Thursday, June 27, 2013

Well, we made it.  Linda and I flew into Long Beach, CA (airport code LGB is appropriate for a UCC General Synod) at about noon today.  It was a long day (woke up at 3:45 AM in Hickory), but we were met by our longtime dear friend from Corinth/Hickory, Carol Vaughan, who chauffeured us to our hotel, helped us set up our FWC booth, and shared a visit to Cold Stone.  (We started out looking for “yogurt” – honest!).  With the 3-hour change in time (but 3, count ‘em, 3 naps), it’s 1:00 AM Hickory time and soon we need to get to bed.

This is Linda’s and my fourth consecutive Synod (2007, Hartford; 2009, Grand Rapids; 2011, Tampa).  It doesn’t take us long to start asking again, “Now why are we here?”  Amid the promised celebrations of the Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage this past week, the expected rainbow scarves, the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel rhetoric, and more – we really do feel out of place.  We feel vulnerable, knowing we will interact with a lot of people who also wonder or ask, “Now why are you here?”  It certainly isn’t because we fit.

We already had one such conversation.  Nancy Cahalan (FWC board member), Linda, and I went over to the convention center tonight to pick up our registration packets.  As we were leaving, a man named Ben caught up to us in his wheelchair.  “Will you be attending committee meetings Sunday morning?” Ben asked.

“I will,” I answered.  (This year for the first time I’m also a voting delegate from the Southern Conference and as such am randomly assigned to a GS committee.  My committee (#3) will review and make a recommendation about a resolution titled, “Against Bullying and Discrimination.”)

The reason Ben wanted to know about Sunday morning is that he’s Chair of the Deacons at his nearby UCC church, and he would love for non-committee attendees at GS to visit his congregation, where 200 worshipers gather on a typical Sunday in a sanctuary that holds 1000.

He asked us where we were from.  “North Carolina, for Linda and me.  Nancy is from Illinois.”

“And your church is Open and Affirming, I hope.”  ONA is the designation for UCC churches that affirm an extravagant welcome for LGBTs, including all areas of leadership, even ordination.  About 20% of UCC churches have declared ONA, although probably many more heavily support the ONA perspective.  Delegates and visitors to General Synod overwhelmingly seem to favor the ONA position.

So we explained that no, our church isn’t ONA – we’re part of Faithful and Welcoming Churches, a coalition of UCC ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional).  Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, NC (where I serve as pastor), was the first church in the UCC to declare itself FWC.

We went on to have a great conversation with Ben.  We learned that he was raised Seventh Day Adventist, still affirms a six-day creation, and believes that his homosexuality is a genetic result of the fall and of sin – like bad eyesight a physical disability.  (I suspect his position is a minority one among ONA advocates.)  He believes that since this is how they are, gays and lesbians should be affirmed and welcomed, much the same way we welcome those who wear glasses or use wheelchairs.  He once was kicked out of a church that didn’t want anyone in a wheelchair, but he has found acceptance as a disabled gay man in this church of extravagant welcome.

We invited Ben to our FWC dinner on Monday night, and he said he would come.  As we walked away, we heard him cheerfully approach someone else.  “And where are you from?” I’m sure that led to asking what their plans are for Sunday morning.

Ben stilled my soul about being here.  We still have that internal angst, knowing that not every conversation we have is going to be as easy as ours was with Ben.  He was genuinely gracious and interested in us.  A handful of others in a typical Synod do not want to widen the UCC’s welcome to include ECOTs.  But most of those we meet will be like Ben.  We are here to remind the UCC that ECOTs are a large part of its membership.  We are here to encourage ECOTs to stay in the UCC.  We are here to bear witness to what we believe the UCC has forgotten about its heritage and founding – that we are a church that must find its unity in Jesus Christ as Son of God, Savior, and Lord, and that the “basic insights of the Protestant Reformers” point us to the primacy of Scripture.  (For more on our principles, objectives, and strategies, visit http://www.faithfulandwelcoming.org/about.htm.)  We are here to alter perceptions about ECOTs – to demonstrate that we are not ignorant, bigoted, and arrogant.  We are not here to argue or confront; we are here to lovingly bear witness to what we believe is truth and grace.

I told Ben he reminded me of a man who came to Corinth about ten years ago – also gay, also in a wheelchair for much of his time among us.  He was warmly received and lovingly included in the Corinth family.

I didn’t get to tell Ben the whole story.  “Richard” (not his real name) made an appointment with me one day and said, “I’m gay.  I don’t have a partner, but I can’t promise I never will.  I know where you stand on homosexuality, because I’ve read your sermon on the subject.  I do know the Lord as my personal Savior.  Can I join your church?”  I listened to Richard, noted the bond we had in Christ, and told him I would recommend him as a member of Corinth.  As for his sexuality, I said, “All I ask is that you be open to the Holy Spirit.”  We became friends and kept in touch.

Some years later Richard sat in my office and said, “I want to tell you something.  I still remember that conversation we had when you asked me to be open to the Holy Spirit.  You loved me like no man ever loved me.  And I want you to know I have chosen to be celibate.”

FWC represents the heart of being “faithful” to Scripture and to what it says about sex and marriage, but being “welcoming” to people where they are and letting the Holy Spirit do the work of transformation in his time and way.  We don’t have to see results – not in individuals, not in the denomination.  We wait on the Lord.  We show up, we listen, we pray, we trust, and we wait.  That’s all.

I plan to post a blog about once a day while we were on this site, and also tweet using the hash tag #uccgs29 – where you will also find diverse other thoughts about General Synod 29.  Follow me on Twitter using @corinthpastor.

One Response to General Synod 29 – Thursday »

  • Joel says:

    Thank you for your leadership and your representation at GS29! Your networking sure makes it easier to affirm our place in the UCC. Thank you for the challenging call to greater diversity in the United Church of Christ.

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