Senior sociology major studies churches in Roanoke Valley
While conducting research to assess the attitudes of homosexuality in Roanoke Valley church congregations, Kim Hughes '09 developed her own sociological theory. Her theory of localism was compiled while completing her Summer Scholar research project, during which she visited four churches in the Roanoke community and asked each congregation their beliefs about homosexuality. Her research kick started an honors project, which examines social justice in the church.
"This is just a personal area of interest for me," Hughes said. "Some of my Christian friends are gay and lesbian, and I wanted to understand more about their experiences."
Hughes' theory of localism states that views within area churches may not necessarily coincide with the denominational stance, but rather with local opinions. She hopes that her project will help change biases and stereotypes, and it is something that she hopes to study further in seminary next fall. As a member of the United Church of Christ, which is the only Protestant denomination in the United States that approves of homosexual marriage, she hopes to one day conduct ceremonies herself to marry homosexual partners.
With guidance from Dr. Gil Dunn, associate professor of sociology, Hughes studied four churches in the Roanoke Valley, three of which were Lutheran churches and one a Southern Baptist church. She first sent letters to Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches in the area asking for their cooperation and time and found that many were not open to the idea of being studied. However, with patience and persistence, Hughes found four churches that were willing.
Another challenge which kept Hughes on her toes was getting congregants to participate in focus groups. Hughes wanted congregants to participate voluntarily in the focus groups, but found that many participants did not want to expose their opinions. However, after examining the situation, she discovered that studying groups already meeting, such as Bible or prayer groups, gave her more effective results, and many people were more comfortable in those settings.
With each congregation's pastor present during every session, Hughes asked focus groups the same four questions, which participants answered as they pleased. Her questions included the following:
· Some believe homosexuality is a choice and others believe that a person is born with a sexual preference. Where do you stand on this?
· Marriage between two homosexual people is another controversial topic. Do you believe homosexuals should have the right to be married?
· Churches are struggling with what degree homosexuals should be allowed to participate in the life of the church. Do you think homosexuals should be welcome to participate in congregational activities?
· Many church-goers struggle with understanding the relationship between God and homosexuals. Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?
After analyzing her data, Hughes found that the Southern Baptist church and two of the Lutheran churches saw homosexuality as a choice and believed that cohabitating couples, heterosexual or homosexual, were committing sins. Southern Baptists sometimes stated that if a homosexual really wanted to be a Christian, he or she would abandon a homosexual lifestyle.
One Lutheran church, which is located in a much more rural part of the Roanoke Valley than the other churches in the study, left Hughes with what she called "surprising" results. Those congregants were very accepting of homosexuality and believe that it is not a sin. This led to her theory of localism. No Roanoke natives attended the focus group held at the rural Lutheran church, while the Southern Baptists churches and other Lutheran churches had many Roanoke natives as members. Many congregants from the rural Lutheran church originally were from other parts of the United States or other countries. Hughes found that different backgrounds produce results that may not correlate to the rest of the data or to the denomination itself.
Even though Hughes met with different congregations and solicitated their opinions, the most challenging part of the project, she said, was keeping her own beliefs to herself. However, Hughes was adamant about keeping her views private to ensure unbiased results.
"I learned that it is harder to keep my mouth shut about views that I didn't believe in and things I didn't agree with," Hughes said.
Hughes plans on continuing her studies and presenting her honors project with Dunn at the Southern Sociological Society Annual meeting in New Orleans later this year.
"I hope to continue with this topic," Hughes said. "It made me more aware of biases in the Roanoke area that are less prominent in other churches."