On Welcoming
This sermon was created as part of an LGBTQ worship service in July 2013, sponsored by the Welcoming Congregation Committee of First Unitarian Church of St. Louis.

This is a day sanctified by love. Today we are here to celebrate, to listen and to learn what it means to be a welcoming congregation. We are here to begin a wonderful, heart-wrenching, uplifting, perplexing and affirming dialogue about what we are called to do in our effort to serve as a beacon of hope—a beacon of hope both for members of the active LGBTQ community and for those who do not yet feel able to come out of the shadows and to be who they are.

The videos have already done some of the talking. People who are LGBTQ face many challenges and need a spiritual home where they can feel safe. Where they can feel normal. And where they can feel affirmed and loved. And during the offertory we saw the 12 commitments that tell us in a very specific way what we as a faith community have pledged to do after our historic and unanimous vote last May to become a welcoming congregation. I think it’s safe to say that many if not all of us support this direction but are unsure what it really means in practice.

But I’m not going lay out the implementation plan today. That will unfold over time with dialogue. What I will do is make the case for why this effort is so important and so compelling for Unitarian-Universalists. I will make that case, I hope, by simply reflecting on the stories of five ordinary people, some of whom you may know, and some of whom you’ve never met. I’ve sat and talked with these people and have heard first hand their hopes, their fears, their truths and their beauty. I think there is much to learn from this approach, for it is at the one-on-one level where the joy and work of welcoming is done. All the stories you’re about to hear are true—only the names have been changed.

* * *

I begin with 19-year-old college student Caleb, who grew up in suburban St. Louis in a family who embraces a conservative protestant faith tradition. He knew without a doubt that he was gay from an early age and wanted nothing more than to be who he was without having to lie to his family and hide parts of his life from them. His goal, poignantly and simply expressed, was to be able to bring a boyfriend home for the holidays and have that person be welcomed and accepted.

The urge to come out had been building within him during the last few years of high school. Choosing the first person to come out to is a powerful and complex decision. A female friend of his seemed to him like the best place to start. She was liberal minded and supportive. So one day, during an awkward walk with this friend, with his truth burning in the pit of his stomach, he finally just told her. Her response was, “Thank God! I thought you were going to ask me out!”

With the support of a true friend, Caleb finally mustered the courage to come out to his parents. He knew this would be hard, given that the church—and a conservative, Biblical one at that—was at the center of his family’s life. When he told them, his mother cried. His father questioned how Caleb could really know for sure, and asked if this wasn't just a phase he was going through. Between his two parents, it was sort of like all the stages of grief happening at once.

The next day, clearly not ready to accept this new truth about their son, Caleb's parents took him to see their senior minister. At this point in his story, because of my own faith tradition, I expected him to say that the minister had compassion for his situation and helped his family navigate this transition to a new understanding. No. Instead, I was hearing this young man recount what must have felt like a nightmare.

The minister told him, with hardly a moment's reflection, that Caleb had two paths he could take. One was to repent his sin and commit himself fully to resisting his same-sex attraction—in other words to deny his identity and pretend to be straight. The other path was that he could no longer take communion in his church—essentially excommunication.

I was stunned. For a minister who had presumably devoted his life to the teachings of Jesus, these were the only two paths he could envision? It sounded more like a deal with the devil: lie about who you are or suffer eternal damnation.

Obviously, Caleb felt he no longer had a spiritual home in his faith community, which caused him great pain. He is exactly the kind of person who needs to, and must, find a refuge in a Welcoming congregation such as this one. He asks for nothing special, just to be accepted for who he is and to surround himself with people who embrace love and acceptance as their primary values.

But despite losing his church, he still had his family. They talked weekly, and it usually ended with them all crying. Despite the pain, he found this much preferable to living a life of untruth. Before coming out, he frequently lied to his parents about all kinds of things. When your life is based on an untruth, it becomes too easy and even necessary to keep telling lies. Caleb knew this had to end, and he was gradually able to rebuild a new relationship with his parents, this one based on his authentic self. Now less than two years later, he is at last able to reach his goal of bringing a boyfriend home for Christmas.

* * *​​

A few days later I had a wonderful pair of conversations with two young women who are a loving and committed couple who recently began attending Unitarian-Universalist services. While they now live in one beautiful relationship, they have two very different stories. First I spoke with April, who shared with me her incredible transition that began for her in a fundamentalist Christian faith community. She was engaged to a young man whose family was deeply committed to Biblical Christianity. Although she knew that she was a lesbian, she saw no other option than to do what was expected of her.

Her true sexual identity came out in the heat of an argument with her fiancé, and after her revelation, there was nothing but pain and rejection. Her would-be mother-in-law actually suggested that April was demon-possessed. Her youth pastor refused to let her see the kids that she used to work with each Sunday. As with Caleb, this woman discovered that her religious community had no capacity to welcome her for who she really was, and she was cut off from the fellowship of the people she had loved and worshipped with.

