I pastor a church that voted five years ago to publicly identify itself as “Open & Affirming.” While, in the end, the church voted unanimously to welcome and celebrate the lives and ministries of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer (LGBTIQ) people, leading up to it were some important questions:
- Will we be running off members who disagree?
- Should we worry about a backlash in the community?
- How will we handle marriages and civil unions?
- Will we get in trouble with the denomination?
And one particularly sharp parishioner asked, “You realize that by voting this way we are saying that in the event Derek leaves [followed quickly by a “God forbid” for which I was grateful] we are going to require future ministers to be just as supportive of our decision?”
But the place of real resistance among a couple of otherwise supportive people came at this point: “Will this decision make us a one issue congregation? I mean, will we be dismissed as the ‘gay church’ on the corner now?”
In other words, is O&A just code for “gay friendly?”
I want to be clear here: Open & Affirming certainly publicly identifies a congregation to those who are looking for a safe place as “gay friendly.” And this is an extremely important part of the fruits of becoming O&A.
Because LGBTIQ people have been disproportionately harmed by the church. For many, the religious institutions they relied on as young people to broker a relationship to a loving God, instead baited and switched them with a vengeful tyrant who desired only the destruction (or often its equivalent: forced transformation in the form of “reparative therapy”—which turned out to be neither reparative or therapeutic) of “deviant” people at the hands of zealous believers.
Consequently, one of the most important reasons for the public designation “Open & Affirming” is because it signals to a population otherwise suspicious of the church: “This is a safe place. To the extent that you suffer damage here, it won’t be because of your sexual orientation or gender identity.”
However—and this is the part that’s hard to understand on the banks of the river prior to dipping a toe in the water—the thing we found out after becoming O&A is that being “gay friendly” is merely the first step on an amazingly exciting journey in search of justice for all God’s children.
Since declaring ourselves O&A, our congregation has done some amazing things. We’ve sponsored and hosted a refugee family of five from Burma. We participated in grass roots community organizing that brought restorative justice practices to the Jefferson County Public School System. We’ve organized community forums on the issue of drugs in our community, which has resulted in an ongoing relationship with an inpatient treatment facility that allows mothers and pregnant mothers to remain with their children throughout the program, a program in which we provide weekly spiritual reflection times for the women, as well as organizing and maintaining a clothing closet for the women and their children. We’ve taken four work trips to a children’s home in Mexico for the purpose of completely rewiring a fifty year-old facility. We’ve sponsored and held community forums on the plight of children in the judicial and educational system. We started one of the most successful Farmers Markets in the state as an expression of our commitment to food justice. And on and on…
I know, blah, blah, blah. Sorry. But the point is that becoming O&A didn’t turn us into a one issue church, it sharpened our vision about how we might expand our understanding of justice to all the people who’ve been left holding the bag. In other words, becoming O&A gave us an opportunity to express our commitment to justice even more fully.
Now, someone might respond by saying, “Well, you could have done all those things before. You don’t have to be O&A to seek justice.”
To which I would respond, “No question. In fact, our congregation has had a historic commitment to social justice. What our O&A experience did for us, however, is to place that focus on justice front and center in the life and vision of the congregation. Now, we’re constantly looking to find new ways to express our solidarity with those our society has been only too willing to leave behind. We actively seek out new opportunities to be Christ’s presence to a world in turmoil, a world ruled by those who often think last, if at all, about those on the margins.”
As the team leader for the GLAD Alliance O&A Team, I have occasion to work with churches going through the process of becoming Open & Affirming. The question of how becoming O&A will affect the life of the congregation almost always comes up. My answer to that question:
A decision to identify as O&A will almost certainly open you up to new ministries and opportunities to learn even more pointedly what it means to follow the one who lived for those who’ve been kicked to the margins—often by the religious institutions that should have cared for them. And we, who are part of those same institutions, if we’re looking to find Jesus, we need to be part of the solution that brings a healing presence to the margins where Jesus spends his time.
The congregation where I serve became O&A because we thought it was the right thing to do … to offer a safe place to find God for those who’ve been hurt by the church. What we didn’t foresee was that our decision opened up ways for us to find God more profoundly ourselves.