The following is the report by Andy Lang, executive director of the Open and Affirming Coalition, at the Open and Affirming Banquet June 26, 2015, at the 30th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.
June 26, 2015, is a date you won’t soon forget. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now someone may ask you—“Where were you on the day marriage equality became the law of the land?” And you will answer: “In Cleveland, Ohio, at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ!”
The long night of marriage discrimination against LGBT Americans has come to an end! And so we can sing with David and his beloved, Jonathan:
I thank you that you have answered me,
and have become my salvation.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it!
What a great day to be together as a movement—the Open and Affirming movement of the United Church of Christ!
Who could have imagined 30 years ago, when the 15th General Synod gathered in Ames, IA, that this day would come? But in a way, that Synod set in motion a chain of events that led to this moment. Its resolution, “Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming,” was the birth of the ONA movement. In 1986, the Coalition certified Open and Affirming congregation #1–Riverside Church in New York City. But you remember: in those days they used to say: “that’s only one church; you’re just a small fringe!” Then there were 50 ONA churches and they said, “well, you’re only 50 churches.” And then: “you’re only 100 churches, only 300 churches, only 500 churches.” I was still hearing these voices in 2012 when we welcomed Open and Affirming church #1,000 at our National Gathering in Elmhurst, IL. Well, yesterday morning we presented a brand-new certificate to Open and Affirming church #1,300—Manantial de Gracia (Spring of Grace) UCC in West Hartford, CT! Today, we’re the largest and fastest-growing LGBT-affirming church movement in the world—1,300 congregations and ministries representing more than 250,000 members of the United Church of Christ!
But I can still hear the voices: “Well, you’re only 1,300 churches. But there are more than 5,000 congregations in the UCC. That’s only 26 percent! You don’t speak for the whole denomination.”
And, you know, they’d be right. The Open and Affirming movement doesn’t speak for the entire United Church of Christ. Not yet. That’s why at our National ONA Gathering yesterday we launched the “100% OPEN AND AFFIRMING” campaign. And tonight I’m asking you to stand with the Coalition until we reach every congregation in our beloved church—not 26%, or 50%, or 75%, but 100%! Stand with us as we call into our growing family ALL the churches of the United Church of Christ—the churches that are holding back, that are conflicted, that still cannot accept and affirm their LGBT neighbors with integrity and conviction. Stand with us in the months and years to come until we can proudly say, “the United Church of Christ is 100% Open and Affirming!”
But “100%” isn’t just about numbers. It’s also about commitment. A 100% Open and Affirming church is a church that claims the vision of our movement’s founders 30 years ago: a vision of communities that proclaim not only in word but also in action that God’s plan for humanity is a world in which every child of God is wanted, needed, protected and affirmed. A 100% Open and Affirming church is a church that doesn’t hide its light behind closet doors, but comes out, and comes out every day—to the places where we live and work proving that “extravagant welcome” isn’t just a sign or a slogan. A 100% Open and Affirming church is a church that recognizes that even after marriage equality, the work of God’s justice in our communities is far from complete. A 100% Open and Affirming church is a church that lives and breathes in the intersections where justice-seeking people stand together for everyone—not only for LGBT people, but for all people. And that’s why a 100% Open and Affirming church is a church that comes out when a black child named Tamir Rice is shot down in the streets of Cleveland or a transgender teenager named Leelah Alcorn takes her own life on an interstate highway near Cincinnati—because black lives matter, and trans lives matter, and all lives matter!
Let’s face the truth: there are Open and Affirming churches for whom their ONA covenant is just a piece of paper: a promise we made years ago to be nice to everybody. And that’s a tragedy because we NEED those churches to take a stand in their communities when the human rights and human dignity of their neighbors are under threat. So our “100%” campaign means that starting now, the Coalition will reach out to every ONA church, and with your help, we’ll inspire them to rediscover and reclaim their passion for inclusion and justice!
So marriage equality in 50 states is not the end of our journey. And if you don’t already know this, let me tell you who does: the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the National Organization for Marriage—they know that the journey isn’t over. Like a retreating army, if they can’t stop us at this point on the road, they’ll regroup and establish a new defensive line somewhere else. And today that line of defense is the “religious exemption” laws they’ve introduced in 20 states, with more to come. Those laws won’t overturn marriage equality but they’ll establish the right of private business owners and public officials to refuse service to LGBT people on the basis of religion—no matter what the law says about civil rights.
Two weeks ago, on June 11, the state legislature of North Carolina enacted a law over the governor’s veto that allows public officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses to anyone. That same day, the governor of Michigan signed a law that allows private child-welfare agencies—agencies that are funded by Michigan taxpayers—to refuse adoption services to same-sex couples. In other states, legislatures are considering bills that seek to exempt private business owners from any state or local law protecting LGBT persons from discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations. That means a restaurant could refuse to serve LGBT customers, or a landlord could refuse to lease an apartment to a same-sex couple—just by claiming a religious exemption.
Tonight, the Coalition’s leadership is making this promise: we’ll help you fight religious-exemption laws, and we won’t stop until the basic rights of every LGBT person are secure in every state!
No, our journey isn’t over. Still, on every long journey you need to stop sometimes, and celebrate the progress you’ve made. Tonight is one of those times. I said that Synod’s Open and Affirming resolution 30 years ago set in motion a chain of events that led to this moment. Every time, as an Open and Affirming congregation, you welcomed a child of God who wasn’t wanted in another church, you brought us closer to this day. Every time you stood with your LGBT neighbors when their dignity and worth as human beings were under attack, you brought us closer to this day. Every time you defended an LGBT teen from bullying, or cared for an LGBT senior who was abused in a nursing home, or advocated for an LGBT asylum-seeker driven to our shores by state-sponsored violence, you brought us closer to this day. So tonight we celebrate. And when we return home with renewed energy and rekindled passion, we will work together as the Open and Affirming movement until every one of God’s children has found the way home.