By coming together and marching as one in the Atlanta Pride Parade this Sunday, six United Church of Christ congregations will help set an example of open inclusion and extravagant welcome during a celebration of LGBT rights.
"To bring us all together shows how strong the UCC is in Atlanta. We've grown so much [in the area] and our membership is born out of that collective effort," said David Plunkett, director of church life at Virginia Highland UCC in Atlanta. "We want the UCC to have the strongest possible presence. I think there's terrific presence throughout the conference when people see God's message."
UCC churches in the Atlanta area and the conference want to increase their visibility and support by bringing all the churches together behind a single 30-foot banner for the 3-mile march through the city that ends at Piedmont Park.
All six of the UCC churches that will represent the Southeast Conference during the parade are in the Atlanta area. They include Virginia Highland Church, Decatur UCC, Kirkwood UCC, Central Congregational UCC, Praxis UCC, and Victory for the World Church in the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, Ga.
Southeast Conference Minister the Rev. Timothy C. Downs said Don Harris, a member of Virginia Highland, asked for contact info for other UCC churches that would have interest in joining together to walk in the parade. "They pulled it together and are glad to do it, and have a unified Atlanta UCC presence," Downs said.
"One of the things that's exciting about that is that it will be robustly interracial, and that's what we are here in the Southeast Conference – proudly diverse in many aspects," Downs said. "We're delighted to be able to be able to support them."
The pride parade is also a way for UCC churches to celebrate their own history as open and affirming congregations. "It's important to be open to all people," Plunkett said.
This weekend is also the celebration of National Coming Out Day, a day of celebration for LGBT persons and LGBT rights supporters. The holiday is observed with rallies and parades to raise awareness for LGBT issues.
"The UCC has been a long-term witness to LGBT rights and to the inclusion of LGBT people," said the Rev. Michael Piazza, senior pastor of Virginia Highland. "By combining our presence, we thought we'd have a greater impact in welcoming LGBT folks."
Piazza first participated in the pride parade about three decades ago, shortly after his graduation from seminary, and he gave a keynote address for the Atlanta parade in the early 1980s. He spent 20 years as a pastor at Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, a church with one of the "largest LGBT communities in the world."
Piazza, also co-director of the UCC's Center for Progressive Renewal, said those involved in organizing Virginia Highland's involvement in the parade are heterosexual, but the congregation is "a really fabulous blend of diverse folks who care about justice values."
As for future participation in the Atlanta Pride Parade, Downs said "I am certain [our presence] will continue to grow. At least half our churches are open and affirming… This is really a proud evidence of who we are."