Today's Open and Affirming is More Than Just Queer

Today's Open and Affirming is More Than Just Queer

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An SNEUCC Annual Meeting Conversation led by the Rev. Dr. Fran Bogle and Kathie Carpenter

Holy One, we are working for justice. Fill us with your love each day.  Amen
Rev. Dr. Fran Bogle
 
Thirty minutes to engage workshop attendees on the topic of Open and Affirming!! That was the charge for the Southern New England Conference ONA Ministry Team at the Annual Meeting on May 8, 2021.  This is a compilation of the text of the presentation, followed by some questions and comments by participants.

We had 91 participants who signed up for the two 30-minute sessions.  Some participants are members of ONA churches and some attended because they are interested in their churches becoming ONA.

The Presentation

THE OPEN AND AFFIRMING MOVEMENT - at 36
The first Conference ONA Resolution was passed by the Historic Massachusetts Conference in 1984.  At the next year’s General Synod, the resolution was reconciled with wording from the Rocky Mountain Conference. The resulting ONA Resolution was adopted by the UCC’s 15th General Synod in 1985.  The Open and Affirming movement began in the United Church of Christ in 1985. 
 
In the beginning, Open and Affirming seemed limited to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (in fact, the wording said just that). As the understanding about gender identity and gender expression grew, that became the standard for ONA Covenants and was a requirement by 2010.
 
ONA activists learned that principles of inclusion and affirmation can apply to every marginalized group in society, so Open and Affirming has become more than just queer. Nearly all covenants adopted these days also include such categories as race, ethnicity, culture, economic standing, health, military status, family configuration, immigration status, and so on - affirmation that each person is a child of God and their stories are worthy.
 
LIVING OPEN AND AFFIRMING
We hope that all open and affirming churches are going to be joyful, purposeful and active. We know that that's sometimes not the way it goes. Sometimes after a church adopts an ONA covenant, there’s a period of rest from the work. That makes sense. But then you know you must get to work. You wonder where you go from here. It is shameful that there are churches that have done nothing after the vote.  So, in truth, they are not operating as ONA.
 
An Open and Affirming Covenant should be the beginning, not the end of a journey. ONA churches make a promise that must be kept. We also know we have to keep growing and changing to reflect the needs of our society.  An ONA Covenant should be celebrated, but also renewed and revised as necessary. 
 
GROWING ONA
We have been focused on getting churches to become ONA for 36 years.  In the whole United Church of Christ, there are just under 1,700 ONA churches. As of the SNE Conference Annual Meeting 2021, there were 112 in Connecticut, 15 in Rhode Island and 199 in Massachusetts. That’s 326 in the Conference, or about half of all of our congregations. Southern New England congregations also represent about 19 percent of all ONA congregations in the UCC.
 
We want to help churches live as fully Open and Affirming. It may be that churches do not know what is required of them beyond adopting a Covenant. Well, take a look at this!  
 
ONA CHURCH JOB DESCRIPTION
Adopting an ONA Covenant is a milestone in your church’s life and your declaration is a real gift to your community.  After the vote, you must nurture the ONA ministry or it will die. What are your responsibilities as an ONA church?  Here are some basics to start.
 
1. Print your ONA covenant in your bulletin each week
Make it part of your routine and part of the congregation’s vocabulary. It’s a message of safety for those who come to your church.
 
2. Update your covenant to be trans-inclusive and inclusive of all gender expressions
All Covenants certified since 2010 are trans-inclusive. If yours is not, do whatever study you need and revise the wording of your Covenant and tell the Open and Affirming Coalition. 
 
3. Display your ONA status externally in some way 
Each church has its style. For some, a rainbow flag works; for others, a rainbow stripe or comma.  Advertise ONA on your website, on your Facebook page, on your church letterhead. Let your light shine.
 
4. State your preferred pronouns on your emails and on Zoom, or wear a pronoun button to support trans and gender expansive people.  Ask other people which pronouns they use.
 
5. Become familiar with ONA websites and newsletters You’ll find rich resources and important news, the list of new ONA churches, events, campaigns, advocacy ideas and articles.

