LGBTQ+ Appreciation

Sunday, October 18, 2020
“New Covenant Community – A Welcoming Congregation,” Susan Ryder

READINGS:
Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

Bishop Desmond Tutu: “All over the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. We treat them as pariahs and push them outside our communities. We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy.” 

REFLECTION
For the past several weeks I’ve invited us to reflect on some of the things that make New Covenant Community such a special congregation. This morning during LGBTQ History month, I invite you to consider one of my favorite things about NCC – our history of inclusive welcome to the LGBTQ+ community.

From the very first Sunday our 12 founding members gathered for worship in September 1992, New Covenant Community has been a welcoming congregation. Being inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons was a priority for our founders because of all the spiritual harm perpetuated in the name of God by the church for too many generations. NCC officially became a “More Light ” congregation within the Presbyterian Church (USA), and “Open and Affirming” congregation within the Christian Church (Disciples) and United Church of Christ in 1994. NCC’s welcoming policy was the main reason Bob and I were drawn to NCC in 1997. We had been allies of the LGBTQ+ community since seminary and were intentionally seeking a call to a welcoming congregation – we were thrilled when we found NCC.

Did you know that New Covenant Community was the first publicly welcoming congregation in Bloomington Normal? We found that out last year when we participated in our annual service with the Unitarians to commemorate the anniversary of Stonewall. I had always assumed they were first, but we discovered in planning for the service that NCC’s public welcome preceded theirs by several years. While we are grateful that a handful of other congregations have followed suit over the last few years, NCC being the first is something to be proud of.

Over the years New Covenant has advocated for justice within our denominations and communities. We presided over weddings long before they were legal, and our gay and lesbian members have been part of congregational leadership since Day 1. As a congregation, we wrote letters and spoke in support of non-discrimination policies when the issue first came up in the town of Normal, and later when the city of Bloomington took up the issue, and participated in support of many LGBTQ+ events over the years, on campus and around town. 

One of our members, Elizabeth Fox Anvick, is the first out-lesbian official elected in Bloomington, serving on the District 87 school board, and two of our members, Danielle Cook and Suzie Hutton, were part of the ACLU lawsuit against the state of Illinois for marriage equality. And Bob and I have been active within the Presbyterian Church (USA) advocating and voting for changes in church law that finally came to pass in 2010 and 2014, when ordination rights and marriage equality were approved respectively. This is just a tip of the iceberg of our congregational and individual activism regarding LGBTQ+ issues – all informed by our faith and understanding of the inclusive message and ministry of Jesus.

Most importantly, NCC has been a place of healing and reconciliation for many LGBTQ+ Christians who believed they had to make a choice between their faith and their identity – to either deny, suppress, or lie about who they are and who they love, or give up participation in a faith community. Many understandably turned their back on Christianity altogether because so many in the Christian church turned their back on them, or worse, condemned and harmed them. Too many took their own lives because they could not reconcile who they were with their understanding and practice of their religion. And some, whose faith was so very important to them, found a home here and in other welcoming congregations – no longer forced to choose between one or the other. 

I’ve invited two of our members to share with you for a few minutes what it means for them to be welcomed and embraced by a community like ours – thank you again to Caroline and Suzie for saying yes, and sharing some of their story with us.

Caroline:

Elizabeth and I just celebrated our 17th anniversary last week. Seventeen years ago, on a rainy autumn night, in what is now Anju Above (and what used to be the upstairs of Central Station Restaurant), Susan and Bob officiated what was then called a “commitment ceremony.” Eight years later, on a warm and Sunny Sunday in June, 2011, they officiated our “civil union” at the CRC, followed by lunch at Destihl, and then four years after THAT, they celebrated our official, for-real legal marriage, which we were able to hold on the same date as our original ceremony, October 11, but 2014. This one we held in our backyard. We figured getting married three times was a big enough deal in and of itself, and didn’t necessarily require an open bar this time around. We love a good wedding. In a way, it’s a shame that legally, we don’t have any more “steps” to take to be more official, married-wise, because every time the state of Illinois or the Supreme Court gave us a win, we got to throw a party. And get a cake from Janet’s. 

