By Donald E. Skinner. Previously published in UU World magazine, June 2, 2006. Used with permission.
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations marked a milestone in its support for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people this week as a Georgia church become the 500th UU congregation to commit to welcoming (LGBT) people to all aspects of its life.
UU Metro Atlanta North, a congregation in Roswell, Ga., completed the UUA's Welcoming Program with a formal vote in a congregational meeting last week. The Welcoming Congregation program involves 18 months to two years of congregational study about being intentionally welcoming to (LGBT) people. The process culminates with a congregational vote.
The program began in 1989 when delegates at General Assembly approved a resolution drafted by Interweave (then known as UUs for Lesbian and Gay Concerns), the UUA-affiliated membership organization for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people and their allies. The Welcoming Congregation curriculum was created in 1990 and the first congregation was certified in 1991.
Reaching the 500 milestone means that almost half of the UUA's 1,017 congregations are now Welcoming Congregations. The halfway point will be reached when the 509th congregation is certified. That should happen sometime this summer, said the Rev. Keith Kron, director of the UUA's Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns.
The Georgia congregation's minister, the Rev. Greg Ward, said parishioners' interest in becoming a Welcoming Congregation grew along with anti-gay rhetoric in the larger society, including passage of a Georgia law prohibiting same-sex marriage, until the commitment was made to engage in the program.
Kim Palmer, a Welcoming Congregation committee member, said the process changed the congregation. "I think we became more aware of (LGBT) issues generally," she said, "and many individuals grew personally in their knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of sexual orientation and gender-identification minorities." Janet Lacey, a co-chair of the committee, added that hearing gays' and lesbians' experiences as they came out to their families made evident the need for a place for (LGBT) people to feel safe and accepted.
"It was exciting to formally agree that we wanted to be that kind of place," Lacey said, adding, "I think the challenging part is still ahead of us, to continue to do the work of actively being a Welcoming Congregation."
Lacey cited several special moments during the process, including a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. She also cited the number of people who came forward to be on the committee and to facilitate the workshops. "After two years," she said, "we still have 10 people on the committee who are dedicated to this." The congregation has 192 members.
When an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution was proposed in 2004, members tied a rainbow ribbon around the church building, declaring it a hate-free zone, one of very few Georgia churches to take this step.
"We learned a lot—including that doing justice to this work was not nearly as simple as was first thought," Ward said. "We learned how to take risks, how to hold conversations that were safe for everyone, how it is difficult to always be conscious of making room for different identities, needs, and perspectives. I think we began to discover that the lessons at the heart of this program were not just applicable to sexuality and gender issues but were as valid when applied to our theological diversity, our program diversity, and even the range of diversity in our leadership styles."
The first Welcoming Congregation, certified in 1991, was the First Parish in Brewster, Mass. Gloria Davies and her partner Linda Bailey joined the congregation three or four years later and Davies is currently part of its Welcoming Congregation program. "It's been an incredible journey," she said.
"When we first started going to First Parish there were 10 or 12 of us who identified as gay to each other," she said. "Now there are 60 or 70 in a congregation of 600. And it's not just that we're welcome and accepted at services. The gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community is totally integrated and visible everywhere in the church. The whole congregation has a sense of ownership about being welcoming to us."
Brewster has taken its support of (LGBT) people into the larger community. It is one of the sponsors of GAYLA, an annual dance open to (LGBT) people and others. "It started as a community-builder for (LGBT) folks and now it's an annual event the whole community looks forward to," she said.
Shortly after becoming a Welcoming Congregation, First Parish initiated a campaign to require the Town of Brewster to provide domestic partner benefits for employees. Most of the congregation attended a Brewster town meeting and the measure passed.
"I wish you could hear the testimonials at First Parish," said Davies. "You would hear the most heart-rending stories of people who found the church and were finally allowed to be themselves and reconnect with their own sense of spirituality. This is a religious community that is more than accepting, more than tolerant. It celebrates diversity. And has a real sense of pride about it."
Davies said the support she felt at First Parish helped her and Bailey decide to become one of the plaintiff couples in the lawsuit that culminated two years ago in Massachusetts becoming the first state to approve same-sex marriage. "If it weren't for First Parish we would not have joined that case," she said. "The whole congregation was very involved in that."
Kron said 80 percent of Unitarian Universalist congregations with more than 550 members have completed the program but that congregations with less than 100 members often struggle to muster enough volunteers to conduct the rigorous program. "Perhaps the group who should lead the process in small congregations is the board of trustees, who might do a little of the process at each board meeting," he said. "Very small congregations can also consider doing Welcoming Congregation segments as part of Sunday worship."
He said a turning point for many congregations came in 1998 when the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, drew national horror. "A lot of congregations began thinking about hatred and bigotry and what they could do in response," said Kron. The current marriage equality movement has also inspired congregations to act.
An earlier inspiration came at the UUA's 1996 General Assembly in Indianapolis when, in support of an Interweave marriage equality resolution, UUA President John Buehrens invited all same-sex couples up on stage. "That provided a visual reminder of why we were doing this work—that there were people in our midst as well as the larger world who needed to be welcomed," said Kron. "The reaction to this was extremely positive. There were a few who thought that John was strong-arming the process, but it really was a group effort with our office and the public information office. We all decided it was the right thing to do." A photo of that event hangs in the lobby at UUA headquarters. How many people were there? "The stage was pretty full," said Kron.
He said people are constantly amazed at the power of Welcoming Congregation. "Doing the workshops leads people into conversations they've never had before," he said. "There's just a richness they didn't expect. To understand what LGBT people have gone through is extremely powerful."