6. Donate yearly to the Open and Affirming Coalition
The Coalition provides trained ONA consultants nationwide to resource churches. The Coalition is not funded by the UCC; it is a separate but related entity of the UCC. When it was formed as the Gay Caucus in 1972, it wanted to remain independent to it could “talk to the UCC.”  It needs donations from individuals and churches. Only a handful of churches donate. You benefited, so why not pay it forward?
 
7. Form a vibrant and visible ONA Ministry Team at Your Church
The team can articulate the ONA vision for the church and ways to live out your promise.  A team brings more ideas, shares the work and keeps each other encouraged in the mission.
 
8Celebrate Your ONA Anniversary Every Year
It’s a great way to add energy to your ministry and keep people alert to the issues.  A celebration may include a worship service, a speaker, a cake at coffee hour, educational events, or even making a specific commitment to anti-racism or to a community project.
 
9Educate and Re-educate Your Church about ONA, LGBTQI+ Life and other elements of your ONA Covenant
There may be a number of church members who were not present when you adopted your ONA covenant.  Make sure they understand what Open and Affirming means and why it’s important to the church.  Educate the congregation about legislative issues, changing terminology, and topics like immigration, anti-racism and mental health, for example.

10. Be Visibly ONA in Your Community, Know the issues and Show Up!
Be a presence and an example in the community. Find out who needs your support. Show up as a congregation when hateful acts take place or people are threatened or hurt.  Write articles for the local newspaper. Help others understand why your promise is so important to the community.    
 
11. Recognize Your Privilege
Acknowledge that you have unearned privilege, whether it’s race, gender identity or other.  Realize that your privilege means someone else’s voice may not be heard. Learn to step aside, listen to others’ stories and point of view. 
 
12. Recognize Intersectionality
People who experience oppressions or marginalization in more than one area can be exponentially affected by the privilege and power exerted by the system.  When relationships are formed among people across lines of cultural context, we are drawn to work for each other’s interests and needs.  Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”
 
The Just Peace Players
justpeaceplayers.org The Just Peace Players currently have two plays on ONA - one inviting churches to become ONA and the other celebrating 30 plus years of ONA.  They’re working on a new one to say we are at 36 years and where do we go from here?  They are happy to present the plays on Zoom to share with your church or to send you the play. The Rev. Dr. Fran Bogle is the director of the group.
 
RESOURCES FOR SUPPORT
PFLAG  Parents, Families and Friends of LGBTQI+ People - pflag.org
    Find your local chapter: 
  • Greater Boston PLFAG has a wide reach in Massachusetts gbpflag.org,
  • MA Chapters: Franklin/Hampshire, Worcester, Waltham (Greater Boston), Attleboro, Brewster 
  • CT Chapters: Hartford, Stonington, Waterbury and Norwalk
  • RI Chapter: Providence
Most chapters can help you find the perfect LGBTQI+ or ally speaker for your program.
 
IMPORTANT ISSUES TO KEEP AN EYE ON
  • Anti-transgender legislation in 28 states in 2021, preventing trans youth from getting medication and necessary gender-affirming surgery and/or preventing transgender girls from playing sports
  • Anti-transgender lawsuit filed in CT was dismissed, but an appeal may be filed.
  • Asylum seekers at Hadwen Park Congregational Church in Worcester and LGBTQI+ people at the borders
  • Some states have laws allowing so called “Conversion Therapy” - New England does not
Follow these topics in the news and online and donate to their efforts if you can.
 
QUESTIONS, COMMENTS AND IDEAS FROM THE ATTENDEES
Attendees’ comments are italicized
 
HOW DO WE LIVE ONA?
Jean said: We became Open and Affirming church in the past year and are trying to figure out how to live ONA. 
 
Ask your consultant or contact the Conference ONA team. They have information about how to organize your ONA ministry team and how to live into ONA. Your consultant can help you begin to plan how your ministry will look after the vote. More info: We’re ONA. Now What? Part 1, Part 2
 
WHY WE MUST BE ONA
Last night our young adult group met, and we were just talking about what's the fertile soil for faith to grow and, totally unprompted, people were sharing how being inclusive and welcoming specifically of queer people is really important. And, you know, as people who are in that category shared how important it was for them and their faith.
As someone who is straight, knowing that my church is welcoming is really important to me and if we weren't that way, I don't think I could grow here. And I thought that was just such a powerful testimony of how it impacts everyone is whether or not you're in the specific category.
 