I’m guessing most married couples don’t have a timeline of multiple weddings that they can look back on to see the progression of their relationship … so in that way, Elizabeth and I are kind of lucky. When I look back at the pictures from 17 years ago, the word that comes to mind is “joyful.” The joy-filled, smiling, YOUNG faces of the two of us and of the people we love most in the room that night. When I look at photos from 2011, I see the smiling faces of two people who have been through a lot, good and bad, and who are surrounded with love. Their relationship has grown and stretched and gained complexity with years, and their faces are more relaxed this time around. In fact, in most of the photos, they seem to be smiling at a shared joke or funny story. Fast forward just four short years after that, and the picture makes another dramatic change. This time, it’s a family of four in the backyard of a home they bought only a few months before. There is sunlight and smiling, and an 18-month-old falling off of a hay bale in the middle of the vows, and a 3-year-old clutching her very own bouquet of flowers and wanting to be picked up so she can be right there where the action is. 

Through all of those celebrations, New Covenant Community and Bob and Susan played a key role. Elizabeth and I had only been dating for a few months when we kind of stumbled across New Covenant Community, and by the time we were ready to make our union official, a little over a year later, there was no doubt in our minds that our church would play a big part in that celebration. 

When I first met Elizabeth, a verse written by the artist Brian Andreas pretty much summed up my feelings: “When I first met her, I knew in a moment I would have to spend the next few days re-arranging my mind so there’d be room for her to stay.” My relationship with my wife turned my life inside out … and what an amazing, lucky thing that was. We were so fortunate to have families who loved and supported us. We were so fortunate for our wonderful friends. We lead rich lives. But there was something missing. Elizabeth had grown up in the Methodist Church, and I had grown up Catholic. Really, both of our spiritual lives as young people were happy and fulfilling; they were extensions of our family lives, our friend circles, and our communities. As we grew older, into our teen years, we would both question different aspects of our two faiths, but on and off into adulthood, we both were still “practicing.” I never made a decided or grand exit from the Catholic church. It was more of a gradual letting go. And I think that both Catholicism and I are probably happier because of it. There are things I miss, but the happy memories are tucked safely away.

Elizabeth, I feel, had a tougher time of it. She searched and searched for a place in the modern Methodist church, and to be truthful had more success of it than I did, but as welcoming as the Methodists could be individually, as an institution, they tended to hold Elizabeth at arm’s length. I’d kind of made my peace with being religion-free for the moment. Elizabeth was still searching for community with room for us. When my mom told me about this really cool small progressive church community she’d learned about after going to hear an NCC-sponsored lecture by Dominic Crossan, I thought, well, that’s nice. But Elizabeth was immediately intrigued. I guess my breakup with the Catholic church was still a little raw, but I agreed to go with Elizabeth to check things out at NCC. The first thing I noticed was friendliness. People went out of their way to say hello and to welcome us. Then I noticed that people talked after the sermon (or “reflection,” I would later learn it was), and shared thoughts and ideas with the minister and other congregants. I was confused. I skimmed the back of the bulletin and saw that NCC was an open and affirming and welcoming church. I didn’t really realize the weight of those words … I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was “oh, sure … they SAY they’re welcoming, but they won’t be REALLY.” Color me skeptical. But, unsurprisingly, as we began to attend regularly, I noticed that these were more than just words. I realized that I, too, had in many ways been searching for a spiritual community, one that Elizabeth and I could grow in together. We were enfolded into this joyful group, where we could feed our spiritual sides in a place that actually welcomed questioning and exploration. But more importantly, you welcomed US. From the get-go, Elizabeth and I felt that we were part of a larger community of spiritual searchers and progressive thinkers. When our family grew, our two (at that time) tiny little girls found themselves in a congregation of doting grandparents. With apologies to Bob and Susan, Baby Addie diverted attention when she enjoyed a bottle and big burp during a reflection, and  Akierra tended to interrupt solemnity when she decided to curtsey while offering the plate of bread during communion. 

I didn’t think that this community could have become more important to me, but my experience of turning into a parent in the wise and loving company of church friends was invaluable. You have shared good advice, jokes, knowing looks, and indulgent smiles when my children are demonstrating less than perfect behavior. And beyond this, I am actually able to attend a church with my family that loves and accepts us as just that – a plain old boring regular family. My kids are also able to learn about the loving and caring and compassionate ways of progressive Christianity from a wise and joyful church family. The simple lessons they’ve absorbed at NCC show up in various ways – through Akierra’s kindness to the stranger and her ability to love everyone, and through A.J.’s growth into a social justice warrior. I could not be more grateful for the examples they have in their everyday lives. 

I think back to about 18 years ago when Elizabeth and I first came to New Covenant, when we met Bob and Susan, met new friends. Our relationship was fairly new, and to be honest, discovering a church home together probably strengthened our new bond. NCC was with us as we gradually gained courage to “come out” in other areas of our lives. You were with us for all three of our weddings, through parenthood and all that comes with that. You’ve been a constant in our lives, and boy am I grateful for that.

