When I first moved to Connecticut, my congregation wasn’t officially Open and Affirming. For the uninitiated, Open and Affirming (ONA) is an official designation within our denomination, the United Church of Christ, for congregations that welcome and affirm LGBTQ folks. It was 2012 and our interim minister, who was openly lesbian, had just left. The prevailing sentiment among my congregants was simple: “Why do we need to be officially ONA? We already welcome everyone. We welcomed you!” Which was true–they had welcomed me (enthusiastically, I would add).
Through a series of conversations over the course of the next few years, a few basic realities became clear to the folks to Westfield:
- The three largest denominations in America (Catholics, Southern Baptists, United Methodists) comprise a total of nearly 102 million people. All three have policies or official stances against LGBTQ participation in one form or another.
- An additional 80 million people self-identify as Evangelical or “born again.” While there’s no unifying statement against the LGBTQ community, it isn’t difficult to guess where most of these folks land on the issue.
- Every one of those churches has a sign that says “All are welcome.”
At Westfield, we knew who we were. We knew who was welcome, that when I would stand up in front of the congregation week after week and proclaim, “Everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome”–we meant it. What became clear to us, though, was this: You don’t put your welcome mat inside your front door. You put it outside, so everyone knows they’re welcome. We knew who we were, but did others? The congregation voted unanimously to become Open and Affirming in June of 2014. With that vote, the question became how exactly were we going to let others know the extent of our welcome? Enter a set of very colorful doors.
God’s Doors (or the Gay Doors as I jokingly call them) were our first big step into proclaiming who we are and what we believe. The message is simple. And it’s clear. We don’t just welcome folks. God does. We followed those doors up with more creative attempts to get our message out there. Next up, Christmas wreaths and Easter bunnies.
It’s been twenty-two days since a deranged man walked into an Orlando gay club called Pulse on Latin night and started shooting. It’s been twenty-two days since Westfield’s charming doors, colorful wreaths, and playful bunnies became the rubber on the road of standing beside a targeted community.
The terror began in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12. I awoke to a digital notification: “22 dead in Orlando shooting.” Three hours later, in the middle of announcements during our regular Sunday morning worship, I stole a glance at my phone. “Forty-nine dead in Orlando shooting.” I was at a loss. How could it have jumped that quick? What happened? Who? Why? I think we were all asking questions that day. I was scheduled to be on vacation starting Monday, June 13, but by Monday morning it was clear that, even in our little corner of Connecticut, there had to be some kind of response.
It was a whirlwind of a day. My husband, Greg, offered to put together a vigil for the the LGBTQ community in our Quiet Corner. My church, Westfield, was uniquely position to respond to this particular tragedy. Our vocal support of the LGTBQ community since that 2014 vote is magnified by the fact that their pastor (me) is openly gay.
That morning, I sat at my computer and wrote one of the most difficult emails I’ve had to compose to my congregation responding to the violence and inviting them to that night’s service.
Oh << First Name >>,
How I’ve come to loathe having to sit at my computer to figure out what to say this time that I haven’t already said before about violence and tragedy, loss and hope.
Before worship yesterday, the news had the death toll of the Orlando massacre at 20. During our service, I glanced at my phone: 50 dead. I don’t even know where to start. So I’ll let the Psalmist start for me: “How long, O Lord? How long?”
I’d be lying to you if I didn’t confess that this shooting feels different to me because I’m a member of the LGBT community that was specifically targeted. I feel vulnerable and uneasy. I feel angry and resentful.
Yet, at the same time, I find myself filled with such gratitude that I serve a church that’s made it clear that everyone, everyone, EVERYONE is welcome–including people like me.
Tonight, we’ll gather to stand firm our conviction that God’s welcome is meant for all of us. We’ll lament the tragedies that have befallen our county–the tragedy of violence, the tragedy of extremism, the tragedy of racism, and the tragedy of homophobia. There will be tears and prayers, love and light. And together we will walk forward hand in hand, convinced now more than ever of what the banner that hangs on the front of our steeple says is true: It’s not: “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” It’s just “love.”
Join us tonight (6/13) at 7pm in Westfield’s sanctuary for a vigil–a time to mourn what we’ve lost and believe things can be better; a time to lament violence and proclaim God’s realm–where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
If you can’t make it, will you pray with me now?
Almighty God, through eyes dimmed with tears we look to you in our time of devastation. For Orlando, we pray for peace. For the LGBT community there and everywhere, we pray they feel your love and ours. For the Latinx community that was particularly affected by this atrocity, we pray for your arms of compassion to surround them. Inspire us to action, Holy One, that we might stop settling for violence. Inspire us to stand up and proclaim your realm of radical, inclusive welcome and love–that homophobia, racism, and violence would be no more. We pray this in the name of the One who faced violence unto death, and rose again–the One we call Jesus. Amen.
Just so you know, I love you.
That morning, I put a rainbow flag at the base of our storied, silver cross. I took a picture and posted it on Facebook. The caption read, “Laying it all at the foot of the cross. Will you join me tonight at 7pm at #westfielducc?”
