With gratitude for “courage coaches”

With gratitude for “courage coaches”

June 23, 2009
Written by Barb Powell

Speech delivered by the Rev. John H. Thomas at the Coalition Banquet, General Synod 27, Grand Rapids, Mich.

One of the joys, and one of the deep encouragements of my years as General Minister and President, has been the Coalition.  Admittedly, for some in the United Church of Christ and beyond we have been “partners in crime,” aiding and abetting one another in theological contortions aimed at advancing the vaunted “gay agenda!”  But for many, perhaps even most in our church, and for many beyond our church, we have simply been collaborators in hope, a hope that has sustained and inspired and, dare I say it, saved many.  And when courage has threatened to wilt before the counsel of caution within and the storm of reaction without, you have been a steadying friend.  If I might evoke a vivid and delightful memory from a Gathering a few years back under Ann Day's “poetic” leadership, like Dorothy you have helped this lion find his courage, and hold his ground.  Thank you.  Now, if you could help me out with a brain, that would really be great!

Tonight you've asked me to offer some reflections on the Open and Affirming movement.  Let me begin in a rather personal way.  Several years ago Laurie Hafner, the pastor who helped lead Pilgrim Church in Cleveland to become an ONA congregation, invited a group of us to her home for dinner over the Christmas holidays.  My mother, then in her early 80's, was visiting so she came along.  Several of the folk there were gay or lesbian couples.  This had not been a part of my mother's world and I was curious about her reaction.  Well, her reaction was - she had a good time at the party.  The obviously partnered couples didn't put her off; if anything, they made her curious, and they made her think.  It was the beginning of a remarkable journey for her.

A few years later she was again visiting, this time at Easter, and we were settled into our pews at Pilgrim for the service.  I noticed in the bulletin that there was to be a baptism that morning, and that this baby had two moms.  “How will my mother react to this?” I wondered.  When the time came for the baptism I glanced sideways at her as she obviously struggled to figure out who the players were.  She looked at the couple, looked at the bulletin, looked at the couple again, and then said, “Oh!”  That's it.  Just needed to get it straight - well - maybe not straight, but at least figured out.  “Oh!”  It was in its own small way another “UCC First,” for this woman who had been a part of the United Church of Christ almost her whole life.

My mother's journey was helped along by another faith community.  My sister, when she married, converted to Judaism in its Reform branch, the faith of her husband.  They became active at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and during my brother-in-law's tenure as congregational president they faced the decision to call a gay rabbi and then to welcome the rabbi's and his partner's adopted son.  Clearly, the world was changing, and rather than resist that change, my mother decided to embrace it even if she didn't fully understand it.

In the midst of all of this she wrote her pastor in Connecticut a letter from her retirement home in Baltimore, essentially telling him it was time, long past time, for her church to become an open and affirming congregation.  She did this knowing that for some in the congregation, including some who had been close friends for years, this would be difficult.  The letter got a graceful reply, and a promise to raise this with the deacons.  And then she waited.  It was a long wait and on my visits I was regularly given an update, along with some irritation that things weren't moving as fast as they should.  Finally, a couple of years ago, First Congregational United Church of Christ in Stamford, Connecticut, gathered in 1636, became an open and affirming congregation!  It was a proud moment for my mother, and for me.  As many of you know, Mom died in February.  She lived long enough to see her grandson safely home from Afghanistan, to see Obama inaugurated, and almost best of all in her mind, to see Bush helicoptered out of Washington!  But high on her list was living to see her church take this bold and faithful step.  What she didn't live long enough to see was her congregation call a new pastor - the first called pastor who is a woman, the first called pastor who is African American, and word has it, the first called pastor who is a lesbian.  Now, talk about going for it all!

Back at Pilgrim Church other quiet transformations were also under way.  Pete Kaprowski was in his mid to late 70's when I arrived at Pilgrim in 1992.  He and Rose had been members for years, a down to earth blue collar couple who had spent a career running amusement rides at traveling carnivals across Ohio.  Pete was a big part of the renewal at Pilgrim, but ONA was not something that came easily to him.  I'm pretty sure Pete wouldn't have led the charge, but he was one of those rare UCC types who believe that once the church has decided something, you get on board regardless of what you might have thought personally.  There's a concept!  At a men's retreat a couple of years later, we sat around talking about how we might have gotten a few more men to come to the event.  Pete offhandedly remarked, “Well, I did call all the gay men to invite them.”  We all gaped open mouthed at Pete.  I didn't even know there was a list!  Good for Pete.

