Just over a year ago, two men were attacked in a parking lot outside a gay bar in Riverside, Calif. The friends were both gay and the crime was immediately identified as a hate crime. One of them, Jeffrey Owens, died early the next day from complications due to his injuries. The parking lot where the crime took place was half a block from First Congregational UCC in Riverside, and its pastor, the Rev. Jane Quandt, immediately took a leadership role in the community in response to what had happened.
A few weeks later, at a candlelight prayer vigil, Quandt eloquently shared how her congregation's Open and Affirming (ONA) statement had empowered her response. The pastor remarked that that while she had never been against the ONA program, she had not really warmed up to it. The death of Jeffrey Owens changed that.
The church's ONA statement, she said, gave her a stronger sense of confidence when she spoke publicly against the hate crime and for public policies that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. She celebrated the leadership role she was able to take in planning and leading a community vigil. She knew that not everyone in the congregation was gung-ho about this, but the ONA statement made clear and supported the leadership she felt called to take. Such leadership by the pastor and the congregation is a gift to the church and the community.
Much of the work I do on behalf of the church is informed and guided by the significant body of social policies adopted by the General Synod. Last December, I received a request to work on an Amici Curiae, a Òfriend of the courtÓ brief, which was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the recently-issued decision to overturn the sodomy laws in Texas and 12 other states. I knew that the UCC's General Synod, the most representative body of the national church, had adopted several resolutions that are crystal clear on the issues before the court.
We joined the Amici Curiae in the name of the General Synod. But, in doing so, I recognized that within the UCC there is much diversity on many different issues. I knew not every individual member, local congregation, Association or Conference would agree with the positions General Synod has adopted. Our way of being church simply doesn't work that way.
The UCC is not organized in a hierarchical way and, therefore, we are not a doctrinal church. The local congregation, as the basic unit of the church, has the freedom to determine its own mission in light of God's call. Similarly, the delegates sent to the General Synod meeting are called to prayerfully consider and deliberate over the matters before them and cast their votes faithfully as they feel led by the Spirit. I trust this process, and I know it has enabled the UCC to be a powerful voice and witness in the world.
Our various statements about being open and affirming, just peace, multiracial, multi-cultural and accessible to all are important. If for no other reason, they empower us to respond without hesitation to situations of critical need and advocacy. While none of us has a market on truth, we are called to speak and act from our convictions, especially when those convictions have been adopted by the church. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ÒOur lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.Ó As I see it, the voice of the United Church of Christ, in all its diversity, is a voice that our communities and our world need to hear.
The Rev. Michael D. Schuenemeyer is executive and minister for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender concerns and HIV/AIDS ministries with the UCC's Wider Church Ministries. As I See It is a column to help readers become better acquainted with UCC leaders.