23 February 2005

Why We Should Pursue "Welcoming Congregation" Status

My congregation and many other Unitarian Universalist congregations in "Red State" Bible-Belt conservative regions appear to find the Welcoming Congregation Program an unreasonable burden for them.

I found two theological statements on why this difficult task is worth doing in our congregations.

The first statement is from Rev. Victoria Weinstein (a Unitarian Universalist minister in Norwell, Massachusetts) preaching about what had changed her mind on the Welcoming Congregation question:
Excerpt from "Straight Eyes on Queer Lives: Justice or Entertainment?" by Rev. Victoria Weinstein
And so now we get to the heart of the gay issue, which is really not a political one at all. It is a religious issue, a theological issue, and an issue that we should know is tearing apart communities of faith all across this country, and all over the world. Because of course, Madonna and Britney and the Fab Five were not the only ones making news this summer. Also in the news was the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church – the Reverend Gene Robinson of New Hampshire (I cannot overstate the impact Bishop Robinson's confirmation is still having in Episcopal churches: it is a struggle that is incredibly painful to read about, and to hear about from my Episcopalian friends and colleagues).

In Texas this summer, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that restored privacy to the sex lives of its straight and gay citizens. And in Canada, men and women became free to marry someone of their own gender, and therefore to include themselves in the multiple legal privileges that are granted to all married couples – including "the right to social security survivor benefits, the ability to make decisions on their partner's behalf in medical emergencies, the right to petition for a partner to immigrate, access to medical care leave for a seriously ill partner, and the right to give their children two legal parents.

I know this issue is also challenging for our own Unitarian Universalist congregations – no less this one – but I am so very proud that our association of congregations has, since our General Assembly in 1970, "made more than twenty public statements in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their rights to enjoy all the benefits and privileges that heterosexual people enjoy." And our leadership developed a denominational Welcoming Congregation program that would help congregations process through some of our own feelings, taboos, fears and just plain information about what it means to be a sexual minority in the church – to sensitize ourselves to those men and women who have traditionally been most contemptuously excluded from God's grace in too many mainstream houses of worship. During that time, Unitarian Universalist ministers began performing same sex civil unions, or services of holy union. Remember that this pioneering movement began as recently as 1970. We are still fairly new at this.

In the mid-90's, I was a lay member of one of our UU congregations that was considering launching the Welcoming Congregation process. I was prepared to vote against it. My argument was that I was already welcoming, I believed our church was welcoming, and I believed that a committee-driven effort to make us especially welcoming to lesbians, gays and bisexuals was unnecessary. It would make us uncomfortable and possibly divide us. I was scared. I had lost too many gay friends to AIDS in the 1980's and felt that a scab was just beginning to form where a very deep wound had been. This doesn't make any sense, does it? But I have come to realize that when it comes to sexuality issues, we proceed from our guts and not so much from rationality. What I feared most was finding out that any of my church friends were – if not outright homophobic – prejudiced against non-hetero people. I didn't want to know.

But here's what I learned as a result of that experience: my church did not exist to keep me or anyone else comfortable. In fact, I was brought to awareness that "my" church was really not "mine" at all, but God's church, where a greater spirit than my own had called a group of seekers together to become more fully loving and therefore more fully human. This was a hard learning. It did not make me happy. I also learned that the church does not exist to make me happy. That was hard, too.

What I learned from participating in the Welcoming Congregation program as a resistant layperson was that the program wasn't for me, and it wasn't about how welcoming I am. It was, and is, a process that is meant to help a community of people open their minds, their arms and their doors wide enough to include the people who are so often turned away from religious fellowship and thus excluded from the church's life-giving ministries. I was brought to understand that the Welcoming Congregation program is not a political program but an exercise in the spiritual art of compassion, and of the practice of radical hospitality as practiced most notably by Jesus of Nazareth (who, by the way, never said one word about homosexuality, although his followers had plenty of opinions about it).

First Parish in Norwell became an officially Welcoming Congregation in 1999. I am proud of you for it. It was a fact about you that deeply impressed and attracted me when I first read your congregational record. And I was proud of you when we did this thing recently that I think turned out to be a bit more provocative than many of us expected it to be… in a manner of speaking, we "came out of the closet" about our welcoming designation! We installed a rainbow flag on the front of this meetinghouse on a windy day last year, and now we are processing through together the impact that flag has made within our congregation and in our wider community. No one in this congregation has asked that the flag removed, but we are talking – and perhaps voting -- about its location. In the two meetings we have held to talk about the flag's location, we have learned one thing for certain: symbols are very powerful.

How we proceed in our decision-making about this symbol will be every bit as important as any practical outcome. This process calls us to listen deeply to one another, and to honor the personal experiences that some of you have trusted each other enough to share from your hearts. I believe this is an opportunity for us to listen especially closely to those men and women to whom that flag was meant to say, "you're safe here." For those of us who have never known what it's like to feel unsafe in a house of worship because of our sexual orientation – and I include myself in that category – this is a particularly rich opportunity for deeper understanding.
The second theological statement comes from the United Church of Christ's "Frequently Asked Questions" Page for their "Open and Affirming Congregations" program (the UCC equivalent of the Welcoming Congregation Program):
We already say: "We welcome everyone." To whom does it matter that UCC settings make public statements of welcome specifically to BGLT (Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender) persons?
Too many BGLT people and their families live with the pain of having believed that "everyone" meant them, only to discover otherwise. No one should have to guess about the "boundaries of inclusion" of a congregation or other ministry.

A clear welcome matters to BGLT adults who, seeking to share their faith and gifts with the church, often wonder if they will meet with silence or condemnation if they are "out" in church.

It matters to BGLT youth who need the guidance of faith communities as they question and establish their understandings of sexuality, spirituality, and relationships, but fear the same disapproval.

It matters to families which too often hide the fact that they have BGLT children or other relatives. Fearing the indifference or rejection of their church, they are cut off from support and sharing which would enrich them and their congregation.

It matters to BGLT clergy who often feel that to serve the church they must hide their true selves and lives.

It matters to all Christians who believe that God's affirmation of the gifts of loving relationships and sexuality are not restricted to those who are heterosexual, and who look to their church to witness to God's inclusive love and help them to better understand and live it.
These two theological statements tell me that we should not be looking at the Welcoming Congregation program from a personal "what does it mean for me" perspective. Regardless of one's theological perspective, my congregation isn't really "mine" ... it belongs to something or someone bigger than me.

Given the role that religion has played in promoting homophobia and heterosexism, I think we need to explicitly promote on our own the idea that some congregations are seriously addressing homophobia and heterosexism rather than depending on pop culture references like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to do this promotion for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

And my congregation's role in the Welcoming Congregation process is to create a safe and supportive place where we can do some challenging "soul work." But this comfort and safety for those engaged in serious "soul work" isn't the same as creating a place where one is left undisturbed, unchallenged, and "happy."


Jeff Wilson said...

Great post, Steve. I hope it will be widely read.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Caldwell said...

Tha anonymous posting on this thread was blog spam, which I deleted after I found it.