By Dan Casey

Rev. Joe Cobb

Rev. Joe Cobb, pastor of Roanoke’s Metropolitan Community Church, which this week celebrates its 25th anniversary. | Photo by Dan Casey

Ask Cathy Fisher what the Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge means to her, and you’ll hear a story about a Christian spiritual thirst she found difficult to quench.

At many churches, she met nice, loving and worshipful people. But she never felt fully included.

“There are very few churches where I could come and hold hands with my female partner if I wanted to,” Fisher told me. “If you can’t be yourself, and if you have to leave parts of yourself out, then you’re not able to be honest.”

She added: “You need to be totally and completely honest with yourself, and with God, and with others. And that’s something you can do at MCC.”

Fisher, 52, a grants monitor and former musician with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, joined eight years ago. Saturday night, she and other members will celebrate the Roanoke congregation’s 25th anniversary with a dinner and dance in Jefferson Center’s Fitzpatrick Hall.

The church will hold a special anniversary service Sunday afternoon, recognizing the long journey since 1986.

In its early days, MCC borrowed meeting space from the Unitarian Universalist Church on Grandin Road, and services were led by a student pastor on loan from Richmond. In subsequent years it moved to rented space on Kirk Avenue downtown, and hired pastors who are part of this community.

In 2003, MCC purchased the former Belmont United Methodist Church in southeast Roanoke, a beautifully preserved house of worship that this year was designated a national and state historic landmark.

That’s where on Monday I sat down with the Rev. Joe Cobb, the church’s pastor since 2009.

At first, people called MCC “the gay church” and later “the AIDS church,” Cobb told me.

“Most recently, it’s ‘the human rights church.'” That, he added, recognizes its worldwide outreach, especially to victims of LGBT discrimination in Eastern Europe, Brazil, Africa and Jamaica.

One of four MCC churches in Virginia, the Roanoke congregation numbers 135 and averages 70 to 80 people at Sunday services. Most of them are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But there are heterosexual members, too, Cobb said.

“It’s not a battleground for sexuality or sexual orientation,” Cobb said. Instead, it’s “a universally safe haven where people can be accepted, and are accepted, for who they are.”

Steven Matzie, who moved with his partner to Roanoke from California nine years ago, was looking for that when he joined the MCC in 2005.

An insurance company claims reviewer who was raised Catholic, Matzie, 47, had separated from his partner about that time. He had few friends of his own here and had contemplated going back to California. Finding the MCC changed his mind.

“I was welcomed with open arms, regardless of my background, regardless of my story,” Matzie told me. “It was the most amazing show of hospitality and grace that I had experienced since moving to Roanoke.”

The strength he found in the church helped him repair his relationship and reunite with his partner. Today, he’s a deacon.

One of the biggest myths about MCC, Cobb said, revolves around the question, “Can you be gay and Christian?”

“We obviously believe that you can be; that they’re not in tension with each other. We believe they’re in union with each other,” he said.

It’s an issue Cobb, 49, wrestled with back when he was a married Methodist minister and father of two. Following years of repressing his sexual orientation, he came out to his wife and felt compelled to resign his ministry.

After 13 years of marriage, they divorced in 1999. But they’re still close and are working together on a book, “Our Family Outing.”

Cobb’s now raising two younger children with his male partner of 10 years, James Matthews.

The way things stand in Virginia, though, chances seem slim they’ll ever be able to get married.

This nation is moving haltingly toward acceptance of gay marriage. Yet Virginia, which in 1967 was forced by the courts to allow interracial marriage, has moved in the other direction.

Five years ago, Virginia voters added one of this country’s most anti-gay marriage amendments to the state constitution. It also bans same-sex civil unions and recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

It’s hard to view that as anything but deliberate discrimination against gays and lesbians.

So happy anniversary, MCC. Congratulations on your hospitality and acceptance. You’re inclusive, but the Old Dominion is not.

The struggle continues.