Reflections for a Welcoming Congregation Service

Some years ago, I worked as a bike tour leader. At dinner, on the first night of one tour, while a list of participants’ names was being distributed, a neurosurgeon from Miami said he was amazed that my co-leader and I already knew the names of the 20 participants. We explained that quick memorization was part of our job and he replied that he could never do it. After the weekend was over, as my co-leader and I were cleaning up, we found this man’s copy of the list of names, complete with the notes he had jotted down to help him remember who each person was. Next to the names of three men, he had written the descriptive “fat guy, fat guy, fat guy.” Next to the names of three women who had traveled together to Vermont from New York City, he had written “dyke, dyke, dyke.” Apparently, in this gentleman’s mind, three single women traveling together who aren’t nuns must be lesbians. Of course.

Today’s service is about dykes, fags, and queers–words that, understandably, might cause you to flinch or wince. Words have power and the power we invest in words can change over time. In the not too distant past, the word “queer” was strictly a pejorative label. A shift occurred, however, when the word was reclaimed as a positive umbrella term by some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning communities, often referred to as the LGBTQ communities. Here are a few examples of how words can make our worlds larger or can cause our worlds to shrink.

Twenty years ago, shortly after Anne and I became a couple, I was here in Vermont talking on the phone with a co-worker who was a regional director in Atlanta. I was excitedly telling her about my new relationship. To my surprise, in no uncertain terms, she told me to zip my lip because the large environmental organization we both worked for was homophobic. I didn’t know at the time but I later learned that she was a closeted lesbian. I took her advice to heart; I hid my relationship from all my co-workers, and my world became smaller.

Anne often spent the night with me in my tiny, one-room apartment in Montpelier. My landlord was a leader in the Republican Party. Early one morning he knocked on my apartment door unexpectedly. Anne was still in bed. Fearing that he would discover my same-sex relationship, I asked Anne to—of all things—get in the closet. She did and our world became smaller.

Some of you know that a priest was called to cleanse the camp where Anne and I were vacationing when we had our small civil union ceremony at Newark Pond in the Northeast Kingdom. We actually held the ceremony in a rowboat on the water, with only the two of us, Maggie Rebmann, our minister at the time, and one friend present. There was no reception afterwards. Nevertheless, the owner of the camp was outraged when she learned about our ceremony and sent us a letter detailing our many offenses. What was supposed to be a happy memory for us turned into a sad one. Our world became smaller.

 Last summer, Anne and I were walking home via Elm Street one evening. We were holding hands. A car drove by with a group of kids in it and one guy yelled “dykes” out the window. We both flinched, a normal reaction to a threat. We dropped hands and our world became smaller.

Beyond the boundaries of Vermont, there is a cascade of breaking LGBT news stories. Anti-gay legislation such as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that’s being considered or passed in Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia is making the world smaller. Preventing same-sex married couples from collecting Social Security benefits when their spouses die is making the world smaller. Allowing employers in 29 states to fire workers simply because they are gay is making the world smaller.

But all is not in darkness. As I mentioned earlier, words have the power to expand our world, too. In Cuba, where Raoul Castro’s daughter is a champion of gay rights, the world is expanding. The government in Cuba pays for sex reassignment surgery whereas the U.S. government doesn’t pay for this surgery and doesn’t even allow transgender individuals to serve in the armed forces. In a few days, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear 2-1/2 hours of arguments on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right in all 50 states. Given that 36 states now allow same-sex marriage, let’s hope the Court announces a decision in June recognizing that the cultural tide has turned on this issue.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the sandwich board that is often in front of our church, the one with the unicorn and the rainbow flag on top of the statehouse dome. As it happens, this sandwich board is out in front today, promoting Friday Night Group, a social evening for LGBTQ teens who have been welcomed here twice a month for the past two years. Imagine being a teen in a small town in Vermont, knowing you are gay, being afraid to tell your parents, feeling alone, adrift, and afraid. Some of these kids are fortunate enough to find their way to Friday Night Group in Brattleboro, Montpelier, or Burlington. At Friday Night Group, they find other kids just like themselves, kids who are struggling with non-mainstream orientations and identities. At Friday Night Group, their worlds expand. Friday Night Group got off the ground and continues to grow thanks to contributions that you have made through the velvet offertory pouch. Many thanks for your generosity.

Apple Computer’s CEO, Tim Cook, is the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Tiffany & Co. ran its first same-sex ad with the tag line “Love stories come in a variety of forms.” The Mormon Church supports a new law in Utah prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Tim Cook’s honesty, Tiffany’s courage, and the Mormons’ sense of fairness add to our world, whatever our sexual orientation or gender identity may be. Jazz Jennings who, as a child, has the insight to be exactly who she is, makes the world a bigger and better place for all of us. Tim Cook and Jazz Jennings and many other courageous people are blazing a path of new possibilities for the kids of Friday Night Group.

Here are two things you can do. Sign up today to march with us through the streets of Montpelier in the Independence Parade on the evening of July 3. We’ll be carrying a banner with a rainbow chalice and we’ll be waving rainbow flags. You can also sign up to march with us on Sunday, September 13 in the Burlington Pride Parade. The parade starts in the afternoon and we’ll be carpooling from the church. It’s fun, it’s celebratory, and it’s about love, so put on your gold Standing on the Side of Love t-shirt and come with us. If you don’t have a Standing on the Side of Love t-shirt, you can buy one or order one from Janet Poeton during coffee hour today. You’ll find parade sign up sheets and t-shirt order forms at the Welcoming Congregation table.

Please remember that with every encounter you have, inside this church and outside it, you have a chance to be a person who makes someone feel more welcome.

Thank you.

Nancy Schulz