The Importance of Open & Affirming Ministry to a Grieving Family

Susan Jaquith, a long-time member of GLAD, shares why Open & Affirming Ministry has been so meaningful to her and her family.

At the time of my brother’s death in 2007, it was very important that our family be spared rejection by the church in a time of grief. There have been members of Capital Area Christian Churches who’ve said to me, “Well, you could’ve had Warren’s memorial service at our church” when their church isn’t O&A. I explained to them that while grieving my gay brother and planning his memorial service, the one thing I avoided was having to call around to Disciples churches and making this phone pitch:

“Hello – I grew up in the DOC, as did my brother. He just died and for the sake of our elderly, grieving parents, we’d like to help comfort them by having his memorial service in a church… and, oh, my brother, who was once very active in the Disciples’ church, happened to be gay. We expect several hundred of his LGBT friends to attend the service. How does your church feel about gay people?”

It was not the time or place to be asking such a question. It invited the risk of being hurt once more by the church’s rejection.

It was much easier, emotionally speaking, to Google “Open & Affirming,” and that’s exactly what I did. That is how Christ Congregational UCC, Silver Spring, hosted the memorial service. Because of their public Open & Affirming witness this congregation was given the opportunity to open their doors and minister to several hundred strangers.

Susan and Warren, about 1952. Warren was Susan's older brother by 15 months.
Susan and Warren, about 1952. Warren was Susan’s older brother by 15 months.
My brother Warren was an accomplished square dance caller and suffered a massive stroke while teaching a square dance class a week prior to his 59th birthday. He helped establish Lambda Squares, an LGBT square dancing group that meets today at National City Christian Church, and helped with the formation of the Baltimore LGBT square dance group.

Warren and I are third generation Disciples. In his formative years, Warren was president of his Chi Rho group for 3 years and again, president of his CYF group for 3 years. He sang in the youth choir and served as a Junior Deacon. He was a speaker on Youth Sunday for each of the 6 years between the ages if 12-18. He attended Chi Rho, CYF, and Family Camp at Bethany Beach, Delaware. Adults in our home church encouraged him to consider ordained ministry.

It was not to be – Warren never returned to his home church after high school graduation in 1966.

Perhaps it was our congregation’s treatment of Harland and Paul, now deceased, that led to my brother’s decision to stay away from church. Harland and Paul joined our congregation in the mid-1960s. They were welcomed by the pastor. They were active in the church. One was the director of the Youth Choir. However, Paul’s nomination as deacon drew heated lay opposition. Paul and Harland left the church. It was clear they weren’t welcome.

Warren observed the treatment of Paul and Harland. It was after their ouster that Warren ceased to be part of the church. At one point in the 1970s, Warren attended the MCC congregation in DC, but told me “it just didn’t feel like home”. Later, he remarked that his square dancing family was “like church” to him. There he found acceptance and affirmation: a community that celebrated each other’s joys and sorrows. In Warren’s honor, Lambda Squares started a “Warren Jaquith Memorial Scholarship Fund” after his death. The fund helps LGBT square dancers with financial assistance to attend events, classes, and other events.

My family chose Christ Congregational UCC, Silver Spring, MD for Warren’s memorial service because it was an Open & Affirming church. The service was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300.

At my family’s request, family of course including Warren’s partner of 23 years, Tom Pearson, the congregation’s O&A welcoming statement was read by the pastor at the start of the service and was also included in the service bulletin. It was imperative that all those attending and especially LGBT persons know that the church’s welcome was extended not only by the pastor, but also by the entire congregation. Indeed, the LGBT Family & Friends group of Christ Congregational served as ushers and set up the fellowship hall for the reception following the service and cleaned up afterwards.

Our family and friends who attended the memorial service told us how wonderful it was to be in such a loving, welcoming, healing place where they were immediately put at ease and their fears erased with the pastor’s welcome and the congregation’s welcome (many were especially appreciative and impressed that the church would adopt an Open & Affirming statement as part of the church’s identity with the Christian faith).

The pastor, at our request, offered not only a celebrative affirmation of Warren’s life, but a specific blessing of Warren and Tom’s relationship. Marriage for them was not legal in Virginia. This was vitally important for Tom and especially my parents and family; a blessing in the setting of a church spoke volumes of God’s radical love, affirmation, and acceptance. My parents had never heard their first born son blessed and affirmed as a gay man, nor had they had the opportunity to hear his relationship blessed. Like so many families, they never spoke of their son’s same-sex love and commitment to his partner. The silence – especially from the church – is shaming. The memorial service brought great healing to all present. What a witness!

I was particularly moved by my father’s response. Shaming silence was his experience in his church. My parents never acknowledged their oldest child and his partner within their own DOC congregation. In fact, several members of my parents’ DOC church who attended the memorial service remarked to me “I didn’t know your brother was gay.”

Several weeks after the service, my then 87 year old father wrote a letter of gratitude to Christ Congregational UCC. He told of being overwhelmed by the hospitality of the congregation and thanked them for their particular welcoming ministry to gay people, observing that churches have generally closed their doors to gay people. He referred to the congregants and pastor as “our new and dear friends and family.” Never before had he and my mom been in such a church, even though my father’s boyhood church in Northampton, MA had become, unbeknownst to him, an O&A congregation.

Warren was the best brother anyone could have. I wish we’d all been able to grow up in a welcoming congregation.

My support of GLAD is a prayer in hopes that congregations will open wide their doors with a public and joyful affirmation of all marginalized folks and our families, especially lgbt folks. Little children growing up in the church like Warren, and their families, need an openly welcoming, affirming church home.