What Wondrous Love Is This: Finding Queer Religion in Muncie, Indiana

Rachel Replogle grew up surrounded by homophobia and purity culture. 

“This was a world with a lot of different messages that I grew up in, hearing that being queer was wrong, hearing that my body was inherently bad and that any sort of sexual desire was inherently evil,” Replogle explained, “any attraction to a gender that was not explicitly outlined in the Bible was inherently evil.” Replogle, who now identifies as a nonbinary lesbian, grew up in a deeply conservative religious environment, her mother a prominent ex-gay speaker and her parents in charge of a local campus ministry. 

Replogle was born and raised in Muncie, Indiana, the small Midwestern city that inspired Parks and Recreation. (The map of fictional Pawnee is an upside-down map of Muncie). There are diners here with waffles piled high with whipped cream. There are multiple places that may have inspired Pawnee’s Snakehole Lounge. But, perhaps surprisingly, this city of 65,000 is also the home of the longest continuously operating gay bar in Indiana, along with several other queer-affirming spaces that you don’t see represented on the show.

Since 2018, the Muncie LGBTQ+ History Project has been collecting the stories of queer people who grew up in and around Muncie. Just as Parks and Recreation pushed back against the stereotypical image of the “fly-over states,” this project has challenged the still overwhelmingingly heteronormative and conservative Christian image of the Midwest. These factors exist in Muncie, but so do vibrant queer communities and a surprising number of queer-affirming spaces, resources, and even churches. Just as Parks and Recreation complicates our collective understanding of life in the Midwest, so too does this project complicate our understanding of religion and LGBTQ+ identity in Muncie.

This project is one of several oral history projects around the world that focuses on the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Unlike other historical research, based on poring over hundreds of pages of written documents in archives, oral history involves actually sitting down with people and asking them about their experiences. Archival collections tend to tell the stories of people who considered their lives important enough to be archived. Oral histories seek out the stories of “regular people,” particularly people from marginalized communities, whose voices might otherwise be lost to the historical record. Interviews allow people to tell their own stories, and those stories almost always complicate our assumptions about their lives. 

Rachel Replogle is one of the 24 people who have been interviewed for this project so far. In many ways, her experience is typical of the stories we have heard. When we began this project, we expected to hear about shared experiences of homophobia and isolation, but much to our joy and surprise, we have also heard, time and time again, about how our narrators have found and cultivated communities that affirm the lives of queer people in secular and religious contexts.  

In the Midwest, as anywhere, religion can involve spaces that provide and provoke both trauma and healing. 

Before she came out, Rachel Replogle worked at many conservative Christian churches in the Muncie area and participated in a conservative youth group that completely avoided the topic of homosexuality, much like the goals of Marcia and Marshall on Parks and Recreation. When she expressed her own struggle with her sexual identity to others in her church, she underwent therapy called Sozo, led by the pastor of a local nondenominational church. Replogle describes the therapy as being for those who wanted “to overcome this habit or perspective or trauma or sexual identity.” It “was essentially like a conversion therapy that I attempted with them, which was rather traumatic,” she told us in a tone of dry understatement.

The people who spoke to us challenged the traditional media narratives that invoke conservative politics and religion as overwhelmingly oppressive factors in the lives of queer Midwesterners. 

Unlike Robin’s hesitancy to come out on Stranger Things, Replogle snaps photos of smiling couples as Indiana’s only queer-affirming wedding photographer. Contrary to how  Marshall  fights against sex education resources on Parks and Recreation, Muncie mother Laura Janney distributes food, school supplies, and affirmation through a local queer youth organization that she founded after her teenage son came out in 2012. Straight ally Rev. Kate Johnston rejoices with queer couples as they welcome new bundles of joy at Ball Memorial Hospital. Queer Munsonian Morgan Roddy creates truffles and safe spaces at her chocolate shop, the Queer Chocolatier. They have all changed our understanding of how Midwestern, Christian and LGBTQ+ are not necessarily competing identifiers. 

The experiences of these queer and ally Midwesterners complicate the relationships between religion, politics, and sexuality. Of those who are religious in the region, according to the Pew Religious Landscape study, 73% are Christian. The majority of these Christians are evangelical Protestants, and over half of all adults who identify as evangelical Protestants believe that homosexuality should be discouraged. Although the majority of adults in the Midwest say that homosexuality should be accepted, there is still a vocal minority (32% of those surveyed for the Pew Study) who believe it should be discouraged.

As scholar Marie Griffith has written, Christianity has a long and complicated history with sexuality and homophobia in the United States. Contrary to our assumptions on entering the project, however, what we have found is that there are many religious communities in Muncie that provide safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals to practice their faith.  Their interviews rewrite the standard narrative of small-town, Midwestern homophobia by accessing spiritual and physical resources, receiving affirmation from religious leadership and creating religious safe spaces. 

