Diversity is an article of faith for Utah gay-friendly church
South Valley » Transgender minister leads flock of LGBT and straight congregants.
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The Rev. Sean Parker Dennison knows how it feels to struggle to fit, to blend, to belong.

Now, Dennison greets a variety of people -- young and old, gay and straight, Anglo and non-Anglo -- to Sunday services at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, a religious community that bills itself as "intentionally diverse."

On the chapel's exterior hangs a giant rainbow flag with the label "hate-free zone," a welcome mat for at least one sometimes-marginalized community that has found refuge at the church: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Dennison himself is transgender. As a young woman in Iowa, he "tried on every single feminine identity" he could find, from "fundamentalist Christian" high-school girl to "butch dyke," before realizing his true self is a man, not a woman.

Dennison, 43, had his epiphany when he began attending a Berkeley, Calif., seminary to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. He came out a year later in 1997.

"I went to the president of the seminary, scared to death, thinking she might kick me out," he recalls. "When I'm scared, I tend to overcompensate. I marched into her office and said, 'You and the school are going to have the privilege of watching me transition from female to male.' "

The president told him, "How wonderful. Tell me about it."

Dennison says he then "burst into tears because she believed me. I didn't even believe me."

In 2002, he found his first "settled" ministry at the South Valley church in Cottonwood Heights. As a transgender minister, even in the liberal Unitarian Universalist religion, it took a little longer for him to find a long-term post.

"Who would've thought it would be in Salt Lake City?" he says. "They were just ready here. And I think there is something to them feeling like outsiders in the culture of Salt Lake City that made them have a different way of looking at me being different than the normal minister."

Dennison's congregation has embraced the push for civil rights for LGBT people in Utah. Members of the church hoisted a giant rainbow flag in Salt Lake City's pride parade earlier this month. South Valley signed onto Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative -- a legislative campaign crafted around LDS Church statements about certain rights for same-sex couples, short of marriage, that the Mormon leadership does not oppose. The LDS Church has not endorsed the push, which fizzled in the 2009 Legislature but will return in 2010. Dennison testified on behalf of one of the bills at a House committee hearing, quoting the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

Still, members of South Valley congregation -- 150 adults and 60 children -- are quick to point out theirs is not a "gay church." About 10 percent to 15 percent of attendees are LGBT, estimates Dennison.

Unitarian Universalists -- UUs, as they like to call themselves -- welcome everyone.

That was an important factor for Darin Adams when he adopted the faith in Connecticut a few years ago. A former Mormon who left his church and his wife of eight years after coming out as gay, Adams felt a "void." He missed having a community where he could talk about spiritual things.

He typed "gay-friendly church" -- intentionally avoiding "gay church" -- into Google. He found the Unitarian Universalist church in Westport, Conn. He began attending the Cottonwood Heights chapel last year after moving to Pleasant Grove.

"Everyone's welcoming. Everyone is loved and valued," says Adams, 36. "That's a powerful thing and something that didn't exist in my previous church."

South Valley also has provided support to Robyn Taylor-Granda and her husband, Eddie Granda, as they've worked to adopt five Ecuadorean orphans, who also are Eddie's half-siblings. The kids, ages 11 to 18, arrived in Cottonwood Heights in March. Church members have donated cash, clothing and gift cards to help the couple -- both of whom recently lost their jobs -- provide for the kids.

"Everyone's been really involved," says Taylor-Granda, who also has an 8-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. "It's a congregation of people who want to be useful and want to give something back."

The kids enjoy coming to church even though they don't speak English, Taylor-Granda says. They like the social aspect of the meetings, which often are followed by pancake breakfasts or other gatherings.

The kids, she says, ask her, "Do you guys have parties every Sunday?"

There aren't parties every week. But South Valley does celebrate diversity -- every day.

rwinters@sltrib.com

About South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society

What » Unitarians encourage a wide spectrum of belief and even doubt. Although not a Christian denomination, the church welcomes Christians, along with those from other faith traditions.

Where » 6876 S. 2000 East, Cottonwood Heights.

When » Sunday service is at 10:30 a.m.

Information » www.svuus.org.