To share a message of inclusive love and peace with worshippers gathered in the Amistad Chapel at United Church of Christ national headquarters Aug. 10, the Rev. Ron Buford turned to a story about judgment.
Buford, the founding director of the UCC's StillSpeaking Initiative, told the gathering at this special Sunday service in Cleveland that he presumed to judge a group of people because they looked different, only to realize his error. The moral of his story, which he shared with those gathered for Gay Gospel Worship, a special Sunday service to include Gay Games visitors from across the country, is that we all are welcomed by God, and that through love, forgiveness and inclusivity, one can change the world.
"For many of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or however you self-identify, your rainbow coat given to us by our Creator sometimes singles us out to be treated differently," Buford said. "But I have good news for you today. You are the apple of God's eye."
The Gay Gospel Worship Service is one way the UCC national setting is extending an extravagant welcome to the LGBT community visiting downtown Cleveland, which is hosting Gay Games 9 from Aug. 9 to Aug. 16. Three of the four national officers of the church were in attendance as the Dean of the Amistad Chapel took a moment to reflect on how far the LGBT movement has progressed.
The Rev. Kate Huey said she realized at the games' opening ceremonies on Saturday night "how far we've come in 20 years. When we struggled (because) we didn't know God loved us."
The GG9 Gay Gospel Ensemble helped kicked off the unapologetically inclusive service with music. As worship went on, memorable, spirit-filled renditions of 'Holy, Holy, Holy' and 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' filled the chapel, led by Charlene Moore, music director of the City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, Calif., on piano, with Angela Lynard, Amistad Church First vocalist, Ricky Exton on drums and Glenn Holmes on guitar.
Buford's sermon, which followed a reading from the Book of Genesis, begins when he fell asleep in his car outside a San Francisco hotel, and when he awoke with fire and police lights flashing, people nearby – some of them Buford suspected were drug dealers and women selling themselves — told him they feared the worst.
"It's you, baby," Buford said, recalling the words a woman told him. "We thought you was dead."
Buford never forgot those words, and shared the story as a moment he wrongly stood in judgment of people. He said those who know what it's like to be hurt or judged unfairly need to change the pattern of negative behavior — that they can make a difference through their positive actions.
"It's you who will lead us out of endless patterns of hate and revenge," Buford said. "I believe the Stillspeaking God is asking us what is it you can do to bring peace and healing into the world."
"It's you baby," Buford said, emphazing his statement, pointing one-by-one to different faces in the chapel, "who will change the world."
After inspirational sets, songs of praise, the athletes set to compete in the Gay Games received a blessing from those gathered in the chapel to keep them injury-free, to instill respect for each other as competitors, and for the endurance and discipline to persevere.
And, as a final benediction, Moore, the former music director of The Weather Girls, led a rollicking rendition of the group's best-known song, "It's Raining Men".
UCC faith leaders continued to use their voices to affirm the dignity and value of all people, as local, national and international faith leaders gather at Cleveland's Trinity Cathedral for the Gay Games 9 Interfaith Service Monday evening, Aug. 11. The service, an effort to create awareness and promote global solidarity and action in support of human rights, called on participants to join in the struggle against homophobia, violence, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Bishop Yvette A. Flunder, the presiding bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and senior pastor of City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, Calif., was one of the speakers called to share a positive message with the competitors and supporters of the Gay Games.
"Religious leaders from across the world share inspiration for justice, equality and dignity for all, and the witness of this service brings a vitally important message in the face of movements in some places to deny LGBT people their human rights and dignity," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive minister for health and wholeness advocacy and a coordinator of the service.
The UCC is the first religious denomination to be a major sponsor of the Gay Games. The Gay Games, one of the most inclusive sports and cultural festivals in the world, was created in 1982 to promote LGBT inclusion and excellence in sports.