NORFOLK, Va. - The sounds of a very familiar church song, "This Little Light Of Mine," ringing throughout the congregation, with members clapping and some swaying back and forth. It's a common sight every Sunday morning at New Life Metropolitan Community Church of Hampton Roads.
It's followed by an opening prayer from Senior Pastor Rev. Mark Byrd.
"Let's pray together. Gracious and merciful God, we are so thankful for your love and presence. In this moment, find us wherever we are in this journey."
But one thing is made very clear at this church, says Pastor Byrd.
"Every Sunday, we say this again and again - we're just regular folks and believe that God's love is for all people, so no matter how you self-identify, know that you are welcome," he said.
It's a message he echoes frequently - their church doors are open.
"We are predominantly - but not exclusively - made up of folks from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, allied, inter-sexed, plus community."
It's a traditional church setting at their location off Sunset Drive - from the songs, to communion - all with a message.
"In the same way He took the cup and poured it and blessed it and said, 'This is the new covenant. It is compassion; it is mercy; it is love; it is forgiveness,' I like to paraphrase it this way - I like to hear God saying to me and to you, 'You can't do anything that's gonna make me love you less.'"
It's a message members in the LGBTQIA+ community say they don't hear from most churches.
And while many congregations hold Wednesday night services, you can find a less traditional weekly gathering on the beach for members of New Life Metropolitan Community, not that far from their church. It's very informal, where members gather around and get a chance to share their spiritual journey.
Members like Melissa "Mo" Zuzchik-Pierce.
"In my soul, I knew I needed something. I needed something. So, I did a lot of things... because there was a hole in me, and I didn't have any idea what I needed to fill that hole," Zuzchik-Pierce said.
That is, until she started attending New Life Metropolitan Community Church.
"That's when I realized that that hole in me was shaped like God, and that's what I needed fill my soul - that's what I needed to move forward in my life," she said.
It's been a spiritual journey for the pastor himself, who admits decades ago, he knew he wanted to be a pastor and initially became a Baptist minister, but he wasn't comfortable fully coming out to his congregation back then.
"For many, many years, both in North Carolina and Virginia, before I was able to come to terms with who I really am," Pastor Byrd said.
Pastor Byrd describes it as almost like coming out a second time.
"But to be a person of faith and be who you are, a lot of people are - wow - doing a double-take about that, or are scratching their head, or they're just in total disbelief or even condemning to think, 'How can you even, say that you're a person of faith - a follower of Jesus - and be a gay man?' Yeah, and it's not just to the community at large that it's coming out twice. I think it's also a coming out to within the LGBT community as a person of faith, because so many folks within the LGBTQ+ community have been hurt, abused, pushed away, not included in faith communities or the churches in which they grew up," he explained.
He adds, "We believe that the scriptures used against us are really taken out of context in many ways. Sometimes they're called the 'clobber passages' because they're used to clobber us, to tell us that we're wrong, that we're going to Hell."
But at their church - it's a message of love and inclusion from Pastor Byrd.
"It makes no difference how you self-identify or where you are in your journey. My friends, this grace today is for you."