I checked my email and saw the bulletin Greg had put together in my inbox. We would pray and read scripture. We’d sit in silence and sing. Included in the prayers of lament and scripture readings were the refrains of two of Westfield’s go-to songs: Draw the Circle Wide and You are Mine. Until now, every time we sang one of these songs, it was to celebrate–a new member, a newly baptized child. That night would be different. That night, we would draw a circle wide enough to hold our grief and be reminded that God’s words through Isaiah are talking to us–“Do not be afraid, I am with you. I love you and you are mine.”
On a whim, I emailed our local radio station (WINY 1350) about the vigil. Within minutes, the station owner, Gary, called me. “Would you be willing to go on the radio right now to talk about what you’re doing?” “Sure,” I answered, half excited–half stunned. Once that interview was over, Gary called back. “Can I swing by the church and do a Facebook Live video with you?” “That’d be great!” I replied, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. “When?” I asked.
Fifteen minutes later, Gary O. (as he’s lovingly referred to) and I were standing in Wesfield’s sanctuary with my administrator, Carrie, dutifully holding a cellphone as still as she could. She counted down–3, 2, 1. And then, we went live.
It was viewed thousands of times. And with each play, Westfield lived more fully into who it is called to be–a church that welcomes everyone, including folks that time and again have found themselves so unwelcome in church. After running home for a quick bite, there was nothing to do but wait. I wasn’t sure anyone would come. It had been super late notice, after all. And most LGBTQ folks around here left for greener, more urban pastures. But as the minutes ticked toward 7pm, people began to trickle in.
Earlier in the afternoon, we closed the shutters and turned on our newly-installed LED lights that lined the balcony pews. The room was awash in rainbow colors of light, safe from the outside world. The table at the front was draped with rainbow flag that was woven through hurricane-globed candles. Different stations were set up around the room: the font, a kneeler, a chalkboard. We started by singing and hearing God’s Word through scripture. Then I invited those gathered to roam the space, lingering as they felt led at the stations. “The scriptures tell us,” I began, “that the wise man doesn’t build his house on sand, but on the rock. In the font, you’ll find small rocks. Take one, and be reminded that standing alongside one another during trying times is essential to the foundation of our community. Kneel at the foot of the cross–and lay your burden down. Or write prayers on the chalkboard. Or just sit.”
I hadn’t been very emotional all day. I was in work mode. You know the one–the one that says “just get it done.” It wasn’t until a local couple knelt at the foot of the cross that I lost it. These two men walked up to the kneeler–a kneeler used in countless weddings–and knelt together. And in an instant, they went from pseudo-composed to weeping. And at once, the gravity of it all hit me–the tragedy of Orlando, the welcome that had for so long been avoided not just in our church but churches across the country and world, the community Westfield had become, the reality that it could’ve been any one of us–that it still might be.
Soon it was time for me to pray, and I didn’t have a damn clue where to start. “O God,” I began tentatively, “I have prayed in all kinds of situations. I’ve prayed as children have passed from this world. I’ve prayed at weddings and bedsides–at baptisms and Communion. And every time, I find something to say. But this time, God, I don’t know what to say. I’m at a loss.”
I paused for a moment, searching for something–anything. “Actually,” I continued, “that’s a lie. I do know what to say…What in the hell were you thinking?” And so started ten minutes of public lament that poured out of me. How grateful I am to those who patiently let me talk and ramble and pray.
We read their names–all of them. We gathered in a circle and lit candles. And sang of circles being drawn wide, despite fear and violence. People left (hopefully with a little more hope in their hearts than they arrived with), and I locked the doors and turned off the lights. And I went home.
The next day, I started vacation.
My first Sunday back at Westfield was Sunday, July 3rd. It was our Annual Celebration of Liberty (which is a post unto itself!). Before we started, during our announcement time, one of my church members stood up. I thought she was making an announcement about our upcoming potluck.
Instead, she began to talk about me and the church and before I knew it our music minister, Jimmy, was playing the piano, and we were singing one of our go-to songs. We sing it when new members join our church and when folks need special prayer. And we sang it the night of the vigil: “Draw the circle, draw the circle wide…”
And that’s when church members, who had climbed the spiral staircase to our wrap-around balcony, began to drape the railing with big swaths of bright fabric. The bunting lined the balcony rails, hanging perfectly between our tercentennial banners. At the back of the room, over the marble clock that reminds me when I’m preaching too long, hung a central banner that had a circle of rainbow-colored people cutouts surrounded by the words, “Draw the circle wide.”
The message from my congregation to me was clear: “We’re sorry the LGBTQ community you’re part of has been attacked. We love you, we love who you are. We are here for you just like you are for us. Make no mistake, we’re in this together. And together we will draw the circle wide.”
Now listen, I can be real particular. I’ve got high expectations for myself and for my church members and, on the whole, that serves us well. We’ve come back from the dead, after all. So, it goes without saying that surprises in church aren’t generally my thing. But this one got me. This is the church that, four years ago, was convinced they were welcoming enough.
And in four minutes on a Sunday morning, what felt like my “agenda” for some became, unequivocally, our commitment–Westfield’s commitment. In a moment, every time I stood in the pulpit and said, “Everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome here” became all of us saying “Yes, everyone, everyone, everyone.”
And that, in case there is any question, is how Westfield found its pulse.
EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to the Norwich Bulletin for such great pictures, to Carrie Taylor (my God-send of an admin) who rolls with the punches like no one I know, and to my beloved, Greg, who jumped into action and helped to make this happen. Greg, every day I thank God for you.