The UCC Coalition at 40: Leading the charge for LGBT inclusion
Written by Gregg Brekke and Jeff Woodard
January 10, 2012

As the UCC's Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns enters its 40th year and prepares to receive its 1,000th Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation, the mood is optimistic.

Andy Lang, the Coalition's executive director, says 2012 will be a year for "looking back" to the pioneers and events that have led to the growth and changes in the organization, while "looking forward" to new ways of expanding the Coalition's impact.


It’s all part of the Coalition’s reassessment process, says Lang.


"The Coalition is focused on two strategic priorities," he says. "First is to listen to voices around the church regarding the future of LGBT ministry. … Second is to breathe new life into the Open and Affirming movement."


Leading up to General Synod in 2013, the Coalition has invited a period of commentary, says the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy and national staff liaison to the Coalition.


"The Coalition is really asking the church what sort of LGBT ministries are needed," says Schuenemeyer. "How should we engage churches, individuals and the broader church? How do we live out [the Coalition's] values and give witness to them in our public life?"


Lang is hopeful that the input and a focus on connecting ONA congregations will refresh and renew their ministries.


"We've done a pretty good job at resourcing them and helping them along the journey, as they consider the process of adopting an ONA covenant," says Lang. "We haven't been good at nurturing and supporting their ministries after they take that step. The result is ONA churches tend to be disconnected from each other and from the Coalition.”


Among the most exciting developments have been spontaneous regional ONA convocations, says Lang. "In Conference after Conference, ONA ministry teams are coming back to life, he says.” “The idea is that there will be an annual gathering that builds fellowship among ONA churches and also provides workshops and resources for their ministries."


LGBT youth are sometimes learning faith in places where there isn't clarity that their sexuality is normal and acceptable and what God wants for their life, says Lang.


"It's not just congregations where there might be implicit homophobia, but also congregations where the subject simply isn't discussed because it's considered too divisive," he says.


LGBT youth receive a damaging message if they grow up thinking that their capacity to love isn't something they can talk about because it's too controversial or divides people, he adds.


Lang is realistic about what he calls the "myth" that the UCC is an ONA denomination.


"We have an Open and Affirming General Synod, we have Open and Affirming Conferences and the national offices of the church and nearly a 1,000 congregations – all that is fantastic," says Lang. "But as a whole, when you have 80 percent of your congregations and around 70 percent of your membership that aren’t in Open and Affirming settings, that is a challenge for us."


The Coalition’s board has ambitious goals for the future. These include: education and resources to help ONA settings better understand and express transgender inclusion; a continued focus on advocacy and LGBT rights; working with the larger welcoming ecumenical and interfaith community; and helping ONA settings establish a more effective presence in their local LGBT communities.


Working to broaden the landscape of religious voices in order to reduce the monopoly of fundamentalist influences is also key among the good work to be done by the Coalition, says the Rev. Loey Powell, UCC executive for administration and women’s justice.


“That’s a huge role for ONA churches, around advocacy and articulating a position of faith that is consistent with the inclusion of LGBT folks in society as well as in within the church,” says Powell.


“Advocacy in their communities is essential –– not just to say, ‘Don’t bully LGBT youth,’ which is also essential –– but [to communicate that] we, as people of faith, believe everyone is created in God’s image," Powell adds. “We must work to understand how we even got to a place where the fundamentalist religious perspective has political currency now and we don’t.”


The Rev. Bill Johnson –– who founded the Coalition and who, on June 25, will mark 40 years since his ordination as the first openly gay man ordained by a mainline U.S.-based Protestant denomination –– echoes Powell’s concerns. 


“The diversity among LGBT people enriches our UCC local churches in many ways, but we should not think for a moment that the struggle is over, especially when anti-gay forces are vying for political power,” says Johnson.


“I am proud of having founded the Coalition and of the extraordinary work that has taken place in its first 40 years, guided by many competent and committed leaders," he says. "I believe the best years are still ahead, not only because Coalition leaders are active throughout the church, but also because compassion and justice-making remain at the center of the Coalition's service in the name of Christ."


The Coalition will hold its annual gathering –– this year celebrating its 40th anniversary –– June 25-28 at UCC-related Elmhurst College near Chicago.


Ms. Connie N. Larkman
Managing Editor & News Director
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