When she discovered the UU faith community, along with her partner, Kayla, April was astonished to see us doing loud-and-proud things like marching in the Pride parade. “If you’re going to be welcoming,” she said, “it’s important to be as loud as possible.”

April’s partner Kayla has a totally different religious background. With a family headed by her mother, who was a bisexual activist for gay rights, Kayla’s family of origin, not surprisingly, found little comfort in the Catholic faith. Thanks to a supportive mother who understood issues of sexual and gender identity, Kayla was confident in her identity as a lesbian at an early age. The lack of religion in her life, in contrast to her partner’s experience, actually drew her to explore organized religion.

She learned that Unitarian-Universalists were accepting of the LGBTQ community and diverse religious beliefs, and so she convinced her partner to try us out. She’s glad that we’re not silent about LGBT issues, because silence feels like disapproval. “When you interact,” she says, “you’re sharing a part of yourself. You want a response to that.”

When asked what her advice would be for how a lesbian couple like hers would like be treated when visiting for the first time, her answer was simple. They want to be acknowledged just like any other couple. And she feels we are doing a good job at that. Her feeling upon visiting here was that she just felt normal.

* * *​​

Feeling normal was a long time coming for another person I talked with. I’ll call him Dan. Dan the man, with a curly beard and energetic blue eyes. Only Dan didn’t used to be a man. Or more accurately, I should say he always was a man, but his body led everyone to view him as a woman. In actuality, he was intersex. He has both an extra X and a Y chromosome. For purposes of telling the story, I’ll use “she” to refer to Dan before the transition, and “he” after the transition, since that’s how most people will relate to Dan’s experience.

From childhood in the 1960s, Dan always felt like a boy. Her mother tried to fix her, but that wasn’t possible. In the days before Title IX, her desire to play sports was often thwarted. She was great at baseball but wasn’t allowed to play Little League, although she did manage to be the only female body on the high school football team in rural Missouri where she grew up. Later, she joined the army, where she starred on the women’s basketball team. But all this time, she knew inside that she was really a man.

More specifically, she was a straight man and was always attracted to women. In her woman’s body, Dan having a female partner was never an option in his rural Missouri, Southern Baptist community several decades ago. Dan wanted nothing more than to have a wife and child. It would take a near fatal tragedy to finally give him the courage to make the transition.

It was 1982 and after a foolish joyride with male friends who had been drinking, the car she was riding in crashed, killing everyone in the car. Except her. For reasons only God knows, Dan clung to life despite multiple broken bones and severe internal injuries. Her burning desire for a wife and family gave her the will to live. So Dan gradually recovered and committed herself to the long road to transition. Now Dan the man is happily married to the woman of his dreams, who came into his life with a baby girl that now is his precious daughter. He says that now, everything is finally as it should be. He appreciates the blessings of family more than most, given how long he had to wait. Now that he is a straight man with a wife and child, he is able to reclaim the traditional faith of his youth, with the exception that he believes that God is more powerful than the prejudice of people. He knows in his heart that God loves him, and that if God is for him, who can be against him.

Dan has moving words of advice for any congregation that desires to be truly welcoming. He agrees that silence is not welcoming, but whispering is much, much worse. “If you say you’re accepting,” he said, “then be accepting. Don’t go around talking about people.” He says we must have compassion for how hard it is to be a transgender person. We must understand that they are not confused, but rather are very certain about who they are.

When Dan, and people like him, enter the doors of this church, he says openness is the answer. Tell me “I’m here,” he said. “I’m willing to talk. I understand your struggles.”

* * *​​

So now we’ve heard stories from a “G,” an “L” and a “T.” But as many in the queer community have sometimes asked, where are the B’s? The often invisible, normal-seeming bisexual people? The bis equally deserve our support and compassion, because trying to live with one foot in the straight world and one foot in the gay world is no easy task.

So the B story today is about a man, married for 19 years to a loving wife, with two teenage kids. All looks traditional on the outside even to close friends. He does everything he can to stay busy and distracted while shielding his innermost thoughts and desires from everyone, even—and especially—his wife. Back in the early 80s when he was in grade school, he was called a queer and a fag, but he never accepted gay as his identity. But, alongside the attraction to girls, the same-sex attractions were there and would not go away.

Because of his small-town upbringing, it was not an option to acknowledge his gay side. Even in college, he was surrounded by seemingly straight, conservative people, and any alternative to that didn’t remotely feel like an option. He fell in love with a wonderful woman from Missouri and they came to St. Louis to start a family. But the bisexual identity was always lurking just beneath the surface, and like the tell-tale heart of Edgar Allen Poe fame, it began to beat louder and louder, no longer content to be locked away.

