Summer meetings: Welcome Our Witness
Written by Ron Buford
Marcos de Jesus of Milwaukee shares a personal perspective with those attending a WOW workshop. WOW photo by Ron Buford
De Kalb, Ill.: If attendance, religious fervor, excitement, and spiritual renewal are measures of achievement, WOW! was a huge success.
WOW! stands for Witness Our Welcome, a first-time gathering from at least 27 denominations of what in the UCC are called "Open and Affirming" churches, that is, churches that affirm and welcome gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender (GLBT) Christians into full membership and leadership.
Held at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, Ill., from August 3-6, WOW! hosted one thousand GLBT and straight Christians from around the world to pray, worship, study the Bible, and network.
Speaking about the barriers to welcome, the Rev. Steven Charleston, dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., recalled Jesus' time in the tomb. "Our fear of the tomb seals human lives in darkness," he said. Removing the stones that stand as barriers between GLBT persons and full access to God's grace as experienced in community "can only occur through faith alone, in the power of God."
Stones of fear dissolved for many in WOW!'s safe-space of welcome. "At this conference," says Gary Springer of Dallas, "I've experienced something that up until now I'd only heard about—Pentecost."
In a sermon, the Rev. Michael Kinnamon of Eden Theological Seminary recalled his surprise at the strong emotional response he witnessed the first time he shared communion with a group of GLBT persons.
"They felt a sense of welcome at the communion table in a way that I took for granted," he said. "If our churches are to regain their vitality, they will have to be WOW-ed ... to deepen their understanding of the Gospel."
Preaching and Bible study were based upon the book of Acts. The Rev. Esther Haggis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Berkeley, Calif., showed how Acts focused on "the early church's struggle with just how inclusive the church is called to be." WOW! leaders issued a clear call to participants to become missionaries of a new welcoming movement and exorcists of fear, calling our churches to become God's welcoming community to all persons—not just GLBT persons.
The Rev. Carter Heyward of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., challenged listeners to "burn with a passion for a God whose nature is community ... burning, yearning for the Spirit that makes justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
The powerful Saturday worship liturgical responsive reading reflected the spirit of welcome and the attitude of inclusion that prevailed all weekend. When youth liturgists stated their real life challenges as GLBT youth, worshipers called out the names of youth and young adults they know and love.
As the names floated up like spontaneous hallelujahs, the thousand gathered with one knowing and empa-thetic adult voice said to these youth, many with tears in their eyes and determination, "We will be stepping stones, not stumbling blocks. This we promise you."
The 190 UCC members at the WOW! event represented the largest denominational grouping.
In the three days before WOW!, the UCC Coalition for GLBT Concerns held its annual meeting with 150 in attendance. Elected as officers were Tim Tutt, Moderator; Ruth Gar-wood, Vice Moderator; Dorothy Gannon, Secretary; and Rich Fluechtling, Treasurer.