Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
“Church work is like government work, change is slow,” said Kevin Hogan of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion Faith Alliance. But that doesn’t stop him from pushing onward for incremental change in the way congregations evolve towards acceptance.
Through the Faith Alliance, Hogan sets up meetings with pastors and other faith leaders and laypeople who want to learn more about how to have a welcoming congregation. Usually it’s because someone has called for more information or because they were recommended by someone with insight.
“There are congregations that want to welcome LGBT members, but they have no idea where to begin to do so,” Hogan said. “Sometimes the conversation is already taking place – among congregation members, or maybe someone has gone to the clergy. So we know there is an interest, but they may want someone from outside the congregation to talk about it. I’m sort of like a lightning rod. I go in and lead the discussion so that the pastor or other clergy don’t feel any negative feedback.”
He emphasized that negative feedback is rare. “Usually church leaders are surprised at how little feedback there is. We’re not going into churches where they teach against homosexuality and wouldn’t be open. These are congregations where someone has already expressed an interest, but they just need some guidance on how to make it happen.”
On a national or international level, creating affirmation in religious institutions takes years. There is often a government-like structure where members of the faith must vote to make changes. It has happened in Reformed Judaism, Presbyterian, Episcopal and United Church of Christ faiths. Metropolitan Community Church is one that was founded on LGBT acceptance. But there are many other denominations where same-sex relationships are not officially accepted, but where people can find welcoming congregations.
The change typically starts at the congregation level, and when Hogan comes in it’s usually not hard to get people talking and thinking about why love and acceptance is a Godly path. He’s also got a powerful tool. The Michigan Roundtable partnered with the Arcus Foundation to produce two short videos: Come As You Are, which features LGBT people of faith and parents of a gay man who tried to commit suicide; and A Space for All: Leading Towards Inclusive Congregations, which features faith leaders talking about inclusion.
“Sometimes they just show the video and people get it,” Hogan said. Nearly 1,000 of the DVDs have been given to houses of worship throughout the state. In A Space for All, four church leaders talked about why it’s important for their congregation to be welcoming. Rev. Henrietta Stith-Andrews, a retired United Church of Christ Pastor, explained “the church should be about building community, it’s a place where everybody should be welcomed.” She also said, “What I often hear is the pain they (LGBT people) experience because of the messages from the pulpit.”
Rev. Dr. Susan McGarry of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor echoed the expression of fear and pain that some who have felt rejected by the church experience. “Many, many people in the LGBT community have really felt and had horrible experiences of exclusion from the religious organizations in their lives, and so just stepping into church is a monumental act of courage. God loves people who are different from you also. Who are we to say who should sit in the pew and who God is going to limit God’s love for or to?”
Rev. Matthew Bode of Spirit of Hope Detroit said that it is “easy to go along to get along” in the church. “The easiest thing to do is keep silent and receive our paycheck,” he said about clergy who avoid the topic of same-gender-loving people. But Bode and members of his congregation have chosen the path towards acceptance. “Having a small sign or having a rainbow flag on our website has made a big difference in just letting people relax and being able to experience the actual congregation of the actual community rather than worrying about ‘Am I welcomed?’ first.”
Sometimes Hogan leaves the DVD for faith leaders to share at their own pace, but other times he comes along for the presentation to answer any questions. He said that generally the response is positive, with people wanting to know “Ok, so what’s next?”
Culture of Inclusion
It doesn’t take much for a congregation to start a culture of inclusion. “We usually start with the Welcome Statement,” Hogan said. “Almost all (congregations) have a welcome statement and we look at that to see if it is inclusive. We give them an information packet that has sample welcoming statements in it, to give them ideas.”
Among the welcome statements, is one from the Northminster Presbyterian Church in Troy. “In recognizing Christ’s calling to treat others as we desire to be treated, Northminster Presbyterian Church welcomes all people, regardless of sexual orientation, color, gender, religion, social or economic class, ethnicity, nationality or disability. We value all members of the community. We consciously strive to create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish.”
Hogan explains that congregations are at “different stages of a life cycle,” when it comes to being inclusive. And that while congregations may be limited by policy set at far off bureaucratic places, the first steps to inclusion are easy and can make a big difference.
For him, as a gay person of faith, knowing that he is accepted at church helps him find a balance in life that he lacked growing up Catholic. He said that “there are individual clergy and Catholics who are truly welcoming and trying to change the Catholic Church,” but that for him the United Church of Christ was “a better fit.” When he changed denominations he was eager to go out and spread the word of the UCC and its policy of acceptance. But instead he found a path to help change many faiths.
In the past five years, 125 clergy have taken steps to move their congregations towards more inclusiveness in Michigan, said Hogan. And on top of the work with individual churches, the Faith Alliance has hosted events which further encourage the dialogue. They brought Soulfouce Bus Tour founder Jacob Reitan to speak in 2011, and in 2012 they hosted the Sacred Conversation at the Ecumenical Theological Sanctuary that connected Detroit-based ministers on both sides of the gay marriage issue together for a peaceful and spiritual conversation.
Most recently the Shower of Stoles Exhibition at Affirmations served to connect the faith and the gay communities by recognizing religious leaders who left their posts due to not being accepted for who they love.