While spiritual education and support is a key piece of the puzzle so is educating young people about their own sexuality. In Muncie, the local Unitarian Universalist Church is challenging the idea that sexuality education should only happen at puberty. The local Unitarian Universalist Congregation offers Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education course (OWL), a program for comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual education ranging from children in kindergarten through adulthood and old age. This course emphasizes that sex education is a critical piece of a health religious and spiritual life.

For seventh through ninth graders, Our Whole Lives offers guidance for workshops around identity, physicality and language. In the first unit, young learners engage with what sexuality is and the language of sexuality, exploring the Circles of Sexuality as a definition and building a list of terms of sexual anatomy and activity before diving into discussing anatomy and physiology. This unit also covers what defines a person’s perception, of attitudes toward, and feelings about their bodies, i.e., body image. Towards the end, learners will build a chart identifying definitions for biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation in order visualize the differences that exist between sexual identity constructs.

For many Muncie teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s, Protestant youth groups offered one of the main options for social activity. In the past two decades, LGBTQ+ people and their allies have worked to make sure that there are also queer-affirming spaces available, both within and outside of the churches, such as is avliable at the Muncie Unitarian Universalist Church with the OWL program and the Muncie OUTreach program based out of Muncie’s YMCA building.

Education cannot be effective if queer young people don’t have the resources they need, whether that be food, clothing, including binders, and shelter. Lauren Janney didn’t expect herself to cater to these needs when she first started a queer youth group in Munice. In 2012, after her son came out as gay at the age of 12, Muncie resident Laura Janney founded Muncie OUTreach, a youth group organized around the needs of LGBTQ young people. There were already some options available to the Janneys. They tried attending the Indiana Youth Group in Indianapolis (about an hour and a half from Muncie) but the car trips became too much. They also attended a meeting of Ball State Spectrum (the campus LGBTQ+ group, founded in 1974), but the Janneys considered the college-level discussions—and humor—inappropriate for a 12-year-old. As Janney explains,

“We really wanted to create safe spaces for him in the community, and there was nothing. He didn’t feel safe at school. He needs more than just home. He needs community, and when you look out in our community, there is a bar, which you have to be 21 to go to, and there’s Ball State Spectrum, which is wonderful, and we went there, and it was just very age-inappropriate, and that was it, that was all Muncie had.”

Led by Janney and the interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist church, who also had a gay child, the organization initially met at the UU church and offered support-group sessions and safe social spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. Today, they meet at the YWCA facility in downtown Muncie, another Christian-affiliated space that has welcomed their presence. 

Muncie OUTreach now provides a range of services, combatting food insecurity with meals at events, providing chest binders for transgender young people, supportive sex education for people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and helping homeless LGBTQ+ to find housing and access resources.

Janney is not the only one developing LGBTQ+ support systems. Markie Oliver is a prominent member of the community, who has addressed other systemic issues in Muncie and the wider LGBTQ+ community, including food insecurity. Oliver has also served in the Unitarian Universalist Church and has partnered with Grace Village, a Ball State campus ministry that is open and affirming. Oliver hosts Wild Card Café and Dinners for Hope and Justice. 

Much to the delight of waffle-loving Leslie Knope and breakfast connoisseur Ron Swanson, Wild Card Café provides free hot breakfasts to Ball State students. Dinners for Hope and Justice combat food insecurity and raise awareness about social justice issues in Christian spaces, including LGBTQ+ individuals serving in positions of leadership in the church. As Oliver explains,

“I guess part of this is about just again being present for people, being advocates and certainly welcoming people and affirming who they are, and sometimes that means taking on some people and some of the more conservative folks and some of the other congregations in the community and to basically be an advocate to try to push for change, especially in these congregations that have already decided they are opening and affirming.”

Oliver collaborates on Wild Card Café and Dinners for Hope and Justice with Robert Abner, pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Cross and campus minister for Grace Village. Both of his parishes are open and affirming. Grace Village’s sign announces the ministry’s commitment to diversity, with a rainbow and hands of different skin colors. The sign has been vandalized many times, but it is always cleaned and repaired, and stands proudly as a testament to their work in the community.

Not all intersections of religion and sexuality are positive, however. Stereotypical conservative advocates like Marshall and Marcia do still exist in Muncie, both in the past and the present. For this reason, Pastor Abner, of Grace Village congregation, is profoundly committed to welcoming queer people into his congregation and recognizing the trauma that they may have previously suffered in religious spaces. 

During the 2020 presidential election, for example, Abner invited a gay couple to stay with him in his home, to ease their concerns about personal safety. As Rachel Replogle told us, “he’s a fantastic person and is very, very loud about being affirming of queer people, and if there are any queer Christians in Muncie, that’s where they go. It’s a very colorful congregation.”

Outside of churches and youth groups, however, Muncie’s chaplains are also making sure that people celebrating the joys and pains of life have the religious support and affirmation that they need.  Chaplain resources at local hospitals, particularly those offering spiritual support during childbirth, illness and mourning of lost loved ones, are critical for LGBTQ+ religious individuals. Chaplains, like Rev. William Grinstead, step into these moments to provide critical emotional and spiritual care for people at the best and worst moments in their lives.

