Sunset light filtered serenely through the pale blue and gold windows of Missouri United Methodist Church's multipurpose room as the crowd slowly wandered in on Friday evening. Many people sported engraved gold name tags given to them by the church as a tangible symbol of their involvement in the church.
The name tags were adorned with rainbow stickers signifying the wearer's membership in the church's Open Door Ministry. They came not just for fellowship, but to hear a talk and share a few thoughts on a weighty subject dear to their hearts: Christian acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people
About 90 people attended the talk by Mary Lou Wallner, who with her husband, Bob, and their organization, TEACH Ministries, preaches an inspirational message of unconditional Christian love for and acceptance of LGBT people. TEACH stands for "To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia."
The Wallners said they learned the lesson they share from personal experience: They began TEACH Ministries after the 1997 suicide of their estranged daughter, Anna, who was a lesbian, which spurred them to closely examine and ultimately renounce their long-held Christian belief that homosexuality was contrary to God's word and will.
"We and our entire lives changed as a result of Anna's death," Mary Lou Wallner told the crowd Friday night.
She told of her and her husband's transformation from being people who "had no use for" gays and wrote off their daughter's sexuality as a troubled lifestyle choice to becoming ones who accept and fight for people they once rejected.
At the talk, the Wallners advocated openness and acceptance of homosexuality.
"After Anna came out, I think I took her spot in the closet," Wallner said. She said she is a strong supporter of Parents, Friends, & Families of Lesbians and Gays. Its Columbia and Jefferson City chapters were among the sponsors of Friday's event.
The question-and-answer period touched with the same frankness Wallner used in her presentation on topics as varied as the murder of gay California teen Lawrence "Larry" King and the struggle of a young lesbian's uncle to accept flamboyant gay pride celebrations. Among the Open Door Ministry's most prominent members are three women referred to as "the three moms" by others in the ministry. The three mothers of gay sons said they share their experiences with the church through Open Door.
Another mom, Mary Ann Shaw, fit the evening's talk into Open Door's mission as "all part of trying to educate people about the painful lessons we learned as parents of gay children." She described her gay son's childhood habit of sitting in the sanctuary at Missouri UMC, staring at the stained glass windows, asking God why he had made the child gay.
"The church needs to reach out to these people," Shaw said.
The Wallners first shared their story publicly in October 1999 at an anti-violence forum with national gay ministry Soulforce and followers of the late fundamentalist Christian preacher Jerry Falwell.
Later, at the time of what they call their spiritual transformation, they were attending the Chicago-area Willow Creek Community Church, where they spent three years trying to work with church leaders to change perception of gays. But, Mary Lou Wallner said, "they really couldn't hear our message," and the Wallners left that church.
After People magazine interviewed Mary Lou Wallner in 2007, the Wallners received an outpouring of angry e-mails, one of which called her "the most left-wing nut" the magazine could have "hunted down" and called Anna's death "an indictment on the homosexual lifestyle."
The Wallners' next stop is Colorado Springs, Colo. The Wallners' activism has also cost them family ties.
"My family is completely not on board with it," Mary Lou Wallner said.
The Wallners' ministry has also built a different kind of family from the one they lost. In lieu of Anna, Mary Lou has grown to know and love what she called "hundreds of surrogate gay and lesbian Annas," some who hugged her, asked for her autograph or took her picture after Friday's event.
"I thought it was beautiful," Dick Blount, the Open Door mentor and a retired pastor, said of Friday's event. "A wonderful experience of people talking together, sharing joys and hurts, searching for understanding."