Similar to the story of Caleb, this man wanted to be fully honest about who he is and live a life based on truth and integrity, not secrecy and fear. Still it was hard, because there was so much at risk midway through life. But things began to change. His wife convinced him last year to march in the Pride parade with the First Church group. He got to know people on the Welcoming Congregation committee, and he met others who were open about their bisexual identities. And because of this network of affirmation, love and support, this man was finally able to acknowledge who he is and came out to his wife and family and to several close church friends in March of this year.

I’m sure by now most of you who didn’t already know have figured out that this man is me.

As a healthy way to get in touch with my gay side, I joined the Gateway Men’s Chorus. And there I was welcomed with open arms by this community of singers that are really like a family as much as a choral arts organization. The lessons for how to welcome newcomers were powerful. The music director, Al Fischer, whose blog you heard earlier, welcomed me and decided to give me a chance. Beyond welcome and good will, there was organization: The same day I arrived, I got a binder of music, perfectly organized, and was introduced to the chorus manager and to the section leader. By the next week I had a personalized name tag and was connected to the online information and social networks. (And of course my dues were efficiently collected, with convenient credit card payment right there in the rehearsal hall!)

I decided to tell my story, not because you all really want to know the intimate details of my life, but because it is a success story about welcoming – both here at First Church and at the Gateway Men's Chorus.

And I also wanted to tell my story because I know my story is not unique, and I want to offer encouragement to others. Like Big Al says, the best thing LGBTQ people can do for the cause is to open themselves to a caring community, refuse to give in to fear, and come out. If you’re straight, be that safe person that someone can confide in. If you’re not straight, you are welcome here and you are welcome in this wider faith community. Let us know you.

It is life affirming and liberating to truly, fully open yourself to another. The content of your conversations—long-suppressed feelings of guilt, or anger, or fear—will not always be easy and, in many cases will be downright painful. But honest words spoken in love and compassion are powerful, healing medicine.

Every person in my life to whom I have opened myself and truly shared my heart has responded with love and compassion. For the first time in a long time, I feel I am now capable of true, deep friendships that go beyond the superficial. And that goes doubly for my wife, who after nearly 20 years finally really knows the man she married. And as a result, we’re actually closer than ever before.

* * *​​

Despite our unanimous vote to become a welcoming congregation, there is still work to do. As First Church member Brian Blosser so eloquently put it in the June 30th Pride service, our first important work is to resolve that we will not remain silent. Because silence is not welcoming.

Let us begin with the opening, the sharing of our true selves with each other. This opening causes others to reciprocate and can lead to a miraculous and life-sustaining exchange. One way we will signal our openness is with visible signs of welcome. As a start, Welcoming Congregation committee members will be wearing these rainbow lanyards around our necks. That means we are safe and open to hearing your story, and ready to hear your good ideas about how we can weave welcoming into every facet of our congregational life. Anyone who wants to wear a lanyard, come and see me – you don’t have to serve on the committee to be a good listener for an LGBTQ visitor.

Let us resolve that we will work together to be a safe and welcoming place for young people like Caleb—people of all ages, in fact—who want and need to do the right and difficult thing of coming out and don’t want to lose their faith community as a result. Like the number Zero in the story we heard earlier, let us learn to be open in our centers.

Let us resolve that we will do the hard work of listening and just being there for those whose gender identities may not match their physical bodies. Like Dan so wanted to hear during his transition, let him know that “I am here.” Many of us remember a trans person, Jeanine, who worshipped with us for a time a few years back. The fact that she is no longer with us should urge us to reflect on how we could have been more present and open for her during that critical time in her life. I personally regret very much that I never sat down next to her at coffee hour and asked, “how’s it going?” That I never told her, I’m here for you.

Let us also resolve not only to open our doors to welcome those out there in the greater LGBTQ community. But let us also open our hearts and embrace those who are already here, who are already part of our faith community. Those who may be longing for the freedom and loving support they need to come out of the shadows and finally, finally, be able to live a life of authenticity.

And let us also resolve to open our doors with love to people in same-sex and other non-traditional relationships, so that, like April and Kayla, they move within and among us and just feel normal. Let those of us in traditional relationships work to better understand those whose affectional or sexual orientations lead them to a lifestyle that falls outside society’s limited, binary understanding of what committed relationships look like. Let us envision a love without boundaries imposed by others, moving toward marriage equality but also beyond to relationship equality.

So what does it mean to be a welcoming congregation? Let us just agree to simply begin with love and openness. With that confident first step behind us, all the rest will surely follow. Amen.

George Grimm-Howell
July 28, 2013
Delivered at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis
Video Prelude: LGBTQ Awareness
Video Offertory:
​Principles of Welcoming

Video Postlude:  
​UU Images of Pride 2013