It’s important that churches be Open and Affirming.  Without stating their welcome and affirmation publicly, churches are assumed NOT to be welcoming.  The ONA movement brings to the forefront churches that will counter the negative messages from churches that do not believe every person is made in God’s image and therefore worthy.  If the folks inside the church think they are welcoming, it does no good unless they also show that promise outside the church.
 
SAFETY
Julie and Sandy said: LGBTQ people live with internalized homophobia and transphobia. It’s important that queer members feel supported and not targeted during the ONA process.
 
INTERSECTIONALITY
We're not just about LGBTQI+ anymore.  Your ONA Covenant should reflect this.  The general principles and the skills to be an ONA church are the same skills required to be affirming to any group of people.  Most ONA churches have educated their members on other aspects of their Covenants and committed to welcoming and affirming them. For example, Fran’s church has been working with migrant workers and Kathie’s church has been fully invested in anti-racism work this year, as opposed to anything specifically LGBTQI+.
 
Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign has been operating his campaign as an intersectional movement for years.  He has been fighting for racial justice but also all issues of oppression.
 
RIGHT TIME FOR ONA?
It's important to understand the realities in a church’s schedule when deciding to take on the ONA process.  Some people wonder whether a church can address ONA while an interim is their pastor.  Actually, that can be a great time. You are likely to be doing visioning and ONA can be identified as part of that vision.  If there are conflicts going on in the church, you don't want to add the open and affirming process of study to all of that. ONA can be a joyous process, but it requires the right attitude and the right time.  ONA is always an invitation to change and grow together.
 
HOW TO DO ONA IN A FEDERATED CHURCH
Marilyn asked: I have led a church through ONA, but now I serve a UCC/UMC church. Has anyone else brought a federated church through the ONA process? 
 
There are quite a number of churches, both federated and united, that have adopted ONA. The study materials are all the same for all the major denominations so everyone. The only distinction in the ONA process is how the vote is taken. If members belong to one or the other denomination, then they vote as that denomination. If all members are members of both denominations, then everyone votes as a whole congregation. The members vote on the designation of “ONA” or “Reconciling” or “More Light,” etc., based on the denominations of the church. The church adopts one Covenant and can post the appropriate welcoming symbols when the Covenant is adopted. We will connect Marilyn with some churches that have done this.
 
ARE THERE STATS ABOUT GROWTH IN ONA CHURCHES? 
We have a document that compares two 3-yr periods in the Historic MA Conference (Andy Gustafson, 2006). Access that data here. The findings were that ONA churches and those that gave to OCWM (Our Churches Wider Mission) were healthier by every measure of church vitality than churches that were not ONA and did not have OCWM as a priority. We are attempting to get more recent data to share.  
 
WHAT GREAT THINGS HAVE HAPPENED IN YOUR ONA MINISTRY?
Dave said: When I joined the church, we had as many as 1,000 members and I was the only out member. 30 years ago when we became open and affirming, we've been flourishing ever since. A lot of new members joining the church who were not gay say that the reason we joined your church is because you are open and affirming. I’ve been involved in getting three other UCC churches and neighboring towns to become an open and affirming.   
 
Fran shared that some of the ONA churches that are growing in the UCC have a community outreach that can be a model of what it means to be welcoming and loving community. Other groups in the community realize they can do that too.
 
We are sometimes the voices that call groups in our community to do justice, to recognize ways people are being oppressed in our own communities.
 
Kelly Jane shared that her church has a Pride Communion service and use it as a refresher for the congregation on their Open and Affirming Covenant. 

Presenters

Fran Bogle is a member of Edwards Church in Framingham, Massachusetts, a chaplain, head of the Just Peace Players, and a long-time member of the Historic MA Conference Open and Affirming Ministry Team, the Open and Affirming Coalition, and now the Southern New England Conference ONA Ministry Team. She has been doing work to invite, encourage and support churches who are ONA for a long, long time in the United Church of Christ. fbog@aol.com
 

Kathie Carpenter is a member of the Congregational Church of Needham, Massachusetts, former Registrar for the ONA Coalition, former chair of the Historic MA Conference ONA Ministry Team since 2003, and an ONA consultant for 17 years. kacarp@comcast.net
 
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