You may remember last December a commercial aired on network television showing two bouncers outside the doors of what appeared to be a local church. They were screening the visitors, making sure that only the "right people" got in. Maybe you don't remember the commercial for what it showed; instead you remember it because CBS and NBC refused at first to air the ads. After all, there were a couple of gay men told to stand outside, and this might be considered too controversial as the CBS news release explained, "in light of President Bush's proposal for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman."
Of course, the United Church of Christ, the church group paying for the ads, couldn't have orchestrated a bigger publicity stunt. These ads, which may have otherwise passed with little notice, were suddenly newsworthy. Everyone wanted to see the banned ads. OK, maybe not everyone, but 288,000 visitors to the www.stillspeaking.com web site, in five days that's a lot of people. More importantly, 70,000 of those people went on to search for a UCC church close to them.
For my church, First Congregational Church in St. Louis, this was big news. Not necessarily because we had 70,000 new visitors walking through our doors. The fact is, we may have had a handful, or one hundred. What, I think, was most exciting, was that last December we were rounding a very important corner toward ratifying what is called an open and affirming statement. Or in UCC talk, "ONA." What an ONA statement does is state that we as a congregation have actively engaged the question of whether we want to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) people, and we have decided: yes, everyone is welcome regardless of their sexual orientation.
But what exactly does it mean to welcome an LGBT crowd? This was a very difficult question for my church, because we recognize that a welcome based upon some specific part of a visitor's identity risks sounding disingenuous. No one is going to feel at home at a church where they're thought of as "the gay guy" or "the lesbian." And worst of all, I don't think any homosexual person would want to be held up as the person who proved "how open-minded we certainly are."
What we recognized as a church is that welcoming an LGBT crowd involves our attitudes and actions toward visitors and members. It means that we want same-sex couples to feel comfortable in the church acting the way any couple would. It means that we want teenagers and young adults who may be questioning this part of their identity to know it's safe to explore that question at church. It even means that our church can be used for same-sex marriage ceremonies, though last November told us it would be a while before those marriages were sanctioned by the state of Missouri.
And we do this because we believe it's the Christian thing to do. The day that we voted to become an ONA church, our minister addressed the typical arguments brought up by some other Christians. Well, I guess they're not really arguments, more like mantras, or passages from the Bible that many of them repeat over and over (as though repetition resolves an argument). My minister said, "I have a hard time believing the overwhelming power of God's love can't overcome three Bible verses." And so we recognized as a church, that when we voted 97-1 in favor of an ONA resolution, we were, on one level, making a political statement. As the CBS and NBC reaction to the UCC bouncer commercial attests, this was and is a charged issue. But on a more important level, we became an ONA church because we believe we are affirming very basic tenets of the Christian faith. And we are making explicit what we believe the Christian attitude should be toward homosexuals.
Kent Shaw teaches writing at Washington University.