“WELCOMING CONGREGATION” 7/22/07
Our “Welcoming Congregation” group began meeting as a Second Hour option this past January. Our purpose is to explore our inclusiveness and our behavior toward Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people. (GLBT) It began as an eight hour session “looking into our congregation’s acceptance and understanding of bisexual, gay, lesbian and/or transgender people. The goal is to encourage and lead our entire congregation to be inclusive and welcoming to all people.” We have long passed the eight session number and we keep going.
Our group has explored ways in which we can all be inclusive and expressive of the concerns of gay, lesbian bisexual, and/or transgender persons (GLBT) at every level of congregational life – in worship, in program, and in social occasions, welcoming not only their presence but their unique gifts as well.
“But”, you say, “We are already a ‘welcoming’ group! We don’t need to worry about that! We are preaching to the choir.” It’s true; we are very warm and we are hospitable. We are glad when new people come through our doors. But we, as a congregation, should not be leery to look closely at ourselves and our opinions, our reflex actions, our tolerance, our acceptance of others.
Through the Welcoming Congregation Series, we have explored our thoughts and feelings about sexual orientation, looked at the origins of our beliefs and tested our attitudes. We have tried to better understand the experiences of the bisexual, gay, lesbian and/or transgender person and to see the effects of heterosexism and homophobia on all people.
This morning we want to share with the congregation our thoughts, our feelings and our journey. We hope through our discussions and our awareness we can all better understand the experiences of the GLBT, better nurture people of ALL affectational and sexual orientations and gender identifications, creating deeper trust and sharing among all.
This morning, along with your program, you have been handed a sheet of definitions. This may seem so basic to you that you think it unnecessary, but we have learned in our Welcoming Congregation Workshops that we cannot take anything granted – our knowledge, our responsive reflexes, our emotions. One side of the paper has definitions – Do you know the difference between a Transsexual and a Transgender person? Do you understand Heterosexism and the meaning of “Intersexual”? Are you homophobic? Do you tell gay-bashing jokes?
On the other side of the handout is a continuum of Attitudes and Actions. We challenge you to be honest with yourself and place yourself on the pyramid. While we would hope that we would all be at the top of the stack – initiating action and preventing discrimination – the reality is that few are there and most of us fall in the middle or top of the middle. We are tolerant but we do not act. We support antidiscrimination but we don’t march, we don’t write letters, we don’t speak up in a group.
If we see discrimination against a GLBT person, so we step in? Do we have the courage?
I’d like to tell you the story of one young man who is described by his parents as “loving people, helping people and making others feel good.” He had, according to his father, a “hope for a better world, free of harassment and discrimination because a person was different.” He was born in December of 1976 – a “bicentennial baby”. He grew up in Casper, Wyoming and studied at the American School in Switzerland in high school. He explored Europe when he studied in Switzerland and he learned to speak German and Italian and Spanish. He studied at the Univ. Of Wyoming, was extremely interested in politics and was chosen as the representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.
On the morning of October 7, 1998 Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, after meeting Matthew Shepard in a gay bar and befriending him, beat him brutally and left him to die, tied to a fence rail in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. Prosecutor Calvin Rerucha said Shepard was covered with blood with only one clean spot found on his face “where tears had run down.”
In McKinney’s trial the his attorney used a defense called the “gay panic”:
The Court TV Transcript writes:
The “gay panic” defense essentially argues that the defendant (McKinney) was so enraged by a homosexual overture that he could not prevent himself from engaging in the murder.
On October 27, 1999, both men were found guilty of First Degree Murder. In her column on the murder, Denver Post Columnist Diane Carman says:
“The opportunity to be threatened, humiliated and to live in fear of being beaten to death is the only “special right” our culture bestows on …….homosexuals.”
Take that quote and substitute other words: lesbian, bisexual, transgender– or Muslim, Hindu, Jew– or how about Hispanic, Asian, Arab, or Persian. We are, perhaps, not so kind and gentle a culture as we like to believe we are. Oppression is ever present in our society, sparked by differences of, race, ethnicity, ability, class, age, gender, sexual orientation and…..Religion.
Our goal this morning is to challenge you. It is a kind and gentle challenge, for each of us to examine carefully our own perceptions and feelings about gay and transgender persons, to question our entrenched beliefs and values. The scientists say that there is an automatic physical response to recognize “other” when we see it. How do you respond when you see or meet a gay, lesbian or transgender person?
Let me tell you the Welcoming story of The Reverend Gail R. Geisenhainer, Minister with The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Florida. Before entering the ministry, Gail used to drive a snow plow up in Maine. One day, a persistent friend practically dragged her, kicking and screaming, to a UU church. She decided that if she was going to visit a church, she would do her best to test its mettle. She writes:
I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chain saw cut that exposed the steel toe. I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket. There would be not a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning.
The sweet congregation from that small UU church in Maine “never flinched” – they welcomed her! But, later, she notes:
During the worship service on my second or third Sunday, a woman stood during Joys and Concerns to announce that all homosexuals had AIDS, all homosexuals were deviants who could not be trusted with children, public health or civil society. All homosexuals should be quarantined and packed off to work camps to provide useful labor for society…
The next Sunday, the congregation’s Joys and Concerns included many members who rose to say that “not everything said last week was right, or true, or representative of who we were as a Unitarian Universalist congregation.” Rev. Geisenhainer had found a refuge. In her universe of exclusion and repulsion she had found a place of Welcome.
Every Sunday we are handed a program when we arrive, on the back of which is the reminder that “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote:
· The inherent worth and dignity of every person
That 1st UU principle always reminds me of the words of MLK, in 1963, when he shared his dream that someday people would be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. The civil rights movement didn’t end with the passage of the civil rights in 1964. Some people in our society are still ‘more equal’ than others. On the average, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work. And we are not so color blind as we might wish we were. Before we are born, we don’t get to choose to be black or white, born into riches or poverty, a boy or a girl, straight or gay, or anywhere else along those many continuums. We are who we are.
UUs have always had an abiding love for justice, and we have never shied from the struggle for equality. It is our hope that the program this morning will contribute to that struggle, and also remind us of our shortfalls and the challenges we have yet to face.
In the tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we intend to continue this process of understanding and appreciation, to continue looking for those ‘true colors shining through. Those true colors, beautiful, like a rainbow’.
The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns (or OBGLTC) works to “foster acceptance, inclusion, understanding, and equity for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and/or transgender persons of all colors, races, and ethnicities, both within the UUA and in society at large. OBGLTC helps individuals and congregations confront homophobia and heterosexism, and affirms the inherent worth and dignity of persons of all sexual orientations and gender expressions and identities through the Welcoming Congregation and Living the Welcoming Congregation programs.”
With the help of the UUA resources, we will sponsor a community panel on GLBT in our community. At some point in the not so distant future, we will ask the fellowship to accept the responsibility of being listed as a Welcoming Congregation. Of the 45 UU churches in the state of Florida, twenty are Welcoming Congregations.
Of the nine UU churches in Alabama, only three are officially Welcoming Congregations. In Mississippi there are six UU churches but none are listed on the Welcoming Congregation list. In Wyoming there are four UU churches. Three are Welcoming Congregations. One of those is in Casper.
We want to join that list. We want to tell other UU’s, other churches, our community and our region that we, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast, truly welcome everyone. We want to say:
“Come in! We respect your worth and dignity. We appreciate your whole self. We respect your privacy and your choices. We Welcome YOU and we are glad you are here.”