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Week 5 of "Reflecting on our Open & Affirming" By ivy tillman

Reflecting On Our Open aNd Affirming Covenant

“We Joyfully embrace diversity of age, ethnicity, family structure, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, nationality, political ideology, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and spiritual belief.”

i’ve done a lot of reflecting this week, and for several weeks. i am so happy and thankful to have found the United Church of Huntsville (UCH). It took some doing, and building trust in my heart and body took—and is still taking—some work. Please don’t misunderstand: as Rev. Dr. Brian said from the pulpit last week, “i am in love.” And because i am in love, i am in covenant with you. i don’t know about Brian, but my love for this church, including all its settings, is a consummate one: passionate, intimate, and committed. i am fired up about embracing this church and having it embrace me and others like me just as i/we present ourselves. i am committed to loving each of you as you present yourself, openly and authentically. i long to know you and belong to and with you.

So, you say, what’s the biggie? you’re here! Clearly we love you, and we’ve loved on you and welcomed you, since you walked in the door! And yes, you have!

It’s just over 9 years ago that i walked through the doors of UCH for the first time. At that time, my only outward distinguishing features were fat and black. i could still hear a little, i didn’t yet use a cane, and my queerness wasn’t all over my face as it is now. i walked in and sat right in the front row, and joined in. It was an act of faith—and courage. Seriously, i didn’t see a black face. i didn’t see any “obvious” LGBTQIA+ couples. There were no signs—none—that i was in an Open aNd Affirming (ONA) UCC church, one that had covenanted with God and each other, to extend a radically inclusive welcome to those that the church universal has been slow to open its arms without some kind of cudgel behind its back. No outward—or inward—sign. Nothing in the bulletin, Nothing from the pulpit. Nothing. As Brian (who was not the pastor at that time) said about the newly-installed wheelchair ramp in the November 11, 2021 edition of “Almost a Newsletter,” ”You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look.” It was not a good feeling, to be scared about being in a church. The next time i came, two years later, i was using a cane, and i did say to the minister (i believe he was an interim), after church, that i was a consultant for the ONA Coalition of the UCC, and expressed my sadness that i could not tell, still, that this was an ONA congregation, as there were no intentional signs of welcome for LGBTQIA+ siblings, nor any access to the chancel (though there was handicap parking and no stairs: YAY!). i was sad, but as it was still one of only 2 ONA churches in Huntsville, i hoped things would change.

Upon retirement in 2020 and in the midst of Covid, i settled in Huntsville. No one had in-person church, so i stuck with my Massachusetts church for online worship until in-person church began here. Then i dove in—to both churches. While the other church had a more lively worship-style and you could see clear evidence of LGBTQIA+ membership and inclusion in the full ministry of the church, UCH was able to stay open during the next uptick of Covid, and by the time our sibling church re-opened, i was hooked on UCH. By this time, there was a beautiful rainbow banner in the sanctuary, inclusion of the ONA statement in the bulletin, and people were, individually, completely affirming of my black, fat, queer, differently-abled self. i felt loved, but every time i heard “brothers and sisters” from the pulpit, i was sad. When it was me who had to remind folk of transgender visibility, transgender remembrance, and LGBTQIA+ pride, i was—and am—sad. When i pull into the church driveway and see no outward evidence of the welcome i received after i sought it out, i am sad, and, yes, sometimes a little angry. When i ask “why?” (through others) the response i hear is that it is not safe to show that welcome outside. Fear. Fear stops us from being who we’re called to be in faith. And we have, on the face of it, said “yes” to the call.

Since May, i’ve been pretty vocal about having us think about ways to extend that welcome outside the walls of the church building. i was so thankful when Rev. Dr. Brian put on his collar and represented UCH at the Trans Pride event this summer. Seriously, i cried tears of joy when i walked into church a few Sundays ago and found a 3x5 inch rainbow decal on both the front and back entrances of the church. The Thursday afternoon Sharing Table has shown consummate love in embracing diversity of all kinds, including brainstorming ways we could invite the world in rather than waiting for them to walk through the door before knowing for what we stand.

Friends, we cannot joyfully embrace what we fear, but we can set our hearts and minds to trying to overcome the fear. Not safe to put a 40-foot Black Lives Matter sign under the U.S. flag on the church lawn? Fine! Stick a 12x24 inch lawn sign a few feet away, but visible from the street. Can’t imagine running a Daniel Quasar Progress flag (you’ve been gifted one) up the flagpole with the U.S. flag (why not)? No prob! How about 20 little flags in the raised beds around the church? i know y’all have the knowledge and the imagination to figure this out. i have just read through the notes taken at our General Synod Resolutions Implementation meeting a few weeks ago, and your ideas are amazing!

But more than knowledge and imagination, i believe your love of all our siblings, that love that you covenanted with God to extend to all, that love is what will help us make that joyful embrace real. C’mon siblings! Let’s open our hearts and step outside! Let’s get to loving!

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