West 14th Street
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Programs of The Coalition
By John Pribble
The first time I heard the term "Open And Affirming" was when
the concept was raised by a Deacon at a council meeting I was attending
as chair of the Board of Trustees (now Administrators). Now, eleven years
later, I can't recall all of the details, so I will relate my feelings
and impressions of the process that followed.
Soon the Council approved the formation of a task force to study the
issue and to provide information and education to the membership. This
was called the "discernment process" and the objective was to
bring the question to a congregational meeting and either adopt or defeat
the issue. A separate committee was appointed to draft the official Declaration
My wife Jane and I participated in most of the educational events and learned a lot about a subject that a few months earlier we didn't even know we were interested in. We noticed that many of the members who had expressed reservations about Open And Affirming didn't avail themselves of the opportunity to learn and grow. A few of these members left the congregation. Some of these folks were long-term church leaders. One of them was our Moderator.
I first learned that our Moderator and his family had decided to leave our congregation in an evening meeting with Pastor Tim Ahrens. He asked me if I would consider taking over the moderator position for the rest of the term. I was flattered and a little stunned by this development. After talking to Jane, praying for direction, and "sleeping on it," I accepted the challenge.
The following ten weeks are a blur in my memory. After talking to a lot of the members, I felt that an overwhelming majority of the congregation had made up their minds and were in favor of declaring North Church an Open And Affirming Congregation. I believed that we should move for acceptance as quickly as possible.
The Congregational Meeting on June 2, 1996 was indeed a lively, mostly positive experience. There were some sincere questions and a couple of amendments were proposed, but at the conclusion the vote was 110-4 in favor. North Church was officially and proudly the first Open And Affirming congregation is the Central Southeast Association of the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ.
So, North Church was changed forever. For Jane and me it has definitely changed for the better. Though I still miss some of the people who left our church, I appreciate very much the old and new members I have come to know more completely. I have grown immeasurably through the experience of talking, working singing and praying with people who are completely comfortable with their sexuality. When people are comfortable with each other and no one is hiding and no one is frightened and distrusting, strong, loving relationships develop. I very much value these relationships.
I think the folks who left North Church because of Open And Affirming have missed out on a truly rich and rewarding experience. Those members who stayed or have joined with us since have been very fortunate to enjoy the benefits of membership in a church that is accepting, welcoming, encouraging, affirming and loving of each member of our very diverse congregation.
"...For my house
shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." (Isaiah 56:7)
My partner and I are not of the same race. Ray was raised in Mississippi Delta during the 1940s and 1950s, when racial segregation was the norm. As a child, he was not allowed to drink from the white drinking fountains. Because he was Asian in a Black and White world, his mother told him to wait until they got home if he was thirsty. If we had tried to get married in that time and place, the local ministers, citing scripture, would most likely have refused to officiate. Those who were interracially married in that community were outcasts.
Ray had an older sister, Betty. One night she got very sick. Her mom took her to the white hospital, but they refused to admit her. She died a few days later, just shy of her eighth birthday. I never got to meet her, but my mother-in-law has shared stories about her with me. To this day, she grieves her only daughter's death. She recently gave me a picture of Betty which I keep on my desk. She was really cute.
Discrimination is still at work. It wears many disguises, but its effect is always hurtful. People are still dying of it. There are far too many congregations and clergy who, citing scripture, still refuse to honor and celebrate the love of same sex unions, refuse to ordain, or allow gay and lesbian people to hold leadership positions. I pray for an early end to this treatment of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that God will work through each and every one of us to help us examine ourselves, our churches, and our communities so that we may become better and more compassionate people.
I came to my first service at Plymouth Church in Seattle on September 16, 2001, seeking comfort in the aftermath of the horrific violence of 9/11. One of the first things I read in the order of service was these words:
I would not have joined Plymouth Church had I not known of the congregation's basic commitment to live into these words.
I didn't grow up in the church. My first church home was a Lutheran church in suburban California. I went there through most of my high school years. That's where I was introduced to a loving God full of abundant grace. It was a good church with good people. But as a church, they didn't believe that God's abundant grace extended to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. This made me a little uneasy, but I tried not to think too much about it because they made me feel welcome, and I was happy there.
