At the Pride Center, two leading women oversee two different religious organizations that happen to use the same space. Pastor Leslie Tipton holds church services on Wednesday and Sundays, while Rabbi Noah Kitty holds services Friday evening. They are also both wedding officiates; lending their services and guidance to same sex couples looking to get hitched.
Pastor Leslie Tipton has been the senior pastor at SpiritSong Wilton Manors, a Christian non-denominational church that operates out of the Pride Center, for four years. The church is celebrating its 17th year anniversary in August. Tipton has been involved with this Church since 2000 when she moved here to South Florida. She joined the church right away as a volunteer and then was hired to work for the church as a pastor in 2007. For the past four years, she has been the senior pastor.
Rabbi Noah Kitty has been the Executive Director and rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim since 2010. Before that she was a self proclaimed “Jew in the pew.” When she first came to the synagogue, she was just a regular member. Not in a leadership position, she volunteered when the Rabbi left and then kept being invited to take on more and more leadership roles. But she came to South Florida originally to take care of her mom after her father suddenly passed away in 2002.
Tipton came to South Florida around the same time. “I moved here with my ex partner. I thought that was the reason. The real reason was to get me into the church,” Tipton told me when I sat down with the two women in Rabbi Kitty’s office.
“God has plans for all of us,” Kitty replied.
“I do a lot of weddings,” Tipton says. “I do them here or at people’s homes or venues. I have probably done 20 weddings since June of last year.”
Kitty hasn’t done quite as many. “I have been doing commitment ceremonies since 1989. But I have not been asked to do a lot of formal weddings since the decision came down. Mostly because by the time the decision came down here in Florida, most of our members or Jews in the area were already married in New York or Vermont or Ohio. It became legal here in Florida, their status was upgraded, and then it became a federal statute. So they were already married as it were.”
That’s actually how Tipton got married to her wife in 2012. “I was hired to do a wedding in Manhattan by a couple that lived here on December 12, 2012. So they paid for my flight and hotel stay. I said to Sandy, “Why don’t you come with me?” We got married the day after they did. It was really neat.”
When going through the process of planning a ceremony for same sex couples, Tipton has found that same sex couples want their experience to be unique and special for them. “They want scripture to be in their wedding but they want it to be something that isn’t heard at every other wedding. They want something that is going to be meaningful to them. I usually ask them is there a reading that is especially meaningful to you? Or is there something you have heard before that you want to explore? It is important to them that their wedding be their wedding and not just cut and paste.”
Part of Tipton’s role is discover and explore new readings or pieces and bring it to the couple. “ I recently did a wedding where they wanted the portion that Justice Kennedy wrote about equality of marriage. And that was just last Friday. I read that as well.”
Kitty try’s to communicate the importance of marriage:
“What I try to impress upon couples is that I have found in my work with the LGBT community and in my life in the LGBT community is that many people I have known have tended to couple and uncouple rather quickly. So while they might be monogamous. it is more like serial monogamy. They are with this person for a while and then they break up and they are with this person for a while, and then they break up again. So when I am working with a couple, I try to impress upon them the seriousness of their intended commitment. That it is not like back in the old days when a commitment ceremony had emotional meaning but no legal consequence. Now when they have a ceremony, it is a real legal consequential state that they are entering. While they might be all dewy eyed and romantic, they should not do it lightly. It’s true with opposite sex couples as it is with same sex couples that there is a 50% divorce rate. It’s not so easy to simply leave a relationship. There is paperwork attached to it. So I ask them to really take the time and think about why they want to take this step. For that reason, I typically work with a couple for several weeks to really talk out why they are taking this particular step because it is quite serious. While I would like to say yes to everyone, I have to feel comfortable that this couple really has potential to stay the course.”
As gay women in leadership roles at two different religious organizations, I asked them about the challenges they have had to face. “Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t really consider myself in power,” Tipton replies. “That’s what gets anybody in religion in trouble. I really consider it a humble honor to be able to serve in the position that I am in. I never ceased to be amazed by my congregation’s ability to put their trust in me to lead them in the right direction.”
“There are hundreds of female rabbis. There are however maybe about only five female rabbis in South Florida. When I say that, I’m hoping there are five,” Kitty replies with laughter. “Basically, there aren’t many. My reception has been wonderful. I have only praise for the various organizations locally here for accepting me.”
Religion and LGBT are not always terms that go hand in hand. Because we are a community that has been marginalized by religion, we have a lot of sensitivity to it as well. “There is a tremendous amount of hurt that people have experienced from coming out of other churches or places of worship where in many cases – I don’t know as much when it comes to synagogues – but certainly in the evangelical circles where people were publicly outed or taken down from leadership roles. We have several people who worship here who were credentialed pastors in other denominations that when they were outed, they were striped of their credentials.
“Of the community at large, we find a great amount of hurt or pain out there that has never really been resolved. How do you resolve that if you don’t resolve that with the people who have done it to you. That opportunity is not open to them. So we try to listen instead.”
For more information on Congregation Etz Chaim, please visit etzchaimflorida.org. For more information on Church of the Holy SpiritSong, please visit cohss.org.