What It's Like to Walk Into a Welcoming and Affirming Church

Sue Peace, from Hamilton, talked about this with us today.  Here, with her permission, is the text.

Good morning.  Thank you for the invitation to come and speak with you this morning.  It’s wonderful to share this worship space together, and my partner Angela and I, and our son John, are happy to be here.  It is great to know that you are exploring becoming an affirming ministry here at Forest Grove United Church.  I feel that engaging in these questions and conversations can be truly enriching for everyone connected to the church community – so this is really exciting stuff and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with you today.

When Reverend Watts asked if I might consider coming to share what it’s like for me to walk into a welcoming and affirming church, I immediately accepted the invitation.  I want to start off by stating emphatically that I believe becoming an affirming United Church is a significant and important undertaking.  This choice matters.  Even though, in a city like Toronto, our congregations may feel that we are already totally welcoming, and even though we may have individuals who identify as LGBTQ in our congregations, and even though the head of the United Church is openly gay, choosing to exist as an affirming congregation is a big deal.  This morning, I’d like to share a little bit from my own experience and shed some light on what a meaningful process this can be.

Before I do that, I need to state a little disclaimer upfront and make clear that the ideas I offer this morning are solely my personal perspectives and experiences.  I am not speaking on behalf of the entire LGBTQ community. I can only offer my one voice.  I think God calls us to engage with and listen to many voices – and even when we do this the picture will never really be complete.  So I offer my thoughts today with a strong feeling that we must continually make room for more people to share their truths.

I have stayed connected to the broader church community for most of my life.  I started out as a United Church kid. When I could reliably shake a hand and hold out a bulletin at the same time, I did the Sunday morning greeting alongside my parents.  I was also forced to play Mary to my older brother’s Joseph in way too many Christmas Nativities. In high school, I showed off my rebellious side by swapping my parents’ church with a more conservative one, and for the first few years of university I attended the student church and was an active member of one of the Christian clubs on campus.  By the time I hit 20 I had been to a lot of church.  Part way through my university years, I began a break from the church which lasted for a good chunk of time.  More on that in a moment.  Over time, I found my way back to the United Church with an affirming congregation in downtown Toronto.  It was at this church where Angela and I would eventually get married, and a few years later, baptize our son. I mention all of this because it’s important to know that, for the most part, I feel pretty comfortable in most church spaces.   

            You should also know that I have not experienced a lot of adversity in my life because I am gay.  My family is supportive.  I’ve spent almost all of life in metropolitan cities with rich and diverse cultural communities.  I haven’t had people shout homophobic slurs towards me nor have I faced barriers to employment because of who I am. That’s not to say that it has always been easy, or to suggest that discrimination doesn’t exist in places like Toronto -- we know that it does.  It’s just that my sense of physical, mental, and emotional safety has not been compromised by the hateful words and actions of others.  I wish more of my friends could say the same.

            These two threads in my life story, the degree of comfort I have in the United Church and my distance from experiences of rejection and discrimination, have a significant impact on what it’s like for me to walk into an affirming church.  It would be fascinating to hear from more people on this same question.  For me, walking into an affirming church is fairly positive.  Sometimes just seeing the rainbow flag on a church sign can lift my spirits.  Here’s why:

            I travel within Ontario for work quite a bit, and I am ALWAYS checking out church signs while I drive between schools.  I’m not necessarily looking for anything specific when I do this – except for maybe some good church humour – I love when churches put things like, “God answers knee-mail” on their signs.  Anyway, I’m not out there scouring southwestern Ontario for rainbow flags, but I am SURE to notice when I do see a rainbow flag sticker on a church sign.  Though I’ll likely be past that rainbow in a matter of moments, it is enough time for me to experience a passing moment of affirmation.  I belong.  I have a place here.  It tells me that this faith community is reconciling with their LGBTQ neighbours and it’s tremendously encouraging.  These flags on the outsides of our buildings are signs of welcome.  They also serve as a sign of recognition, of solidarity, and as a sign of commitment to justice and safety for the LGBTQ community.  It’s a reminder to the local community that the wider church can both reckon with its ongoing mistreatment and discrimination of LGBTQ peoples AND be a place that affirms and encourages the full participation of LGBTQ people in community life.  A rainbow flag on church property is a sign that the faith community is engaged, and it can change lives through passive exposure without anyone ever having to walk inside the doors.