Suzie:

I grew up in the Methodist church. My father was a Methodist minister.  My mother became a minister as a third career.  I went to church 2-3 times a week growing up.  And in the Methodist tradition, we moved every 2-3 years.  This was the only part of growing up Methodist that I did not like.  On our senior trip to the Ozarks, I went to church with one of the chaperones and a group of kids.  It was my first Catholic mass.  During college, I found a church close to campus.  Most of my life I’ve been involved in Sunday school, youth groups, Bible studies, book studies, and retreats – as a youth and as an adult.  I have always loved the community of church.  I love potlucks.  And lock-ins.  And Christmas Eve services.  When my son was born 2 and half months early, 23 years ago, we lived in a small town and that Methodist church wrapped around us, bringing the town with them.  

Oh, there were times I had some misgivings and questions.  I wasn’t thrilled with the world flooding and ark story.  Judas’ story really threw me for a loop as I was convinced he had been set up.  At a summer camp I learned about identifying the devil’s voice when records were played backwards.  My parents assure me this was not a Methodist thing.  I questioned the concept of heaven and hell.  And yet – I certainly spent a lot of time in prayer hoping that I wasn’t going to hell.  But even though my theology was shifting away from what I grew up believing, it never occurred to me that I would leave the Methodist church.

I’m going to skip a lot of details, but life changed dramatically for me in 2002, and once the roller coaster of ending a relationship and starting a new one came slowed down, Danielle and I realized that we wanted to find a church.  I just assumed that we would go to the one I had been going to for the previous four years.  I feel naïve even saying this now, but I did not realize the loss my church family felt for my previous relationship.  And Danielle definitely felt uncomfortable.  For the first time in my life, I left a church family without moving. 

For a while, Danielle and I attended several different churches in Bloomington – Normal.  Most were Methodist church.  Daneille, like Caroline, had grown up in the Catholic church, but she had left it behind a long time before this.  For the most part, people were kind to us.  But we couldn’t find a fit.

And then we came to NCC.  It did take a bit of persuading from our friends Elizabeth and Caroline.  The name “New Covenant” sounded very fundamental to me. I will never forget the first time we were there.  I don’t remember what Bob or Susan talked about.  But I remember holding Danielle’s hand.  And it being okay.  More than okay.  I felt enveloped in love and light that day.  The years I carried the weight of sin that couldn’t possibly have been my fault fell away.  Danielle and I weren’t all that out when we got together.  We lived our lives openly, but we told very few people we were a couple.  Of course our family and good friends knew, but we just let other people think what they wanted to think.  So NCC was our safe haven.  It was a place beyond our home that we could hold hands.  This first Sunday at NCC was the day I knew the words of the song Tis the Gift to Be Simple to be true:

Tis the gift to be simple tis the gift to be free tis the gift to come down where we ought to be and when we find ourselves in the place just right twill be in the valley of love and delight.

 So when Danielle and I decided to have a commitment ceremony, we asked Bob and Susan to officiate.  When we had our civil union on a boat on Clinton Lake, Bob and Susan were there again.  I know they would like to be three for three with us, but after working with the ACLU to fight for marriage equality, we had our third ceremony in Chicago at the ACLU office.  We did, however, feel absolutely blessed and supported to know that they, along with this faith community, held on to us every step of the way as we fought for right to be married in the state of Illinois. 

My son Caleb is 23 now.  We raised him in this church.  He always knew a faith community that not just accepted his family – you embraced our family.  And you guided us as we parented him in ways that were so different than the way we were raised.  

As my mom is still a minister in the Methodist church, I still visit every now and then.  But that’s what I am in the Methodist church – a visitor.  And for the church internationally, I’m a dividing discussion point.  But beyond that, I know that my personal faith journey has moved away from Methodism.  And so – I am home.

Finding Danielle.  Finding NCC.  With my family and my church home, I have found myself in the place just right.

Susan:

Thank you again, Caroline and Suzie, for sharing from your hearts. Your being part of NCC means so much to us, and is an excellent reminder of what an amazing congregation New Covenant is, and how important we are to the Bloomington/Normal community. Some have worried about how NCC will survive the coming years with the many changes and challenges ahead. I hope this morning offers both a calling and a vision for the future. It doesn’t matter who your pastors are or where you gather – what matters is who NCC has been, is now, and continues to be – continuing in our time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of our world as an inclusive, compassionate, and joyful community. Amen.