Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northfield, MN: A Welcoming Congregation Journey
by Rev. Kristin Maier
September 22, 2011
It was a surprise to us, when a year and a half ago a visitor told us he almost didn’t come to our fellowship because we weren’t a Welcoming Congregation. We thought we were. We were certainly welcoming in practice, with several members and a new minister who were part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. Our congregation even took a vote 15 years ago to become a welcoming congregation. Apparently, we didn’t complete the official process and paperwork those many years ago.
We had a choice to make. We could continue on as we had been, welcoming in all but name. We could document what had been done fifteen years ago and try to get on the official list. Or, we could engage the process anew, recommitting ourselves to being a welcoming and justice seeking congregation. Our congregation chose to recommit themselves.
With fewer than fifty members and both the minister and Director of Religious Eduction (DRE) serving part-time, completing the program would be a stretch. Our people power was already fully tapped keeping our congregation running and putting together numerous lay-led services each year. According to the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) office of LGBT Ministries, this was typical for smaller congregations. They suggested that we do less, but do it more intentionally. They told us we should make the program work for us. We took them at their word.
A Welcoming Congregation Committee was formed and got to work right away. The group worked with our minister, the Reverend Kristin Maier, to envision a program that would challenge us at our growing edges in a simple format that fit into what our congregation already offered. The committee planned a four part series of speakers that would be part of Sunday worship service with expanded time for open discussion. The series would coincide with our annual Rainbow (Standing on the Side of Love) Dinner. This would be the third year that our congregation would invite the community into our building to hear an educational speaker and enjoy a home-cooked gourmet dinner celebrating our community’s diversity.
The chair of our Welcoming Congregation Committee, Pat Tullo, led the charge looking for suitable speakers with an almost non-existent budget. Our district executive, Nancy Heege, pointed us to the Reverend Doctor David Breeden. He graciously agreed to speak to our congregation about his experiences with transgender family members. It was our first in the series and allowed us to dive right into the spiritual and ethical calling to support everyone in their right to be who they are.
Pat Tullo also talked early and often with the UUA's LGBT Ministries staff, who were very supportive of our efforts. The UUA's LGBT Ministries Program Coordinator, Delfin Bautista, even agreed to be our keynote speaker for the Rainbow Dinner. He spoke to our broader community about the national Standing on the Side of Love campaign. He also preached at our Sunday service and led us in a workshop envisioning how to live our commitment to justice beyond the Welcoming Congregation Program.
Our third service included a panel of students from Carleton College in Northfield. A gay man, lesbian woman, and transgender man all spoke about their experiences at Carleton, in our community of Northfield, and while growing up in different parts of the country.
In a town with two colleges (Carleton and St. Olaf), many students attend our services and both campuses have active UU student groups. We found that the Welcoming Congregation Program became an opportunity to further strengthen our ties with both student communities. Many attended our Rainbow Dinner and the four services. A portion of the net proceeds from the Rainbow Dinner was donated to Carleton’s Gender and Sexuality Center, as was done for the Gay, Lesbian, Or Whatever group (GLOW) at St. Olaf the year before.
Our final service in the series was both a celebration of all that we had learned and experienced and a challenge to continue the work of love and justice beyond our Welcoming Congregation Program. Rev. Maier preached on the need to continue working for justice and safety for all, especially transgender people. Like all of the services, our members engaged in thoughtful and heartfelt discussion together.
At our annual meeting that May, our congregation unanimously voted to become recognized (officially!) as a Welcoming Congregation. Our committee chair made sure everything was documented and submitted to the UUA's office of LGBT Ministries.
This summer we received our official letter. Visitors no longer have to wonder if we are welcoming. And perhaps most importantly, our congregation learned and grew together. We are more committed than ever to doing the work of justice. At our town’s annual Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration, we were out on the street asking our community, "What else might we defeat?... Racism? Homophobia? Transphobia? Discrimination Against Immigrants?...." Our work goes on.