This past Thursday I visited a teacher at Rose Avenue Public school downtown.  The neighbourhood is dense, and the learners at the school represent about 50 different language groups.  The school is an incredible place.  Not more than 200m from the front door of this school is the Anglican church of St. Peter and St. Simon’s, and they have a small rainbow flag in the bottom left corner of their sign.  The kids at Rose Ave. Public School see that symbol on that church sign day after day. Most kids won’t care. However, I wondered if some students might notice that this rainbow flag is different because it is on a church sign.  Perhaps these kids hadn’t considered that the LGBTQ community and religion could be compatible.  Perhaps they hadn’t considered that people in the LGBTQ community might want to go to church.  Perhaps it won’t mean anything to some of them until they’re well into their adult years.  The important part it that the symbol is there … out in the open … and the kids pass by it every day.

            Affirming churches offer safe space for LGBTQ people. There is a palpable difference in how I feel when I walk into a church I know is affirming. It feels right to be in spaces where I can be my fullest self and exist honestly and openly in a faith community.  Let’s return for a moment to the break I took from the church a number of years ago.  That break had to happen because there was a lack of safe space for me in my faith communities.  What I mean by safe space here is that there was no space for my truth to exist in the communities I was a part of.  To stay meant keeping who I was and what my life looked like to myself, and it meant listening to heteronormative messages from the announcements at the beginning of the service straight through to the final prayer.  This was a very challenging time for me.  Years later, I moved back to Toronto and Angela and I started attending and participating in an affirming United Church.  I didn’t realize what that meant for me until I was asked if I would help lead communion at the Easter Vigil service the young adults group was organizing. I stood beside the minister that evening and we read through the Communion liturgy – declaring Christ’s table an open table; declaring God’s love for all people; offering Jesus’ invitation to share communion together with all in the human family.  As we did so, I realized that I was standing firmly and proudly in the “rightness” and fullness of who I was.  I also understood that the thankful response I could offer was to continue to participate in the church from exactly that place.  That was a really meaningful moment for me. These affirming spaces – where physical, mental, and spiritual safety are cultivated and protected – aren’t always easy to find, and thus they are the critical work of the church.  It’s important for our faith communities to commit to holding these spaces for each other and to remind each other that we are loved and that we are not alone.

            Once I began to participate fully in my affirming church community, I also started looking for my experience in the Sunday morning worship service.  Walking into an affirming church also means that I can expect to see my reality reflected and recognized in the life of the community and in the worship service.  That means there is evidence of collective efforts to use language and resources that include the fullest diversity of God’s people.  I think it also means that there is evidence that people in the community are talking to each other and working with their differences.  In many ways, walking into a church that is affirming is like parachuting into the middle of a journey filled with hills and valleys.  Completing the steps required to call yourself affirming is like the pre-trip work before the fun actually begins.  Not everyone will be on the same page, and that can be a good thing.  New challenges will appear that will require mindfulness and action.  At my parents’ affirming church, there are gay, lesbian, and trans members who regularly offer leadership.  At the same time, I know that they find it challenging to address the homelessness, barriers to healthcare, and sustainable employment needs experienced by many within the LGBTQ community beyond their church doors.  They are working on it.  At our Toronto church home, one of the first United Churches to have an affirming ministry, our congregation collectively struggled to use gender neutral pronouns when explicitly asked to do so.  We are working on it, and need to keep doing so.  The journey and ongoing work of living out what it means to be an affirming people continues. 

Our communities will always be complex, and every one of us needs to be reminded that God is affirming of who we are – our Truest selves.  We are all in different places in our understanding of that Truth and our understanding of each other in light of that Truth.  It’s a good thing that we disagree and share different perspectives.  It is a good thing that we each take different amounts of time to wrestle with things that make us uncomfortable—provided we approach that together and with respect for each other.  As people of God’s complete love, we are called to be alert and to look for spaces around us that are waiting for God’s affirming “Yes, you are loved.  Yes, you belong.”  Being affirming people provides us with opportunities to remind each other that we are all invited to come to God’s table as our True selves, and for that we give God thanks.