By John Prochaska
Having experienced already some of what it means to be an Affirming Church, members of Nelson United Church will gather Sunday, November 24, for worship and a decision…whether or not to declare themselves…Affirming. Nancy Jones, Board Chair, observes that the congregation has been on a path toward Affirming since 1992 without calling it by that name; first by putting a plan in place for equality and welcome, by adopting a marriage policy allowing their minister to marry same sex couples.
In fact, Nelson United Church participated in Nelson’s very first Gay Pride Weekend and Parade seventeen years ago and has partnered every year since with ANKORS, a support organization for those living with and at the greatest risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and/or HCV (and having difficulty obtaining services elsewhere) co-hosting World Aid’s Day and the Aid’s Walk. Now, the congregation is to the point of deciding whether or not to take it to the next level. Should the congregation decide to take upon themselves the mantle of Affirming they will be saying “We intend to be a church where all are welcome”. Jones characterizes the meeting as “perhaps a further step along the way to living The Way of Jesus, embodying the Love of God” – words from a mission statement the congregation adopted in 2012.
After 10 years of living these policy changes there are discernible signs of this affirming influence among the members. Newcomers are said to come away from a first visit feeling valued, worthwhile…no longer alone in the world. Here’s what one person wrote recently who was a newcomer in 2011: “My partner and I walked into NUC for the first time that August. We had no idea what to expect, and we didn’t know if there were any other gay people or couples who went there, or how people would receive us. We were warmly welcomed from that point in time to the present day. I have never felt anything but part of the entire group at this beautiful church. When I announced our engagement 6 months ago there was a gasp and big applause for us. In fact, I haven’t recalled anybody visiting or newly attending there, no matter what they looked like or who they were who wasn’t welcomed and accepted in a similar manner.”
Christopher Moore, who runs a program in Nelson called Trans Connect, providing support and resources for Transgender/Gender diverse folks in the East and West Kootenays, addressing Transphobia and Homophobia in our communities, says “A big piece of this work is educating people about gender diversity which helps create allies in our communities. Members of the United Church in Nelson have really stepped forward and shown our community support, by attending a yearly event known as Trans Day of Remembrance, held worldwide on Nov. 20, a memorial for Transgender People who have lost their lives due to violence. The church has also asked Trans Connect for educational training for member’s…their interest and openness is heartwarming.”
Cheryl Dowdens, Executive Director, ANKORS, had this: We have experienced NUC as a church that embraces those who have often felt marginalized or discriminated against due to their sexual orientation of gender identity. NUC members have done a great deal of reflection and have engaged in opportunities for dialogue about issues related to social justice and discrimination and worked hard to create an atmosphere of openness, love and generosity to those who may have had previous negative experiences with church-based religious groups…their very presence feels like a spiritual community affirmation and a healing gesture to those who have felt discriminated against on the basis of religion.
Finally, as a member of Nelson United Church since 2009 and a member of the larger Church since 1951, I too have pondered the implications of being affirming and it brings to mind my two grandmas who were both deeply religious women. Both were born in the latter part of the 19th century. The first lived to the age of 97 and I saw her only once in all those years when I was age 12. I translated her absence and apparent indifference toward me as rejection and if that’s all I had in growing up I might have concluded that life wasn’t worth living.
But I had another grandma who made all the difference. She lived for 88 years…affirming me at every turn. She was the kind of person everyone wants to have around at every stage of their spiritual journey. She made me feel valuable, worthwhile and…well…Nelson United Church reminds me of her.
Affirmation is a powerful ingredient of life. When it washes over us we know at last that we don’t have to go someplace else to be fixed or corrected before we can return. It was Comedian Robin Williams’ character in the movie World’s Best Dad who said: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.”
People who identify differently are often vilified and then rejected, and the fault lies not with the rejected but those who target and harm others with their actions. Nelson United Church, in becoming an affirming church, would acknowledge this harm done to others, and offer a place where other identities can find expression. Affirmation extends to all people who have been hurt or marginalized, especially when it has been the church of the past which has caused the harm. Nelson United Church, in its affirmation of all people, would seek not only redress, but to offer itself as a place where people are celebrated for who they are, and who have the personal integrity to accept and proclaim their identity.
If Nelson United Church agrees to assume the Affirming mantle, they will be the first church in the United Church’s Kootenay Presbytery to do so. United Churches in other parts of B.C. such as Penticton, Salmon Arm, Kelowna and Kamloops are already designated as Affirming or have Affirming Church status. If the congregation decides to continue on this path of Affirmation look for it to seek new and transformative contacts with the Nelson community – young, adult, or old – all those in need of an affirming place for their respective spiritual journeys.