Tying a Ribbon Around the Church

It was the Fall of 1992, and I had just arrived in Portland, Oregon, to take my position as the new Senior Minister of First Unitarian Church.  At the time, Ballot Measure 9 was raging in the state — it would have denied civil rights to gays and lesbians.

Measure 9 would have added the following text to the Oregon Constitution:

All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexualitypedophiliasadism or masochism.  All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.

Kathy Oliver, the Executive Director of Outside In, an agency for runaway teens on the block of property owned by the church, came to me with a bold suggestion:  let’s wrap the entire church block with a red ribbon and declare the area a “hate free zone.”  I immediately knew that this was a genius of an idea, and said yes.

As I remember, I informed the Board but did not ask permission, nor did I engage the congregation in conversation about whether or not to take this action.  Other Unitarian Universalist churches in the area had been active in the “No on 9” campaign, and I knew many in our church were of that mind as well — but the main reason I acted on my own accord is that of course it was the right thing to do, and the vote was coming up on November 4, so time was short.  Gays and lesbians were suffering not only emotionally, but some had been the victims of physical violence, and so they were fearful of being attacked.  I remember standing in the receiving line after a church service and holding in my arms a gay man who was weeping, grateful that the church had made a safe place for him.

Kathy and Outside In volunteers strung a red ribbon around the entire block, and Kathy called a press conference.  All manner of media showed up:  newspapers, TV, radio.  I gave an interview, as did Kathy and a few congregants.  Our Women’s Alliance, composed of older women, happened to be having their monthly meeting at the time, so they cancelled their program and showed up on the sidewalk behind the church to give their testimony to the press — lots of white-haired and highly respectable ladies stepped up and spoke to various members of the press.  It was a great day.  The ballot measure went down in defeat, but it was closer than it ever should have been:  43.5 for, 56.5 against.

Of course similar public conversations about homosexuality were taking place in other areas all over the country, and the church received many requests, asking how our event had been imagined and created — such questions as, “How do you wrap a block? What about the doors?” (Answer:  the ribbon goes above the doors.)  Our action (without social media, of course) went all over the nation and other churches copied what we had done.  It has become an iconic act.

Another consequence of our action was unexpected:  the church grew 40 percent that first year of my ministry, as gays and lesbians throughout the city flocked to us for spiritual sustenance.  They were joined by progressive-minded individuals who couldn’t have imagined a church that would take such a stand.

We tried to be welcoming to all who walked through our doors that year, but we didn’t have the infrastructure to assimilate the standing-room-only crowds that showed up.  So we struggled, with most congregants being glad of the growth, but some others resenting the changes that came so quickly.  We needed to raise more money, and we did.  We added another service, and then eventually still another, so for 5 years we held three full services each Sunday, until we renovated a building on our block to handle the new members and visitors.

Consider the times:

  • In 1992, no one was using the acronym LGBTQ+ — LBG was beginning to be used to replace the term “gay.”
  • In 1993, President Clinton signed a military policy directive prohibiting openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving in the military.
  • In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
  • In 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die.

Marilyn Sewell

Marilyn Sewell is the Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR. She writes for the religion section of Huffington Post. She is the subject of a well-received documentary, “Raw Faith,” available on Netflix.