United Church of Christ welcomes diverse members, including gays

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, February 1, 2014

EDGERTON--Becky Riley and her husband, Evan, lived in Edgerton five years before they attended Edgerton Congregational United Church of Christ.

“When we did, it was like a breath of fresh air,” Becky recalls. “It was really stressful because we have two little kids, but they embraced our family right away.”

The Rileys felt at home in their new church, and it was important to them that others from diverse backgrounds feel at home, too.

When their congregation began to study whether it would become “open and affirming” to gay people, poor people and people of all colors, Becky volunteered to co-chair the task force. The task force led the church through a 14-month educational process.

“Being involved was a way to express our family's gratitude for having found this church,” she said. “We wanted to let others know that this is a place where you can come and be accepted.”

Last October, congregation members voted unanimously to approve a resolution which declares that the church is open and welcoming to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The resolution also welcomes people regardless of physical, cognitive and mental abilities, age, race, ethnicity or marital status.

The church has been welcoming to all people for many years, said Pastor Lora Whitten.

“But there's something about being silent that doesn't follow the teachings of Christ,” she said. “We can be open and affirming within our walls, but it is much different to take a public stand.”

She calls her 112-member congregation brave for voting in favor of the resolution and “for wanting to live out the message of the Christian gospel, which is love.”

For Becky, the public affirmation was important.

“I wanted to make sure that we made a strong statement saying that everyone is welcome,” the middle school teacher said. “God's love is not just for certain people.”

Since becoming open and affirming, Edgerton's congregational church has changed, said Josh Bartz, who co-chaired the task force with Becky.

“The process was really an education about diversity,” Bartz said. “We talked about ageism, sexism, expression of gender identity, sexual orientation, economic backgrounds and marital status. It was a comprehensive process.”

The effort allowed people to explore their attitudes.

“The process forced us to look at ourselves as a church and as a community,” Bartz said. “We were able to identify our strengths and our challenges.”

The Edgerton church is not alone in its action.

Janesville's First Congregational United Church of Christ adopted a similar resolution last year, which welcomes people in the LGBT community, people with mental and physical disabilities and people from different economic and racial groups.

Jim and Janet Hay serve on the church's membership ministry.

“It took more than a year to complete the education process,” Jim said. “Every month we met and had a different topic of conversation. We brought in speakers from the LGBT community and looked at an excellent video.”

He was surprised at the number of people in their 70s and 80s who supported the resolution.

“We had intense conversations around our feelings and backgrounds,” Janet said. “We included the entire congregation in the process, but no one brought up any concerns.”

A third church has started the educational process to become open and affirming.

“We heard about other churches which have done it,” said Pastor Luke Bocher of the Evansville Congregational United Church of Christ. “We decided to begin the process ourselves. We don't have a timetable, but we are probably six months off from making a decision.”

His personal hope is that the church adopts a resolution.

“We want to tell people that you don't have to be quiet about who you are,” he said. “We want to tell them that we accept you as God created you, and it is good.”

The trend in all denominations seems to be more openness toward people of different sexual orientations, Bocher said.

Andy Lang, executive director of the United Church of Christ for LGBT concerns, said the movement to become open and affirming is nationwide among more than 1,100 United Church of Christ churches.

Since the effort began almost 30 years ago, 26 percent have passed resolutions, with increased approval in recent years.

“I think we will reach 40 percent in the next five years,” Lang said.

The choice to become open and affirming is up to individual churches and is initiated by congregation members. The resolution allows all members to take part in church committees and governing boards.

“We're very proud of Wisconsin,” said Lang, whose group is based in Cleveland, Ohio. “The state has a strong open-and-affirming movement, which is the largest of several LGBT-welcoming movements in the country.”

Other denominations, including United Methodist, have similar movements, he said.

But Christian denominations still embrace a diversity of beliefs about homosexuality, ranging from open and affirming to viewing homosexuality as a sin.

Pioneering the LGBT-friendly movement in Janesville was First Christian Church, which adopted an open and affirming policy in March 2007. The policy welcomes people regardless of age, abilities, sexual orientation, income and race.

“There are lots of ways to separate people,” said Rev. Dee Ann Woods of the church. “We are saying that God makes room for all of us.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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