A Place to Call Home

When Marla Flewellen earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2010, she had plans to plant a Fellowship Church in Columbus. This predominantly African-American denomination has always welcomed the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

“I knew that I would do a ministry with the LGBT community, but I didn’t know exactly what it would look like. I knew that it would be with people connecting – or reconnecting – with God,” she said.

As she prepared to start the Fellowship church, she and her partner, Michelle Miller, attended a meeting where someone spoke about the rising tide of homelessness among gay and lesbian youth. “I looked at Michelle and said we need to talk to that person,” said Flewellen. Within days the couple began to research the issue of homelessness among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in Columbus, Ohio. They also began to create a business plan.

Flewellen had served her internship with the West Side Free Store, a ministry of the United Methodist Church located on Columbus’ west side. While working with Methodist pastors and others associated with the store, she met someone looking to donate a house for homeless youth ages 18 to 24. Flewellen’s business plan included a house in Columbus’ central city for youth who identify as LGBT and who have been abandoned by their families or loved ones. After much collaboration and planning, the seed Flewellen planted began to take root.

Marla Flewellen wants Fellowship Family House to be a beacon in the neighborhood. Learn more at www.FellowshipFamilyHouse.org.
On June 5, 2011, Flewellen and Miller officially dedicated Fellowship Family House near downtown Columbus as transitional supportive housing for youth ages 18 to 24. Three to four individuals, gay and straight, have already sought shelter in one half of the duplex for a month or two at a time. In addition, others have stopped by for Bible study, conversation, and connection to resources. Flewellen frequently schedules workshops about household finances, HIV/AIDS education, and nutrition.

House rules include no drinking or sex, and all residents are required to participate in two hours of community service a week. They also tend the garden, clean the house, and cut the grass.

“A neighbor recently said that her mother has been living here 20 years and these are the best neighbors she has ever had. That is what we want to be in the community. It takes the stigma off the stereotyping,” she said.

Until Fellowship Family House officially receives its non-profit designation, the gay and lesbian alumni organization of The Ohio State University will serve as its fiscal agent. (Flewellen holds a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from OSU.) A board of directors is under formation and will eventually help direct programs and finances.

Flewellen has an office in The Neighborhood House Inc., a Columbus settlement house offering childcare, parenting classes, and other social services, but you will not likely find her there. She is busy most days collecting donated furniture for the house, volunteering in the Columbus schools, or connecting young people with jobs and other services. She currently works about 25 hours a week with minimum salary.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Community Life organization initially helped supply Fellowship Family House with personal care items. Other donors have provided furniture and financial support. Flewellen recently applied for and received a nonviolence community grant from the city of Columbus to promote nonviolence education among youth ages 14 to 18.

Her promise to connect others to God and church stems from her own history and the disconnect she encountered as a young African-American lesbian. “I grew up in the Holiness church and I thought church was a great place. Then I learned that people can be mean and at 18, when I attended college, I stopped going to church,” she said.

She continued to attend Bible studies here and there, but when she came out in her early 20s she was told she had to choose between the church and being gay. “For 10 to 12 years I did not attend church. I didn’t return to church until God called me to ministry and to seminary,” she said.

“My self esteem was built at Trinity. I preached my first sermon in Nebraska, in a class called Ministry on the Plains. That trip was one of the most enriching experiences; it broke down a lot of fears – staying at a stranger’s house, traveling with strangers, maybe being the only African American in a small town,” she said.

In the coming years Flewellen would like to add another house to Fellowship Family House, but is content to get the first one off the ground.

“I believe what John Wesley said, that the world is our parish. I practice ministry wherever I am– in and outside the pulpit. I believe I am called to be an advocate for change,” she said.