Middle Tennessee is rife with religion-derived discrimination, Dawn Bennett said. In response she became the pastor developer of The Table in Nashville, founded in December 2019. Its purpose? “To answer the call, primarily to LGBTQ+ persons and other marginal people groups, to create a safe haven where they can worship in a safe, inclusive and affirming environment,” she said.

What was to begin as a dinner church model, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed. Bennet began streaming the service online. Now a small group of people gather in person on Sunday evenings simultaneously with others who worship via the livestream. The worship services are viewed weekly by nearly a thousand people across the country and globe.

“That is a happy accident, a leftover from COVID, if you will,” Bennett said. “This is where innovative evangelism meets exciting opportunity. To God be the glory and thanks.”

Several firsts

The Table is the first ELCA congregation in the Southeastern Synod with the specific goal of serving the LGBTQ+ community, Bennett said. “This innovative ministry sought to establish a safe place for the community to discover their belovedness and belongingness within the Christian lens. It is deliberate work, albeit tender work,” she added. “The Table offers an affirming place for all women, particularly our LGBTQ+ identified women, to explore their being and belonging.”

It’s also the first LGBTQ+ Women of the ELCA group, which makes Bennett a trailblazer. But Bennet said she hopes it will not be the only one of its kind. “By God’s grace and our commitment to creating innovative ministry in our future church, to be the first means to also pave the way for others to create this kind of specialized unit to serve their own context,” she said.

“The Table has a reputation of creating space for hard conversations. We do this through appreciative inquiry, asking, ‘What are we doing well?’ and ‘How can we do more of it?’ More than anything, I hope to be the first means not to be the only. In this season we are the only, but I am confident that by unifying the voices of LGBTQ+ women and our allies within our church, we can grow to serve the needs of all women who seek a place to beautifully blend their faith and their sparkle.”

“It is deliberate work, albeit tender work.”

Kathy Halbrooks is the regional coordinator for PFLAG. Founded in 1973 as “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays,” PFLAG is the largest organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ people and those who love them. “In my work as an ally, I see so many LGBTQ+ people emotionally damaged by their experiences with negative organized religion,” she said. “Pastor Dawn of The Table helps people understand that God loves them and created them just as they are. Her work is incredibly important to people searching for the peace they deserve as God’s children.”

Ginger Cutrell, an openly transgender woman living in Manchester, Tenn., said she has struggled with her gender identity for years. She joined the ELCA in 1996 but was never really a spiritual person. In 2020 she was hurting and questioning God’s “spiritual goodness” because of some personal issues. She believes God guided her to The Table because God had a plan for her and the community.

“I discovered The Table in Nashville and Pastor Dawn’s core ELCA message that God does care about us,” Cutrell said. “It resonated with me and I felt accepted in who I was for the first time. I fully accepted that I am a woman, who was raised as a man, learning to be a lady!”

“The ELCA operating at its best”

In 2022 the congregation’s Women of The Table formed as a Women of the ELCA (WELCA) unit. That September, Bennett took six women from the congregation to the Southeastern Synod Women of the ELCA conference in Atlanta.

“I personally went with a lot of trepidation and nervousness,” Cutrell said. “I believe we were the first openly LBT women to ever attend a WELCA event. Our acceptance and welcome by the women there were almost overwhelming. It truly was the ELCA operating at its best! It was an opportunity to educate others that we were just women and not some evil conspiracy.”

In 2023, members of the Southeastern Synod WELCA asked Cutrell if they could nominate her for a position on the churchwide WELCA executive board. She was elected that September during the WELCA Triennium Gathering in Phoenix and believes herself to be the first transgender and LGBTQ+ board member.

“I say all of this to emphasize that none of my journey would have been possible without the spiritual healing and guidance from The Table, my LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers, and Pastor Dawn Bennett,” Cutrell said.  “And I must also include Trinity Lutheran in Tullahoma, Tenn.—my home church, which also practices affirming in Christ’s love.”

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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