Jerry and Cathy Rifenburg, an Air Force couple, retired to Panama City, Florida after 12 moves in 20 years of service. Shortly after retiring to the area, they joined a Methodist Church which they chose due to the pastor’s gifted ability to relate to the congregation.
They had established themselves in the church for 7 years before their son came out as a gay man. After holding this information close to their hearts for a year or more, they finally had an opportunity to share this news with their pastor. To their dismay and great disappointment, this pastor whom they admired for his ability to deliver inspiring sermons and to provide wise counsel, declared with confidence that their son needed to submit to reparative therapy, which he understood to be highly effective.
Jerry and Cathy were stunned! How could this man – the holder of a PhD degree – be so ignorant, judgmental and close-minded? Nationally, his church advertised that they had “open minds, open hearts and open doors”. What a total disconnect between the promise of the television ad and this man’s personal convictions!
It was clear to the Rifenburgs that their son and his partner would neither be comfortable nor welcome to worship at their Methodist Church. With that, they closed the door to their spiritual home. One of their last thoughts was of a preposterous comment this trusted, learned man had made in an attempt to comfort them: “remember to hate the sin but love the sinner”.
After several years without the sense of community that comes from participation in a church, the Rifenburgs began searching for a new church home. When they visited the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bay County they were encouraged by a number of messages that they heard. They liked the depth of diversity that existed in this small but appealing congregation. Their announcement that their beloved son was soon to be married to his partner (at All Souls’ in Washington, D.C.) was received with applause and genuine best wishes.
A short while later, Cathy started researching the needs of gay men and children and decided that PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) was an organization that could well-serve the area. She asked friends to help her as she founded the local chapter in Panama City and became the new chapter’s first president. Of course, their monthly meetings are held in the UUFBC facility.