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Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lakes, Elkhorn, WI: A Welcoming Congregation Journey
by Jody Lynn Rendall
June 12, 2011
We are a small congregation (twenty-seven members) with no minister situated in a small town in Wisconsin. The county in which we're located is very, very conservative. Schools do not recognize themselves as having any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) problems. Those who are open about their sexual preference and/or gender identity are not particularly looked upon with respect. Over the year there have been hate crimes at our local state university. In the past, transsexuals have been verbally and physically harassed. As you might expect members of the LGBT community keep a very low profile. There are no support groups or LGBT community services.
Last year at our annual meeting we unanimously approved a resolution to initiate a Welcoming Congregation Program. A committee was formed of myself and another board member, as well as our Church Assistant, and we created an action plan. Our primary goal then and now is to get the word out that there's a safe, welcoming place in the county.
Our first step was to make sure language in our bylaws addressed both sexual preference and gender identity in terms of non-discrimination.
Because of the small size of the congregation and the fact that we are geographically spread out all over the county, we realized that evening adult education meetings would not work. In fact, we have neither adult nor children educational programs, although we have purchased several picture books written for 4-8 year olds dealing with LGBT issues. Every month or so, I'd do a Sunday service that would deal with an LGBT issue. We tried to keep a balance between general issues, same-sex issues, and transgender issues. (The most confusion from the congregation was with what it means to be transgender.)
We would also have open and candid small group discussions to ask questions and share concerns. Also, we ran a monthly op-ed/educational column in our e-newsletter called the "Rainbow Connection." Also, over the year we have had guest ministers speak on topics of diversity and hate, and I in turn have been contacted by other UU churches to do Sunday services that deal with transgender issues.
At first, we weren't sure how to do community outreach since there are no LGBT organizations in our county. We hit upon the idea of an LGBT film festival. Every six weeks we'd offer a movie in our church that would cover some LGBT topic. These movies were open to the public and there was no charge. We served refreshments as well. Letters about our films were sent to every public school system in the county, LGBT groups in the closest cities, and local churches that are a bit more open-minded. In the letter we described the movies and also offered our services of our church as a meeting place and as a resource to help with LGBT issues. We also posted our events on our website. The movies we screened were Normal, Milk, Southern Comfort, For the Bible Tells Me So, and The Celluloid Closet. At every screening there were members of the LGBT community along with church members and the general public. We had wonderful discussions afterwards and received positive feedback.
Our goal of being a safe haven seems to be working. We've noticed that we're getting more members from the LGBT community in the area. We started a second season of our LGBT film series and we're focusing more on outreach and support. Among other things, we've launched a secondary, stand-alone website called LGBT Walworth County. We also planned three services focusing on LGBT issues for the 2011-12 congregational year, and at the first one, an all-music service celebrating our recognition as a Welcoming Congregation, our average attendance of 15 shot up to 42 people!
If we are, indeed, going to welcome and accept diversity in this world we need to open both our hearts and minds. For members of the LGBT community, a truly welcoming church can be an island of hope and compassion amidst a sea of fear and confusion. Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lakes is proud to be that welcoming oasis.