The First Steps on an Amazing Journey
by Rebecca Glenn 5/31/18
Is this really our ONA Statement? Are you sure that we don’t have another, newer version? We are going to need to rewrite this!
These were some of the reactions when the ONA (Open and Affirming) Task force reviewed SCUCC’s current ONA Statement when we first met in October 2017!
We would like to share with you what we have learned and experienced over the last 8 months and invite you to journey with us as we look at ways to best describe and live out this important part of our church DNA. This article is the first of four that we will offer through iConnect. This one focuses on the first steps of our ONA journey. Here are some key facts:
1. We will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of SCUCC becoming Open and Affirming in October 2018! The original statement, that is part of our constitution, has never been revised.
2. ONA is a movement of more than 1,500 churches and other ministries in the United Church of Christ (UCC) that welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) members. More than 350,000 members of the UCC belong to ONA churches—and our movement is growing rapidly.
3. Some other denominations have similar movements with different language/approaches. For example, in the Presbyterian denomination they have the “More Light” movement, and the Methodist denomination has the “Reconciling Ministries Network”.
4. For most people, these movements probably sound like meaningless church speak, AND, since most churches say they are welcoming to all, it is hard for folks in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. community to know where they will be loved and accepted and where they are at risk of spiritual mistreatment.
5. The task force agreed to revise our ONA statement. Members of the task force include Connor White, Patti Sutherland, Rev. Carol Reynolds, Jay McAuliffe (from Rebel & Divine), and myself.
You are probably wondering what the current ONA statement says. The full statement can be found HERE. It has seven points and number 6 is the one that has the specific language of ONA. It reads as follows:
6.Recognizing that "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3), we are an open and affirming church. In the spirit of Christian love, we gladly welcome into our midst any person who seeks Christian fellowship regardless of race, age, gender, or sexual orientation.
Although our statement no longer feels right, I don’t want anyone to minimize what a stretch it felt like 20 years ago when this all began. We were the first church in all of Maricopa County to become Open and Affirming. There weren’t processes to follow or resources to use like we have now (the UCC currently offers great resources at https://openandaffirming.org.)
To provide a better window into that time, I reached out to others who were at SCUCC for the Open and Affirming vote to explore what they remember.
Barbara Nordlund was involved in the wider church work of the Southwest Conference and remembers our conference minister, Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, bringing up the subject to spur interest, and a few others in the conference compiling resources (including Rev. David Ragan and Rev. Steve Wayles). She remembers it as an uptight time for everyone except Rev. Eric Elnes, who was our minister. Eric did research and the church embarked upon some intense education over a short period of time, including thorough training on how to respond if someone asks you about being ONA. There were two prominent lesbian women who came and spoke with us, talking about what it was like for them. One of these women, Jesse Quilty, had been denounced by her church and kicked out by her parents. The church really connected with these women and Barbara felt they made a big difference.
After we voted yes she remembers some people leaving. Some of them may have been out of sync with prior happenings at the church, and this vote was their final straw. Barbara also recalls that our church mindset shifted from doing anything we can to try and bring back those who leave to the approach that says if this doesn’t fit for them, it is okay that they find what does fit. She also has fond memories of the big fan fare we received at the next Southwest Conference UCC annual meeting and how it all can still give her chills.
Steve Hunter remembers the pain involved with members leaving. A few were very involved families, one in particular that was close to his young children, making their decision to leave hard for his family.
Ray Gentry remembers his firm belief that is was the right thing to do. “We should always welcome anyone; sexual orientation has nothing to do with it.” We need to have a welcoming process – all should be welcome.
For me, being part of that first official step felt bold, felt right, felt a bit scary, and felt special. What I most remember leading up to the vote was a sermon that made things so clear to me, that to vote to become Open and Affirming was not just the right vote but the only vote. In trying to describe some highlights of the sermon, I realized I needed some help so I reached out to Rev. Eric Elnes. He dug through his records and sent me the transcript document. His records are so much better than mine!
It was titled God’s House Is an Open House, Part I: Ripples That Make Waves. The section I remembered was based on Acts 10 with Peter on his porch praying and he starts to get hungry. Peter asks for lunch to be prepared for him and goes on praying. He then receives the vision of all the animals arrayed before him, and a voice says, “Peter, go to it. Kill and eat. Anything you want.” He is being encouraged to eat things that had been deemed an abomination. Peter has to pray and receive this vision 3 times for him to accept it!
The sermon went on to describe how this then led to Peter’s prayer where he received the vision that Gentiles were not unclean and should be accepted just like Jews. This created the first big ripple, the baptism for the Gentiles. This went against tradition and the prior understanding of the scriptures.
I remember Eric later posing the question to us, what are the requirements for being part of our community? Do we need to eat certain foods? No! Do we need to be born into a particular tradition or religion? No? What then? We said love and trying to follow Jesus. He pressed us, are there more things to consider? We did not have anything to add. This is when I knew that the vote to be ONA must be yes.
I also asked Eric what he remembers most from that time. He remembered how exhilarating it all was, that all but 2 of the folks at the congregational meeting voted yes. That some people left the church. One of them called him an ass. He recalls Bill Jenkins, a long term member who has since passed away, saying that in the early days of our church, when other churches in our area said they welcomed everyone, that meant white people. We invited to our church the black family who just moved into the neighborhood to our church. We welcomed everyone including black people. This is just like that.
Eric remembers how intentional we were after the fact, participating in the Gay Pride Parade, offering special services for those with AIDS. He shared that speaking about all of this really made his day!