teamed up with fellow MMJ student David MacKay, and we spent a few days filming with Phillips and his flock, then many more days in the editing room crafting our story. Even after we turned in the assignment for a grade, it took weeks to review and revise it with Pope’s help.

Months later, when it finally felt done, I started to submit our short documentary to every media outlet I could think of. I pitched to everyone, from The Oregonian to the Religion News Service to The New York Times. Only one editor from one publication responded, but it was a good one: The Atlantic. They wanted to run it as an Editor’s Pick on their video page. I was thrilled to be published in such a high-profile national outlet.

The video was one of the most-watched videos on The Atlantic site for weeks. It was subsequently picked up and republished by The Huffington Post, Upworthy and The Oregonian. On each site, hundreds of commenters passionately expressed reactions that ranged from tears of joy to hateful rants. It was interesting to see how confirmation bias shaped people’s reactions. Some thought this was a story about hope for the future, and others found it to be another sign of America’s spiral into moral decay.

It was hard to read those hateful comments directed toward Phillips and his church, and I worried that by publishing the story, we had put them at risk for more abuse. But I tried to keep in mind what many of my professors had told me: If you’re not making someone angry, you’re probably not saying anything important.

Zach Putnam is a graduate student in his second year of the Multimedia Journalism Master’s program in Portland. He runs his own small video production company and his work has recently appeared on The Atlantic, Quartz and Mashable. You can see his portfolio at zachputnam.com.