Good things take time
We plant trees in whose shade we will never sit.
A couple of weeks ago, I submitted a letter to the editor of our local paper. Here it is:
On April 24, 2016, First Congregational United Church of Christ adopted an Open and Affirming covenant and became an Open and Affirming congregation. Like many Open and Affirming congregations in our denomination, we declare ourselves to be a congregation that embraces differences of race, ethnicity, culture, faith, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital and family status, age, and ability; and that invites all people to share equally in the life of the church. But while we embrace a long list of differences, the heart of the Open and Affirming covenant has always been the full inclusion of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer (LGBTQ+).
Our vocal inclusion of LGBTQ people has always been contentious. There are people in our community—and even in our own congregation—who wish that we could be quietly inclusive. In fact, we all wish for a world where being LGBTQ is no big deal, where inclusion is normal, and where acceptance doesn’t need to be commented upon. But we live in a world where laws are being passed that restrict the ways that schools can care for LGBTQ students, ban affirming healthcare for transgender youth, and otherwise make it more difficult to be young and queer in Iowa. And those laws are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a movement to make Iowa the opposite of open, affirming, and inclusive.
Right now, it is especially important for affirming people and inclusive organizations to stand up and speak out. So, as we approach the seventh anniversary of being an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ, we are doing just that. If you are a young person struggling to figure out who you are, if you are a teacher burdened by impossible demands, if you are a parent wrangling with hard questions, and if you are anyone else, you are welcome at First Congregational United Church of Christ. In fact, no matter who you are, and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
I expected some pushback.
Last summer, I bought a banner to put up in front of the church: a rainbow banner with the words A Just World for All across the yellow stripe. I put it up on our banner stand on the first day of June—the first day of pride month—as a sign of our inclusivity and support for the LGBTQ+ community.
When I got to the church on the second day of June, it was gone, and the little things that attached it to the banner stand were cut apart and strewn on the grass.
So I expected some pushback: a mean phone call, some graffiti, an opposing letter to the editor, or something like that.
Instead, I experienced something else.
Let’s start with the thing that was, for the lack of a better word, normal.
The morning that the letter came out, I met with a representative from the company that owns the paper, and that is producing the local chamber of commerce’s guide to our town: the little booklet that covers everything that goes on in our town and that gets sent to every new resident. We were going to talk about an ad that the church was placing in that booklet.
And the first thing that this representative did was thank me for the letter.
She said that the reason she didn’t go to church anymore was because the churches that she knew were not inclusive. She said that it was good to know that there was an inclusive church in town. She said that she had been talking to one of our members, who had told her about our congregation’s inclusive stance.
And when we started talking about the ad, she said that inclusivity should be the centerpiece of that ad.
Now, I know that there are a lot of people in our community who are not actively engaged in a Christian congregation. And there are a a lot of people who are not a part of a congregation because they see the Christians in our community as legalistic, exclusive, homophobic, and out of step with the realities of a modern pluralistic society. Hell, there are congregations in our community who have made that part of their brand.
So it was a pleasant surprise when someone told me that the presence of an inclusive church in our small town in Iowa was a breath of fresh air.
Now, let’s start with the thing that was, for the lack of a better term, a little weird.
About a week after the letter came out, I got a phone call from the son of a woman who used to live in our town and who now lives in another part of the country. The woman is in hospice—she is preparing to die—and she is thinking about her funeral. And she wants to have her funeral in our town; she wants to have her funeral in the town that she grew up in. She wants to come home so that she can be home as she goes to her eternal home.
And she used to belong to a church in our town, but that church is very conservative and very exclusive, so she doesn’t want to come home to that church. This phone call was the result of her son searching for a more inclusive church that could serve as home, even if it was just for a few hours on a single day. And he thought it was going to take longer, but he found us.
I don’t think that’s because of the letter to the editor. I do think that’s because our website and social media say that we’re Open and Affirming, and I’ve given sermons about standing in solidarity with members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we had the letter to the editor. Which is to say that it’s because we have been leaning further and further into being inclusive.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is something like this:
A lot of churches are generating a lot of noise—a lot of bigotry and hatred and legalism and exclusivity—that drowns out the inclusive gospel. It takes time for the signal that inclusive churches generate to break through. It takes hard work. It takes diligence. It might even take a certain amount of stubbornness. But that signal does eventually break through.
A little bit at first; enough to inspire a comment or a phone call. But then more and more and more. And, eventually, everybody can hear it; most importantly, the people who need to hear that inclusive gospel can hear it. And they will come running.
And those who were there when the whole thing started might not get to see that. We who came a little bit later and nurtured the thing might not even get to see that. But someone will. And that makes every step along the way worth it.