I'm not an outsider: A young adult speaks to her church about inclusion
Written by Susan Chadwick
April - May 2009
'I need a church that welcomes me'
The following letter was sent to the board of Dover Congregational UCC in Westlake, Ohio, during the congregation's Open and Affirming study:
My name is Susan Chadwick, and I am currently a junior at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., but grew up in the community of Dover UCC in Westlake, Ohio. I am sorry to say that I have not been present with the church while the Open and Affirming (ONA) debate has been discussed as I have a fairly strong opinion on the matter. I was extremely involved in the church as a child and a young adult. I sang, acted, read scripture, played music and was extremely involved in the youth group; and I can say that as a young adult I am continually frustrated by the debate over the ONA process.
I understand that people have strong opinions about the current issue of homosexuality. Not everyone is comfortable with the queer community — not everyone thinks it is moral; but my issue is not whether a non-heterosexual orientation is moral or right. My concern is why the church feels so uncomfortable opening its doors in a public arena.
My mom explained to me that members of our church do not see the need for a public ONA statement. That it should be “good enough” to simply welcome people without the public banner that the ONA stamp provides. Well, as a young adult I want you to understand — it is not enough. I have stopped attending a church of any kind because there is no Open and Affirming UCC church near my campus. Maybe you think that sounds a bit extreme, but I feel justified.
I am a double major in psychology and religious studies, and my primary focus here has been on humans' fear of death, and how religion functions as a comfort in the psychological process of being afraid to die. Mostly, I am interested in teen suicide. I know, it sounds like a grim topic, but as a 20-year-old college student, I have already lost too many friends to random causes of death and suicide.
I have constantly questioned why the suicide rate has been increasing so rapidly over the past few decades and why it is currently the second leading cause of death for college students. I work with the student Wellness Committee on campus to organize events for suicide prevention and to raise awareness of mental health issues. After talking to students what I have concluded is that most adolescents are depressed because they feel unloved, alone, and an overall pressure to be or act a certain way.
We are supposed to get good grades in high school, go to college, work jobs and be involved in a diverse selection of clubs and activities. I have to tell you that sometimes it feels like too much to live up to. In a world where I am told how to look and act and sometimes even think, I would hope that religion would be a place where I could find my comfort. I would hope that my church would be the community that I felt welcome in, no matter who I was or what I did.
You say it is not important to put out a public statement saying everyone is welcome in our church. I cannot express through writing how wrong I think you are. I was told during confirmation that there was a fear that the church was not attracting young people, a fear that the church might die out. As members of the congregation argue that numbers of the UCC churches are decreasing since the ONA debate began in the church, I wish someone would take a look at the positive increases as a result of this decision.
I have a friend from high school who attended Lakewood [Ohio] Congregational UCC, and now goes to college in Bloomington, Ind. He told me a few days ago that the church he attends at school has tripled in size because of the influx of college students after the church became Open and Affirming. I ask why no one is looking at this change in numbers, instead of focusing on the negative.
As a young person, I need a church that welcomes me — a church that can outwardly say that I am accepted for exactly who I am. It is not my prerogative to decide whether God thinks I am a sinner, and I do not believe that a group of my peers have the right to pass that judgment on me either.
Jesus accepted the lepers and the prostitutes. So why is it our right to decide what is sinful in the eyes of God? You may point to the Bible, but the Bible was written by humans. I do not mean to say that the Bible is not important, but I am saying that I do not believe that we can hold the Bible up as a testament of exactly what God thinks about an issue such as sexuality.
I realize that my opinion may not matter much, especially coming from so far away. I wish I could be there in person and better express my opinions about the issue, especially from my standpoint as a religious studies major, but I hope that you at least take the time to consider where I am coming from.
I do not seem controversial at face value: I am young, female, white, straight and educated. On paper I fit into all of the stereotypical boxes — but I am not perfect. There are a lot of things I do not like about myself, and probably some things that God does not look so favorably upon either. Does that mean I am not welcome?
You say that numbers are decreasing in the UCC as these debates go on, and that this decision could split our church — but I believe that God loves me for who I am, and I would hope that my church community would feel the same way, and more importantly, that it would be willing to welcome me without judgment. There are plenty of places in the world where I feel as though I am an outsider, please don't make my church one of them.