Outgoing ONA Coalition director reflects on challenges, hopes for LGBTQ+ community
The Rev. Andrew Lang, executive director of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ, is leaving the position he’s held for a decade with much hope for the future. Lang announced his retirement in April, effective Dec. 30. In this reflection, an adapted excerpt from his “State of the ONA Movement” address at the Coalition’s 50th anniversary National Gathering in August, he notes the blessings and challenges facing those fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, and especially in the UCC.
This is my 10th and final state of the movement report to the Open and Affirming Coalition. At the end of this year, I’m retiring as executive director, with gratitude for more than a decade of ministry with and for this amazing family, and with confidence that our movement is as strong and relevant now as it has been at any time in the past 50 years.
But now is a fearful time. Across America, forces that seek to reverse the hard-won achievements of the past decade are gaining strength. Laws or executive orders that deny the parents of transgender children the right to make life-saving medical decisions for their families have been adopted by at least six states, and the number is growing.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans — mostly Black and Latinx transgender women of color — continue to die through violent assault on the streets of our cities. Books about sexual orientation and gender identity are disappearing from library shelves in many communities, including the stories of our families. The attempted erasure of our lives in libraries and schools threatens youth especially.
The Trevor Project estimates that, every year, more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth and young adults seriously consider suicide in the United States — and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds. This is more than four times the national average.
Yes, this is a fearful time, but it is also a hopeful time. Open and Affirming churches and LGBTQ-affirming congregations of other faith traditions are fighting back. We have refused to sit inside our churches behind closed doors when politicians and preachers attack the dignity and worth of our neighbors. We are coming out to stand with every LGBTQ+ person whose right to exist is under attack.
In this way, we are writing our own history. We are living the stories that future generations will remember.
At this year’s National Gathering, we heard stories of courage and hope from the first prophetic generation who gave birth to our movement in 1972. When they founded the Coalition, there were no Open and Affirming churches. Until Bill Johnson’s ordination that year, there were no Associations in the united Church of Christ that would even consider an openly queer candidate for ministry. In general, congregations practiced a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Queer people could belong if they were “discreet” about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
So, unlike this year’s event, national gatherings in the Coalition’s early years were a safe space where queer members of the church could be known by each other, learn from an emerging community and support each other in a difficult and often demoralizing struggle for the day when they could take their rightful place in the Body of Christ. They gathered to dream and hope together.
In time, their dreams became reality, and the church was transformed. Lives were transformed, too. No one can number the lives that have been saved because our movement spread from 17 churches in 1986 to more than 1,800 congregations and other settings today. We can’t count how many queer youth have never known the bitterness of isolation and stigma because their parents took them to churches where their capacity to love and seek love was never questioned or condemned.
But this has been the ministry of ONA churches for decades. Nor can we know how many LGBTQ+ seekers who weren’t wanted or needed by other churches have been restored to the Body of Christ because they found a new family in an ONA church.
But we know this has been the experience of thousands of LGBTQ+ members of UCC churches who discovered, through our movement, that their sexual orientation or gender identity was a blessing, not a curse.
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