UU Fellowship of Salina, Kansas
September 15, 2019
Rev. Diane Miller
Change happens. (This is an ancient religious truth). Changes are taking place all the time, outside of our control. This is the nature of the universe. Intentional change in a chosen direction can happen, individually and in public, if we are effective in making it happen. One of the primary features of being a faith community is to effect transformation. Directed change is not easy.
How did our Unitarian Universalist congregations go from being homophobic or just “tolerant” of same-sex relationships some 50 years ago, to being Welcoming Congregations and leading advocates of equal rights and marriage equality?
Today I want to reflect on the changes since that night when transwomen at the Stonewall Inn bar in New York City fought back against arrests. I’ll tell you about a project of collecting some of the history. I will include some of my experiences in ministry as we addressed change. And I want to know more about your role as a Fellowship in the Equality Movement in Kansas.
I am serving as President of a voluntary organization, the Unitarian Universalist Retired Ministers and Partners Association (UURMaPA). We number around 900 ministers and partners, who are active to varying degrees. We hold two conferences a year, fall and winter, and have an annual gathering in June at the UUA General Assembly. After two years as Vice President, I became President this past July, and will serve a two-year term. Retirement, as most people discover, can be a busy time.
Some years ago one of our UURMaPA members proposed that we do a year of focus on our LGBTQ+ history. That is another acronym you probably know, and it refers to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer. Our understanding of gender and sexual identities is expanding, so the PLUS indicates those emerging identities, such as Intersex and Asexual or Pansexual. This proposal became our UU Rainbow History Project, looking at the 50 years between Stonewall and now. We held a conference this past February in Texas, and a second one is coming up this October in Connecticut. Speakers and panelists noted their personal experiences, as we want to capture the history before those who lived it are gone. Much of the change has happened in the realm of personal experiences, not institutional decisions, so the history is held by people.
Though we are a volunteer-run group, this project was big enough that we hired a retired minister, the Rev. Dorothy Emerson, to coordinate it and move it forward. We were all stunned and grieved when Dorothy died unexpectedly in the midst of the project. As a group of retired ministers, we are keenly aware of our mortality. Awareness makes the loss of a dear friend and colleague no less sorrowful. This work of capturing experiences has urgency.
With support from a grant from the UU Funding Panel, the project was launched. UURMaPA has created a website with individual histories and a timeline. We are selecting an editor for a book. Rather than retell the stories that others have contributed, today I’ll speak from my own experience.
I am cis-gendered, meaning that my gender expression matches the sex I was assigned at birth; and I’m heterosexual, meaning all the loves of my life have been men. I have been an ally for LGBTQ+ causes throughout my ministry. Being privileged by being white and living a conventional-looking life as a wife, mother and grandmother, it is not a risk for me to speak up for gay rights or lesbian issues. In fact, in the early years, that made me look prophetic and inclusive, whereas a gay or lesbian or trans minister risked getting fired. One gay colleague told me that he never once preached about gay issues, yet he would be told that he talked about it all the time from the pulpit. Just being a gay man preaching was a statement to the congregation, and some of them weren’t comfortable with it.
There have always been LGBTQ+ ministers in our ranks. In the old days they were simply quiet about it, disguising relationships they did have, or foregoing being in love at all. And the same was true of most church members.
In 1978, after graduating from Harvard Divinity School, I was invited to be the Assistant Minister in San Francisco, serving a large urban congregation. One of my initiatives was to invite Holly Near to do a concert in the sanctuary. To me she was a feminist singer and composer. Holly Near was and is also a lesbian icon. The concert sold out, SRO, and the UU church was then viewed as a place open and welcoming to Lesbians and gays.
In my second year, the Senior Minister departed for another call, and I stepped into the role of Interim Senior Minister. I was just 29, still rather inexperienced, and needed a minister to work with me. We formed a search committee and learned that a recent graduate of Starr King School was interested and available. Mark Belletini was interviewed and was our obvious choice. Mark was an out gay man. So was the layperson chairing the Search Committee, so there was no issue there. I was thrilled to have Mark take on the Assistant Minister role. I was not concerned about Mark being gay. I was concerned that the compensation being offered was too low, and worried that he would turn us down. But he joined the team. As it turns out, that was the first time an out gay man was chosen for a ministry position.
Mark and I in turn selected two students from Starr King to be interns: Barbara Pescan, who was partnered with a female UU minister, and Mark DeWolfe, a gay preacher’s kid who had grown up UU and was one of the more brilliant people I’ve ever known. The four of us had a brief, shining, glorious time working together, and leading the church through its clergy transition. We were not successful because of being gay, straight, and lesbian. We were successful because each one of us was a gifted minister and leader. As a team we held the church through horrible public events, including the murders of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk; and the killings of Congressman Leo Ryan and hundreds of followers of The People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.
One of the issues in change is to destroy invisible barriers. Because Belletini, Pescan and DeWolfe had opportunities to do outstanding ministry in a large, visible congregation, they were three of the first of our “out” ministers to be called by congregations. They had been given a chance, a door through which to enter, a platform from which to be themselves as clergy. Even so, there have been many times when a minister’s identity has been a barrier in their work. We have been slower in affirming transgender ministers and leaders. We still have a long way to go.
