That may explain why her decision to establish a gay Christian group, Free to Be Worship Ministries, was done without much trepidation. Free to Be Me Worship Ministries will begin its first service at 11 a.m. Sunday at 3379 Canton Road just north of New Chastain Road in northwest Cobb County.
“It wasn’t my plan to be honest with you,” said Rawls, who said the idea came to her two years ago. “It’s what I feel that God has chosen me to do here in Cobb County. So I’m going to follow God’s call.”
In a mission statement, Free to Be Worship Ministries describes itself as a social justice ministry dedicated to the “spiritual growth and development of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Cobb County and surrounding counties.”
It welcomes people of all races and genders to worship in a safe environment and is looking for musicians, ushers and readers to participate in weekly services.
“There are people still out there who think that they have no place in the Kingdom,” said Rawls. “That Jesus’ love escapes them because of who they may be, and that’s not true.”
Cobb, long a bastion of conservative politics, may not be as friendly toward the LGBT community as its southern neighbor, Atlanta. In 1993, Cobb commissioners famously approved an anti-gay resolution criticizing homosexuality, which cost the county participation in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Local leaders have since gone on record against gay marriage.
Project Q Atlanta, a gay-friendly website, took note of the negativity that has already been directed toward Rawls. “Trying to deliver a little spiritual growth, gay-style, to conservative Cobb County may prove tougher than Rev. NaDine Rawls expected,” the site stated.
Rawls said she is aware of the negative comments.
“There is this presumption that Cobb County doesn’t have a gay and lesbian community,” she said. “Cobb County’s leadership has blinders on. They’re like the mule out in the pasture, plowing the fields, that has on blinders so as not to see.”
Rawls expressed disappointment at the leadership of some churches for not denouncing “hateful statements” made by their conservative ministers in response to President Barack Obama’s recent support of gay marriage.
Bishop Charlotte Hayes of Divine Directions Ministries said she isn’t worried about any potential backlash from allowing Rawls use of her Pentecostal church.
“I just believe that God looks at the heart,” said Hayes, who acknowledged some of her members have voiced opposition. “I think that many times we as Christians put people in hell, but we all realistically have issues … You’re going to have bigots everywhere you go, whether it’s about religion, sexual preferences or whatever it is.”
Rawls has been serving the LGBT community since 1986, before becoming an ordained a minister of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a Los Angeles-based Christian nonprofit founded for openly black gays and lesbians. She then served a Washington, D.C., congregation. After relocating to metro Atlanta in 2009, she attended First Congregational Church United Church of Christ of Atlanta.
Rawls, who works as an information technology specialist, likes to describe herself as a country girl.
“I’m a cross between your typical country preacher and your brash preacher,” she said.
A native of a small town in Louisiana, she previously worked as a police officer in Shreveport, La. As an officer, she said she came partly out the proverbial gay closet at age 24 to her closest colleagues. “They didn’t worry about whether or not I had their back,” she said. “That never became a question.”
Two years later was when Rawls said she made the decision to make her sexuality known to all.
“I came to the realization that people were talking long before I was born and people are going to be talking long after I’m dead and gone, so you may as well give them something to talk about and live the truth of your life,” she said.
Anyone interested in learning more about Free to Be Worship Ministries can email the Rev. NaDine Rawls at firstname.lastname@example.org.