Open and Affirming Journey by John Garrity

This content by John Garrity was originally published in UCC Missoula’s E-blast weekly newsletter, in three parts, April and May of 2023.

Last Sunday in church we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of our April 25, 1993 vote to become the 100th of 5500+ UCC Churches who were “Open and Affirming” (ONA) of what was then only “LGB” membership and leadership. In the Sunday Liturgy we again reaffirmed this ONA commitment of our full welcome of the LGBTQ2AI+ community. To this day, only one third, about 1800, of all UCC churches in the US are ONA in this our most progressive Protestant Denomination in modern America, and ONLY several 1000 of the well over 300,000 local churches in US are ONA today.

Our 1993 vote did not come easy nor without cost. In the 1980 decade, 10 ministers served us. After a long time Pastor moved on, the next, a short time called Pastor abruptly left, leaving a recently ordained Youth Pastor. The Cabinet and Church decided to move to a Co-Minster model. A national search yielded 40+ profiles, from which the person selected was to come in April 1987. When some church members read her profile seeing she was a Lesbian, it threatened to split the church, so her, Rev. Wendy Taylor’s, invitation to come was withdrawn a few days before her expected call. In the next three years before our now retired Pastor Peter Shober came, we had an interim Co-Minister, a called Co-Minister who left after a year, another interim Co-Minister after which the Youth Pastor/Co-Minster left, and finally a sole interim minister. The “study” process to become “Open and Affirming” stretched on for three more years, culminating in the 4/25/1993 vote (85-3) to become LGB Open and Affirming. Next week a brief look at our last 30 years as ONA. Written by John Garrity, who long ago gathered our 200 page ONA history. A copy is in the Church office for anyone interested.

Sunday April 23 we noted the 30th Anniversary of our 4/25/1993 overwhelmingly positive vote to become the 100th of 5500+ UCC churches is US to become Open & Affirming of LGB friends, members, and leaders, as we also re-affirmed our full LGBTQUAI2S commitment. Then last Thursday’s E-Blast summarized my remarks in church Sunday the 23rd. Today we briefly look at where we have come the past 30 years in honoring our commitment.

First we should remember in the middle of the six year-1987-1993-ONA process, we welcomed Rev Peter Shober to what became his 25 or so year ministry here. Peter supported the ONA process fully up to the vote AND since throughout his long ministry here. Rev Amy Carter came along as Associate Pastor in the later 1990s, after leading her Butte UCC Church to also become ONA. In the years following many of us discovered the many wonderful friends, members, and staff members among us from our local LGBT community. To our added delight, and of great benefit to our summer small group ministry, we also gained the Rev Janice Springer, who came to Missoula many summers (thru the present warmly anticipated soon), to be with Missoula family, as her Wife Susan continued to serve as a UCC Pastor in their rest of year home in Iowa. As we expanded our ministerial leadership here, the Rev Laura Folkwein came on staff as her wife Laurie taught at UM’s Social Work Dept. When Peter retired, Amy took on the role of Interim Minister for two years guiding us thru the huge change after Peter’s long pastorate, until we called Rev Jennifer Yokum, who came with her Mother and her wife Ellen, and who served us for four years until Rev Courtney Arntzen’s wonderful “Bridge” ministry has led us to the cusp of our new Pastor Rev John Lund’s Installation May 21st.

So it is easy to see that we have had outstanding leadership in our church community because of OUR well-know LGBTQUAI2S Leadership in Missoula. Fortunate are we indeed for these 30 years that were opened up to us by our commitment that “No Matter Who You Are, No Matter Where You Are On Live’s Journey, YOU Are Welcome Here!” And it is ONLY so because we did the difficult work of becoming Open and Affirming and honored OUR commitment for the last 30 full years. Along this journey, many ways demonstrated our commitment, from the important symbol of our visible Rainbow Flag, our newer Rainbow local church logo, MANY members marching in local PRIDE! parades, Our Ministers, members, and friends marching behind our large local UCC church banner, and the use of our church by various LGBTQUIA2S groups also honoring our commitment. And our ministers performed some of the first LGBT marriages here in Missoula, perhaps Montana as soon as “legal”, which they always should have been. NO other church in Missoula has this history, and our 30 year clear public and consistent witness has encouraged other churches and the community to extend the ONA commitment to our broader community that we love. This is a history to be told, remembered, and celebrated with PRIDE! Next Week a look forward as our State Legislature has become nationally infamous for its lack of Welcoming those we so readily and JOYously welcome in our midst!

Nearly 48 years ago, in June 1975 at our MT/NWy Conference, our local Pastor, Rev Carl Schroer, presented the argument FOR our Montana State UCC support for (ONLY) “Civil Liberties” for Lesbian & Gay people. Our MT/NWY conference voted AGAINST this resolution. Soon after, nationally the 10th General Synod of the UCC in 1975 DID adopt this Resolution: “… Recognizing that a person’s affectional or sexual preferences is not legitimate grounds on which to deny her or his civil liberties, the Tenth General Synod of the United Church of Christ proclaims that all persons are entitled to full civil liberties and equal protection under the law.” As my prior history revealed 12 years later, in April of 1987, even our local UCC could not yet see fit to even meet the leading candidate of 40+ to be our new Co-Minister, Rev Wendy Taylor, merely because the word “Lesbian” was attached, followed by a very difficult SIX full year process to become the 100th UCC “Open & Affirming” local church. Since then we have well “practiced what we preached” as my last week’s history outlined…

I want to dedicate my words in church and for these three weeks to a UM Forestry student in the 1950s who then became a member here for 55+ years till his death in 2010, eventually became our Moderator, and who rose to become the Montana State Forester, not back then the stereotype of a Pro-LGBT outspoken supporter. He and Claudia became my close friends, because not only did Gary Brown serve on the original search committee offering Rev Wendy Taylor as Co-Minister, but the Sunday we did NOT meet her, he stood up, said we were wrong, and spent the next MANY years, in all seasons, going to UCC churches all over Montana to encourage them and our Conference to become Open & Affirming. As he was dying, he wanted our ONA history to continue to be known by all in this his very much loved Missoula UCC community. To you Gary, we offer our lasting gratitude for your witness and leadership.

Ancient History now, maybe, but what is our “Future” but the collective hard work by all the members and friends past and present that have gotten us from NO to YES, and from merely “Yes” to “To whom much is given, much is required.” [Luke 12: 48 for the Bibliophiles amongst us!] Montana, among far too many states, has just passed draconian laws targeting those in the LGBTQUIA2S communities. Then and now IS OUR time to follow Gary and so many other’s lead and continue to proclaim that we in UCC are NOT a “Creedal” Denomination nor Religious Community, but rather understand that the Christian Message and Imperative is “Relational”, and done IN Community, and that Community involves EVERYone being included. THAT is what it means when we all REaffirm EVERY Sunday that we are an Open & Affirming-& Creation Justice Church as well, extending our welcome to all LGBTQUIA2S members, friends, newcomers, visitors, because “No matter who you are, nor where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” There is NO “Future” as such, just each day that we each and all look for ways. collectively and individually, to offer this most radical Welcome! Doing so not only in Gary’s name, and Jesus name as well, even more importantly in our own name(s), even when all around us, so many are not able to do so. So be it!

PS: A very visible way to join together to do this “Work” is on the Saturday each year in June when we all can march behind our UCC Church banner in the local Missoula PRIDE! parade, as we have done many times before. See you all there. Shalom! John Garrity