Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Growing Up ONA

I am one of the first ordained clergy who never knew a time when gay and lesbian people were not explicitly welcome in church. My childhood UCC congregation became ONA, or “Open and Affirming,” (our designation for fully welcoming gay and lesbian people into the life of the church) in 1988; we were the seventeenth ONA church in the nation!

The church of my childhood explicitly welcomed people regardless of their sexual orientation (we would later expand from saying “gay and lesbian” to “LGBT”). There wasn’t another church for miles around that proclaimed such a welcome, and so the congregation grew as word spread that gay and lesbian Christians were fully welcome and included. My earliest memories of church are of a community that included gay folks and straight folks; single people, families with children, and couples without children.

We weren’t perfect. Like every church, we had our share of bad behavior. There was gossip, and petty bickering; there were conflicts about children being too loud, about people not cleaning up the kitchen after their programs, about what kind of music we would have in worship. There was even homophobia – the vote had not been unanimous, and I remember hearing a few anti-gay slurs from congregants who didn’t like our ONA identity or the lesbian and gay Christians who had found safe harbor in our pews; and I remember hearing the more insidious homophobia of inclusion that comes wrapped in conditions and caveats.

But regardless of the resistance of a few, we were living our way into a vision of the kind of community we believe Christ calls us into: a community where diversity of every kind is seen as a blessing from God. Every leadership position, every ministry opportunity, was open to any member who had the gifts and skills for it, regardless of gender, age, race, class, or sexual orientation. Sunday school, coffee hour, bell choir, committee work – gay folks and straight folks worked together on everything from hosting homeless families to balancing the church budget.

And there were weddings.

This was long before any state recognized same-sex marriage. But we believed that God calls us into relationship; we believed that when a couple – gay or straight – wants to make a covenant, to promise to love one another for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live, that is marriage whether the state recognizes it or not. So we had weddings – “holy unions,” we sometimes called them, to clarify that the couple was marrying in the eyes of God and the church – full of joy and laughter and prayer and music.

Yesterday, my denomination, the UCC, filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina. North Carolina’s laws against same-sex marriage make it illegal for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that does not have a marriage license; same-sex couples cannot be granted marriage licenses. In short, North Carolina’s laws forbid religious marriage ceremonies like those I remember from my childhood. The UCC argues that prohibiting ministers from performing religious ceremonies as they see fit infringes on our first amendment right to the free exercise of religion. I couldn’t agree more.

On May 17, 2004, just after midnight, I stood on the steps of City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts and cheered as couples exited the building with marriage licenses in hand. But I thought, too, of the couples I had seen stand at the altar and make vows before God and the gathered congregation. They would, most of them, get one of those precious pieces of paper in the weeks and months to come; but they were already married. They had been since they said “I do.”

I am an ordained clergywoman now. I am fortunate to live in a state where I can marry couples as I see fit, not only in the eyes of the church, but also in the eyes of the state. But although we have come a long way, it saddens me that this fight I have been fighting as long as I can remember continues.

So I pray that our government will run as it should, protecting the rights that guarantee that each church, each minister, each believer, can exercise her religion as her conscience dictates, whether she is for or against same-sex marriage. And I pray for justice for those who still live without the legal protections of marriage, despite their covenantal commitment. But most of all, I pray for the day when the whole church welcomes LGBT people fully and without reservation, and every Christian child has a chance to grow up in a congregation that reflects the beautiful diversity of the people of God.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! :-) You might be interested to know that Rev. Dr. Leanne Tigert, from your childhood church in 1988, was the first woman to come out as a lesbian, at general sinod. She was on the cover of newsweek, and has written 6 or 7 books on GLBTQ issues and faith. Your childhood church has nurtured many wonderful people, including you! Can you tell Leanne is my friend?