By the Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
The prophetic tasks of the church are
to tell the truth
in a society that lives in illusion,
in a society that practices denial,
and express hope
in a society that lives in despair.
– Walter Brueggemann
(Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks,
Plymouth has been ONA for a generation. Young people have grown up in our church who have never known other than an ONA faith community. Every Sunday’s welcome announces that we are an “Open and Affirming church of the United Church of Christ.” Our ONA statement says that “ all persons are created by God and are equal in worth and dignity. We recognize, celebrate and give thanks for the many diverse gifts of God among us…. [We are] welcoming into full membership and participation in the Body of Christ persons of every race, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic origin, physical and mental ability, economic status and nationality.” Plymouth hired LGBT clergy and staff even before becoming ONA, putting our money where our mouth is. We regularly staff informational booths at Fort Collins Pride, are longtime hosts of PFLAG, celebrate gay and lesbian marriages, have a private all-gender and handicapped accessible restroom, and integrate queer people into the mainstream of church life. As occasion demands, we speak out for justice for sexual minorities. For the most part, we are quite comfortable proclaiming ourselves ONA – though occasional vandalism of the rainbow flag on our street sign reminds us that not everyone shares our openness. We fix the sign, unapologetic about the truth.
In spite of the deepening and very troubling backlash over the last three years against marriage equality and other advances by GLBTQ+ people, few social issues have seen so much change in so short a time. We know that there are still glaring loose ends concerning protection regarding employment and public accommodations, and backlash is to be expected (given the radial reshaping of the courts, including the SCOTUS, under the current administration, outright reversals are not unlikely). Yet there has been so much progress -- where in but my own lifetime we have gone from police raids on gay bars to politicians campaigning there, from AIDS decimating the community to long term treatments managing the disease and PREP helping prevent it altogether, from growing up in an information vacuum to young people being able to access queer communities with the click of a mouse or step into their high school GSA -- this is a time of hope and joy. When we ask, “We are ONA, so now what?” it means we act vigilantly and courageously against those tides that would undo the progress that has been made. It also means we grieve losses like the reversal of military policies that had accepted transgender troops.
ONA calls us to deepen our understanding around the growing edges. We are pretty knowledgeable about gay and lesbian persons and relationships, but less so about bisexual or transgender people. A recent survey of ONA churches said that only 40% “Can offer a confident and well-informed welcome to your transgender neighbors… [or] Have undertaken a study of the transgender experience.” Our own community has been spared the brunt of controversy around so-called “bathroom bills” and other legislation aimed at making transgender person’s lives difficult; Colorado just passed legislation allowing people to more easily modify their birth certificates and other legal documents to reflect reality. While there has been fierce and often ugly debate about transgender people’s lives – even their very existence – those debates have largely passed us by. Yet as an ONA community, we need to be able to respond intelligently when our sisters and brothers are pressured or attacked. We also realize that we have family members and fellow congregants for whom this is no mere academic speculation. For these reasons the upcoming Forum series will be delving deeper into gender identity issues than we have in a very long time. We will be basing our programs on the TransAction curricula published by the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, who shepherd the ONA program in our denomination. See also other resources here.
Among the things we hope to address is the fear of being wrong or offensive. The Forum Team has had a variety of discussions trying to figure out vocabulary which we find is fluid and changeable. How has the experience of people changed the ways they describe their gender identity, ranging from transsexual to transgendered to transgender to genderqueer to non-binary to other things altogether? There are trends but no consensus. People’s experiences vary widely. We also seek to understanding our own gender identity even if we are not transgender, not treating ourselves as the default since there are many ways to be man or woman or in between and our own experiences vary widely. So long as one is respectful, and grants someone the right not to answer a question, the only bad question is the unasked one. There is enough grace to cover our gaffes.
We embrace an ONA commitment not despite our Christian faith, but because of it. Concerning gender-variant people, we remember that the first non-Jew to accept the Christian faith was an Ethiopian eunuch, who heard the gospel and gladly believed. A person of deep faith commitment, they had traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage even though as a eunuch they would not be allowed into the temple. The Spirit led the apostle Phillip to share the good news of Jesus with him. When they came to water and they asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the clear answer in the new Jesus movement was “Nothing!” Not their nationality, not their race, not their sexuality. The eunuch was baptized and went their way rejoicing (see Acts 8:26-40). This is a clear example of the word from the prophet Isaiah, pushing back against the Deuteronomic bars against eunuchs – and by extension, welcoming other genderqueer people:
Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say,
“The Lord will exclude me from the people.”
And don’t let the eunuch say,
“I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
choose what I desire,
and remain loyal to my covenant.
In my temple and courts, I will give them
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
I will give to them an enduring name
that won’t be removed….
My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
says the Lord God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.
(Isaiah 56:3-5, 8 CEB)
Plymouth is and is becoming a “house of prayer for all people.” Thank you for making that possible!
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Mark recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as Plymouth’s Director of Christian Formation for Adults. He also serves as chair of the Platte Valley Associations’ Committee on Ministry.