More than 220 UCC members from 27 states and the District of Columbia met at Elmhurst College near Chicago this week at National Gathering 2012, to celebrate 40 years of LGBT ministry and advocacy in the United Church of Christ.
"We will renew the Coalition's commitment to grow the Open and Affirming (ONA) movement until there is no UCC congregation that does not offer a genuine and confident welcome to their LGBT neighbors," said Andy Lang, executive director of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns.
At the annual ONA banquet June 27, the 1,000th ONA congregation – Pillar of Love Fellowship in Chicago – was recognized, while the first UCC church certified as ONA – Riverside Church in New York City – was honored.
The largest and most diverse National Gathering in the Coalition's history saw four leaders honored with "Courage" awards: the Rev. William R. Johnson, the Rev. Loey Powell, the Rev. Anne Holmes and Bishop Yvette Flunder.
Johnson's ordination as the first openly gay man in 1972 and the first organizing meeting of the UCC Gay Caucus later that year marked the birth of the UCC's LGBT movement. Powell is executive for administration and women's justice in UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, and Holmes was the first openly lesbian ordained to UCC ministry, in1982. Flunder leads the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries – a community of African American churches with close ties to the UCC.
The Rev. John Gage, executive minister at the United Church on the Green in New Haven, Conn., said this Gathering showed a renewed capacity for the UCC's broad LGBT and same-gender-loving communities to "live into our diversity."
"I've experienced Gatherings where those of us immersed in the struggle for justice were understandably angry and bitter, and sometimes unjust toward each other.” said. Gage. “What I've experienced in this Gathering is a greater sense of trust, and the ability to relate to each other as multiple communities."
In his keynote address, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for UCC Local Church Ministries, shared Gage's perspective.
"When we gather at play and in worship, in advocacy and service, in litany, song and prayer, I sense a shared recognition in the room that seeks to overcome all sadness, loneliness, isolation and injustice," said Guess. "I feel would-be strangers pulling for one another as friends, a common will to make things right no matter how complex or impossible or difficult they might be."
Preaching at the Gathering's closing service, Flunder charged the Coalition to create "circles of healing."
"If we stay in the circle with each other long enough, what pours out of me will pour into you, and what pours out of you will become part of my life,” said Flunder. “May we be looked upon as a people who stand together even if it means we die together, because we know and believe the power of Resurrection."
For the first time, a National Gathering was planned in partnership with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries--with one panel devoted to the experience of the African American same-gender-loving communities and the Fellowship's relationship with the UCC.
The Gathering also launched the first stage of a year-long consultation on the future of LGBT ministry and advocacy in the UCC. Through focus groups, online surveys and webinars, the Coalition plans to reach a broad diversity of UCC members.
"The LGBTQ movement is exploding around the world," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "There are new opportunities, and this acceleration of movement will continue for the foreseeable future. How can we structure ourselves so we can recognize where capacity for change already exists, and build on it?"
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