The Journey of A Congregation

This is the story of a congregation coming to new understandings and new actions regarding lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. It began when two college students asked to give a Sermon on “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” An ugly episode at a UU congregation involving two fine ministers who happened to be lesbians encouraged direct action on our part—General Assembly participation, workshops led by lesbians and gay males, sermons, community activity in support of them, careful scrutiny of our own workings as a congregation to be sure we were doing the right things, weekly newsletter articles for several years, and much else. The end result was a congregation fully committed to equal rights for all persons regardless of gender or sexual identity, and several staff people who are lesbian or gay male, with their sexuality not an issue in terms of their being called (two successor ministers) or hired.

Kenneth W. Phifer, Minister Emeritus
First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor

Here is a more detailed description of the congregation’s progression.

LGBT at Ann Arbor – A Further  Description

Ken Phifer


My first awareness of same sex love came in the Army, which may seem a bit late but reflects one of the many ways in which I was an innocent as a young person.  I recall that the word “queer” was a commonly heard insult, but it was directed broadly without any specific person being designated as whatever it was that a queer was, and I really did not know, nor at that time did I care.  I had very little sexual experience as a high school student, some with girls, a few with boys, but I was still a very naïve young man when I went to college.

Where I learned nothing about sex.  Indeed, it was the Army that provided the opportunity for me to engage in what is surely one of nature’s most delightful  experiences.  This was all heterosexual, as has been all my sex life since.  Truthfully, I did not think much about homosexuality, if at all, until a series of events made me aware of the serious disabilities with which gay males and lesbians had to live.

The first was a visit from one of my younger brother’s oldest friends.  This was in the fall of 1974.  He wanted to ask if my brother would reject him as a friend if he were to tell him he was gay, if my brother would think the friendship was based on this man’s sexual desire for him.  Never having discussed such a matter with my brother, I could only speculate, but my speculation was that my brother would still gladly be his friend, as turned out to be true.

But Kirk’s conversation made me aware as I had never been aware before of some of the difficulties with which people of a same sex orientation have to live.  I began to read and to pay attention to news items about this issue.  I paid closer attention to efforts by the UUA to establish an office at headquarters to deal with issues of fairness to same sex people.

Then a college friend I had not heard from since graduation in 1960 called me.  He was a photographer and had spent the years since we graduated in the Pacific Islands doing photographic essays on various Island peoples — brilliant and beautiful photographs and people.  He told me was back living in the U.S. and calling friends from college from whom he had hidden the fact of his sexual orientation to see if they were still his friends.  He would later tell me that every one of us was welcoming and supportive.  Once again, meeting a person and hearing him talk of his challenges pushed me into trying to learn more, and to figure out ways that I could be helpful in creating a more just society in which such people as Kirk and Fred could be welcomed and comfortable.

The Beginning at Ann Arbor U.U.

In late 1983, a college student approached me about doing a service on the theme of “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.”  She and another student, both lesbians, wanted to speak and wanted me to say something as well.  On January 8, 1984, we did that service.  It featured a reading from the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, music by lesbian songwriters and by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, and the three talks.  The prayer/meditation time was a piece by an anonymous gay male titled “Does It Matter?”

One of the students, Brandy, spoke of the power of music, and mentioned several lesbian song writers and what and why they composed.  She then suggested that even with the prejudice found in most religious communities, it was precisely in such communities that there was hope for the conversations between gay and straight people that can lead to a society without prejudice.  She singled out UU congregations and the principles that guide them as being particularly good places.  She is, 35 years later, still an active member of the Ann Arbor congregation, and a song writer herself.

The other student, Mary Beth, spoke movingly of the oppression that had  burdened her life — no marriage possible, difficulty in getting even partial custody of children after a divorce, denied entry into the armed services and denied security clearances, the jokes and jibes that are directed at any one suspected of same sex tendencies, the exile from churches and from families when a person comes out, and way too much else.

I spoke of the ways that Jews and Christians in their traditions had been biased against homosexuals, and reminded the congregation of the efforts by the UUA in  1970, 1973, 1977, and 1980 to set up an Office of Gay Concerns and to encourage congregations to undertake educational efforts to end discrimination.  In 1984 — after this service — the UUA GA passed a resolution in support of clergy who performed services of union for gay and lesbian couples, several of which I had already done.

I closed my remarks suggesting several things we might do: encourage schools to provide accurate information about same sex behavior in their sex education  programs, work for both political parties to have platforms supporting gay rights, call in radio talk shows and write letters to the editor, loudly protest anti-gay TV shows, and “go right on caring for our children or our parents, our sisters or our brothers, our friends or even strangers who come out of the closet to us.”

