Why is it important to celebrate Open and Affirming Sunday? For me, it is not about my ideology or politics but experiences and friendships that have shaped my theological outlook. I decided to put aside the sermon I started on our text from Acts in favor of storytelling and just share a thumbnail sketch. The first baptism of a new convert to the way of Jesus is an Ethiopian eunuch. This person is as exotic as a first-century Jew could imagine. Eunuchs were not allowed to enter the Temple because of their gender identity, so this man could not have visited one of the ancient wonders of the world, despite his importance as a queen’s treasurer. This means that the new church following Jesus is challenged to be more inclusive than people had imagined, and that is still true today. Here is the story of my journey
When I entered seminary, gay issues were not on my radar. I knew parts of the Bible implied being gay was a sin, but the Bible said eating shellfish or animals that had been strangled was a sin. I was so naïve that my friends had to tell me not to ask a woman out because she was a lesbian. I’d say, “No way, she doesn’t look like a lesbian.” Or they would say, “Todd, I think he likes you.” What, no, he’s just a nice guy. I had no “gaydar” to navigate this terrain.
Then one of my close friends came out to me. I was surprised because he had been dating a woman a few months before. He told me about his struggle to accept who he was and needed his close friends to know. I sensed he was scared telling me, fearing rejection. What I felt was, “Craig, you are my friend. Who you are doesn’t change friendship.” A couple of weeks later, another friend, a woman, came out to me. I was again surprised because we had dated a year before. After I broke up with her, she realized she was a lesbian. Now some things started to make sense to me. Once people knew I was safe, everyone practiced coming out to me. I remember joking with my classmates, asking if there was a list somewhere of who is gay. I estimate a third of my seminary class was gay or lesbian (and we were not even talking about trans yet.). In 1987, there were probably only a handful of ONA churches in the United Church of Christ. For perspective, today, there are over 1600 ONA congregations in the UCC, growing by the week.
My gay clergy friends faced enormous struggles. Cindy was a Baptist and stayed in the closet for her first two decades of ministry, hiding her relationship with her female partner, whom she could not legally marry. She won the preaching prize for my class and is one of the most dynamic preachers in the UCC today. When another friend came out of the closet in his home church, he denied ordination in the more conservative Pennsylvania Conference. The church lost an outstanding candidate to be a pastor. He became an essential national UCC leader in our Cleveland headquarters.
I was at the General Synod in the 1990s in Kansas City when the UCC voted to affirm the ordination of out LGBTQ people. After some difficult debate and angry words from people against the resolution, over 80 percent of the delegates voted “Yes”. At Synod, our procedures do not allow for clapping and cheering after a vote out of respect for the side that loses. So, what do you do after an historic vote as the first denomination to affirm gay ordination? A few voices started singing “Amazing Grace,” which sent chills to the back of my neck to be present at a holy moment.
As we left the auditorium, I heard more singing outside. At the exit, I saw TV cameras and reporters scampering around a large crowd. In the center stood Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, a notorious anti-gay church who spent more time picking and demonstrating than holding Sunday services. The crowd surrounded the Westboro Church with all their hateful signs and angry shouts and drowned them out with hymns, so our gay members wouldn’t have to hear it and so hate could not be the lead story on the evening news.
I was in my first solo pastorate in Poughkeepsie, NY, and the congregation was quietly welcoming. The organist was gay (and by the way, this is the first of five congregations I have served where the organist is not LGBTQ. I wonder if conservative churches went to rock bands because there simply weren’t enough organists left.). Two men sat together in the church, and most thought they were “roommates.” One was a Deacon and a professor who had written his dissertation on Rwanda during the genocide, and he did critical human rights monitoring. The other was our newsletter editor and ran a theatre company. They asked if I would do a holy union ceremony to affirm their relationship. This was 2001, so a decade before legal gay marriage. They planned the wedding offsite because they did not want any controversy for the church. The professor especially did not want to jeopardize our ministry with African refugees. The night before the ceremony, the mother of all thunderstorms struck and damaged their staging for an outdoor wedding, and the power was out at their venue. They called me dismayed, not knowing where to go. Friends and family had come from out of town, so it would be hard to reschedule. Offering the church sanctuary felt like the right thing to do. The couple said they didn’t want me to have adverse consequences, and I said, “Well, I’ve been here nine years, and if I get fired for doing this now, it’s time to go.” So, I called the Deacons, and they all said, “Yes, how can we not do this?”
We had a marvelous celebration of their relationship, and then on Monday, I held my breath waiting for the backlash. And I waited…, and Tuesday came…and Wednesday…and then a week. And nothing happened. Sometimes it takes a thunderstorm knocking out the power and disrupting a wedding for a church to realize who we are and who we need to be. Ultimately, relationships bring down the walls and build bridges of understanding.
Just voting to become an ONA church is not the end game. That is just the beginning. When I went to Northampton, I thought I was up to speed on LGBTQ issues. I thought I had a lot of experience but quickly learned that I knew nothing, once again. Northampton, home of Smith College, has the country’s most significant percentage of lesbians per capita. Dialog about transgender and nonbinary gender identities is commonplace. It is like a city of refuge. The congregation was about 1/3 lesbian when I began, and more than half the Sunday School kids had two moms for parents. Honestly, I was surprised they chose me, a white male, as pastor. But they assured me that the church was so women-oriented that they wanted some balance. (You could say I was a diversity hire!)
The first big controversy at Northampton happened when a trans man, a church member who had transitioned from being a woman, applied for a job as Christian Education Director. The committee did not choose him for various reasons, but he felt it was discrimination. A couple of team members kept referring to him as she or her. (They knew him when he was a her.) To make it complicated, everyone on the search committee except for me was lesbian, and they decided to hire a gay man. I realized that not only did I have some growing to do, but even the congregation, which became ONA in 1996, and many lesbian members, had growing to do as well.
Our growth came when a new family joined the church. It was 2014, and we had just celebrated the Supreme Court affirming marriage equality. We had an impromptu choir concert on the front steps at 5 PM as people got out of work, and over 100 people celebrated with us. The following Sunday, we had several people speak in church about what this meant to them. They told their stories of coming out, of being rejected by family and church, and the importance of a congregation who welcomed them. They talked about how fearful they were of traveling to states that did not support marriage equality, for fear of an accident and hospitalization, where they had no rights.
Our last speaker was Dan, a straight man, father of two children, who was ordained as a Southern Baptist and taught religion at a college. His oldest child, born a boy, knew from an early age she was a girl. At first, they ignored this as a faze. But as their daughter persisted, they began to read and explore what to do. They have been raising their lovely child as their daughter for the past nine years. They moved to Northampton and eventually joined our church in search of a haven from discrimination. That broke open a new conversation within the church about what it meant to be ONA.
The point is we are never done learning. Human sexuality and genders are complex. I have not resolved some things in my mind about trans sports and non-binary gender identities. But I do know that I believe in what our Council agreed to put on our Pride Month banner, “Love Lives Here.”
A church who is Open and Affirming and embraces a diversity of people is strong and vibrant. A considerable problem Christianity is spending too much time deciding who is in and who is out. This doesn’t mean we have everything figured out, and we still have questions. Society is moving faster than we can grasp at this moment. The generation now in their teens and 20s is moving forward. A recent survey said 20 percent of that generation are now defining themselves somewhere among the LGBTQ spectrum. If that is accurate, then figuring these things out is crucial to the future of the church. May we find the courage and grace to continue being an Open and Affirming church where love lives here.