Monday, July 4, 2016

It's Time to Get Official!

Following the mass shooting at the PULSE nightclub in Orlando last month, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) issued a statement in support of the LGBTQ community.  As an ordained American Baptist pastor and as a gay man, I was so proud of ABHMS and its Executive Director, Dr. Jeffrey Haggray.  The words in that statement gave me some hope and courage in the midst of tragedy.  Not only did they express their anguish and grief, they said that they condemned “with the strongest language possible whatever ideologies and sentiments contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence against fellow children of God, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”  Furthermore, they affirmed that “We are all created in the image of God, and God’s love for all people is steadfast, immovable and unconditional.”  The statement ended with a courageous call, in which “Haggray encourages churches across the United States and Puerto Rico to open their doors in welcome to LGBTQ persons and others each and every day”:

“Let us find authentic ways to publicly communicate that we stand with LGBTQ persons by extending hospitality, security, love and acceptance in God’s houses of prayer intended for all people,” Haggray says. “Let us publicly affirm that, as Christ’s church, we are a beloved community—a community that welcomes into our houses of worship Latino/Latina neighbors, LGBTQ friends, Muslim co-laborers, and all persons who seek dialogue, understanding, safe-keeping, community and love.”

In tweeting out the link to the full statement ( it occurred to me that not only had ABHMS condemned the “ideologies and sentiments” in our own denomination that “contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence,” they had also called all American Baptist churches to become Welcoming and Affirming.  Never before had I heard such clear words in support of LGBTQ people from any of our denominational bodies.

And now I am waiting, waiting for our churches to respond.  I am especially waiting for those churches that have in many ways behaved like Welcoming and Affirming (W&A) churches, but have yet to make this known in any official way.  Such churches may have members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender, whom they welcome and accept as they would anyone else.  They may even have pastors and/or staff who belong to the LGBTQ community.  And yet such churches have not/will not make the move to make it known to the wider community that they are churches that welcome and affirm LGBTQ people.

To these churches, doing anything official may not seem like such a big deal.  They often see themselves as W&A, and see no difference between themselves and other churches that have made it official.  But if there were no difference, it would not in any way be problematic to put “A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation” on church promotional materials, or hang a rainbow flag out front, or even put a rainbow sticker on the church marquee.  There would be no question.  But, as it stands, these things are still problematic for churches that have not made their W&A ministry known and official.  

And so, LGBTQ people interested in becoming a part of such churches must ask someone they trust if it’s a safe place for them.  Those LGBTQ persons courageous enough to risk joining such churches will always have times where they wonder if it’s okay to be themselves.  Same-sex couples will wonder if they can be married in such churches.  And when tragedy strikes the LGBTQ community, as it did in Orlando, such churches will always make an uncertain sound, if they make any sound at all.  Unofficial W&A churches are not the same as official W&A churches.

All public statements from ABCUSA end with the statement: “American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.”  And by my count, there are only 100 of those congregations who have become official members of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  That’s just not enough.

Now I know there is a process.  It takes time to become a W&A church.  There are conversations to be had, about sexuality in general and so many other things.  And yet there are churches like the unofficially W&A churches who could get there a lot sooner because they are already far down the path.  And we need more churches to get official, I need the church I serve to get official, because there are people out there who need to know without a doubt that they are good, they are loved, and they are safe in our churches.  It’s time!

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