"We're the biggest and fastest-growing LGBT-welcoming church movement in the world," said Andy Lang, executive director of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, which certifies and supports ONA congregations. "Every new ONA church is a community that restores LGBT Christians and their families to the Body of Christ, and potentially saves the lives of LGBT youth who need a clear message of acceptance."
Pillar of Love is an African-American congregation with a predominantly LGBT membership, says Phyllis Pennese, pastor. The church is also affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a movement led by the Rev. Yvette Flunder.
"We're excited about this honor," Pennese said, "and we're planning to join the celebration when the Coalition's National Gathering comes to our home town in June." "Pillar of Love, like other ONA churches, is a community where LGBT individuals and families can be restored to wholeness," said Pennese. "Our church motto is that 'we have the courage to be all that God created.' I do believe that because so many of us in the LGBT and black LGBT community have been abused and brutalized in the church, the only way we can heal and grow and walk confidently into what God has called us to be is to be showered with love."
The ONA movement dates back to July 1985 when General Synod adopted a resolution "Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming." The resolution urged churches to adopt "covenants" to "welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual people to join our congregation in the same spirit and manner used in the acceptance of any new members."
An explicit welcome for transgender Christians was not at first part of the ONA covenants adopted by congregations. But that changed in 2003 when General Synod's resolution "Affirming the Participation and Ministry of Transgender People" in the UCC came to the floor and passed by a wide margin. Since then, the Coalition has required new ONA congregations to include "gender identity or expression" or similar words in their covenants.
In 1985 Sam Loliger, then the Coalition's national coordinator, established the ONA registry. By 1987, 15 ONA congregations were certified and welcomed at General Synod that year. Also in 1987, the Coalition's ONA program hired its first coordinator –– Ann B. Day. "Little did I know that this was the beginning of 20 years of ministry," Day said.
"I think a lot of the early energy went into identifying the primary issues and developing resources that would address what were then gay and lesbian concerns," Day said of the early years. "And then it blossomed into bisexual and transgender work as well. So we needed to develop materials and standardize what we were asking congregations to do."
The issues in the 1980s were not very different from the questions congregations ask today when they begin their ONA journey.
"Members asked what 'affirmation' meant and whether 'we will become a gay church' if they adopted an ONA covenant,” said Day. "And at first we didn't anticipate how much work would be needed to help churches on the other side of their ONA commitment. We began to realize the Coalition also needed to support new ONA churches as they began to experience a whole new world of ministry."
Helping ONA churches live out the implications of their covenant is still one of the Coalition's top priorities, Lang said.
"The covenant is the beginning, not the end of the journey,” said Lang. "ONA congregations can experience the true power of their commitment when they advocate for LGBT youth who face bullying and threats in their schools, care for LGBT elders who need the support of a loving congregation, provide sanctuary for LGBT asylum seekers who will face prison or worse if forced to return to their homeland. An ONA ministry that reaches beyond the church into the community is the best way ONA churches can establish a visible presence in he LGBT community."
What is the impact of ONA congregations in the LGBT community? Days says that "it changes our lives and our families when we know there are churches that don't 'tolerate' but 'affirm' us, as the writers of the 1985 resolution intended. It makes a difference when our gifts are honored and our families are respected."
And the ONA journey has changed congregations, too. "Churches grow spiritually," Day said. "Many realize that the ONA experience is a turning point in their story as a community. They realize that ONA is not just for LGBT people, but for everybody in the church."
What does Day want for the future of the ONA movement? "I want the list to grow exponentially," she said. "I want congregations to experience the kind of spirit-filled transformation this movement is all about. I believe that, as this happens, we'll have growing impact not only on our church but on our culture. ONA is part of a growing interfaith welcoming-church movement and we're changing the face of American religion. It's amazing to think that we've been part of a new reformation in the church. I want this movement to grow because this is the community Jesus imagined for us. This is what the church is all about--to become a place of mutual respect and love."
The Coalition will welcome ONA congregation #1,000 at its annual National Gathering June 25-28 at Elmhurst College near Chicago, says Lang.
"Beginning today and continuing through the rest of the Coalition's 40th-anniversary year, we'll celebrate the phenomenal growth of this movement. But we'll also renew our commitment to grow the ONA family beyond its present boundaries," Lang said. "There are 4,000 other congregation in the UCC. That's where most LGBT youth are growing up and learning the faith. We want to invite them, too, into this life-changing, life-saving, Christ-centered experience of God's extravagant love."
The virtual celebration is beginning today on the Coalition's Facebook page at facebook.com/ucc.coalition.