The Power of Symbols When People Seek to Make Us Hide

I’m excited to be speaking at a remarkable church in Ft. Worth this weekend about intersectionality. I’m even more excited about how much intentional hospitality they have already shown me. I don’t know if it’s that it’s this church or that it’s Texas or that it’s healthy church or that their pastor told them to be nice to me or they’d be in trouble. Whatever it is, I’ll take it! How lovely to feel welcomed in a new place.
A kind couple picked me up from the airport (even though I arrived at midnight instead of nine!!!). I asked how they ended up at this church. They said they had both grown up Christian but were not welcome as a same-gender loving couple in so many churches. They were driving somewhere about a month ago and saw the rainbow flag on the church and thought, “maybe we should give this church a try,” and it has been a gift to them; “we feel complete,” one of them said, to have a community and not only to worship at home with each other. And they seem like a couple any church I know would be thrilled to have.
 
I used to work with a lot of churches struggling to survive in a consulting job I had. Many of them wanted to invite LGBTQ people. So they would put out a sign saying they were open and affirming. (That’s the term for LGBTQ+ inclusive in UCC and Disciples churches.) In my reports I would always note that no one knows what that means, but everyone knows the rainbow flag. This couple’s story reminded me of the power of symbols. 
It also reminded me of how much fear can constrain our ability to welcome even the people we want to welcome.
I think the churches I worked with knew that other than LGBTQ people who were already UCC or Disciples, no one knew what open and affirming meant. But many of them were trying to hold together a group of people with a wide array of theological beliefs, including people uncomfortable with being too enthusiastic in their welcome of queer-identified people. The way the church had stayed together was by not talking about it, far less owning it publicly, which is what a flag would have done.
Because of fear, I suspect most of the churches I worked with never made that bold statement by flying a rainbow flag.
I have no idea how many of them remained open, but I suspect few of them experienced growth. Growth and functioning out of fear don’t usually align.
Either way, though, I remain haunted by one story that gets at the REAL cost of fear, which isn’t whether a church grows or dies.
I met with a church in a small mountain town. It was the only progressive church in a very conservative area and dealt with a lot of marginalization in the community because of their reputation. They were the only Open and Affirming church in town. They MAY even have had a rainbow flag out, although I am not confident of that. Among conservative pastors and city council members they were held in contempt, and they supported each other as the town liberals. In some ways they reminded me of the Disciples huddled together in the upper room.
As they drove me around town, we went past a park and they told me about a junior high boy who had killed himself in that park the previous month. He was being bullied for being gay, or at least that’s what the kids were calling him — it wasn’t clear whether he was or whether that was just a fun thing for them to say about him.
“I wonder if he knew that one church in town welcomed him,” I commented later during the all-church meeting.
And the weight of that sat in the room.
Their fear and sense of embattlement had caused them to forget that they had Good News to proclaim to people who had no other source of that. Lives were quite literally at stake.
I believe that the vast majority of our work is around addressing fear and fear’s shadow side, greed.
I am so grateful for the witness of the church I am visiting. I am reminded that hospitality is a spiritual discipline. I am reminded that symbols matter and have meaning. I am reminded that the way we extend our welcome can have life or death consequences.
Because I have lost too many people who had received too many messages that they did not deserve love or life. And I am grateful for churches taking a risk in order to save lives.

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