Mostly for the next several years we did educational work in the form of occasional forums, occasional newsletter pieces, joining gay pride marches and other events, and finding material for our religious education classes that would honor the same sex experience in the same way as the heterosexual experience.

In the mid-1980’s, our congregation was busy trying to become a sanctuary church for refugees from El Salvador, which became a reality in June, 1987.  That summer we brought the Rodriguez family to live in our carriage house at the church, safe at last.

The Common Vision Committee

It was five years before we became actively involved in LGBT matters again, the hiatus largely due to two factors.  One I have mentioned, the demanding work of becoming a sanctuary congregation.  The other was a certain hesitancy on the part of many congregants to become involved in this issue.  This hesitancy could also be called discomfort.  It was not hostility.  Frankly, I perceived it and still do as primarily ignorance.

One respected senior member once told me how the whole issue of homosexuality made him squirm and caused confusion.  The important thing, though, was that he said he would keep trying to understand, and that is what he did.  I think a lot of others joined with him in that effort to learn more and be sure that what they felt and thought was fair and just and truthful.  This attitude made education our primary goal for these years.

I tried whenever possible to include references to LGBT issues, and to point out unfairness and outright injustice.  For example, a Regent of the University of Michigan vigorously opposed university funds being spent on an  Office of Lesbian and Gay Concerns, Various members of the congregation just as vigorously protested him, sending letters, making comments on local radio programs, sending letters to the editor of local newspapers, and trying as often as possible to include items in our weekly newsletter about issues affecting lesbians and gay males.

I should, perhaps, interject at this point to say that it would be several more years before we added the B and the T to the concerns we were addressing, not because of any animus but because we simply were not aware that these were also people who had been oppressed.

The major effort by our congregation to become advocates for LGBT people began in January, 1989, when I became aware of an ugly incident at Community Church in New York City.  A lesbian ministerial couple had been denied the call to an associate minister’s position there, primarily due to the efforts of retired minister Donald Harringon.  He had preached a few years earlier on his distaste (to put it mildly) for homosexuality.  He confessed to having given it a try in college — a confession that I think he made to qualify himself as an expert on the subject — and found it not right, indeed, unnatural.  I was told he contacted a lot of older folks to come and vote, using his considerable stature after more than forty years as the church’s minister, to persuade enough people to vote against the two women to defeat their candidacy.  I was angered at what he had apparently done, feeling he was wrong in his attitude toward homosexuals and wrong to have interfered in a church matter after retiring.

The UUA also felt this was wrong and began a process that became known as the Welcoming Congregation program to ensure that congregations gave LGBT ministers a fair hearing.  A proposal was readied for voting at the 1989 GA.  It called for three things: that congregations act fairly in considering candidates for ministry; that lesbian and gay male ministers be considered fairly; and that our congregations become involved in the Welcoming Congregation program.

On February 5, 1989, I addressed the congregation on this proposal, discussing affirmative action, equal opportunity, congregational autonomy, justice, and the oppression of homosexual males and females.  Following the service, we had an extended discussion about the resolution, in particular what, if anything, we should instruct our GA delegates to do when voting on the resolution.  We had a number of congregational discussions, and members of the Board and members of the Social Justice group interested in this issue and I had many personal conversations about what we should do.  At our May annual meeting, the congregation voted unanimously to support the Resolution.  Indeed, our support went beyond what the actual Resolution said, as it had been watered down by the UUA Board before GA.

In August, 1989, I called an open meeting of all those interested in working on how we might implement that resolution.  Thirteen people showed up, most of whom stayed faithful to the task through the next four or five years.  We resolved several things at that meeting.  We chose the name Common Vision.  We agreed to do all we could to look at our congregational practices to see if we were being fair.  This meant a careful study of our By Laws; attentive listening to sermons, lay presentations, the words of the songs we sang and the readings we used; our words of prayer and meditation; the books and other educational materials we used in religious education; the way we wrote in formal church publications; and other ways in which we communicated with each other and with the public.  We all felt — both gay and straight — that we had a lot to learn about how to proceed, and I was impressed and still am, by the harmonious spirit in which these people worked.

A second goal established at that first meeting was to open our arms to the wider society and welcome all those who were interested being a part of a liberal religious community.  This involved how we did publicity for our programs and our services, the signs and symbols that greeted people who entered the building (we put up a Pink Triangle and other local signs to show what we believed and practiced), and the effort we made to prepare a pamphlet that could advise lesbian and gay male couples where to find a minister to perform a service of union, where to get flowers, where to get a wedding cake, where to get wedding clothes, where to find musicians, and other matters attendant upon a marriage ceremony.  We also sent materials about what we were doing to the various support groups in the area, which in time would become the Rainbow Coalition.  We wanted to become known as a place of safety for LGBT people, a place where they could be full persons without having to check their sexual orientation at the door.  The way we thought of it was to create a community in which same sex couples would feel as free and comfortable as heterosexual couples did to hold hands, to embrace, to kiss, to in every way comfortable for them show their love for one another.

