A Welcoming Congregation: Still Standing!
Rev. Douglas Taylor

We have a big bright banner hanging in our social hall that proclaims we are Standing on the Side of Love. The banner, linked to this wonderful anthem we just had, is part of a major justice-making campaign in Unitarian Universalism. It began a little over a year ago. One of the explanatory sentences says, “This campaign seeks to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence.” Unitarian Universalism, as a faith tradition, stands up with love against oppression and exclusion and violence. For religious reasons we stand with the oppressed and the excluded. It could be for political reasons or social reasons, and those are a part of all this. But really, we stand on the side of love for religious reason.

On a national level, the campaign targeted two particular issues and communities of oppression. As a congregation, we have taken the “Standing on the Side of Love” idea into nearly every aspect of our justice making efforts, but on the national level the focus is of the oppression, exclusion, and violence against sexual minorities and undocumented immigrants. Next week the focus of my sermon will be on immigration. Today our focus is on our congregation’s stance as a Welcoming Congregation and with lgbt issues such as gay marriage.

Gay marriage is one of those exciting and sensational issues today. I am in the camp of people who feel it is long past time for our country to allow gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. I’ll even go so far as to push it as a separation of church and state. Let the state get out of the marriage business all together! Let the state give everyone a legal ‘union’ with all the legal rights and responsibilities that go with it. Then if a couple wants to be religiously wed as well then they can go to their clergy of choice and get right with God or whatever. But I doubt we’ll see that much change anytime soon, so I’ll keep pushing for marriage for same sex couples as it is currently formulated.

And now I hear that the general public, by a slim majority, agree with me. Columnist Leonard Pitts’ recently wrote a great article about that point. He didn’t write about how 51% of Americans agree with me exactly; the article was about how the majority now agree that gay men and women have a civil right to marry. Pitts admits, however, to a certain nagging concern in the news of this new poll data. Certainly it is great that a growing majority are ready to repeal the restrictions against marriage equality, that the great ‘voice of the people’ is growing more unified in its support. And yet …

Pitts puts it like this, “Yes, the will of the people matters a great deal. Indeed, in a democracy, few things are more deserving of deference. But still, one draws up short at the idea that human rights are subject to a popularity contest.” Lyndon Johnson did not take a poll of the American people before signing the Civil Rights Act of ’64 or the Voting Rights Act of ’65. The country was founded on the notion that all persons have ‘unalienable’ rights.

If you believe that, [Pitts’ writes,] then you cannot buy into this notion of a nation where rights are magnanimously doled out to the minority on a timetable of the majority’s choosing. You and I cannot “give” rights. We can only acknowledge, respect and defend the rights human beings are born with.
That’s the pebble in the shoe, the popcorn husk between the teeth, that nags at the conscience when one reads polls tracking how many of us approve of other people’s lives and decisions. It’s all well and good that 51 percent of us support the right of gay men and lesbians to tell it to the judge, but really, what hubris makes us think we have a right to say yea or nay in the first place?
One hopes that, as they grapple with the issue of gay marriage, our leaders will also grapple with that question. And find in it the courage to understand what Lyndon Johnson did: You don’t do the right thing because it’s popular.
You do it because it’s right.

Over my dozen years in ministry I have officiated as many same sex unions, non-legal ceremonies that recognize and honor the commitment and love between two people. A few weeks ago I walking in on a conversation my wife was having with our two boys, 18 and 9 years old, respectively. They were talking about one of the gay couples we know who are legally married, but how they had to go to Canada for the ceremony. I mentioned another couple we knew who did this in Vermont. Our youngest son was confused by this. My wife clarified for him saying that in New York State it is not yet possible to get married if you are a gay or lesbian couple. But our state does recognize other state and international marriages. In other words, you can be married to someone of the same sex in New York, you just can’t get married. To which our 9-year-old said, and I quote, “That’s stupid.”

In May of 2004, Massachusetts became the first state that allows same-sex marriage. The first same-sex couple to get a marriage license in Massachusetts was a UU couple and it was issued by the UU city clerk. And the minister officiating at the ceremony was Rev. Bill Sinkford, then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

But here in New York, we still do non-legal ‘services of union.’ The first service of union done by a UU minister for a same-sex couple was reportedly done in the late 1950s. [http://www.uua.org/documents/obgltc/history.pdf] It became more common practice in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and in 1984, we passed a resolution at our General Assembly affirming the use of “services of union” to recognize committed same-sex relationships, thus giving it official religious sanction.

But support for gay marriage is not the whole package. Indeed, that is only one aspect, a social and political aspect of a much broader picture. We are a religious community and as such there are deeply religious reasons for our support and the greatest hallmark of that support is the kind of community we create in our congregations. We are a Welcoming Congregation, which means something very particular. The Methodists have “Reconciling” congregations, the UCC call their communities “Open and Affirming,” while some Presbyterian churches have “More Light.” For Unitarian Universalists congregations we say we are “Welcoming.”

