Welcome – everyone!

This sign, spotted on the restroom door in a Portsmouth NH restaurant this week,  made me smile. The message of inclusion was clear. Female, male, transgender, bisexual folks, wheelchair users, and yes, even aliens are welcome there.

There is something very simple and heartening about a sign that wants to include everyone. It is the opposite of the hateful messages that appeared in stores and restaurants in the not-so-distant past in our country. Signs that announced “Help wanted. Whites only,” or “No Irish served here.”  Signs that designated particular water fountains, restrooms, or waiting rooms for particular races.

In contrast, this cheery green and black message defines the only threat that we all must combat. That would be germs – no matter how you identify, germs are an equal-opportunity menace. So please – wash your hands. Once that is done, we can stand united (even hand in hand), confident that our shared humanity is more important than any outward distinctions.

What you look like, who you love, how you define yourself – those are all details compared to our shared identity. Child of God, created in God’s image.

We live in a funny world when a sign on a bathroom door can teach a lesson about how to treat one another. Let’s take the hint and offer one another the respect, welcome, and dignity that all of God’s people deserve.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Genesis 1: 26-27

Go ahead and judge

“Do not judge,” Jesus wisely said, “so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). But that statement – so often quoted, so often misunderstood – isn’t telling us to park our brains at the curb and blindly ignore behavior or speech or actions that are just plain wrong.

For a country that knows little about the Bible, this particular passage is often quoted. Otherwise intelligent people use it as a cop-out when facing uncomfortable disagreements with others. “I don’t think their actions are good or right but, you know, the Bible said not to judge.”

Recently I have heard extreme examples of this passage being trotted out at exactly the wrong time. I actually heard people say, “The Bible tells me not to judge” in response to these situations:

  • A self-professed child molester running for office in Virginia.
  • A renowned racist encouraging people to vote him into office in Washington.
  • Parents in California torturing their 13 children for decades.

No. This is not what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge.” Jesus was more than ready to point out bad behavior and name it for what it was. Jesus judged all the time. When greedy tax collectors and unethical leaders were spreading lies and rumors, Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus’ fury echoed through the temple when he flipped over tables of the money-changers and chased merchants and sellers away from this holy spot (Matthew 21:12). Jesus spoke up against evil. His words and actions clearly defined what was not acceptable to God.

That is the hard work of faith. That racist comment you just heard? Don’t allow it to slide by. That gathering that excludes others based on their gender or orientation? Feel free to walk away. That neighborhood that excludes based on ethnicity or religion? Don’t live there. That business that refuses to serve all of God’s people?  Don’t give them another nickel.

Go ahead and judge. Make a decision about words being spoken, actions being taken, kindness (or lack thereof) being shared, opinions being voiced. Does it look like something Jesus would do? Does it echo the compassion and loving welcome of God? Does it reflect the forgiveness and new life of Jesus’ ministry?

If not, choose not to be part of that. Go ahead and judge – judge what is the best way for you to make a difference. Judge how you can reach out to those who feel forgotten. Judge how you can listen to those usually pushed to the margins.

We are asked to be bold enough to speak up against sin and courageous enough to point out words and actions that do not reflect our faith.

God calls us to make a difference right where we live and work. How can we do that?

Judge for yourself.

Saying it out loud

OK, honestly, I feel a little silly standing in my garden holding a sign.  The first time I did it, my sign read, “YOU are a blessing, not a burden.”   I would have been glad to give that message to anyone since that has been the core of my ministry for the last 30 years.  People doubt themselves, they don’t recognize their God-given value, they forget (or never heard) that they are beloved children of God. I feel called to remind them who they are in God’s eyes.

That particular sign was aimed specifically at the LGBT community and especially the Trans community who heard our President say that trans people should no longer serve in the military because they are a burden to the system.

Since the suicide rate among trans people is already higher than any other demographic in our country (about 40% have attempted), I don’t want anyone to be tipped into despair or self-loathing by careless or mean-spirited words.

Instead, I would like trans people – and all people – to know

  • YOU are a blessing.
  • YOU are created in the image of God.
  • YOU are loved and lovable.
  • YOU are of great value.
  • The world needs YOU, your gifts, and your outlook.

So I stood in my garden, held my sign, and posted it on social media. My intent was to share this positive message of love and affirmation as widely as possible.  Maybe those simple words gave someone hope or reminded someone of their importance.

