When Marti and Donna Rickard walked into the Vineyard Church in the Heights for the first time, they knew this was the church for them. "They did three or four of our very favorite songs, including the one played at our wedding," Donna says. The atmosphere was contemporary, the band was live, the people were friendly, and the sermon was Bible-based. At the conclusion, Marti says, one of the leaders came up and gave them a scriptural reading. That was all they needed to confirm in their minds that God had called them to this church.
It was all exactly what they wanted.
That was in April 2000. Two years later, on April 9, Marti and Donna were kicked out of the church, told they could not receive its Communion or prayers, and would not be welcome to enter its doors.
The church hasn't changed. It still offers contemporary services, live music, friendly people and Bible-based epiphanies.
But then, Marti and Donna haven't changed, either. The out-of-the-closet lesbians have not forsaken their marriage, have not stopped having sex. So the church and its lead pastor, Michael Palandro, told them time was up, that they were engaging in sinful acts without remorse or repentance and would have to go.
In truth, they'd left once before for a period of about six months, feeling increasingly uncomfortable in a church that condemned homosexuals from the pulpit. They'd searched for a new church home, but then decided that they still liked the Vineyard the best and returned.
Like Log Cabin Republicans, Marti and Donna wanted the Vineyard even though the Vineyard didn't want them.
And while Michael Palandro believes God is telling him to stand against the evil of homosexual sex, Marti and Donna Rickard believe God is telling them to stand in testament that one can be a good, Bible-believing Christian and gay all at the same time.
Marti grew up Southern Baptist in Houston before going to college in Louisiana, where she discovered her sexuality. When she moved back to Houston, she began attending the predominantly gay MCCR, the Metropolitan Community Church for the Resurrection (now known as Resurrection MCC).
But Marti didn't feel comfortable there; it was too "high church" for her. She moved to the more charismatic Maranatha Fellowship Metropolitan Community Church, where she became a board member and played drums in the church's worship ministry. It was there she met the church's bookkeeper, Donna.
Donna had grown up Roman Catholic, in a military family who lived all over the place. A single mother with one daughter, she'd been introduced to a charismatic church in New Orleans and liked it. When she moved to Houston, she'd looked for the same type of church.
Eventually they left Maranatha. The church wasn't happy with someone on the board being involved with an employee. Marti and Donna felt that the church, with an average attendance of about 75 people at its services, was too small and inwardly focused. "We felt like God was calling us out of that church," Marti says. They wanted to go out and witness. Not wanting to be segregated from the community at large, they began looking for gay-friendly churches, but not necessarily another gay church.
The majority of churches were not gay-friendly at all, they say, while some, like the Unitarian church, they did not consider Christ-centered. Some friends recommended the Vineyard Church in the Heights because its praise and worship was the type Marti and Donna liked.
They did have some warning of the tensions to come. They were told the church was teaching unification, unconditional love and welcoming everybody and was "geared more toward reconciliation with the gay community but not quite there," Marti says. Still, it seemed worth a look.
After they had attended for about a month, the pastor's wife invited them for coffee with herself and her husband. The four sat together at a Starbucks off FM 1960 for two hours and discussed the church's stance on homosexuality. It did not go well.
"We feel very strongly about what we know, and they feel very strongly about what they know," Donna says. "There's a very thick glass wall in between that. And as much as we can see each other through it, nevertheless, it's a wall that can't be penetrated, and we just kept crashing into it the whole time."
As long as they continued their homosexuality, they could not be members of the Vineyard, could not be church leaders, could not serve in any way except behind the scenes in the food pantry.
Why not walk away? Well, they felt that God had called them there, Marti says. "We just wanted to set the example so that when they did see us, they really saw Christ in us and didn't see what they call a sin."
Nothing too dramatic happened for about a year, then a visiting preacher from Cincinnati gave a positive sermon about the homosexuals in his Vineyard church, Marti says.
As other congregants filed out, the small group of gays and lesbians who sat up front at all the services gathered together. "I told them, 'God's getting ready to move, and we really need to pray, because this is going to be very scary for this church,' " Marti says.
The gay-bashing from the pulpit began in earnest the next week, she says. Every sermon contained something negative about the congregation's homosexuals, who were equated with alcoholics and drug addicts.
"I think the church was honestly at a crossroads and they got scared to death," Marti says. "Out of their fear, they decided to turn and attack as opposed to turn and accept."
Upon meeting Michael Palandro, it's easy to understand his success in overseeing a church that has 500 people at its three Sunday services (one in Spanish). Likable and articulate, he, like Marti and Donna, took a somewhat convoluted religious journey to get to where he is today.
Michael grew up Roman Catholic in Philadelphia. While in college in Missouri, he began attending Southern Baptist services. He worked for the campus ministry with the Assemblies of God church. In 1984, he came here as assistant pastor, as an ordained Assembly of God minister. The Houston church started out with the Assemblies of God but eventually affiliated with Vineyard, which has 530 churches in the United States.
