"A group of us from the church wondered how so-called Christians could be so hateful," Hawker says. "We were moved to be a different voice."

With Hawker's guidance, Evangelical codified its "open and affirming" stance three years after Shepard's death. The Webster Groves congregation is one of just 980 churches in the UCC to do so — out of 5,200.

The decision cost Evangelical a few families, says Al Schon, a long-time parishioner and member of the pastoral staff. "It was a stretch for some folks in the congregation," Schon says.

Above: Darlene Self and Katy Hawker, bride and bride.
Mia ulmer/birchtreestudio.com
Above: Darlene Self and Katy Hawker, bride and bride.
Right: Boarding the Iowa-bound wedding bus.
Mia ulmer/birchtreestudio.com
Right: Boarding the Iowa-bound wedding bus.

But the church gained some families, too — including its music directors, married couple Jill Thompson and Donita Bauer, who say the "open and affirming" designation was critical in their choice of Evangelical.

"As a musician, I can't work in a church that's slapping me in the face," Bauer says.

But as the numbers make clear, Evangelical is hardly the norm for United Church of Christ congregations. In fact, one faction of the UCC actively opposes same-sex marriage.

"We would say that the 'open and affirming' perspective in general on human sexuality is not in keeping with the Bible," says Pastor Bob Thompson of the Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, North Carolina. He heads a group within the UCC church called "Faithful and Welcoming," which (despite its name) expressly opposes same-sex marriage.

After the general synod called for marriage equality in 2005, Faithful and Welcoming formed in opposition, allowing more conservative UCC members to register their objections. The member churches want to be clear that they aren't leaving over their disagreement. They just want to express their beliefs.

"The key issue is that the UCC was formed as a denomination to be united and uniting and that we can come together as people who believe in Jesus Christ and look to Scripture," he says. "We've seen people say, 'This is the last straw; we're leaving.' We want the denomination to stand on its founding principle, which is unity."

But he characterizes the general synod's "open and affirming" declaration as a wedge, an issue that steamrolls the viewpoints of more conservative members of the church. He says that it's become unquestioned to support marriage equality and LGBT rights, and that ironically stifles diversity.

Only about 75 or 100 churches have joined Faithful and Welcoming, he says.

"We're not really worried about the numbers," Thompson says. "When the church nationally is so one-sided, it's hard to stick your hand up."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Katy Hawker's journey has been how smoothly it's gone. Her church family has always had her back.

At a recent Vacation Bible School event, Hawker found herself pleasantly surprised: "Aside from congratulatory comments, my recent marriage with a woman was totally not news."

One unexpected person has stood by Hawker and her church — though he doesn't see it as remarkable. Hawker's ex-husband, Gary Boehnke, remains a presence in the church and in her family.

"I guess I could have chosen to leave," Boehnke says. "I've heard of other people that one spouse or the other revealed they were gay — they couldn't stay." But Boehnke has remained an active member of Evangelical's congregation; he's found it to be a great help. "Having a supportive community made a difference. It is a family."

Boehnke, who heads a redevelopment nonprofit, recalls that he met Hawker at a wedding after hearing about her for years through mutual friends.

They dated off and on for five years, never living in the same place, which, he admits, wasn't easy. "I did say off and on," he says with a smile. "It was all on AT&T's bill."

He's clearly invested in his ex-wife's new life and the congregation they joined all those years ago. In fact, he was at his ex-wife's wedding in Iowa, stepping in to help with the flowers. And when it was time to move their daughter into her dorm room last fall, he was there — along with his ex-wife and her new partner.

"No relationship is perfect, nor did I wish my relationship with Katy to end," he says. "But to stay married to Kate meant that she couldn't be who she was or be honest. It's like with your children. You want the best for your children — you want them to fully realize themselves.

"Sure, it was difficult. It was difficult for all four of us."

His nineteen-year-old daughter, Winona Hawker-Boehnke, is home in St. Louis for the summer before beginning her sophomore year at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, where she's majoring in women's studies with a minor in Arabic. A dead ringer for her mother, she wears a floral cross around her neck, several silver rings, including one with rainbow motif, a rainbow bracelet and a pin that says "I think, therefore I am dangerous."

She beat her mom to coming out, big time — which amuses her to no end. She told her family she was bisexual in the eighth grade. Her brother high-fived her during a brief pause in a computer game and got on with it. Her mother was loving and supportive. And her father, whom she'd been anxious about telling, was totally fine with it. "My dad has a huge heart," she says. "He's always been there. He's never going anywhere."

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