The point of these stories is not simply to tell you about my hip mom or my cool fellow church member.  The point is to show how the Open and Affirming movement has persistently gone about the business of transforming ordinary people, one at a time, and in the process has transformed the culture of the United Church of Christ.  Over the years I have been challenged by grumpy UCC folk and by uncertain and unhappy ecumenical colleagues with the fact that only a relatively small percentage of UCC congregations have actually voted to become ONA.  My response is to point out how remarkable that in a bottom up denomination, where nothing can be mandated, especially from the top (if there is a top!), a movement has been sustained for over two decades resulting in scores of churches, year after year, being added to the rolls.  We'd all like the numbers to be doubled, our tripled.  We'd all like the progress to be much faster.  But the trajectory has been sure, and certain, and little short of amazing. 

Another lesson from my mother and from Pete is that the welcome offered to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons is only half the story.  It's a huge half of the story, to be sure.  Many of you here tonight can offer eloquent and moving testimony to that.  But the other half, a crucial other half, is the Pete's and the Margaret's of our congregations.  They aren't gay, they don't have gay children or grandchildren, they're not political activists or members of PFLAG, and they didn't grow up in a generation that was particularly inclined to deal openly with matters of human sexuality.  Believe me, quite the contrary!  But in a culture where you have been made into a wedge issue by self-serving politicians, and in a religious environment where words like abomination and sin are so casually tossed around with little care for the impact they have on precious human lives, thousands of Pete's and Margaret's in UCC churches have been lured to the side of the angels in ways that have been surprising not only to us, but also to them. And it's not been General Synod resolutions or declarations from the General Minister and President (well, perhaps that helped in my mother's case!).  It's been the gentle and courageous vulnerability of people like you who have guided our congregations to reflect on the faithfulness of welcome and affirmation - that's what has made the decisive difference in so many of our members' lives.

Some of you may have heard me speak about a friend named Roger.  Roger came to be the music director for two years at my first parish in Cheshire, Connecticut, while he was a student at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.  He went on to a long teaching career at a posh private boarding school in New England.  He has remained a close friend, is “Uncle Roger” to our sons, and we have enjoyed wonderful visits back and forth over the years.  No one, including Roger, made much of the fact that he is gay.  It was just one of those “understood things” that didn't seem to need articulation.  Over the years Roger became more “out” at his school, serving as an advisor to the gay and lesbian students.  He had a few romances which didn't develop into anything lasting.  Until, that is, he met Matt.  They fell in love, and Matt moved into Roger's school housing.  All seemed to be well, wonderful in fact, until a new headmaster arrived.

The new headmaster decided it was time to invoke the rules against unmarried couples living in school housing, creating an ultimate Catch-22 that many of you are all too familiar with:  Needing to be married, and wanting to be married, but can't be married!  The fact that Roger was in a separate house, off campus, didn't seem to matter.  He and Matt weren't married, so Matt had to move, or Roger had to find his own housing, not a simple thing in this pricey corner of New England.  This was a “civil union” state so the school grudgingly agreed that if they went through the civil union procedure, he could stay.  But Matt wasn't ready for that, and the priest at the Episcopal Church where Roger played on Sundays and where he was a member was clear that she wouldn't break the canons that forbade holy unions in the sanctuaries of that particular diocese.

Sadly, before a final decision about housing could be made Matt tragically became desperately ill and died very suddenly and very unexpectedly.  Roger, of course, had no legal rights in their relationship and endured the all too typical dismissal from Matt's family.  Unhappy with the priest at his Episcopal Church for the decision about the holy union, and quite frankly with the Anglican communion for dancing on the fence, Roger was not inclined to look there for pastoral care and support.  Our old colleague from the Cheshire Congregational Church conducted a memorial service at the school for Matt.  And Roger became increasingly alienated from the church and the school.

Two years ago Roger left his position at the school after over twenty-five years and joined the staff of the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts as director of music.  He came to the General Synod in Hartford.  And while this Episcopalian still finds the low church liturgy of most of our Congregational Churches excruciatingly limited, he decided this year to formally leave his Anglican tradition and join the United Church of Christ.  He told me he's kept all his chant books, but doesn't expect to use them anytime soon!  And then this winter, the Stockbridge Church, once led by Jonathan Edwards, voted to become open and affirming.  I wouldn't describe this as the culmination of Roger's spiritual pilgrimage.  But it certainly is a major milestone.  When so much of the church feels hostile, or at least stuck, and often indifferent, Roger has found a place that was not only willing to welcome him, but publicly own him and affirm him.  His journey is, for me, a poignant yet marvelous example of the treacherous terrain gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons need to traverse even to this day, and of the incredible importance of places that are willing to say to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ, “come here, come here, and call this place home.”

