DALLAS They say everything is bigger in Texas.
But the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas makes one Texas-sized claim that few would expect in the conservative Bible Belt state -- it says it is the world's biggest gay church.
"I think this shows that God has a tremendously great sense of humor," said senior pastor and rector Jo Hudson.
On a more serious note, she says the church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, is a spiritual refuge for gay people of faith in a region associated with more conservative brands of Christianity.
"Because we are in the Bible Belt we have a lot of people of tremendous faith," she said in an interview.
"But a lot of them have been alienated and rejected by their faith community, which is fundamentalist, so they hanker for a place where they can encounter God," she said.
Gays and the church are no small matter in America. Many of the country's 60 million evangelicals view homosexuality as a sinful lifestyle choice -- a stance that angers gay activists who say their sexual orientation is not a choice.
The Episcopalian church -- the American wing of the Anglican Communion -- is sharply split on the matter of gay clergy, while the Republican Party has used state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage to get its supporters out to the polls.
Hudson estimates that over 90 percent of the Cathedral's 3,500 members are gay, lesbian or transgender.
Founded in 1970 by a dozen gays and lesbians who gathered in a home and decided they wanted a safe and tolerant place to worship, it has grown into a large and affluent institution centered on a cavernous church that can seat up to 900.
Last year it became part of the United Church of Christ, which claims 1.3 million members in 5,725 U.S. congregations and traditions of diversity and pioneering action on social justice.
On a recent Sunday during Lent -- a period of prayer and penance in the run-up to Easter -- mostly gay couples, men and women, streamed in for morning services.
The big pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles gave the parking lot a Texan flavor and most were on the expensive side -- highlighting the fact that being openly gay remains a mostly white-collar phenomenon in America.
The church offered liturgical worship with an Episcopalian flavor, complete with communion. It also provides contemporary and Spanish-language services.
But there was no discussion of homosexuality from the pulpit. One pastor spoke of South African Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and the importance of forgiveness.
Hudson's sermon focused on humanity's propensity to wander.
FOCUS ON THE POOR
Members of the congregation said that while the church was a place of spiritual comfort for gays, its focus was on ministering to the wider community, especially the poor.
"We don't talk much about gay stuff here," said Coy James, who has been attending the church for almost 30 years.
"We give over $1 million each year in aid and services to the poorest of the poor and we have adopted elementary schools in low-income areas and helped them with tutoring and other things," he said after the service.
Others are drawn by its liberal theology in a range of areas that go beyond sexual orientation.
"I'm from a Catholic background and have an issue with its stance on women in the priesthood," said Chris Kuntz, who said he joined the Cathedral in 1994.
All of this places the church firmly on the left of America's political and cultural divide -- another anomaly in the red-blooded, Republican-dominated state of Texas.
The church's store prominently displays books such as "The Real AntiChrist: How America Sold its Soul," with a cover photo of President George W. Bush with his hands clasped in prayer.
But its liberal views on sexual orientation are also clearly a big part of its attraction for many members who might not feel comfortable or welcome in other churches.
"Homosexuality & Christianity: no matter who you are, God loves you," declares the church's Web site, which features a discussion on the matter, stressing among other things Jesus' silence on the subject.
Southern Baptists and other socially conservative denominations point to mostly Old Testament passages that they say shows God's dim view of homosexuality.
"The Bible could not be more clear -- all forms of homosexual behavior are expressly condemned as sin," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a recent statement on the issue.
Hudson says such attitudes both underscore the importance of her church for gay Texans and explain its size.
"Sometimes where there is great oppression, great justice emerges," she said.