Beacon Street Diary blog
One Church at a Time
As we stand on the brink of a monumental Supreme Court decision regarding marriage equality and mark 30 years since the explosive impact of the AIDS crisis, I took the opportunity to speak with Marnie Warner and her wife, rosi olmstead, initiators of the UCC's growing commitment to LGBT support and acceptance.
What was the catalyst that sparked an initiative for the passage the ONA resolution in the 1985 Synod of the United Church of Christ? rosi would say that it was about empathy. "It all started with the AIDS epidemic… People cared about people who [are] dying, people who are being discarded by others." At the time Marnie was an active member and deacon in the Church of the Covenant in Boston's Back Bay where rosi was a co-pastor. In 1984 very few people were out but their church had opened itself up, and as more members of the LGBT community got the word, it welcomed more. This brought sorrow as well as joy. Their congregation alone experienced the devastating loss of 13 members to AIDS. They asked the question "How does God accept them?" and answered by caring.
It was time to expand the work beyond the Church of the Covenant. They took their cues from the Presbyterians' More Light initiative but realized that the program needed to be tailored to the UCC culture. Confident that their cause aligned well with the UCC's tradition of social justice and its tenet that God is active in the world. On the political side, it was up to Marnie and rosi to gain acceptance on the state and national levels, and their strategy focused on UCC core beliefs; unlike today, few people were aware that "somebody they knew next door, or their niece or nephew (was gay)".
While many churches counted gay members among their congregations, non-discrimination was not enough, they were looking for acceptance. "We really wanted churches to open their doors, but we also wanted them to affirm who the people are," Marnie asserts.
Given the atmosphere in Massachusetts, it was the logical place to launch a resolution, recalled Marnie in a 2012 interview. Here a church could "put out the welcome mat and affirm lesbians and gays into the fullness of your life, whether as just a parishioner, ordination, being a deacon, whatever, the whole package." The progress was not without tense moments. At the 1984 Massachusetts Conference meeting, in what could be called Biblical one-upmanship, she describes a period of about an hour where rosi extemporaneously parried a barrage of biblical passages from delegates unsupportive of gays and lesbians by quoting other biblical texts. At the end of the day, they gained support and, with the spiritual guidance of Rev. Reuben Sheares, the resolution passed 2/3 to 1/3.
Then it was on to the 1985 Synod in Ames, Iowa, where the resolution calling for congregations to declare themselves "Open and Affirming" took place. Bishop Desmond Tutu spoke that year, as did Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who addressed discrimination but failed to include gays and lesbians in a list of groups who suffered discrimination.
When procedural issues threatened the Open and Affirming resolution's way to the floor, it was up to Ann Day and the Coalition to shepherd it through the Synod bureaucracy to get before the delegates. There was a hearing where people told their stories. Ministers, both gay and straight, who pastored churches with gays and lesbians members, spoke out for the necessity of the resolution. In spite of promised confidentiality, a record of the session was played off-site and many of those who spoke felt that trust had been broken. But there was an unforeseen positive effect; people became aware of just how difficult it was for gays and lesbians to feel safe and true to their identity. And that swell of empathy helped turn the tide and moved the discussion forward.
rosi and Marnie paint the picture of the final vote. A key figure was Al Williams, conference minister from Massachusetts, who for the first time spoke publicly in favor with a consciousness of how people on both sides of the issue felt. Again it got down to that personal level and the need for collaborations and honest discussions. Williams's appeal was so persuasive that the question was spontaneously called from the floor and the vote was over 90% in favor of the resolution.
That was just the starting point for Ann Day and the Coalition. Ann's brilliant programmatic work gave the movement wings. She created discussion guides about the ONA process and took them directly to churches, growing grass roots support. She worked with churches and their congregations to adopt Open and Affirming covenants of their own. rosi remembers the importance of these sessions aimed at "exploring the kinds of things they had to do to love one another" from the bottom.
Today over 1200 congregations welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members and others are in discussion to become ONA. Nearly 250,000 members of the United Church of Christ belong to ONA churches. While their progress over the last 30 years reflects shifting cultural attitudes, their work has been a catalyst for the change in society as a whole.
Marnie has been working over the last year archiving and preparing the records of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns at the Congregational Library & Archives in preparation for this month's the UCC Synod in Cleveland where the 30th anniversary will be marked. While Marnie and rosi had planned to attend, rosi's recovery from a recent stroke will prevent them. I am happy to say that this did not impede her lively participation in this interview and I thank both of them for telling their stories.