Rev. William Grinstead, who currently serves as a staff chaplain and palliative care chaplain at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital, often sees people at the hardest moments in their lives. Although he attended Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia—arguably one of the most conservative evangelical seminaries in the United States—his experience as a chaplain transformed his relationship to the LGBTQ+ community.

During his clinical training, Rev. Grinstead came to the bedside of a dying woman. Her partner wanted to ask for a prayer during her final moments, but she told Grinstead, “I love her, and I know that you wouldn’t be okay with that.” Rev. Grinstead explains, “I remember feeling, just so broken-hearted by that moment. Here I am at such a tragic time in this person’s life and trying to bring something holy into that and bring some peace and comfort, but the thought on her mind is that you’re going to condemn us, you’re going to cause more harm to us.” From that moment onward, Rev. Grinstead committed to educating himself about being an open and affirming chaplain,

“I really needed to be more vocal about being an affirming clergy. I don’t know how much impact one person’s voice has, but I know that the cost to me to stay silent and to go along and tacitly support messages that are spiritually and psychologically harmful to people. I know that the cost of that to me was too great to go along with that.”

While Grinstead ministers to the dying, Rev. Kate Johnston serves as chaplain in the maternity ward. She is conscious of the importance of affirming gender and sexual diversity in this space as well, whether she is working with same-sex or transgender parents, or parents of intersex children.

“I want to use your pronouns that you feel are comfortable, and I want to completely normalize and celebrate with you that this is a dream for your family. That is a part of our spiritual health. People have fears about these babies, people dream about these babies. People may have thought I may never have this baby, but I somehow got this baby, especially in the LGBTQ community.”

Rev. Johnston explains that the most important quality of a chaplain is their ability to listen. In moments when people explain religious trauma, Rev. Johnston notes that,

“Those are the moments where I have decided it is worth me saying, ‘I want you to hear from me, as someone who is ordained, that I think you’re beloved by God, and God created you this way, and there is a reason that you are here and who you are.’ I don’t always do that with patients, but I think in those situations, it’s few and far between that the LGBTQ community has heard from someone who is ordained that they are wanted, that they are needed, and that they are a valuable part of the community.”

Rev. Johnston, Pastor Abner, Laura Janney, and Markie Oliver are all part of Muncie’s religious communities that welcome, support and affirm LGBTQ+ individuals, working to create new positive experiences while also reckoning with past traumas. In contrast to the typical image of the Midwest, Muncie has created safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, and the safe spaces created by religious leaders like Laura Janney, Markie Oliver, Pastor Robert Abner, Rev. Kate Johnston, and Rev. William Grinstead are a significant part of that journey. 

Combating homelessness and food insecurity among LGBTQ+ young people, supporting LGBTQ+ people with loud and proud congregations, and offering affirming chaplaincy services at local hospitals to LGBTQ+ patients during times of joy and suffering, Muncie’s religious leaders and organizations have worked to create safe spaces that challenge the prototypical norms of Muncie and the Midwest as a Christian and homophobic space. 

Muncie has shown that these two identities of Christianity and LGBTQ+ identity need not exist together, if people like Rachel Replogle and others are committed to overturning the narratives they experienced. In Muncie, LGBTQ+ Christian is not an oxymoron. 

Although Replogle eventually left Christianity, she found purpose and passion in the sacred moments of people’s lives. Replogle works to capture moments of love and faithfulness as a wedding photographer and videographer, the only queer-affirming one in Indiana. Replogle was initially surprised, and horrified, when she learned from her clients that she was the person in the state providing this service to queer couples. 

Now, she says, “I’m slowly increasing my queer visibility within my own business and starting to market myself as a wedding photographer because I mean Indiana’s the state where, you know, wedding cakes sometimes don’t get made for queer people.”

Here, Replogle is referencing the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld bakery’s policy of refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. Though the bakery was based in Colorado, the case was closely watched in Indiana, where much of the discussion around the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act has centered on a similar cake-based case.

Replogle now works in churches to captures moments of unconditional love at queer weddings, returning to the spaces she once inhabited in a very different context, now with a new understanding of herself and her faith. What started as a fun YouTube channel project has now grown into a professional media company, Replogle Studios, where Replogle affirms their belief that “everyone has a story, and everyone deserves to be heard. That’s why we are committed to creating inclusive photos and videos that celebrate all loves, bodies, races, genders, abilities, and cultures.”

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a student at Ball State University studying public history and anthropology. She is the recipient of an Honors Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Ball State Honors College to conduct research related to LGBTQ+ religious identity in the Muncie community.

Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Ball State University. She is the author of This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (Oxford, 2019) and the director of the Muncie LGBTQ+ Oral History Project. Her work has appeared in Religion and American Culture, the Washington Post, and other scholarly and public venues.