It got harder to ignore when my best friend, who also attended this church, came out as a lesbian. She really struggled with self-doubt, even self hate, because the church which was her home, and with which her family was affiliated, regarded her as a sinner. I confess, I was not ready to take a principled stand at this point in my life. I loved my friend, and I tried to comfort and reassure her, but I continued to attend that church until I moved away to college.
At college, I stumbled into a UCC church, First Congregational Church of Berkeley, CA. That's where I first heard about "Open and Affirming" congregations. Finally, I had found a place where the life of the spirit was not opposed to the life I lived every day. I attended First Congregational all through college; it was a wonderful church home for me.
When I moved to Durham, North Carolina, for graduate school, I went to the UCC website specifically to find a church that was Open and Affirming. At that time, of the nine UCCs in Durham and Chapel Hill, United Church of Chapel Hill was the only one that was Open and Affirming. (Pilgrim in Durham is now also Open and Affirming, and I was proud to sit beside them at North Carolina's Pride Festival.) I chose to attend United Church because they were Open and Affirming.
The God I believe in I know does not judge people for whom they love. God's love and abundant grace extends to all God's people. Surely, my love for my friend is not greater or more generous than God's love. The Open and Affirming commitment of United Church was a sign to me that this was a place that believed, as I do, in an expansive, inclusive God.
United Church is now my church home.
I am proud and deeply grateful to be in a place that
accepts and affirms all those that I love. I can no longer be part of
a place that would reject people that I care about, and having found an
Open and Affirming church, I have made many new and dear friends that
would not have been welcomed elsewhere. My church home is, as I home my
own home will be, a place of warmth that greets all who come to it with
open arms. Thank you, United Church, for being my home and my family.
Twenty years ago, when our older son told us that he is gay, ONA churches did not exist. We were overwhelmed with emotions — shock, isolation, denial, guilt, fear, and even self-pity. We talked to the minister of the church we were attending. Although he did not believe being gay was sinful, he had little to offer us. We phoned a psychiatrist who had seen our son when he was in kindergarten and other children were scapegoating him. This man said, "Oh my God, I'll have to get back to you." He never did.
Fortunately, a local psychologist reassured me our son's orientation was not caused by anything I did wrong and was not a disorder. Our son could still lead a happy, productive life. We also found PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Persons); talking to other parents and receiving information about sexual orientation helped us. If we had belonged to an ONA church, we might have been more informed and found these resources more easily. We would not have felt we were the only family in Chapel Hill with a gay son. If our son had belonged to an ONA church, he might have felt less isolated and alone during his high school years.
In the following years, we would also have benefited from an ONA congregation. When we decided to change churches, we wanted a church were our son, and potentially his partner, would be accepted. We came out to Rick and Jill (pastors of United Church, Chapel Hill) before joining and felt welcomed. However, we still wondered about the attitude of the congregation. We became part of the ONA task force and were active in the process, but we still remained mostly closeted.
Over a period of two years, the task force tried to involve as many people as possible through a variety of programs. There was little spoken opposition to becoming ONA, but as the vote approached, I felt uneasy. Although few church members knew our son, I felt a negative vote would be a rejection of both him and of me. When the resolution passed overwhelmingly, I felt free to be open.
Over the years, our attitude about our son's orientation gradually changed. Our initial view was "It's nobody's business," then we progressed to "No more lying." Finally we acquired the attitude we call "PFLAG in your face"—we reached beyond our usual comfort level and spoke to groups at other churches and conferences. Belonging to an ONA church helped us in this transition. We feel we have a base of support and are not alone in our views.
What difference did ONA make at United Church? Several
people in the church told me that they found the years of discussion useful.
Not being faced with the unexpected education our son gave us, they had
not thought much about sexual orientation. The process changed them; they
could no longer say —"we don't know any gays or lesbians."
But in my view, the biggest benefit of becoming ONA is the addition to
our congregation of gay and lesbian members who have contributed their
talents, serving as hardworking members of our boards and committees,
singing in the choirs, and teaching in Sunday school. We would have missed
so much if they were not with us as an integral part of our community.
Other people have been drawn to the church as well; ONA is a sign about
the nature of the congregation. This is reflected in a comment at the
time of the vote: "If gays and lesbians are excluded who else might
also be at risk? Is this a community where I can reveal myself?"
We need to continue to ensure that the answer is "Yes."
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