On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Pride Parade was held in New York City. Similar events were held in June of 1970 in Chicago and San Francisco. All were in response to the Stonewall uprising the previous year, which marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
For the first time in its 50 year history the NYC pride parade is cancelled due to coronavirus. Cancelled for the first time in 50 years, on its 50th anniversary.
A couple weeks ago I began an online training for leadership and organizational coaching during the COVID pandemic. As the group was naming the different dynamics around loss, grief, and trauma folks are experiencing during this time, the AIDS epidemic came up. For those of us who lived through the 1980s/1990s decades of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands upon thousands of mostly gay men were dying in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, COVID brings up ghosts of that trauma. As many of you know, my dad was one of those gay men who died of AIDS, so this year’s Pride is just a strange, strange time for me, and I’m guessing for many of my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
Folks are hosting virtual Pride events, but for me and my family the highlight of Pride has always been the parade. My kids tell me that Providence (RI) Pride was their favorite event of the year. People of all ages, colors, and creeds gathered downtown for a day of fun and joy and celebration. We marched as a church. We waved banners and wore silly hats and cheered for the crowd as the crowd cheered for us. The City of Providence was never happier or more together than on Pride weekend.
My Pride story is a family story. It’s a story of my family finding its family: a community of people committed to living without shame; people of all different identities committed to accepting and loving every inch of themselves and every part of every other. Nothing needs to be hidden. Everything can be talked about. Vulnerability, instead of a sign of weakness, is lifted up as a sign of strength. Pride is a time of honoring those who have gone before: martyrs and heroes and loved ones lost who had the courage to live their truth, and because they chose to do so, paved the way for those of us who would follow to more perfectly manifest what, for me, is nothing other than God’s boundless, unconditional love.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Open and Affirming Sunday
30 June 2019
Text: Luke 9:51-62
No Looking Back
Many of you know my story. But for those who are new I’ll do a quick refresher. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family and all our relatives belonged to a conservative Christian denomination called the Christian Reformed Church. I went to Christian schools and graduated from a Christian college. On the surface we were a model family. Dad had a good job. Mom stayed at home and raised us kids. We went to church twice on Sunday. We lived in a nice, new house in a nice new subdivision. Mom and dad led Marriage Encounter weekends during which they coached other couples on how to make their marriages more loving, healthy, and intimate. Years later, after my dad came out as gay and my parents divorced, one of my high school friends who knew my family well put it this way: “The Oscar for best performance in a marriage goes to Bill and Jayne Yonkman.” Open and Affirming Sunday is many things to many people, but for me it’s this: Be out. Be proud. The only Oscars any of us should get are for the work we do in Hollywood, not the lives we live at home or in the church.
Open and Affirming originated with a 1985 resolution to the United Church of Christ General Synod that the denomination encourage all of its member churches to welcome LGBTQ people into all areas of congregational life including lay leadership and ordination. Since then 1400 UCCs have become Open and Affirming. Other denominations have followed the UCC lead in welcoming gay people including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some Baptist denominations, some Pentecostal denominations, the United Church of Canada, and other denominations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Same sex marriage has been legalized throughout much of Europe, in some Latin American countries, and here in the U.S. Much has changed since my dad was growing up gay and shamed in 1950s rural Michigan. Open and Affirming Sunday celebrates the progress we’ve made as Christians and human beings on this planet to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It also recognizes how fragile this progress is and how far we have to go.
Open and Affirming is the UCC’s way of recognizing what the gay rights movement calls “pride.” The modern gay rights movement began at 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in NYC. This was a common occurrance at the time because New York, like most places in the U.S. at the time, had laws against almost any type of gay expression even in private. The affect, if not the point, of these laws was to shame LGBTQ people.
In order to be gay in 1969, you had to sneak. And what does sneaking do to the soul? What did the “Saint of Dry Creek” tell his son? “If you sneak, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing, and if you run around your whole life thinking you’re doing the wrong thing, you’ll ruin your immortal soul.” In 1959 the Saint of Dry Creek told his son to be proud of himself and not to sneak. On June 28, 1969 the patrons of the Stonewall Inn resisted the police raid on their safe and sacred space, and out of that resistance, the modern gay rights movement was born. When an entire culture is set on shaming you, how do you resist? With pride. You resist shame by stopping sneaking and stepping into the light.
That was the power of the first “gay liberation march” organized a year after the Stonewall uprising in June of 1970. Several thousand LGBTQ people marched from the Stonewall Inn 51 blocks up 7th Avenue to Central Park in the middle of the day with signs and flags and chants–during the day. Even then, many felt like they had to wear masks in case their employers found out and they would be fired. In Central Park, they had a “gay-in.” It was basically a gay version of a “be-in, which was a hippie way to make a political statement by hanging out and be visible in this case as gay people. Every year since 1970 the NYC Pride parade and the LGBTQ rights movement has grown. Now Pride is worldwide. In many places around the world homosexuality remains a crime often punishable by death. Nevertheless, people once forced to live in the shadows are stepping out into the light risking their lives and livelihoods because they know that hiding, while it might preserve your privilege and in some cases be necessary to preserve your life, ultimately ruins the soul.
Open and Affirming in the UCC begins with the recognition of the negative effects that Christian teachings and behavior have had on LGBTQ people. We’ve been telling LGBTQ people to sneak when Jesus clearly invites all people to be true. You can’t do anything if you can’t be honest about who you are. To my LGBTQ brothers and sisters I want to say on behalf of the church that I’m sorry.
Unfortunately many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world continue to ruin souls by telling people–particularly LGBTQ people–that God wants you to sneak. So what do we say to those people?