As part of our effort to become known as a gay-friendly place, but just as important, we sought to engage in the larger society on behalf of LGBT people.  We experienced one setback in doing this.  We had for several years been working to establish closer ties with the black community of our area.  The Ministerial Alliance, which included some 45 black churches in our county, stood strongly opposed to our efforts and particularly to me.  When we expressed our opposition to a resolution in the neighboring town that would have stricken from the city’s By Laws provisions that protected various minorities, the Alliance just as strongly  stood in opposition to us and to the city’s By Laws’ provisions.  When I retired in 2005, the wounds from that episode, made worse by several additional events where we were at odds with the Alliance, had not healed.  As saddened as I was by all this brouhaha, I believe we did the right thing.

On October 1, 1989, I preached a sermon on Our Common Vision.  For the only time in nearly fifty years of preaching, on that day a loud angry member stood in the balcony, his usual seat, and towering above me on the platform near the pulpit, denounced the very idea of a sermon on a common vision.  Many is the time when listeners have been upset at what I said, but only this one time what they (he) thought I would say!

This briefly is what I said.  I reviewed the history I have  written about above, including the four goals the Common Vision Committee established: affirmation, self-examination, welcome, and social justice.  I then spoke of how our twin heritages promote what we are doing.  Freedom in our Unitarian history is grounded in the infinite worth of persons, and Universalism teaches us that Love is the most powerful force in the universe.  Both point to an inclusive social policy and way of living.

I suggested we must learn to see things differently, like the minister at the bedside of a congregant who became angered at the brevity of a visit by two white-coated figures, a man and a woman, presumably a doctor and a nurse, who told the wife of the ill man she should call their minister.  The doctor and the nurse essentially ignored what the wife said, namely that she had already done so.  The minister chased after them down the hall.  She then tapped the man on the shoulder, and said, “Doctor, I am the minister.” To which the man replied, “Sorry, lady, she’s the doctor, I’m the nurse.”

I went on to say that we must work together, affirm every loving relationship, and strive for a new sensitivity in language.  I closed with the well-known story of the abbot of a moribund monastery who sought the advice of a rabbi friend.  The rabbi told him he knew only one thing, that the messiah was one of the monks.  When the abbot told his fellow monks what the rabbi had said, it changed everything in the monastery.  Each of the monks wondered if it was one of the others, or could it be himself? By treating each other as if one of them was the messiah, and also considering that it might be himself, each monk began to glow with goodness, and what had been moribund became dynamic.  That kind of common vision , I said, is what we should strive for in our congregation.

Despite the condemnation by the congregant before I delivered the sermon, it met with very strong approval.  This was the beginning of a several years-long effort to carry out our goals.  I will name some of the things we did to educate ourselves, to examine ourselves, to welcome people, and to work for social justice.

We invited the Reverend Richard Hasty, then the interim minister at First UU of Detroit, to offer a workshop on  homophobia for the Committee and the Board.  Out of that weekend experience came workshops for congregants.  This carried on for several years and people praised the leaders of them for their handling of what was then still a delicate subject for many people.

For several years we ran an educational column in the weekly newsletter, and had good response to these columns.

We had evening gatherings with movies focused on lesbian and gay male themes followed by discussion.  We also sponsored musical performances that featured music by LGBT people.  During Gay Pride week we sponsored a gay-friendly musical coffee house.

We hosted holiday dinners for lesbian and gay male folks whose families had essentially kicked them out of the family.

We presented Sunday forums on topics of interest to the LGBT community.  One issue of particular importance was trying to get rights for LGBT couples, one of whom worked for the University, to have the non-employee able to be part of the employee’s health insurance and pension benefits.  Hateful people got a ballot initiative passed that frustrated this effort, but clever and thoughtful people at UM figured out a legal way to do it!

We connected with other religious communities also engaged in this kind of work, learning from them and also teaching them.  UU congregations in both Michigan and Ohio invited us to share what we were doing with them, and I was frequently asked to deliver sermons in other UU congregations.

We appealed to one of our endowment funds committees for money to help the Triangle Foundation, and it was granted.

Gay and lesbian dances were held in our building.

PFLAG, several of whose members were members of our congregation, began holding their meetings in our church, and usually once a year I was asked to address the meeting about how our programs were doing.  One of these talks was on homophobia, which was based on a sermon I did in February, 1990.  I argued that homophobia can be personal or institutional or cultural, that it has a baleful and often a wicked influence.  Homophobia is oppressive to individuals, destructive of institutions, warps cultures, inhibits clear thinking, and erodes integrity.  I said that  homophobia is not natural but learned and that many societies — like some of the Native American tribes who honored the figures they called berdache — paid tribute to same sex oriented people; there is an anthropological study of some 82 societies, 64 of which have no homophobia and some of which have a special place of honor for homosexuals.  Finally, I said that what we can and should do is educate, legislate, organize, and politicize.