When he discusses Marti and Donna, Michael acknowledges their pain but remains immovable in his beliefs. He is clearly perplexed by their insistence on staying at his church, saying people change churches all the time, looking for one that's a good match.
The Vineyard church is not homophobic and will welcome homosexuals, but it does expect them to change, Michael says. He says he has worked successfully with several gays to change them into heterosexuals.
"Homosexuality is brokenness. Homosexual practice is sin," Michael says. "What we ask of people is to not engage in sexual practice and then let us work with you to address the sexual orientation."
He denies that he or his church "targets" gays. The 11th Street church, founded in 1975, has seen an increasing percentage of gays living in the area, a by-product of changing demographics, he says.
He says he did explain to Marti and Donna that "We do love you as you are. But we also believe we have to call each other to a pattern of life consistent with the Scripture."
Sin of any kind elicits a home visit from the pastor or his staff. "Our aim is for them to recognize that it's sin, to repent of it and then to start taking steps to change."
Last spring, a fellow churchgoer called Donna to urge her to go to a big weekend conference. Topic: healing addictive behaviors, including sexuality. "I said to him, 'That part of my life isn't something that needs to be healed.'" She and Marti didn't go to church that weekend.
They went a couple more times to the Vineyard, but after more finger-pointing, they figured they'd had enough. "In the last service, we just felt that God released us," Marti says.
So in April 2001, they stopped. Their wedding was approaching. They had briefly discussed trying to get married at the Vineyard but knew that couldn't happen. So on May 12, 2001, they were united in holy union at downtown's Central Congregational Church. The invitation they sent the Palandros was returned unopened.
They started looking for a new church, but after six months, they went back to the Vineyard in November 2001. Marti says God told her that she wasn't to move the mountain at the Vineyard, she was only to stand in testimony and that he would do any heavy lifting required.
They attended sporadically. On March 13, 2002, they got an e-mail from Michael, saying he'd noticed them back and asking if they were going to be attending again. If so, he wrote, they would need to rediscuss the church's beliefs on homosexuality. Donna e-mailed back yes, they were attending but didn't want another meeting. On March 22, he wrote them again, threatening to "no longer offer the ministry of the church to you, including prayer and communion."
On April 9 they met, right after Easter. This time the debate went on for about 90 minutes. At the end of the session, Michael handed each of them an envelope, making it official. They were "no longer welcome."
Michael says he took this drastic step only after consultation with other church leaders and that it was done not as a punishment but as a desperate attempt to get Marti and Donna to change.
"It's the nature of the Christian life to call each other to obedience to Christ, to repentance of sin and to a changed life," Michael says. "We felt we would not be the church if we just kind of let things be.
"Christianity is personal, but it's not private."
Marti and Donna feel bitter and betrayed. Marti says Michael and his wife feel they have been called by God to heal the homosexuals, which is fine, except, as Marti explains, "Their belief of that healing means changing them. We believe that, yes, they have been called to heal the homosexuals, but a healing through unification and through acceptance, because homosexuals have been hurt so badly by the church."
Marti and Donna's mission now is to let everyone they can reach know exactly what the Vineyard Church is about.
Donna compares what they went through to the struggle of Rosa Parks, the African-American who years ago wouldn't give up her seat to a white man on a bus in the segregated South.
"We are Rosa Parks. We understood where we sat. We understood we wouldn't be in the ministry. We understood we couldn't be members or ministers or do anything but attend. We accepted that. It still got us church and worship and the fellowship. We still wanted to ride the bus. But now that's not even okay anymore. You're telling us to move. We don't want to move."
Michael sees it entirely differently. Christians are called upon to judge fellow believers. He is sure that if Jesus came back today, he'd be with the most troubled members of society. "I think he would offer healing, and I think he would call them to change." Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman, Michael says, but he did tell her: "Now go and sin no more."
Marti and Donna felt that over time they could help Michael and his church see homosexuality not as a sin but as a valid lifestyle. Michael and his church felt that through love and a system of withholding rewards such as church ministry and Communion, they could win these two lesbians over to their way of thinking.
Each side talks offhandedly about getting messages from God. Each side is absolutely firm in his or her stand.
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Surely a church has the right to determine what its own beliefs will be, especially when there are so many other churches to choose from.
But if you consider the possibility that God talks to Michael Palandro, can you dismiss out of hand that he might be talking to Marti Rickard as well? What if she's the one who's right, the one who got God's message and didn't scramble it?
Short of dying, there's no immediate way to figure out who's the theological winner in this one. Marti and Donna are productive members of society, in a loving, monogamous relationship, providing a stable home for Donna's 14-year-old daughter. But because of five or six "clobber" passages in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality, that's not enough to keep them in good standing at the Vineyard. A murderer could go there, if he repented. A thief could go to the Vineyard if he stopped stealing and expressed remorse.
But Marti and Donna see no sin in what they are. And that is the biggest sin of all for the Vineyard. So much for the vision of Christ's unconditional love, hey?