On Sunday I received an email with another sign from a military veteran in my congregation. This one states, “I stand with transgender service members.” Approximately 15,000 transgender active, reserve, and Guard troops may be discharged because of an upcoming ban on transgender people serving in the military. This veteran was requesting that everyone spread a message of support for these courageous members who voluntarily serve in our military.

Blessing 2

I printed out that sign, stood with it in my garden and again posted it publically.  I wish the signs weren’t necessary. I wish it was obvious that all of God’s people are of equal and eternal value.

But we are living in a time with an abundance of negativity and hate.

It’s time for more signs.

People of faith need to act. It isn’t enough to simply believe something. We need to speak our faith and then live it. A few weeks ago, I wrote about words that should never be spoken because of the harm they can do.

But the opposite is also true. Some words absolutely need to be said out loud. Words against racism and exclusion.  Words supporting compassion and welcome. We need speak God’s love out loud, with our words and our actions. And if that means I need to stand in my garden holding a sign that proclaims God’s love and my support for all of God’s people, I will do that – over and over again.

I hope my sign and my words will speak to someone who needs to hear they are not alone. I hope they will remind all of us to treat one another with respect and consideration.

Radical Hospitality

On May 2nd, I led a workshop about “radical hospitality” at Hartford Seminary.  Here are some quotes and images that I shared to emphasize my belief that God loves and welcomes everyone.

You’ve heard me say it before and here it is again: each one of us is known and named by God. The name God gives us is “beloved.” Because we are God’s beloved, we are always welcome in God’s sight to receive God’s gifts of love, forgiveness, new life and hope.

The question for faith communities is – how do we intentionally share, demonstrate, and announce that welcome?  That’s where hospitality comes in.

Henri Nouwen says, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.   Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”  (Reaching Out)

Hospitality and welcome are intentional acts.  People will rarely just “happen” to come t our places of worship.  We must provide an inviting website, an engaging Facebook page, and be proactive about creating a welcoming atmospher in our buildings. A book that offers very helpful insights = Side Door: How to Open Your Church to Reach More People by Charles Arn

Do our buildings reflect our welcome?  If someone walks into your church, what do they see?  Are there signs and symbols that reflect your eagerness to meet them?

Here is a sign that is on the door of my office:

Jesus didnt reject rainbow fish

And – how do we reach beyond our doors?  How do we go out and meet God’s people where they work, play, meet, and relax?

safe space for everyone

 

Here are some quotes that remind me of the importance of hospitality:

“If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.”      (Marvin J. Ashton

“Do not despise those faithful who come to you seeking hospitality. Receive them, put them up, and set them on their way with kindness, treating them as one of yourselves.”     (St. Cuthbert)

Welcome sign

“Not all wounds are so obvious. Walk gently in the lives of others.”    (unknown)

“Always leave people better than when you found them. Hug the hurt. Kiss the broken. Befriend the lost. Love the lonely.”   (unknown)

“In order to unite with one another we must love one another;  in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”   (From the testament of Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines- Brussels, 1926.  Growing Hope by Neil Paynter)

Hospitality angels

 

Open doors, open heart: The Rev. Jonathan Chapman

Jonathan Chapman
“This is my commandment:that you love one another as I have loved you.”  John 15:12

Some of the words that come to mind when one meets Jonathan Chapman: enthusiastic, passionate, energetic, caring and creative. It is immediately clear that he has immersed himself in his role as the pastor of Westfield UCC in Killingly CT.  He is dedicated to bringing this “diamond in the rough” back to some of its former glory as a downtown church in an aging, struggling former mill town.

After graduating from Elon University and Candler School of Theology at Emory University, this southerner ventured north to find a church that would be a good fit for his preaching and musical skills. Although Jon would be the first to say that the religious culture in New England is very different than in the South, he immediately felt called to serve the compassionate and caring congregation he discovered at Westfield. Westfield had encountered many of the challenges of downtown congregations – declining attendance, over-stretched budget, and long-delayed maintenance in an aging building that presents nightmares to anyone with mobility challenges (think: Stairs. Lots and lots of stairs).  The tiny congregation recognized something in Jonathan and called this “young, inexperienced, green” minister to be their pastor. Just as they identified something special in him, Jonathan discerned the great potential hidden beneath the enormous steeple that towers over Main Street. Hidden in plain sight was a congregation with tremendous heart and the desire to make a difference right there in their neighborhood. Although the church had wrestled with notion of closing their doors forever, here was a minister who had the willingness to try to lead them back to life; they were a good fit for one another.