Forty years ago this week the police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and triggered an uprising that reverberates to this day.  I had just finished my first year of college and was about to be received as a student in care of the Fairfield West Association of the Connecticut Conference.  What I remember from that year, of course, is the evening later that summer when American astronauts landed on the moon and the day that fall when my long suffering Mets finally won the World Series!  The Stonewall Riots didn't register at all.  (Also not registering was the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland that same month; why should I worry about Cleveland?  But I digress.)  And yet within just a few short years the Stonewall uprising would be accompanied by an equally dramatic and urgent uprising in the church that would impact my ministry in unimaginable ways.  I will never forget standing before you in Atlanta, and sensing the power of that moment when together we prepared to advocate for Marriage Equality in the Synod.  And I will never forget the hush as we voted, and the sense of awe, thanksgiving, and dread that moment engendered in me.  Could we have predicted then, that Massachusetts would be joined by Connecticut and Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine and Iowa?  Can New York, New Jersey, and yes even California be far behind?

The liberating impulses released by the Stonewall uprising continue in church and society; the struggle goes on.  Church after church is faced with the choice between respectable religion that finds itself embarrassed by difference, and evangelical faith that claims the radical welcome of Jesus.  Later this summer the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will have the opportunity to take its own courageous step.  But in less public ways, congregation after congregation in the United Church of Christ is still claiming the fruits of this struggle, and harvesting the gifts of the movement you - we - represent.  I never could have predicted how this struggle would shape and in some ways define my ministry.  And if I were to be honest, I must confess that in 1969, a time shaped so profoundly by the tragedy of Vietnam, it probably wouldn't have been the struggle I would have chosen.  But, thankfully, it wasn't a choice for me to make. 

I do have regrets.  I regret that we have to win again in California and I know there are folk here for whom that is a deeply personal sadness and disappointment.  I regret that honorable soldiers are still being discharged from the military.  I regret that young people are still subject to bullying or worse.  I regret that some of our most gifted clergy are in the United Church of Christ, in part, because the church of their baptism would not ordain them.  I regret that men and women still must fight to get health coverage for their partners and the right to make medical decisions for their loved ones.  I regret that in some parts of the world homosexuality is still criminalized and demonized.  Yes, I have regrets.  But about the struggle for liberation?  About the way this has shaped my ministry?  About the way this has, in significant measure, defined my term as GMP?  No.  I have no regrets.  Only gratitude.  For it has been a marvelous privilege.

A few months after our General Synod in Atlanta and its vote on Marriage Equality, I spent three days with clergy from the New York Conference at a retreat center along the Hudson River.  Over dinner we talked about the impact of that Synod vote in their congregations, and then the conversation turned to stories from pastors struggling to find ways to minister to parents in their churches who found it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to accept their gay and lesbian children.  Many poignant stories were shared, and the sadness of those rejections was felt.  A silence settled over the table.  I broke in and said,  “And then there's my son, who announced this fall that he's decided to join the Pennsylvania National Guard.”  “Oh my God,” one woman exclaimed.  “I bet you wished he'd told you he was gay.”  Only in the United Church of Christ, I suppose, would it be considered more problematic to join the army, than to come out as a gay person!  We've come a long way.

Tonight's reflections are, as you've undoubtedly noticed, very personal.  They are about my mother, about a member of my church, about a friend, about me.  And that is my final observation about the Open and Affirming movement.  It is personal and deeply so.  It's not simply politics, or an agenda, or about being correct.  It is personal.  It's how each of us finds a way to gaze into the Scriptures and gaze into the eyes of a brother or sister and say yes to both.  It's about how each of us acknowledges our baptismal identity and our sexual identity and refuses to choose one or the other, but instead says yes to both.  It's about knowing that the enduring vocation of extravagant welcome takes particular shape and form in each time and place, and that for us, for me, for now, this is one fundamental way that vocation is expressed.  And in the end, it's about courage - the courage to change, the courage to learn, the courage to grow, the courage to speak, the courage to stand.  And while congregations make that stand corporately, the courage behind that stand is always personal.  On my desk I have a little calendar with a daily New Yorker cartoon on it.  Earlier this month the drawing was of Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion walking along the yellow brick road.  Dorothy holds the Lion's hand reassuringly, and says, “I know there are plenty of courage coaches out there.”  You've been my courage coach these wonderful and tumultuous years.  And for that I am profoundly grateful.

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