Being a member of an Open & Affirming congregation has enriched my life in many ways. Over twenty years ago, Midway Hills Christian Church went through an intentional discernment process that grew out of a well-established history of being welcoming and accepting. The process included candid discussion, sharing of personal stories, and studying how Scripture informs us on the issue of sexual orientation. Some were eager for the church to take a stand in the face of injustice and exclusion, some were reluctant to talk about it, and some were fearful of the impact a decision to become Open & Affirming might have on the life of the congregation. The process helped members sort through their feelings and questions as they prayerfully considered what God was calling us to do. When it came time for the congregation to vote, it was clear that as Christians we felt called to make a statement about God’s inclusive love.
Long before launching into the O & A discernment process, Midway Hills was welcoming members of the gay community into the life of the congregation and had begun exploring the issue of sexual orientation. At the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Midway Hills created AIDS care teams to provide support and care to patients, some of whom were members of the congregation. As a visitor in those days, I was impressed by the time and energy that members gave to caring for AIDS patients who were thought of as outcasts by much of society. Stories of individuals who had been rejected by their families even as they were in the last stages of their lives were heart rending. Through the efforts of Midway Hills, the Church was by the sides of many AIDS patients, helping them maneuver the complex world of medical care, offering a listening ear, providing meals, speaking words of comfort, and holding their hands in the last days of their lives. All of this spoke volumes about what it means to be Church.
Through the years, it has been my privilege to share in the life of the congregation alongside LGBTQ friends. Some of the most meaningful encounters happen when they share their stories of gratitude for a church that embraces them for all that they are. More than once, members of the congregation have said that when they first joined the church, they were astounded by the genuine welcome they received but kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. They expected that there would come a time when they would discover that they weren’t fully accepted due to their sexual orientation, but that never happened. Their stories speak of the reconciling love of God that they found in Midway Hills.
In 2010 a group of us attended the “Beyond Apologetics” symposium at Brite Divinity School to hear scholars and pastors discuss LGBTQs’ future role in religious communities. In talking with one of the scholars, I asked what a congregation might be like if it had moved beyond the issue of accepting LGBTQs into the congregation. He suggested that LGBTQs would be fully incorporated into the life of the congregation rather than a separate group within the congregation: small group participation, mission work, socializing with straight members, and serving in leadership roles. It was wonderful to realize that although he didn’t know it at the time, he was describing Midway Hills. It was saddening to hear him say that congregations such as ours are few and far between.
The courage and grace that my LGBTQ friends show in the face of misunderstanding and hatred is an amazing lesson in faith. Their perseverance bears witness to the power of grass root efforts. Their willingness to share stories of their life journeys gives me a broader view of the wonders of God’s continuing creation as well as a glimpse into the mystery of how God works in and through our lives.
Years ago, Midway Hills adopted a motto: “Be inclusive, do justice, honor diversity.” I believe this is what God calls us to do and I am thankful for a faith community that continues to explore just what this means in the world today.