UCC churches celebrate Pride with glitter blessings, candles, acts of ‘beauty, justice and liberation’
When a crowd gathered for Drag Queen Story Hour in First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Billings, Mont., the drag queens and kings leading the event asked the young people gathered if they had ever felt left out. Many hands went into the air.
“Every child in that room who raised their hand was listened to,” said the Rev. Lisa Harmon, the congregation’s pastor. “To me, it couldn’t have been a more inclusive and loving example of community. It was so much more than coming in and reading a book. It was an exercise in understanding and compassion, and I was absolutely blown away … That right there was the beauty, justice and liberation in the moment for our community and for our trans siblings.”
The June 22 event, part of the city’s weeklong Pride Fest, came in the wake of Montana state legislation that specifically bans people dressed in drag from reading to children at public schools and libraries. The law does not apply to churches. Billings First Church cohosted the event with the nonprofit 406 Pride, a LGBTQIA+ resource center housed within the church building.
“As a church, I have a courageous council and congregation, and we just felt that we needed to step up,” Harmon said. “We felt it was the most un-Christian-like behavior at the state level, so we wanted to make a way forward for the trans community with the drag queen story hour.”
The congregation also hosted and participated in several additional Pride events, including Pride yoga, queer self-defense and a family movie night.
This is one among many UCC congregations across the country who offered visible and creative practices of LGBTQIA+ care and inclusion during June’s Pride month – some being instrumental in local pride events and some stepping out as a visible witness of welcome for the first time.
Open Table UCC hosted a Pride Night of Remembrance in Ottawa, Ill., the night before the small community’s Family Pride Festival began June 10.
“Afterwards, we recognized it was important to have acknowledged the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community, even as the festival itself was an event to celebrate joy,” said the Rev. Jennifer Amy-Dressler, who pastors the church.
During that same first year of Pride, Washington Park — the public space across from one of the primary event venues — had been reserved by an area church for a prayer service which “included only slightly veiled language condemning the Pride event set for the next day,” according to Amy-Dressler.
This year, she said, Open Table reserved the park instead. “Holding a Night of Remembrance was a way to hold safe and consecrate the space, as well as a way to grieve, to admit the complicity of the church in justifying and sustaining the denigration of queer folks, and to somehow invite the departed to be a part of the next day’s festivities.”
The park was lined with luminaries that held publicly available names of people who lost their lives in the last year due to violence related to sexual orientation or gender identity. The luminaries were created by local participants in Youth Outlook, a statewide weekly drop-in program for LGBTQ+ kids and allies. Attendees also were invited to add names to honor those they had lost.
The service included prayers, short eulogies and quiet music. Around 20 members of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus made the hour-long commute from the nearby city to offer musical selections.
“Many said they chose to come because they felt it was important to lend their support to a smaller town in a more rural area that was supporting the LGBTQ+ community,” Amy-Dressler said.
The people who attended “were so grateful for the event, for acknowledgement of what has been hard and painful in their lives and in the lives of those they know and love,” she said. “It felt like we were bringing their departed loved ones along with us, to enter a festival that would honor their truths, that, in some way, they would share in our joy the next day. And folks were buoyed by seeing other faces, new faces, of folks they didn’t know were allies. The space was hallowed for the next day’s festivities.”
Open Table already committed to hosting the event again, submitting the application to reserve the park for 2024 just days after the event.
Making welcome known
First Congregational UCC in Alexandria, Minn., participated in the Lakes Area Pride Festival for the first time in June, just one month after becoming officially certified as an Open and Affirming church in May by the ONA Coalition.
First Congregational is the only ONA church within a 60-mile radius of their location, and they were the only church at the second-ever community Pride event where over 500 people attended.
“The church has long been welcoming but had not understood the importance of making our welcoming stance known in the wider community,” said its pastor, the Rev. Jill Sanders. “We have received 22 new members in the last year — all of them either themselves LGBTQIA+ or allies.”
The congregation invited festival attendees to receive glitter blessings and LGBTQIA+ Pride devotional books. Their table display included their framed, newly-received ONA certificate.
Decades of Pride
Douglas Congregational UCC has been participating in the Pride Festival in Holland, Mich. — their nearest “big” city — for over 20 years.
But four years ago, several church members helped to organize the first Pride event in the town of Douglas, which has just over 1,300 residents. More than 2,000 people attended this year’s Pride in the Park, which included a parade, live music, food booths and time to honor local LGBTQIA+ community leaders, according to the Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the congregation’s pastor.
People from Douglas UCC handed out rainbow buttons that said “Love is Love” and the church’s name.
“People are often very surprised to learn that our little church was one of the very first Open and Affirming congregations in the entire United States,” Sapienza said. “We became Open and Affirming in 1989, more than 30 years ago. That’s pretty amazing when you consider how many Christian churches are still wrestling with LGBTQ inclusion in 2023.”
Douglas UCC flies the rainbow Pride flag not just in June, but year-round, and encourages people to “worship where you’re celebrated, not tolerated,” he said.
The congregation stretched an arch of rainbow balloons across the entrance in celebration of ONA Sunday on June 25. The service included officially welcoming 16 new church members.
“As I invited them forward to receive certificates and pins, I couldn’t help but be moved by the diverse range of ages, marital status, sexual orientations and gender identities — all of them ‘wonderfully made,’” Sapienza said, referencing the service’s Psalm 139 Scripture.
Empowering ‘every human being’
These congregations offer a taste of the many LGBTQ-affirming celebrations and care events that occurred nationwide, offered by faith communities during June’s Pride month and beyond.
The Rev. Katrina Roseboro-Marsh, executive director of the ONA Coalition, notes how such actions foster empowerment and authenticity.
“When we’re talking about why Pride engagement and being visibly LGBTQIAN2S+ affirming is important, we’re speaking to respect, honor and validation of acknowledging humanity first,” she said. “It celebrates diversity, fosters esteeming inclusivity despite differences and empowers every human being with the ability to embrace authenticity of self and, therefore, authenticity of others, without fear or oppressive divisiveness and discrimination.”
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