“Do the rainbows come off… you know, for funerals and stuff like that?”
“I bet that [the rainbow on the new sign] was your idea…[wink]”
The variety of names is vast: Open and Affirming (ONA), Reconciling in Christ (RIC), Welcoming Communities Network (WCN), Believe Out Loud Parish, More Light, Covenant Network, Affirmation, etc. Whatever you call it doesn’t really matter. We don’t really care what it is called. We care how it behaves. What matters is the theological risk you are willing to take to safeguard a community that is more out than ever... and therefore more vulnerable than ever before. The more out we are as LGBTQ Christians, the more reactionary current politics, the more we need the Open and Affirming movement to continue and deepen. With the regression of rights and safe spaces around the world, especially from the highest levels of power, the Open and Affirming movement is only just getting started. Likewise, the durability of the movement is only now being tested. It is no longer just about Marriage Equality and “love is love.” That was easy! Now it is about our whole identity together as Christians.
Plymouth has been Open and Affirming since 2001, offering a generous welcome and affirmation to the LGBTQ Community in Fort Collins and serving as a beacon for the LGBTQ-Affirming Church movement across our entire region. As a congregation, we have changed many lives including my own. This openness and affirmation were put to the test in 2005 when a lost and scared Evangelical high school Sophomore walked in. As a 16-year-old standing in front of Plymouth, covenanting and joining on my own as a young gay kid; as a young gay adult being accepted as a Member in Discernment in front of our loving board of deacons; as a gay seminary graduate being affirmed as Ordainable by unanimous vote of the Association; as a gay Candidate presented to the congregation for Call as Settled Associate Minister; and these nearly five years as your out gay often-rainbow-clad Associate Minister, mentioning my husband (intentionally) in almost every sermon--I have experienced nothing but the bold and manifest love of my Creator and God through this church, its members, and staff. When out in the community, I always know that these nearly 700 Christians and their faith in me as pastor have my back. Can you imagine the blessing you have been in my life and in the lives of others like me? While I understand that the UCC generally dislikes its ministers to serve their home churches, this ministry has always felt like the completion of wholeness and even Providence.
What came as a surprise to me this year was the reactions some in our congregation had, initially, when we first installed our new signs. There were many reactions. It is one thing to be Open and Affirming, but does the sign really need to state it that loudly every day of the year with the large rainbow flag? Does the rainbow come off for funerals, when more conservative members come home? The funniest assumption, since I didn’t have anything to do with the design of the sign, was that the rainbow was all my doing. (I wish I could take credit for it, but I sadly wasn’t on that committee.)
In summary, what surprised me was the shock some had at being publicly outed as members of an Open and Affirming LGBTQ-Celebrating Congregation. What would their friends think? Would this put us in danger as a congregation? Can we feel safe in a church that has outwardly marked itself with a rainbow? What I found was a fear, in this violent world, to be more out than we already are—especially with such great visibility on Prospect! This could expose us to more violence. Shouldn’t we stay quiet? As someone with no choice but to live every single day out and proud, this fear surprised me.
What was it about the sign that made people uncomfortable? Plymouth is now where Pride Month is every month. It is one thing to allow us to be members, to be your clergy, but it is another to actively counter the dominant culture with a symbol of equality on our sign. It is a sign that not only are LGBTQ people welcome at Plymouth, but we have equal standing and ownership. For me, as a gay man, I feel much safer in a church with a rainbow on it. I found it fascinating that for some straight members, they felt exposed and in danger with the rainbow outside. I wasn’t upset by this. Rather, I felt deeply for them. I felt for them because my body has felt like that rainbow at times. I didn’t judge that fear because that is the fear that LGBTQ people experience every day of our lives. We work hard, intentionally, and with humor, love, and abundance to overcome it in community, art, and Pride. We get it. We understand fear.
Gospel: The fear has gone away over the past year, and a new confidence has emerged in the signs and what they say about us. Plymouth has chosen to go to the next step of Open and Affirming. We are now Open and Celebrating without fear! You, Plymouth, have made the step that the whole of humanity is called to make from passively affirming to active celebration with the Spirit.
A year ago for Pride Month, I wrote a reflection called, "The LGBTQ Right to Distrust God." So this year… I am offering a counter point to my own letter: "Why the LGBTQ-Celebrating Church Matters in 2019." This is why it matters that we have the rainbow outside and that we continue to pay attention to our Open and Affirming Covenant.
Our ministry as an Open and Affirming Church is bigger now than Fort Collins. With Social Media, our ministry and mission are bigger than our immediate market. Upon posting a picture of our sign online on Instagram (@plymouthuccftc), we were picked up and reposted by a church sign blog. It caused a lot of commotion and thousands of responses, but it was an email from a Floridan that caught my attention:
“Hey. From south Florida. Saw your sign on a Christian sign page lol. Just wanted to thank y’all for being accepting and affirming of LGBTQ+ community. As a bi Christian, it’s hard and I’ve had so many debates with myself. I’ve had friends say that this isn’t who God made me to be. Tho I can’t change this. Just wanted to say thanks.”
Even if the $60,000 we spent on the new signs changes one life, saves one life, opens one mind, transforms one heart… wasn’t it worth every single penny?
Here are the reasons why the LGBTQ-Celebrating Movement and Visibility Matters More than Ever in 2019:
Do the rainbows come off? No, I’m sorry the rainbows don’t come off anymore. The Church doesn’t have the luxury of time to go in and out of celebrating all people anymore. This is the time in the institution of Church (more than ever before over these 2,000 plus years) to know who we are and to proclaim it boldly. While the Open and Affirming movement started as a Safe Space and a Sanctuary saving LGBTQ people from hateful churches and an uncertain world, it is now the LGBTQ Community arguably saving the Church from meaninglessness and theological daftness in an increasingly secular world. The Open and Affirming Church has given meaning to so many lives like mine. Now, we hope to be co-celebrants with you in a world seeking deeper meaning. Celebration, more than fear, is something we do well in the LGBTQ world. My prayer is that we can offer that joy to the Church and save it.
Plymouth, thank you for being Open and Affirming and for making the bold move to Celebration.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph (or just Jake)
Preferred Pronouns: He/him/ his
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.