A Welcoming Congregation (capital W, capital C)

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, August 8, 2021

I became a Unitarian Universalist at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mt. Vernon, rural southern Illinois city of about 15,000 people, surrounded by farms and coal mines. It was a small, emerging congregation. We were new. We were the only liberal game in town. But it was the kind of town were liberal minded people mostly continued to be part of the church their family had been part of for generations rather than causing family strife. So we weren’t growing, despite hearing from some neighbors how glad they were that at last there was a liberal group in town.

Tiny though the congregation was, we looked around the room and saw two, three, four out gay men, looked a little more closely and also saw a deeply closeted gay man, and we wondered, “Is it possible for a congregation that is not yet a member of the association to be recognized as a Welcoming Congregation? We were told that, while it might be more of a challenge for a small congregation to go through the steps that made up the process, we did not have to wait.

And so we began a two-year process of learning – we offered fourteen monthly workshops on different aspects of the psycho-sexual and socio-political realities of sexual orientation, gender identity, and the wide array beyond the binary of sexual bodies. And then after that learning, we revised our recently constructed bylaws to do better in the light of the learning we had done. Then finally, with all of that completed, we voted to approve accepting the commitments of a Welcoming Congregation – capital W, capital C – that very distinct and precise designation that signals a promise not just to be a warm environment for anyone who walks through the doors but one that will do several specific things in relation to people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

In the process of it all, one of the women who had been a leader getting the fellowship started from the beginning told the congregation she identified as bisexual. We learned to challenge ourselves not to assume we understood someone else’s place on the spectrum if they had not chosen to name it. And members who had been silent began sharing about their experience supporting and learning to support their LGBTQ family members. It was a deeply moving process. We moved from being individuals who took positions for justice in the areas of orientation, gender, and sexuality to a congregation that took the side of love, honoring the lives, choices, and relationships of LGBTQ people in private and in public.

We began to be visible in that small, conservative town doing things like protesting on the courthouse square when the board of county supervisors voted to accept a resolution condemning the goal of marriage equality. We held Pride picnics each June in the nicest city park, with rainbow flags flying, visible from the street. Our first Pride picnic was the very first Pride event of any kind in the town. And it took place about a hundred feet from the spot where, just a week before, a gay couple had been bashed, and when they called the police, were harassed by the men in blue, disrespected for being gay. We wrote letters to the editor. We attended county board and city council meetings. We had LGBTQ-related programming in our building. And we were noticed by the local TV station and a regional newspaper. And it felt a little overwhelming at times.

The Welcoming Congregation program was established in 1987. This fellowship became recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in 2004, going through a process with similar features of learning, evaluating, voting and then petitioning the association for recognition that my home congregation did. A few years later when my home congregation was engaged in the process, there were about 600 recognized Welcoming Congregations in the association, about 60 percent of the member congregations. And in the years since, congregations have continued to engage the process and seek recognition. Now 800 congregations – about 80% – are able to legitimately use the label “Welcoming Congregation.” Other congregations have their own reasons for not going through the process. Some don’t have the energy or resources to take it on, even though their leaning is in that direction. Some don’t want their conservative community to look down on them and call them “the gay church.”

Of course, humans being humans, there are plenty of stories of congregations who were recognized and, having “received the plaque,” so to speak, felt like they were now okay and didn’t need to think about it that much going forward. Other congregations didn’t keep up with the growth of knowledge – especially in the area of transgender and non-binary – meaning that the knowledge achieved with the certification was now outdated. And in every certified Welcoming Congregation, there have been people who participated in the process who died, moved away, or left the congregation while yet others joined and have not engaged in a similar learning and examination process.

And so, in 2015, the UUA unveiled the Welcoming Congregations renewal program, which set up an annual renewal process focusing on renewing the vigor of the commitment to equal participation of LGBTQ persons and the public support of the LGBTQ community in matters of public policy. This congregation has not engaged in the annual renewal process. But we have offered services each year that focused on issues of justice in matters of gender and orientation. We had a vigil after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We have made our space available to an area gay potluck. You called me, a gay cisgender man, as your minister, immediately after the interim period served for two years by a gay man. Each week, we remind ourselves and inform our visitors of this LGBTQ Welcome by means of the Pride flag in our sanctuary and the words “An LGBTQ-Welcoming Congregation” on the front of each printing of our order of service.

We are not perfect. We always have more to learn. And there are public policy issues on LGBTQ matters that we have not taken a public position on. Indeed, marriage equality was enacted because of a Supreme Court ruling in June of 2015, after I was called by you all to be your minister and only about a month before I arrived with my moving van in Waynesboro, and this fellowship has not engaged in LGBTQ policy advocacy since. But you may have noticed that all of the columns I have written for the News Virginian have been on justice for LGBTQ people. And that was something I never expected.

As your minister, I have not avoided the issue in this pulpit but I believe that if the congregation identifies as a Welcoming Congregation and has democratically accepted that label and those commitments, then the people of the congregation should maintain leadership in this area, not just the gay members and the gay minister doing it for the congregation. So early in my six years here, I called into being a ministry team for LGBTQ concerns. And for a few years the team met, and planned, and led the annual Pride service, and invited outside speakers, and wrote newsletter articles, but when the team leader completed their third consecutive year of leadership in that role, the maximum allowed by our bylaws, there was no one to lead the team, and it dissolved from absence of leadership.

Six years ago, during the search process that resulted in your calling me to be your minister, fellowship members took a survey that indicated that, despite progressive views in many ways, there was not equal openness to ministerial leadership by people of all genders. And in my six years here, we were, for a time, joined by a transgender person who eventually left because they did not experience this congregation a welcoming place for them.

Plain and simple, like nearly all justice endeavors, our Welcoming Congregation commitments are held proudly in the hearts of many, probably most of us. And yet there are areas in which we need to continue to learn and grow and improve. Justice and equity did not magically appear in America with marriage equality, and many elements in our society actively work to roll back even marriage equality itself. Our work in the world is far from done, and the work within the congregation is ongoing. Good hearts are only part of the process of working for justice and growing inclusion. So I encourage you to consider the Welcoming Congregation renewal program as an outline of staying engaged and being more and more public about our positions on public policy. I encourage you to come see me about revitalizing a team committed to leading in the Welcoming Congregation promises this congregation has made.

I have sometimes been asked why we need to have a rainbow flag here, or why we need to put the words “An LGBTQ-Welcoming Congregation” right on the front of the order of service, or why our welcome words explicitly mention gender and orientation minorities. I can only answer that the history of American religion shows that religious groups that do not proudly make public their welcome of LGBTQ persons and the fully equal participation of LGBTQ persons in every area of congregational life and leadership are places where LGBTQ people are only tolerated, rather than welcomed. Let’s continue drawing the circle wider. We have good intentions. Let’s translate that into constantly improving practice of inclusion, making a bigger us.

Amen and Blessed Be.