Although I had been a long time supporter of Open & Affirming churches, I had never belonged to one until I came to New York City for seminary. When I moved to the city and began attending Union Theological Seminary, I started my search for a spiritual home. I found Park Avenue Christian Church. Over the past few years, I have been so incredibly blessed to be a part of Park Avenue Christian Church. There, I have gotten to know an amazing group of people, dedicated to the inclusion of all peoples at God’s table. I have learned so much from this community, and I know that I will be able to take what I’ve learned there throughout my ministry.
In my second year at school, I interned at Park Avenue and part of that internship was forming a young adult group to meet Sundays after the service. A wonderful blessing for us in this urban New York City ministry has been constantly welcoming new people. I was always proud to welcome anyone to “my” church and to say, “You are welcome here.” But early in our young adult ministry formation, I noticed that many of the LGBTQ newcomers were hesitant, even reluctant to receive this welcome.
After a few months of working at the church, I engaged in a discussion with our young adult group about what we can do to be more welcoming. Clearly not everyone was feeling so at home in what I perceived to be a very safe congregation. It was then that Jacob*, a young gay man who found the church by searching online said, “I don’t think the problem is that this church isn’t welcoming, I think the problem is that other churches aren’t.”
He went on to explain that he had been to several “Open & Affirming” churches in the city before coming to Park Avenue, and found that he was not met with the welcome to God’s table that Christ calls us to. He had been on his guard about whether or not this church would actually be the Open & Affirming church that it claimed to be. There is a big difference between slapping a banner on the front of your church, and living the truth of God.
I write this not to say that our church is perfect (hint: it’s not), or that we are the most Open & Affirming and other congregations are not. I write this as a reminder that our work is not done. God’s welcoming table is not just something we need to talk about. God’s welcoming table is something we need to live. It is a constant displaying of God’s love through Christ to this world. It is being Open & Affirming in all that we do, not just in our words, but in our hearts. If we don’t mean it in our hearts, our words are empty. It is being Open & Affirming not just in our churches, but in our lives. If we don’t mean it in our lives, our churches are hollow. This is not just an ideal, this is life.
Just because our congregation is Open & Affirming, does not mean that everyone feels the inclusion at God’s table. We are called to continually live this truth to be truly Open & Affirming for all people. The welcome of God’s table is not just something we need to talk about. It is not just something we need to display on our signs because we think we should, or because we believe it is true morally, spiritually, ethically, or religiously. We shouldn’t have to tell others that we are Open & Affirming . It should be something recognized within us.
*Jacob’s name has been changed.