Sitting in his cramped office, there are signs everywhere of the multiple projects that demand Jonathan’s attention. There’s a pile of old church photographs on one table, a tilting tower of rolled up banners for a variety of church celebrations tucked behind a chair, and stacks of brochures precariously balanced on a file cabinet. His desk is overtaken by not one but two computer screens, filled with stunning web images that Jon designs for his own church in addition to his “side job” as web designer until the church can afford to pay him for the more-than- full-time work he offers. His rolling chair glides beneath him as he gestures with excitement about the upcoming anniversary celebration of the church (300 years!) and the accompanying capital campaign to repair the steeple, renovate the building, and install a much-needed elevator (remember all those stairs!).  The fundraising goal, appropriately named the Aspire campaign, is just one sign of Jonathan’s dedication.  “Look at this!” he exclaims as he pushes back the chair and roots around yet another stack of papers. “It’s the original blueprint of the building!  We can see their vision for this church in this place.” It is a vision that Jonathan and the congregation have now made their own as they discover ways to minister to the many needs all around them.

As we tour the church, I have the opportunity to meet Jon’s talented husband Greg Gray seated at the pipe organ in the beautiful New England-style Congregational meeting house practicing for the upcoming anniversary celebration concert. Jonathan is in his glory while standing in the middle of the sanctuary, describing the transformation that takes place each December when the congregation hosts “Victorian Christmas” celebrations every Sunday evening. Amidst beautiful decorations and surrounded by costumed performers, visitors experience the Christmas story that can be described “either as a show or a spiritual moment, depending on what that person needs that evening,” says Jonathan. “But it gets them in the door and lets everyone know that this church is alive and sharing the love of Jesus.”

Getting people through the door is the task that every church must consider.  Jonathan has taken that challenge literally. He created a set of six doors in rainbow colors which are placed on the sidewalk outside the church whenever there is a church supper or event or during a town celebration. “Why put your welcome mat inside your front door?” Jonathan asks, “We want the world to know they can come inside.”  The visual invitation is clear and echoes part of Westfield’s hospitality: “everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome here.”

If people accept the invitation, they will encounter a growing congregation with a wide variety of ages. Drawings done by young children hang on the walls where older members tuck their walkers away during worship.  Visitors will see the “altarscapes” that Jonathan creates to visually convey a Scripture story or church season. The white walls of the sanctuary create a blank canvas for Jonathan’s artistic vision. “Fabric is our paint,” he explains, so “we can tell God’s story visually.”

For Jonathan, part of God’s story is one of inclusion and love.  Westfield officially declared their Open and Affirming welcome to all of God’s children in June 2014. Positioned right on Main Street, Jonathan’s goal is to have the church live out its calling to be the heart of the town, sharing God’s love in a variety of creative ways. High above the street, the deep, rich tones of the church bell ring out across the town, sending a message of love, hope and renewal that can draw generations together. Here is Westfield UCC, starting its fourth century of ministry proclaiming the Good News: the doors are open, everyone is welcome, come on in!Westfield doors

Conversation with a LGBT Trailblazer: The Rev. Alice O’Donovan

Alice

God says, “I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…You are precious and honored in my sight, and…I love you.” (Isaiah 43)

Do you remember 1988? 

  • The L.A. Dodgers won the World Series.
  • Lloyd Bentson informed Dan Quayle, “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
  • George Bush assured us, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
  • Nike told us to “Just do it.”
  • Lemon-flavored Snapple iced tea was introduced.
  • A plane was shot down over Lockerbie Scotland, killing 270 people.
  • Popular movies included Rain Man, Big, and Beetlejuice
  • Some top TV shows were The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Murder, She Wrote.

In 1988, our country was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, a still little-understood disease that was causing terror and panic across the land. By 1988 over 81,000 cases of AIDS had been reported; over 61, 000 people had died.1

In 1988 Alice O’Donovan made history in the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ by being the first openly gay person to be ordained.   It isn’t easy being first. I admire the courage and tenacity that enabled Alice to be a trailblazer and to answer the call to ministry. She was a pioneer and that is never an easy task.

