Church holds services in the PAC

Protesters contest use of AISD facility by religious group that rejects gay marriage

Protesters+stand+outside+the+Mueller+PAC+on+Sunday%2C+Sept.++2+during+Celebration+Church%E2%80%99s+service+brandishing+signs+and+flags+to+protest+the+use+of+AISD+facilities+by+the+Celebration+Church.+Photo+by+Jazzabelle+Davishines.

Jazzabelle Davishines

Protesters stand outside the Mueller PAC on Sunday, Sept. 2 during Celebration Church’s service brandishing signs and flags to protest the use of AISD facilities by the Celebration Church. Photo by Jazzabelle Davishines.

Jazzabelle Davishines, staff reporter

The AISD Performing Arts Center, a community center for district schools to showcase their fine arts performances, is an unlikely location to find hordes of shouting protesters surrounded by police. On recent Sunday mornings, however, the crowds are hard to miss.

On Aug. 26, the Celebration Church launched its new location at the AISD Performing Arts Center. The PAC is owned by the Austin Independent School District and is now being rented out weekly to an organization that has sparked criticism from many Austin residents.

Though Celebration Church describes itself on its website as welcoming of “all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, religion or political beliefs,” many people have taken issue with church’s position that marriage is only for a union between a man and a woman and that transgender and same-sex marriages are sins.

I feel it is in direct conflict with the policies of AISD and No Place For Hate to rent this space to this organization.”

— Pride Interfaith Partnership coordinator Joy Butler

At their first service since opening the Mueller location, a group of shouting protesters stood outside the PAC for the entire service in order to draw attention to AISD associating with an institution that restricts marriage to heterosexual couples.

“This organization has known homophobic and transphobic policies,” Pride Interfaith Partnership coordinator Joy Butler said. “They state their beliefs clearly, comparing homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia.”

The service inside, however, continued on despite the protests outside. Contrary to the controversial views published on their website, celebration.church, Celebration Church’s Sunday service did not address the claims of intolerance, but instead focused on the members’ commitment to their relationship with God. A live band performed several Christian rock songs all centered around a love of Christ and his teachings. This musical performance was followed by a sermon from the Mueller campus pastor, Riis Lewis. Throughout the sermon, the focus remained on a love of God and acceptance of others.

“This is not a church where you have to be afraid of showing your doubt,” Lewis said. “This is a safe space.”

Executive pastor Jim Kuykendall insisted that in spite of what those opposing the church may think, their institution is not a hateful one.

“Celebration Church promotes acceptance,” Kuykendall said. “We clearly state that on our website.”

Members of the Celebration Church begin their service by performing Christian music on-stage on Sunday, Sept. 2. The service continued with a sermon from Pastor Riis Lewis. Photo by Jazzabelle Davishines.

Despite the message being preached throughout the service, the protesters held their ground. Many people speaking out against Celebration Church were concerned about the conflict they see between AISD’s No Place For Hate campaign and the beliefs of the church.

“I feel it is in direct conflict with the policies of AISD and No Place For Hate to rent this space to this organization,” said Butler. “My daughter graduated from AISD and had a great experience and felt safe, but I’m here for the other kids.”

The school district, however, insists that the views of Celebration Church should not be used as a reason against their use of the space.

“The use of district properties by outside organizations does not create an endorsement of, or an association of, that organization with the district,” Superintendent Paul Cruz said in an Aug. 25 press release. “Funds collected from the Performing Arts Center rental will be dedicated to our district-wide efforts to ensure we support an inclusive, welcoming environment for all students and staff including our LGBTQ students and staff.”

People want to speak their mind, and they are certainly free to do that. And we are free to believe what we believe.”

— Celebration Church’s Executive Pastor Jim Kuykendall

There are other AISD schools that give space to churches on Sundays for their services, such as the North Village Church at Pillow Elementary or Gateway Church at McCallum. The controversy surrounding Celebration is not regarding the separation of religion and AISD buildings, but the conflation of AISD buildings with what many consider to be intolerant beliefs.

“I was at my church service earlier this morning; I am a Christian,” Butler said. “There is a disagreement in theology over what scripture means, but it comes down to following Jesus’ message to love all.”

Both parties are adamant about their convictions and seemingly unwilling to concede. Both believe in a message of acceptance, but neither can seem to accept each other.

“People want to speak their mind, and they are certainly free to do that,” Kuykendall said. “And we are free to believe what we believe.”