No One is Free Until All Are Free

No One is Free Until All Are Free

A slightly smaller, but powerful group of advocates gathered in St. Joseph, MN in June for the Coalition’s National Open and Affirming Coalition Gathering. Plenary and workshop topics focused on two main goals: to continue working towards a denomination that is “100% Open and Affirming” and how to make certain that ONA work intersects with other justice initiatives, especially groups working towards racial equity.

The 2016 Gathering opened with welcoming remarks from Coalition Executive Director Andrew Lang, Minnesota Associate Conference Minister the Rev. Stephen Boorsma, and a recorded greeting by the General Conference Minister the Rev. John C. Dorhauer. Dorhauer’s speech was retweeted dozens of times, both by people who were attending the event and those who were following the Gathering. Many echoed the challenge of Sally Ponzio; “If you’re someone who believes Christians are anti-gay, please take the time to hear John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, one of the several Christian denominations who welcome and affirm members of the LGBTQ community.” (Ponzio, 2016)

All of the plenary sessions resonated with participants. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, opened with a powerful call to action to fight for equality. The phrase from her speech used as the title of this article highlights her message. She also imparted the wisdom that, “We are experts at extracting stories from Scripture that soothe us. That is not what we are called to do…. The fabric and the faith: we are woven together in this fight.” Full equality for all people must remain the primary goal of justice ministries. Several of those who attended the session mentioned Blackmon’s speech again four days later when 49 people, mostly queer people of color, were killed at a dance club in Orlando.

Later that morning, a presentation by Barbara Satin and the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess on issues facing aging LGBTQ people highlighted the work of Spirit on Lake, one of the first assisted living facilities in the country that does not force people back into the closet when they transitioned to a care facility. Both speakers mentioned that the vast majority of housing for the elderly is provided by churches—and few of them are welcoming to LGBTQ people, meaning that committed partners are often unable to live together. Highlighting how being a welcoming community often leads to unexpected connections, many of the initial residents of Spirit on Lake have been Somalian people who were turned away from other homes due to their religious beliefs.

The final plenary opened with a reading of Andrea Jenkins powerful poem, “A Requiem for the Queers (or why we wear the color purple)” which set the stage for a final large group discussion on intersectionality. It included the powerful line: “We wear Purple because the intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality is the street we live on, and we can’t move even if we wanted to.” (Jenkins, 2015) Panel presenters responded to questions about the intersection between queer justice, racial justice, and disability justice. Andrew Lang recognized that one of the answers to the question of what comes next for the ONA movement must include intersectional work with other movements. One of the shared stories recognized the reality that the largest beneficiary of affirmative action programs have been white women. “When white women break the glass ceiling, black women clean up the broken glass.” That, along with the shocking statistic that transgender women of color in the Americas have a life expectancy of 35, spurred participants to reach out and do more when they returned to their home churches.

The three-day event closed with the Annual ONA Banquet. Two congregations were awarded Rainbow Awards for their rainbow flag displays. The Rev. Jay Kennett represented Hillsborough UCC in North Carolina who have had multiple rainbow flags burned. In his acceptance speech, Kennett noted that, “When they burned one flag, we just took two out of the closet,” which brought laughter at the word play on the coming out journey.

rainbow signs westfield congregational ucc danielson CT

Rainbow signs at Westfield UCC, Danielson, CT

The Rev. Greg Gray, representing Westfield UCC in Danielson, CT, accepted the second award for the congregation’s display of rainbow doors. He reflected on how many people have come to the church and challenged them on their message of universal welcome. Their answer, “…you really, really, really, really, really are welcome here, no matter what” might be the final takeaway for the entire event. As the Open and Affirming Coalition moves forward, it is clear that in order to heal the wounds caused by churches who have turned away people based on any piece of their identity, whether it is because of their sexuality, gender, race, culture or religious beliefs, UCC churches cannot simply sit back and wait for people to come to our churches. Instead, we must become proactive and go out to share Jesus’s message of radical inclusion.

The next National ONA Gathering will be June 27-29 in Baltimore—just before general synod. Start planning now to join the Coalition and ministry colleagues from around the country as we continue moving forward towards full equity for ALL people.