When she and I met recently at a local restaurant to share a delicious lunch of Pad Thai, she reflected on the challenges and blessings of her path to ordination. Even after all these years, the pain and the joy of those memories can bring tears to her eyes.  Along the way she encountered ignorance, intolerance, betrayal, and a myriad of hurtful comments and actions. She also experienced the grace, kindness, care, and encouragement of people who recognized her gifts and supported her calling.

Every time there was a roadblock or challenge to her vision to pursue ordination, God seemed to place a messenger who delivered enough encouragement and grace to enable her to continue.

I am amazed Alice didn’t give up; I am inspired by her faithfulness.  Her home church refused to write the required letter of recommendation for her. The board of deacons instructed the minister to dismiss Alice from their congregation because of her sexuality.  Without a home church, there is no path to ordination.  When the Conference Minister heard about the church’s refusal, he encouraged Alice to persevere because, he said, it was clear that “she had all the requisite gifts to be an excellent minister.”  The Congregational Church in Storrs welcomed her in and invited her to be part of their church family; they were proud to sponsor her as a candidate for ministry.

Then there were the logistical challenges – Alice had to commute over 170 miles each week to take classes at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Coming from a busy household with three young children, that seemed completely overwhelming.  A member of her new home church pulled her aside during coffee hour one Sunday. She offered to watch the children and prepare a meal for the time-stretched family every week. This kindly soul looked Alice in the eye and said, “You belong in seminary.” Thank God for people who have both the insight to discern the gifts of others and the practical wisdom to lend a helping hand.

After years of taking classes, writing papers, doing field work, completing requirements, and putting thousands of miles on her car, Alice was finally ready for her Ordination Council.  One minister informed her that he would be attending but planned to vote against her. “It’s too bad,” he said, “you’re so well-qualified and you have all your ducks in a row.  But  you’re gay.”     With that pronouncement on her mind, Alice presented to the Council her paper describing her thesis based on the Apostle’s Creed. The Dean of the Yale Divinity School would later request a copy of her paper to use as an example for future students who needed to clearly define their faith.

The Ordination Council was comprised of a series of questions and answers about Alice’s faith and theology. It also included some who objected to her candidacy and who asked her to declare her sexuality in front of the crowd gathered for that momentous meeting. Finally Alice was asked to go to another room so the community could vote. When she re-entered the sanctuary, the assembly rose to its feet to applaud and cheer as she walked down the long center aisle of the church. Her candidacy had been approved by the voting members, 21-7. Alice O’Donovan could be ordained.

Her first call was to a small, rural church with no running water in Peru, Vermont. In her typical self-deprecating way, Alice maintains that the “minister no one wanted got the church no one wanted to serve.” Yet together they shared the Good News of a God who cares, welcomes, heals, and renews.

In the years since 1988 Alice has served a number of churches.  She compares her different calls as a pastor to the experience of trying on a series of shoes; each successive one fit slightly better than the previous one. I wish her ministry was considered newsworthy simply because she is an excellent preacher and a compassionate caregiver.  Too often, however, it was her sexuality that drew people’s attention.  When she became the pastor of the South Windham (CT) Congregational Church in 1991, the New York Times covered the story and put her picture on the front section of the Connecticut Section.

Alice continues her ministry even as she enjoys semi-retirement. Later in October, she will be the guest preacher when the Westfield Congregational Church in Danielson CT marks its 300th anniversary. Every year she presents a workshop at the True Colors conference, a statewide gathering of LGBTQ youth held on the UConn Campus. She poses the question, “Is the Bible the word of death or the voice of hope for the LGBTQ community?”  She says that the answer to that question is “yes.”

Alice wisely observes that people can prove or disprove almost anything using Scripture; the problem is not God – it is how people misuse the Bible. The most important thing to remember, she says, is that God loves you.  Always.

That has been the ministry of Alice O’Donovan. She has lived out her conviction that all of us are called to serve God.  She says, “Conversion is my favorite game. I want everyone – really, everyone – to know they are loved by God.”   She has watched the world change since 1988 and she has been part of that change. The world – and the church – is a better place because of her compassionate ministry.

1 http://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic/  Captured October 2, 2015