In 2013 my wife and I had the opportunity to join Marriage Equality Rhode Island in bringing marriage equality to the state. As a part of that effort, I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The testimony lasted through the day, into the evening, and on into the early hours of the next morning. Many people spoke both for and against marriage equality. Amont those against it, I heard some of the many of the vile and hurtful slanders against gay people that I thought we as a society had left behind. But there they were, people shaming and dehumanizing other human beings in public in the name of Jesus. Needless to say, it was disturbing.
When my turn to speak came in the wee hours, I sat across from a state senator whom I knew personally, who was a Christian, and who himself said many of the hurtful things others had been saying. I shared my family’s story. I share my message to him with you as something you can say to Christians who do not share our Open and Affirming values. Here’s what I say: “I am a Christian. That means I follow Christ. Not Paul. Not Moses. I follow Jesus. And Jesus gave Christians one command: love everyone, period. You can’t both love someone and call them an abomination at the same time. If you are telling people that loving someone of the same sex is sinful, you are not loving them, you are shaming them, and in shaming them, you are not saving their soul, you are destroying it.” The result of that hearing and the work of many in the Marriage Equality Rhode Island coalition is that we won marriage equality for Rhode Island!
My family gave me the opportunity to experience the devastating effects of LGBTQ shaming up close and personal. I can say from my own experience that when you shame an LGBTQ person, when you demand that they sneak in order to survive, you commit spiritual malpractice not only against the individual but also against their families and everyone they love. The shame runs deep, and it takes a lifetime to heal. I’m still trying to heal from having a shame-filled dad who spent two-thirds of his life sneaking.
The good news is that healing is possible. And the irony is that I have found healing in the very Christianity whose institutions shamed my father and hurt my family. I had to leave the church of my childhood, but I’ve found welcome in the UCC, and for that I’m grateful. And a part of my ministry in the UCC is creating truly open and affirming spaces for LGBTQ people.
Jesus said, “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I am grateful Jesus has called me to this work of creating open and affirming congregations. I have put my hand to the plow. I am not looking back. I have left the small, comfortable world of my childhood where we pretended LGBTQ people didn’t exist. I’ve stepped into God’s wide world of love. And I hope you will, too. There is no place for shame in God’s house. That’s why it’s so important that we stand together as a faith family–gay, straight, and in-between–and take pride. Let’s raise the rainbow flag and step into the light with pride. There’s no looking back.
This coming Sunday, June 30, First Congregational Church of Granby is celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday. Open and Affirming (ONA) is a designation created in 1985 following a resolution that was approved at the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod that year encouraging UCC congregations to welcome (or consider welcoming) gay, lesbian, and bisexual members. Following later General Synod resolutions affirming transgender members of the church, the welcome was extended so that, today, an ONA covenant typically welcomes members of any sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
The Open and Affirming program is administered by the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition, which supports congregations and other church settings as they consider the adoption of an ONA “covenant” and maintains the official registry of ONA congregations and ministries. The Coalition encourages UCC congregations, campus ministries, seminaries, regional bodies and other settings of the church to engage their members in serious study of sexual orientation and gender identity and to declare publicly their full welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ people. With more than 1,400 congregations, the UCC’s ONA program is the largest of several LGBT-welcoming church movements in U.S. and Canadian churches.
FCC Granby adopted an Open and Affirming statement in 2009. Here it is: “We affirm the dignity and worth of every person, regarless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, mental or phyiscal ability or sexual orientation. We offer sacraments and rites to all who enter our circle of faith. We celebrate the gifts that each person brings to First Congregational Church and invite them to share in all areas of its service, leadership, activities, responsibilities, and privileges.”
I’m new to FCC Granby. I was not around when our ONA statement was adopted. I was not part of the conversations, and I’m only beginning to understand what ONA means here. I find the people of FCC Granby warm and welcoming. There seems to be an easy rapport among people of different sexual orientations. This is all good. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that everyone here understands ONA in the same way. And the statement leaves room for interpretation.
While it is good to affirm the worth of every person regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, and mental or physical ability, the ONA designation was specifically created to affirm and welcome LGBTQ+ people. When we broaden the statement it can create confusion. People interpret the statement to mean, “We just welcome everyone here.” So for example, when I recently had a Sunday morning off and volunteered to sing in the choir of my wife’s church, one of the choir members said to me, “It’s a good thing we have an ONA statement so that we can welcome you into the choir.” My response: “What do you mean?” The man’s face reddened. “You know, as married to the pastor.” “Oh,” I said. Another choir member jumps in for the save: “It’s just his weird sense of humor.” It was an interesting interaction. Is “pastor’s spouse” a marginalized category that needs special inclusion? Was he was using ONA in the “we welcome everyone” sense? Is the fact that I’m both a man and the pastor’s spouse a violation of this person’s gender role expectations? In the end, who cares. But this encounter, and many others that I’ve had with church people over the years indicates to me that people can be confused and uncomfortable with the ONA designation. Folks are frightened of being labeled “the gay church,” so they water the welcome down. I don’t want to water it down. I was to focus it up.
For me, the need to clearly and specifically extend welcome to LGBTQ+ people arises from the fact that churches as institutions as well as individual Christians have excluded, tortured, killed, made laws against, and have attempted to erase from existence LGBTQ+ people for thousands of years now. That’s a lot of hate to overcome. And the only way to overcome it is to apologize profusely, make amends, face our own homophobia, actively communicate to LGBTQ+ people that we want you here, recognize that every one of us lands somewhere on a spectrum of gay, straight, or in between, and celebrate Pride! Shame has no place in God’s house. God loves every part of you and every part of me. Let’s not hide who we are. Let’s be brave! Let’s be bold! Let’s be fabulous!