Church welcomes all, regardless of sexual orientation

By Linda M. Linonis

First Unitarian Universalist Church wanted to make a public statement on its position.

YOUNGSTOWN — The decision by members of First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1105 Elm St., to become a “welcoming congregation” to bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people and their families took time and careful study.

The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister, and Gerard Kelly, a member of the welcoming congregation committee, announced the decision during a press conference Tuesday morning.

A nine-member welcoming congregation committee, with co-chairwomen Kris Harrington-Canacci and Crissy Durham Thompkins, coordinated 18 months of study. Educational programs, speakers, workshops, films, discussions and a sermon on “Skeletons in the Closet” dealt with gender and transgender stereotypes, homophobia, religion and sexuality.

Kelly said another program offered through the Unitarian Universalist Association, Our Whole Lives, also focuses on age-appropriate sexuality and tolerance of gender identification. That program is separate from the welcoming congregation effort.

On May 18, the 115-member church voted, without any “no” votes, to be a welcoming congregation, the Rev. Ms. Frederick-Gray said. In the Unitarian Universalist Church, the “welcoming congregation” designation signifies an official statement of moral responsibility to pursue social equality.

Ms. Frederick-Gray said gay members represent 5 percent of First Unitarian’s membership. She said the church is committed to making gay, bisexual and transgender people feel welcome, showing the community its commitment to being open-minded and taking a stand for equal rights.

This move is in tune with the church’s mission statement: “Our mission is to build a diverse and transformative spiritual community, help people live lives of wholeness, and promote justice, peace and religious freedom.”

Ms. Frederick-Gray said the church she has ministered at for five years is the only Unitarian Universalist in Mahoning County; there are some 1,000 Unitarian Universalist Association churches in the United States. “Not all are ‘welcoming congregations,’” she said. “We want to be identified as an open place.” There are 580 congregations designated as “welcoming.”

Ms. Frederick-Gray said she has officiated at 10 same-sex weddings. “We don’t believe it’s a sin,” she said. “It’s a celebration of love between two consenting adults.

“We wanted to make a public statement,” Ms. Frederick-Gray said about the church’s position.

Ms. Frederick-Gray said, “Homophobia is the sin, not homosexuality. We want people to know that our Unitarian Universalist congregation is not in the business of hate. This is a church that welcomes all people. With the vote, our members agreed to stand up and advocate for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — including the right to marry.”

A press release said the Unitarian Universalist church is “liberal and accepting.” The church will show that attitude at noon Sunday when it displays a rainbow banner.

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