Thursday, July 29, 2010

Are You Ready to Believe Out Loud?

This past weekend, folks from Delaware to Maine attended the Province I & II workshop of Believe Out Loud at St. James' Episcopal Church in Danbury, CT. This workshop was designed to acquaint Integrity diocesan organizers and any other interested parties with the Believe Out Loud program and help them develop an action plan to implement Believe Out Loud in their parish or diocese. It was led by Neil Houghton, the VP of Local Affairs of Integrity; John-Albert Mosley (Province I Coordinator) and Chap James Day (Province II Coordinator).

Believe Out Loud is a cooperative effort among seven major mainline denominations and numerous smaller churches. Its goal is to identify and promote individual faith communities who have taken the steps to be intentionally welcoming, as well as to help additional communities along the road to full inclusion. It dispenses with the 'eighties model of "going to be gay over there" and as such does not promote separate worship or other events for the LGBT community within a congregation or diocese. Rather than a club or committee, it is a mindset not just for the LGBT members, but for the entire parish, that everybody who seeks Christ belongs and is entitled to full participation. There are multiple resources available through the Believe Out Loud program and its partners to help achieve this goal, including educational tools for the areas where the church has historically been not so successful (e.g. transgender issues).

Certainly a large percentage of our parishes (in Newark) are living into this vision or are somewhere on the road to it. The OASIS enjoys the support of some fifty Sponsoring Congregations. Many people feel we have reached the point where LGBT folks can take for granted that they will be welcomed into parish life, and thus we can now say "mission accomplished". However -- as was witnessed at this workshop -- there are many LGBT folks out in the world who are either unchurched or "damaged-churched" and do not believe there is a place for them in a worship community. One of the goals of this program is to counteract that idea with a consistent brand that folks can look for. Another is to provide the educational tools to help parishes be prepared and at ease when LGBT people do visit or seek to join their communities. Even a congregation that is comfortable with gay issues may have less experience with bisexual or transgender people. Materials and resources are available to help overcome assumptions and fears and understand what pastoral needs members of these communities may bring to the table.

In order to officially be called a "Believe Out Loud Congregation" there is a three-phase self-analysis a parish undertakes. Typically the vestry can do this as a group. It can be an eye-opener as one sees one's surroundings through the eyes of a newcomer.

One theme generated a lot of discussion, as it is a common response when the question of being more visibly welcoming is posed: "We're fine with gay people coming here, but we don't want a reputation as 'the gay church' in town." Participants and the program leaders offered a variety of interesting and sometimes humorous ways of addressing this fear.

The Integrity Diocesan Organizer will be available to any congregation that wishes to embark on this process. Some of our parishes will "test out" of the process by demonstrating they are living into the goals of the program already, or take what few steps would be required to bring them to this level. For others the process may take longer, or they may decide they are just not "there" yet.

This was en enriching and invigorating look at the next steps churches can take to live boldly into their baptismal promise: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of EVERY human being?

It's time to believe out loud!