HICKORY, N.C. -- An internationally-known furniture designer from North Carolina, two ministers and a network news anchor talked faith with Hickory's gay community, but not everyone in the audience was ready to agree with what the pastors on stage were saying.
The free forum at Lenoir-Rhyne University Saturday called "Politics, Religion, and LGBT Equality" was a chance to educate the community about religion and homosexuality, said forum sponsor Mitchell Gold.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated.
"It's important for people in the community, kids in particular, to hear that there are people who believe in them," said Gold.
Gold is from Taylorsville, but co-owns a furniture design firm, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, that offers furniture in stores all over the world.
Gold said he struggled with his own feelings about being gay from age 11 until he "came out" at age 26. He said many young people are torn between what their churches tell them about homosexuality and their own feelings.
"I know from personal experience that this is why kids jump off bridges; this is why kids hang themselves in closets," said Gold, "This is a very serious subject, and they deserve to hear a good word."
Gold founded a group called "Faith in America" that wants people to put aside the notion that they have to choose between faith and supporting the LGBT community.
Two pastors, Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman of Hickory and Rev. Dr. Jack McKinney of Raleigh, addressed how their own evangelical upbringings clashed with what they now believe.
Both believe the Bible lacks a definitive condemnation of homosexuality.
"The Bible says a lot about love," said McKinney, "And I wish we, as Christians, were repeating that message more often."
The audience cheered as one protester shouted out disagreement. He was escorted out by security; he was one of three protesters asked to leave during the 90-minute forum.
None were arrested.
After the forum, more than two dozen religious leaders from the American Pastors' Network denounced what they had heard inside.
"Homosexuality is a forgivable sin, but it has to be repented of, like any sin has to be repented of," said Dave Kistler, president of the North Carolina Pastors Network.
The pastors read several Bible passages that refer to God's creation of men and women as part of the "natural order" of things.
"No person, church, pastor, government, or society has the right to change God's definition of marriage because God established it first," said Gary Dull of the APN.
Forum organizers shrugged off the protests, pointing out that the conservative pastors have a right to express their opinion, too.
The whole point of the forum is to start the conversation, said Christie Austin, president of Catawba Valley Pride, a local LGBT advocacy group.
"If we can make just one LGBT person feel like that they are okay, that who they are is who they are, then they are okay," said Austin.
"We are the same as our heterosexual counterparts," she said, "We put our pants on the same way and are basically the same."