Friday, May 27

In a tiny Ohio village, 97% of a rural church just voted to welcome & affirm LGBTQ+ members

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Organized religion has long been a source of pain for countless LGBTQ+ Ohioans, with so many having been forced to leave the community that promised a safe haven for their spiritual and emotional journeys.

“While most LGBTQ Americans have been raised in an organized religion — and many continue to cherish their faith community — too many have been forced to leave those communities behind because of condemnation of lesbian, gay and bisexual people,” the Human Rights Campaign details on their website.

But in recent years, increasing numbers of LGBTQ+ people have been “coming home” to their childhood faith traditions, coinciding with a growing movement within some Christian denominations to begin the long journey of remedying the harm historically and presently experienced by LGBTQ+ faithful.

Whether through marriage ceremonies within local churches, acceptance of LGBTQ+ clergy or advocacy within movements such as the Trevor Project’s It Gets Better Campaign, some denominations are simply far ahead of the rest.

Open and Affirming movement sees progress in rural Ohio

The United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirmation (ONA) Coalition bills itself as “the world’s fastest-growing LGBTQ+ affirming church movement.” More than 1,700 individual churches have joined the coalition. As a relatively small denomination, that number represents about 33% of all UCC places of worship.

Andy Lang, the coalition’s executive director and an out gay man, said the movement  — first endorsed at the 1985 General Synod biennial meeting  — has transformed the entire church. It has seen rapid progress in rural Ohio in recent years.

Most importantly, the movement has likely saved the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people who have been rejected or whose relationships have not been affirmed by other churches.

Several factors are contributing to the trend of rural ONA growth, Lang said, including that most urban and suburban churches have already joined the coalition. Also, the culture has shifted as more rural queers have come out and proclaimed, “We are everywhere.”

Increasingly, Lang added, parents and grandparents of LGBTQ+ kids are asking, “Is my church — the church where my child grew up and learned the faith — a safe place for them? Can they worship in this community knowing they are affirmed as who they are?”

Finally, congregations seeking new pastors are often unable to find qualified candidates unless they are Open and Affirming, Lang said.

Still, LGBTQ+ believers face homophobia, biphobia and transphobia at alarming rates. Church members must look closely at unconscious and conscious bias within themselves and the messages they send out.

“We help churches navigate an exploration of the Bible and what it means to be in community, what it means to accept others, to be loving and caring and welcoming to strangers and to seek justice for the oppressed,” Lang said.

Adopting an ONA covenant, which is a promise to God, is only the first step. It’s not enough to simply fly a rainbow flag outside the church. Congregations should also be prepared to respond to crises involving LGBTQ+ people within their larger communities, Lang said, such as the bullying of youth or violence against trans women of color.

“(The covenant is) not just a piece of paper they can put in a filing cabinet and forget about. It’s sacred,” Lang said.

Church in Ohio village, population 800, joins ONA

In December, Sycamore United Church of Christ was the latest church to join the ONA Coalition, with over 97% of attending members voting to affirm and welcome LGBTQ+ individuals and families. Sycamore, located about halfway between Toledo and Columbus, is a village with a population of approximately 800 residents.

For Wyatt Price, an out gay man who grew up attending Sycamore UCC, it was a welcome end to a difficult year.

“I was absolutely blown away by the almost unanimous vote,” he said. “I had 100 percent faith in my church community that this decision would be made, but to see all of the support makes everything seem so hopeful.”

Price said the official stance separates the church from others in the area and establishes a safe space for youth and teens who may not have support at home or at school. And it was personal.

“It has always been a dream of mine to get married in my home church, but I was always hesitant to do so because of the fear of backlash or lack of support,” he said “I feel that my dream will come true in the future.”

Where do Christian denominations stand?

Unfortunately, large denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church continue to exclude and even condemn LGBTQ+ people. Others have released supportive statements through their governing bodies while allowing individual churches to discriminate.

Yet others, such as the Church of the Nazarene, have conflicting information on their websites as opposed to official statements by church leaders. Many have no stated policy on transgender inclusion.

In short, it’s complicated.

Experiences of inclusion may differ among individual communities. According to HRC, those denominations that typically support LGBTQ+ equality and the year of their first statement of support, where available, include the following:

  • Episcopal Church (1976)
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (1991)
  • Metropolitan Community Churches, founded as a church for LGBTQ+ Christians and a leader in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights
  • National Baptist Convention USA Inc.
  • Old Catholics/Independent Catholics
  • Presbyterian Church (2018)
  • Progress Alliance of Baptists
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers (2004)
  • United Church of Christ (1969)
  • Unity (1995)

For more details and other major faiths, visit https://www.hrc.org/resources/faith-positions. 🔥

Editor’s note: Alissa Paolella is a native of Sycamore, Ohio. Her father, Mike Paolella, was a member of Sycamore UCC’s ONA committee and a longtime advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion at the church.

About Author

Alissa Paolella (they/she) specializes in marketing communications and employer branding in their day job. A writer and photographer, she was a news reporter and editor for over 10 years before beginning her second career. Alissa holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and an undergraduate certificate in women's and gender studies from Ohio University. In their free time, Alissa advocates for increased access to quality, affordable mental health care and a more just, equitable world.

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