In Rural Ohio, Gay Bars and Mennonites Are Healing Religious Trauma | Sojourners

In Rural Ohio, Gay Bars and Mennonites Are Healing Religious Trauma

Patrons inside of The Olive Tree. Courtesy The Olice Tree. 

The working-class town of Bellefontaine (pronounced “bell-FOUNTain), nestled among the farm fields and hills of rural Ohio, in the heart of Republican Rep. Jim Jordan’s legislative district, is not the easiest place to grow up queer. The churches are much more likely to hold to conservative views on sexuality than be LGBTQ+ affirming, and “Trump Won” flags far outnumber rainbow Pride flags.

When I moved to Bellefontaine in 2018, I had little hope to find a church that was LGBTQ+ affirming and had an open approach to theology, essential for an ex-evangelical like me. I grew up in a Baptist and then nondenominational evangelical tradition. My exit to more progressive pastures was catalyzed in my college years by my tradition’s nonaffirming approach to LGBTQ+ identity along with their intellectual rigidity and defensive posture towards modern issues.

Working as a mental health counselor, I’ve seen the way that queer people who live here struggle to feel safe expressing their identities, and the intense rejection of religion that can happen especially when queer people are not exposed to affirming forms of faith. There is little queer visibility out here, and very few explicitly LGBTQ+-affirming churches.

The lack of visibility makes it hard for queer kids to envision a future for themselves in their hometown. So, despite perks like low cost of living, relative safety, and a small community feel, many LGBTQ+ young people make their escape to more diverse cities as soon as they are able.

But some who leave are drawn back, seeking a plot of land, family support, or maybe the opportunity to grow a business. And many who have returned are set on building the safe, affirming communities that they didn’t receive growing up.

Doves and Olive Trees

Tyler Berry grew up near Bellefontaine as a sheltered farm boy. He was also a devout Christian, attending a private Christian school and memorizing Bible verses. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. in 2015, Berry was only 16 and not fully out to himself as gay. However, he was still uneasy about what the pastor would say in church that Sunday. The pastor mocked the decision.

“[At that point,] I really, really did not like religion,” Berry said. “I really struggled.”

In 2017, fresh out of high school, Berry left Ohio with no plans of ever returning. But two years later, his dreams of opening his own businesses brought him back to Bellefontaine to open the The Olive Tree, which began as a tea store before becoming a gay bar in 2022. He said he’d only come out to his mom two years prior, and as he watched the evolution of his business unfold, he wondered, “Is The Olive Tree about to come out as gay?” Shortly after that, it transitioned to a gay bar. “As scary as that was, once it happened, it was beautiful.”

Part of the business’ “coming out” process has been hosting drag shows. The performers at his bar have become some of his best friends.

“We have so many similar trauma stories,” Berry said. “I wish people knew that drag queens are just people.”

In addition to drag shows, the bar hosted Jubilee Mennonite Church — a group of nearly 40 people — which declared the church open and affirming to LGBTQ+ people in 2018.

In the process, the church decided to change district affiliation from the nonaffirming Ohio Mennonite Conference to the Central District Mennonite Conference, a new conference that has been acting as a catch-all for various affirming congregations. There was much tumult in the Mennonite denomination at large and significant member attrition at Jubilee throughout this process, but member Beth Miller told me the remaining members were resolutely affirming.

For the Millers, sharing their affirming faith is personal. One of their sons came out to them when he was in college. For Beth’s husband, Russ, it was a difficult journey to affirmation.

After a health scare, which included the diagnosis of a “hard heart,” Russ decided he wanted to be more like Jesus — caring for the marginalized and offending rule-keepers — rather than continually wrestling with theology. Now he and Beth feel the urgency of being LGBTQ+ affirming.

“If I can’t go to a church where my own kids can feel welcome, what’s the point?” Beth asked.

I discovered Jubilee in 2020 when they were sponsors of Bellefontaine’s Black Lives Matter march. On my first Sunday visiting Jubilee, I felt like I had come home. They strive to make room for those with religious trauma, are comfortable with doubts and questions, and are unabashedly affirming. Recently, I was invited to facilitate a Sunday seminar about Christianity and trans issues, as members continued to demonstrate their commitment to growing and learning.

In 2022, Jubilee made the difficult decision to sell their building, and began looking for a new place to meet on Sundays. At that point, The Olive Tree was a small café and an event center that hosted drag shows. Berry and Jubilee members decided to see how a partnership might work. 

The first Sunday the church met there, congregants were greeted by a gorgeous mural on the wall with a dove (which also represents the Mennonite’s commitment to peace) and light streaming through large windows. There was a collective sense of knowing that this place was the exact place the church needed in this painful transition.

Berry joined the service that first Sunday. After, he shared how healing it was to experience a church meeting in his space after experiencing so much church hurt growing up. Jubliee has since started meeting elsewhere, but the church remains close to The Olive Tree. 

Safety for those who leave

Jubilee Mennonite isn’t the only group working to make the Ohio town safe for LGBTQ+ people.

Sarah Lewis is a founding board member of local nonprofit Extending the Branch, which aims to promote the well-being of LGBTQ+ people. She grew up in the area as a devout Baptist, even aspiring to be a preacher one day. She remembers reading the section of her Teen Devotional Bible about homosexuality over and over again, desperately trying to “pray her gay away.”

When that didn’t work, Lewis said she eventually grew “a hatred towards the faith-based community.”

“Being a lesbian is a huge part of who I am,” she said. “So when I’m asked to strip that away? It feels tragic.”

In 2008 at 25 years old, she ended up fleeing the Midwest to live in Albuquerque, N.M., a place of “queer privilege,” she said with a laugh. She was sheltered from much of the vitriol and homophobia that LGBTQ+ people were experiencing across the rest of the country. Lewis met her wife, and they adopted their daughter there.

However, when the pandemic hit and the Lewises found themselves craving familial support, they decided to take the risk and move back to rural Ohio. As they made the cross-country drive, they hashed out ideas about what they could do to create queer-friendly spaces in Sarah’s homeplace.

“If we're gonna move back to Ohio, we're gonna make it worth it. We're gonna do everything that we can to make [LGBTQ+ youth] feel included and to represent something that I didn't get to see when I was their age,” she recalled saying.

Lewis found healing from her religious trauma in part from involvement in a spiritual group in Albuquerque that emphasized wholeness and goodness of the individual, in stark contrast to the messages of brokenness and shame she received growing up. She’s still leery of attending a Christian church today, though works in friendly partnership with multiple pastors and churches in the area.

This June, Bellefontaine had its second Pride festival, complete with a small parade, drag shows, a color run, and a KidZone with bounce houses for the youngsters. Various Jubilee members showed up to support the parade and the festival. Lewis played a central role in pulling off a vibrant Pride celebration even while monitoring threats of violence (that fortunately did not come to pass). Meanwhile, The Olive Tree Community Center, adjacent to the bar, had its ribbon-cutting ceremony over the weekend. The Center serves as a safe space for queer and queer-friendly people.

“I want queer people to feel like they’re entitled to stay here,” Lewis said. “We are here, and we’re allowed to share this space.”

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