Welcoming Congregation Program Builds Diversity
2007 Update: Since this article was written in 1999, more than half of all Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations have completed the Welcoming Congregation program.
The Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL (535 members), became a Welcoming Congregation a year and a half ago. "When the program was first suggested some members were nervous," says Linda LaPlante, a member of the welcoming congregation committee. They weren't sure what changes it might bring about or whether their own beliefs might be challenged.
But because the congregation prided itself on being a place where diversity was welcome, it plunged in. "And there were some awkward moments," says LaPlante, but members worked them out. "People agreed that because the project was important, they could be a little uncomfortable while they looked at their own feelings," she said. "This was something worth doing."
The welcoming congregation program is a series of workshops developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for congregations who wish to reach out to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The goal is to reduce prejudice by increasing understanding and acceptance among people of different sexual orientations.
Many congregations offer the workshop series as an adult religious education program.
The Evanston congregation voted in May 1998 to be a welcoming congregation. A year and a half later, one of the things that LaPlante takes pride in is "sitting in church and looking around at the gay and lesbian couples and others. Just looking at these folks, seeing all the 'family-ness' going on, it's very satisfying."
One in five UU congregations are welcoming congregations, says Rev Keith Kron, Director of the UUA Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns. The number has tripled in three years, and at least two hundred congregations are working through the program.
"There's often an unspoken fear," he says, "that this church will become a gay church if we do the program. I tell people that that hasn't happened so far. Churches with a high percentage of gays and lesbians are in areas where there's a high percentage in the general population."
Kron recommends the program be started by a team of four to six people, but he notes that one person can often get it going. Allow two years. "I've seen congregations move from being afraid of what they might lose in terms of being a homogenous group to being sad over what they've lost in not having diversity," Kron says. "Generally the process of going through welcoming congregation generates such good feelings that membership numbers go up or stay the same and so does pledging. It's people saying, 'We're making a difference. We're living our values.'"
The South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Salt Lake City, UT (140), became a welcoming congregation in 1995. "The course has been offered four times and the rewards continue to grow," says Antoinette Rahman, a member of the original committee.
In the most recent class, "we brought more spirituality within the makeup of the class. We also emphasized listening. Everyone still didn't agree on everything that was said, but they listened to each other. When straight people were listening to gays tell their stories I could see transformation occurring before my eyes."