Greetings from Milwaukee!
My General Synod experience begins a few days before Synod itself, with the Gathering of the Open and Affirming Coalition. Without the Coalition, I would not be a member of a UCC church and, I believe, I would likely not be discerning a call to ministry. When I first found the United Church of Christ in 2015, I was searching for a church that would love and support me as a lesbian/queer woman and in the fullness of my identity.
In 2017 I attended my first Open and Affirming Gathering, held in Baltimore, and it was a revolutionary spiritual experience for me to be in a faith space in which holding an LGBTQIA+ identity was normative. After that, I knew that I would plan to attend the next Gathering, and this year’s Gathering was infused with the Holy Spirit, overflowing with love, and abundant in joy.
For me, the worship and workshops at the Gathering embodied the simultaneous truths that many of us have experienced hurt and trauma as a result of our identities, which continue to be marginalized, and that this hurt need not keep us from living with joy as God’s beloved. We ministered to each other, listened to hard truths, and offered encouragement.
The Gathering is special to me because it is a place where I hear stories similar to my own. It is healing to have my story validated and to know that I am not alone. The Gathering also helps me grow spiritually by hearing stories that are different than my own, continually modeling the holiness of diverse stories and backgrounds. I have learned so much about ministry from the conversations I have listened to and participated in at ONA Gatherings, making it fitting that the Coalition plays such a significant role in my call.
At the close of this Gathering, I reflect especially on a few specific experiences that I take with me. One was an advocacy training led by Rev. Naomi Washington Leapheart, Faith Work Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force. I sometimes find it easy to be overwhelmed by injustices committed daily and my complicity in them. Naomi presented several areas in which we can join the work of the Task Force in concrete ways. I left with a list of concrete next steps and the assurance that people of faith are needed for this work, and that we are surely not alone.
I am extremely grateful that the Gathering included a panel about mental health and disability in LGBTQIA+ communities, hosted by leaders in the UCC’s Disabilities Ministries and the Mental Health Network. As an abled person, I was grateful for the honesty of our panelists and for the opportunity to confront my own abled fragility. While LGBTQIA+ communities can rally around certain experiences, the reality of intersectional oppression exists even in our spaces. Truthfully, most people know someone who falls into one or both of these categories, and that person may be themself. It was both holy and instructive to have a chance to live out the intersectionality of the ONA Movement, and I look forward to bringing resources back to my home church and Association.
The Gathering concluded with a service of healing, and the Holy Spirit was certainly at work. We sang praises, we heard a sermon from the Rev. Janice Steele that will stay with me for a long time, we laid on hands and prayed for one another, and we anointed and blessed one another. I love Coalition Gatherings because they give me a vision for what the church can be and I leave blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go make it. May we all work to grow the church toward the radical blessing and affirming of all people.
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