One of the first objections to being a Welcoming Congregation in a liberal community such as this is not to quote objections from the Bible or say it is against God’s will to be open and accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. We don’t get into biblical arguments here.

Other churches will make use of what have been called the “Clobber Passages” in the Bible. There are 4 or 6 or 10 passages, depending on how you count them, in the bible that are used to condemn homosexuality. But as Unitarian Universalists we have long ago stepped away from a literal reading of scripture. We have long since subscribed to the notion that the Bible is a human document, a library of books by different human author at different times from different cultures and that each text has both culturally bound portions we can set aside amidst the enduring and profound parts. So we just ignore the so-called Clobber Passages. This is not a problem for us. We just side-step the whole issue of “the bible says …” Everyone picks and chooses which scriptural texts they lift up and use. Someone once said (Lynn Lavner, comedian and musician) “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision.”

We Unitarian Universalists have a history that leads us to see this in a particular direction. We’re guided by love. We acknowledge that we are picking and choosing just like everyone else. We choose love over hate. We stand on the side of love.

So if biblical quotations are not the first line of objection among Unitarian Universalists to becoming and living the reality of being a Welcoming Congregation, what is? It is this: why single any one group out for welcoming. We are welcoming to all!

Unfortunately, churches are still the most anti-homosexual institution in America. Much of the hate against gays and lesbians is couched in religious, biblical language. The vast majority of people in prison for gay-related crime cite “religious” motivations (from p11, Welcoming Congregation). Homosexuality is the last acceptable group to hate for religious reasons – at least acceptable to some … It is not acceptable here. But it remains particularly hard for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to trust that a religious community will be a safe community. That is why we are specifically singling out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to welcome.

I was invited to speak a few weeks ago at Binghamton University to a small group of trainers for “Safe Zones.” Rev. Art Suggs from First Congregational and I spoke about how our congregations were welcoming communities and that we each came from a theological perspective that said homosexuality is welcomed, affirmed and even celebrated. Near the end of our conversation with the university people I asked, “As a person comes out of the closet about their sexual orientation, I am getting the sense that they feel the need to go into another closet if they feel at all religious.” The people around the table confirmed that this is often the case. If you are gay, it feels like you can be open about your sexuality or your spirituality but not both.

Religion has such a bad track record among gays and lesbians that a community such as ours has to go a little out of the way to be clear. It’s not enough to say, “It doesn’t matter to us if a person is gay.” We need to say, “Yes, it does matter, and all of us are welcome here.” Holly Near, composer of our opening hymn, has credited Unitarian Universalist congregations as one of the only open public places where gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and openly question people could meet socially, spiritually, and politically outside of bars for far too many years.

Our Binghamton congregation was one of the first congregations to go through the Welcoming Congregation program. The workbook was published in 1990. We completed the process and had our congregational vote to officially become “Welcoming” in June 1992, which is impressive. We were one of about ten or twenty congregations in the country at that point. Now, well over half of all Unitarian Universalist congregations are officially “Welcoming Congregations,” meaning they have gone through the workbook process. It is generally fair to say that even those of our congregations that have not done the official work are still very open and accepting communities.

Part of the process is to create structures within the life of the community to be intentionally welcoming. For example, as good UUs one of the requirements for the program is to create a standing committee that will hold LGBT issues and concerns. We had the “Gay and Lesbian Concerns” committee for a long time and in trying to be more inclusive without lengthening an already long committee name, the group has recently become the Rainbow Alliance.

When I began serving this congregation in 2003, there was an active committee hosting an annual Sunday morning worship service during the year and participating significantly in an annual interfaith evening service each summer. Over the years the energy had faded until a few years ago there was a concerted effort made by the congregation’s leadership to revitalize the committee. It seems to be working. Alongside the activities the Rainbow Alliance has in motion already now, I have been suggesting we consider going through the Welcoming Congregation workshop again.

Currently the program is in its second edition. And it has been suggested that a congregation can pick up just the revised portions when they want to re-do the process. One major change from the first to second edition is found in the attention given to racism and the confluence of oppressions such as racism and homophobia. The second major change is in the attention given to bisexual and transgender concerns. It is noted that people work to dismantle homophobia first, then biphobia and then transphobia – in that order.

I don’t know, calling it all about ‘phobias’ like that is not an enticing way into the conversation. I absolutely understand that fear is at the root of a lot of the issues, but it seems to me the driving reason this all matters to us, why it matters to me, is that I want all of us to be able to gather in an open and welcoming congregation like this to grow in spirit and compassion so we can build a better world together. I want my friends to be able to come here – all my gay, straight, lesbian, trans, bi, and questioning friends.

For nearly 20 years now, this congregation has been standing up as Welcoming and celebrating community, offering a loving message of inclusion and acceptance. Nearly 20 years and we’re still standing on the side of love. And when we are welcoming to those who are shunned for supposedly religious reasons, then we are welcoming in all the best of ways.

In a world without end,
May it be so.