Some might wonder why I marched in the Worcester Pride Parade on Saturday, September 12.
The simple answer is that I wanted to join my presence in a march with others that acknowledges the full dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.
Some might say, “Why do they need to march every year? After all, this was the 40th Annual Parade in Worcester for gay/lesbian pride. How much longer do they need to do this?” My answer is that we will continue to do this until the gay/lesbian community is fully immersed in society as equal citizens who are granted the same rights and respect as everyone else. This is not the case yet.
Many people in our society still do not accept the lesbian/gay person as fully worthy of equal rights. There is a long tradition in Western civilization of treating the homosexual as abnormal, even perverted. He/she has been rejected and viciously punished throughout history, including being victims of the death penalty. AND IT HAS BEEN THE CHURCH FOR THE MOST PART THAT HAS PROMOTED THIS CONDEMNATION! That’s why it was important that so many churches were represented in the parade on Saturday. People need to see that being gay and being Christian are not antithetical. The traditional religious belief that has insisted that homosexual behavior is an abomination in God’s sight needs to be abandoned. But that’s only a start. It’s not enough merely to tolerate the gay/lesbian person. He/she needs to be affirmed as a full person fashioned in the image of God who represents part of the wondrous diversity of creation.
Too many times when the subject of same-sex marriage is raised, eyes roll and snickering is heard. Those are the kinds of responses that need to stop. I am thankful that I rarely hear the words “fag” and “dyke” mentioned, though I still do sometimes. Those are terms that should never be heard in church or anywhere else.
Open and Affirming (ONA) is our United Church of Christ’s designation for congregations to make an intentional public welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions. The UCC has been at the forefront of the movement to include gays and lesbians as full members in our midst. In 1972, we ordained an openly gay person into the Christian ministry, Rev. Bill Johnson, becoming the first mainline denomination in the country to do so, and founded the Open and Affirming Coalition. The UCC at its General Synod in 1985 passed the Open and Affirming Resolution calling upon congregations to welcome gays and lesbians into the full participation of the church and encouraging the use of their gifts in service to the church. Our own Massachusetts Conference, in fact, passed a similar statement in 1984, becoming the first ecclesiastical body to do so in the nation. Already over 1,200 congregations within the UCC have voted to become Open and Affirming, comprising nearly 250,000 members, about ¼ of the total membership of our denomination.
Is Park Congregational Church willing to take the step of beginning the Open and Affirming process? This is not something that can be done overnight. It usually takes between 18 and 24 months to complete. You might ask why it should take so long. The answer is because the congregation needs to fully understand the process that will lead to a vote on becoming Open and Affirming. The process involves monthly meetings led by a team within the church, regular Bible studies on the issue, led by the pastor, perhaps inviting ONA consultants to speak from the national setting of the UCC, completing all of the conditions of the ONA starter kit, and making sure that every member of the congregation feels safe and is accepted for who they are, regardless of their sexual orientation, identity, or expression.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of faith often experience emotional and spiritual injury in churches that condemn their capacity to love and seek love. Because they’ve learned that “All Are Welcome” usually doesn’t apply to them, they can’t assume that every church will be safe for them and their families. In addition many straight families and individuals searching for churches to attend want to know that the congregation is supportive of gays and lesbians and their rights. Becoming ONA will tell them immediately that we are such a congregation.
If you would like to hear more about this issue or to discuss more about it, please comment below.
-Rev. Dr. Gary R. Shahinian