I was never more proud of our congregation than at an Ann Arbor City Council meeting in 1991 at which the Council was to consider a Domestic Partner Resolution.  110 citizens showed up to comment on the Resolution.  89 favored it, 22 of the 89 members of First UU.  I sat square in  the camera’s eye with my wife for the full five hours of the meeting, at the end of which the City Council voted 11-0 in favor of the Resolution.

The congregation voted in 1991, after two years of engaging with the Welcoming Congregation booklet and its recommendations, to become a Welcoming Congregation.  Two years later the Common Vision Committee decided that they had done the work we set out to do and, in the words of one of the members who was a lesbian, “we just wanted to be members of the congregation without a cause to work on.”

We did regroup in 1994 because of the threat of a ballot initiative that would have deprived LGBT people of certain  rights, but there was scant support for that initiative and so we had no work to do.

Perhaps one indicator of the success of these early efforts, and truthfully I have only been able to sketch briefly all that was done, is that my two successors are LGBT people — Gail Geisenhainer and Manish Mishra-Marzetti — as are the Associate Minister and the Director of Music.  The goal of the Committee members when Common Vision ended its labor was to “be members of the congregation without a cause to work on.” I think it not inappropriate to substitute minister/staff for member and the sentiment is the same and it seems to have worked.

Would that I could have named all the people (see below for some  of them) who helped to make our efforts successful because this was truly a whole congregation success.  At first there were only a few people interested, then there were more, and then as people educated themselves and became active in striving for social justice and a fair congregational life, as people began to realize that it is not gender that matters but love, the congregation as a whole became involved.  Sure, gender helps us to understand who we are and what we are, but as we are learning now in the  21st century, there are so many dimensions to issues of gender and sexuality that truly only one thing really matters, and that is love.  I believe that is what the Ann Arbor congregation has always been about and I am proud to have been associated with them on this particular journey of faith.

Some of those who made it all possible:

  • Rob Boblett
  • Mary and Jan Barber and their child Alexander
  • Cecy Ewing
  • Cathy Doherty
  • Brandy Sinco
  • Mary Beth Walworth
  • Gene Caunt
  • Nancy and Ron Bishop
  • Arlene Huff
  • Kerry Graves
  • Arty Kalnaraups
  • Brent Bates
  • Hank Flandysz
  • Scott Wilson
  • Tom Hogan
  • Penny Greiling
  • Gladwin  McGee
  • Jane Ferguson
  • Molly Reno
  • Mary Watson
  • Dorothy Wilson
  •     and literally hundreds more

This is what it felt like as a community, a family, as told by the then youngest member of the congregation, a babe, child of the Barbers, as his candle lighting words tell.

“Good morning! My name is Alexander Barber, my friends call me Alex.  As the youngest member of this congregation I was asked to do the candle lighting this morning.  Immediately I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the task, so I asked my parents Jan and Mary Barber to help.  You will note that they have changed their last names (from Jan  Kraushaar and Mary Whitehouse) to match mine.  I found this very accommodating of them… quite flexible especially considering their advanced age.

Anyway I’ve decided to light the candle this morning for my family.  Family… what is a family?  I’ve been asking myself this question since my arrival.  Obviously a family is not always a mother, a father, and 2.5 children.  Some families have one parent, some have three.  I have two moms.  So I’ve been working on a definition for family, see how you like it:

A family is a group of people who respect your individuality, who cherish your presence, who share your ups and downs, they support you in your growth and best of all give you unconditional love.

But wait a minute.  As I look out into the auditorium, I see a group of people who have welcomed me with open arms, cherishing me for who I am.  A group of people who have supported my moms in their new role as parents.  When I am held by each of you at coffee hour I can sense your unconditional love.

Oh…I think I’m catching on…this morning I, Alexander Barber, am lighting the candle for all of you… my family.”

Rev.  Kenneth W.  Phifer

Kenneth W. Phifer

Kenneth W. Phifer was the senior minister of First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor Michigan from 1980 - 2005. His thought-provoking sermons, caring leadership, vibrant sense of humor, and dedicated community involvement provided the congregation with much inspiration for 25 years. Ken continues to teach classes and preach in area churches. Ken is a founder of the Interfaith Roundtable, and has worked on issues relating to peace, aid in dying, and LGBTQ concerns. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago Divinity School, Ken is the author of two books: Hold On: Getting Through Tough Times and Becoming at Home in the World.