What does it mean to your congregation to be a welcoming congregation?
As Friends, we believe that each of us can have a direct, personal experience of God and that God might speak to us through anyone. That is why it is so important to us to listen! Our decision to become a welcoming congregation grew out of our experience as a community “that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender, or sexual orientation.” This was not so much a position we took after a theological debate as an acknowledgement of what God has shown us plainly: that by welcoming everyone, we are welcoming God’s Light into our meeting.
We are still discovering what it means to be a welcoming congregation. At our first Equality Sabbath service (which was bursting with joy and celebration), we said:
We welcome the whole person, just as God does. The only label we want to put on someone is their name. The doors of this meeting are as wide as the kingdom of God!
Along the way, we have found that supporting LGBTQ folks in their struggle is woven into all the justice work we do at West Hills Friends. We are certainly learning that becoming a welcoming church is a process that is never finished. This is an adventure!
What has been the most challenging element of your journey toward inclusion? How did you overcome that challenge?
We have learned that it is just as important for us to be in right relationship with our friends outside WHF who believe that “homosexuality is a sin” as it is to welcome LGBTQ folk on Sunday morning. This is the most divisive issue in Christendom and has led many well-meaning people to fear each other. But as Friends, we want to sit at the table in peace with people of faith who disagree with us. We don’t want to demonize “the other side”, just as we don’t want them to demonize us. Witnessing by example without self-righteousness is a powerful force for change, and that is what we are trying to do.
Have there been any surprises along the way?
Some of our friends at other churches were surprised to hear that our 12 year discussion around how to receive gay and lesbian folks in our meeting did not end in disaster. This was our first inkling that God had done something extraordinary at West Hills Friends. What was it that had guided us through?
As we reflected on this, God sent us a beautiful image based on the Benedictine Cross that illuminates how we came together as a welcoming congregation. (I know that sounds corny, but that is what happened!) The WHF Benedictine Cross illustrates our commitment to being humble, kind, respectful peacemakers as we do this work. We had never heard of “safe space work” until Reverend Tara came to visit in January 2010, but apparently we had been doing it all along. We are sharing this image with CWC readers in this issue because our Benedictine Cross is the best way to tell our story. We would love to hear from you if it speaks to you, too.
From your perspective, what is significant about the ministry of the Community of Welcoming Congregations?
I do believe that God sent Reverend Tara to West Hills Friends. From the first time we met Tara, she met us right where we were and gave us exactly what we needed. She spent a Sunday at our little church to help us get going and has always answered our questions with wisdom and patience. Whenever I see Tara, I feel lifted up. West Hills Friends loves Reverend Tara!
Belonging to CWC has given us a wonderful opportunity to be in community with other welcoming congregations. Being part of such a proud and effective organization gives us courage! We have reached out to other CWC churches for help and friendship along the way and have had a lot of fun at CWC events. I hope this article will bring some calls and e-mails and visits to WHF, because we want to keep making friends with all of you!