Someone in the San Francisco congregation at that time asked me why I was an advocate for homosexuals. I recall thinking that I could identify with gay men because I, too, was attracted to men. I grew up with sisters I loved dearly, and was a feminist, so I could identify with women who loved women. It was a limited perspective, but I felt that love is love. I was engaged and about to marry a man. I could only imagine the pain of being denied the chance to be in love, or to be denied my call to ministry because of my love and my wish to share my life with another.
Personal connections with colleagues, classmates, and parishioners made me aware of the discrimination against LGBTQ+ ministers. There was also widespread stereotyping of women in ministry, which I experienced first hand, and of people of color. It was a justice issue everywhere in our culture. In our UU congregations and our association we could do something about it. We could change things, intentionally.
I was called to The First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1981. I left San Francisco just as the first awareness of a mysterious killing disease was dawning in the medical community. Mark DeWolfe, one of our team of four, completed seminary and was called to a congregation in Canada. Mark was diagnosed with AIDS not long into his new ministry. I knew Mark occasionally visited his family in Massachusetts, so I invited him to preach in Belmont. Mark delivered a brilliant sermon about living with the awareness of impending death. It was still early in the AIDS crisis, and no one knew for sure how the illness could be caught or avoided or prevented.
In the receiving line, the congregation shook hands with Mark and his partner, and they hugged Mark. I fell more in love with that congregation at that moment, when Mark was welcomed and recognized for his stellar ministry. Sadly, Mark died young, before there was much in the way of treatment for the ravages of AIDS.
In the 1980s the UUA took some steps that addressed justice and awareness. The UUA established an Office of Gay Affairs. Several affinity organizations formed. The UU sexuality education program, then called AYS, gave people some language and truthfulness about the range of human sexuality. The Welcoming Congregation curriculum addressed congregational attitudes. More ministers and leaders came out. Some transferred from more restrictive traditions. The broader culture was changing, and we were also.
When I was in San Francisco, I officiated at many weddings. I was bothered that straight couples were the only ones who could marry legally. I considered refusing to conduct weddings as a justice statement. But I caved because I wasn’t paid enough to live on, and wedding fees made it possible to pay rent and Divinity School loans. I was open to doing ceremonies of union for same sex couples, but few requests came along. Years later, in the new millennium, I refused to sign marriage licenses until equal marriage became law. The couples always had ways to get their licenses signed, but in the meantime, they became aware of their straight privilege under the law.
I know that this Fellowship took a leading role in LGNTQ+ rights in Salina, with the passage of a non-discrimination ordinance. UUFS advocated for Marriage Equality in Kansas. I’ve asked Thea Nietfield to write up her recollections of that time, when she was the minister here. I invite you to write up any memories or milestones or actions you remember in the transformation of this Fellowship into being a welcoming group, and as advocates.
This work for justice has continued over all four decades of my ministry. It continued when I was serving my last church, the First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts. For context, Carlisle is a small town of five thousand. It has a thriving UU congregation established in the colonial era. There was a member of the congregation who expressed deeply homophobic views at the church, and in the local paper. For a long time she was tolerated, like a nutty aunt to be ignored. But it became clear that she was causing harm to the church and to the LGBTQ+ parishioners. After a lengthy process, she was asked to leave the church. She came for a final Sunday and stood up during joys and concerns to say goodbye. But she launched into her diatribes against the OWL program. I told her she needed to stop and sit down, but she kept talking. Then I noticed the choir, in the back, stand up and turn their backs. The congregation joined them, in a wave from back to front. Soon virtually everyone was standing with their backs to the vitriol, refusing to listen. The talking ended, and the homophobic church member left. It had been a spontaneous response from a fed-up congregation. From deep in their DNA had come a spontaneous shunning, a rejection of hateful utterances.
A few years later in that same community, two women who had built a home and an organic farm together found that someone had come into their home and left an anti-gay leaflet. They felt very vulnerable. A parishioner and I talked about this, and wrote a letter to the local paper, saying the church would be giving out rainbow flags that Sunday, and people could stop by all week and pick them up. The flags began appearing on mailboxes all over town. When they were stolen, people replaced them. We put vases out on the front steps, and people pulled up to get flags. We handed them out at the town parade, and at the Strawberry Festival. Children danced around waving them happily. The little town of Carlisle looked like a Pride celebration.
As a tradition we often speak about transforming our spirits, our souls, our lives, our relationships. We have transformed ourselves as a movement, enriching our awareness of human experience, opening doors to the talented lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people called to our ministry, affirming their partners, their families, their stories, their lives. We know we are all connected, and that injustice toward any is injustice toward all.
The work for justice is ongoing. We hand it off to a new generation, trusting that our congregations will be filled with more love, more diversity, more hope than ever before. The Beloved Community is a blessing, and we aspire to live with abundant love.