As they sway and sing in sync on Sunday mornings, the interracial, intersectional gospel choir at my church tells the truth when they raise their voices with the old, old words, “He’s an on-time God, yes he is!”
Unfortunately, while God’s love is plentiful and present, the church is often not on time in extending God’s love for all of God’s created children.
That’s especially true when it comes to the full embrace and inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Organized religion has been too long and too late with that embrace. Hurt and harm have been done to too many LGBTQ people who seek a relationship with God in community with others.
But, thanks be to God, things are changing. As people charged with sharing the “good news,” there is more and more of that good news of how some churches and denominations are moving beyond just words of authentic welcome, even when they are late.
This summer for example, the largest body of Presbyterians in America took a big step at its national gathering. The Presbyterian Church (USA) opened a new day of hope and possibility in passing two major statements. One affirms and celebrates the gifts of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the church. Another affirms the rights and dignity of people of transgender, non-binary and varying gender identities. Both passed without major dissent or debate.
These affirmations follow past decisions by the denomination to allow same-gender weddings and to ordain gay and lesbian people as clergy and leaders of the church. These victories follow decades of work by allies and advocates within our denomination to change minds and hearts, including the work of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.
“We have seen the conversation shift,” Covenant Network Executive Director Brian Ellison said about the vote, “to the place we long sought to take it. It’s not about sex, but about people. We have seen the conversation shift to lives and stories, to rights and justice. The whole church has come along and a whole community within our community, God’s gay-lesbian-bi-trans-queer community is no longer reduced to an act or a trait, but rather is honored as the God-called, neighbor-loving, children of God that we are.”
Now we must extend our words into courageous actions that make our welcome real. The work of ensuring justice and equality for all of God’s children goes on, especially under a presidential administration, congress and a N.C. General Assembly that would rather roll the clock back on our progress.
This year a record number of houses of faith marched in the Charlotte Pride parade, and I am sure many will bear witness as the Triangle celebrates Pride. But we must do more than march.
We must stand in the gap for LGBTQ people in other meaningful ways. We must confess our failures and make outcasts into “incasts.” We must educate ourselves and congregations about how to welcome trans people. We must advocate for affordable housing for LGBTQ youth and young adults banished from their homes. We must elect LGBTQ people to leadership in our congregations, learn from them and follow them. We must elect them to public office.
The church I am blessed to pastor made the decision for full LGBTQ inclusion a decade ago, just as it came back to life. Today we are about one-fourth to one-fifth LGBTQ, as part of a broader mix of congregants spanning race, class, neighborhood and religious background.
I am changed as a pastor by the love and wisdom showered upon me by these friends and leaders. I am blessed by the chance to officiate their weddings, baptize their babies and minister to them through life’s highs and lows. I am better for having heard their stories. We as a church grew immensely as one of our members transitioned and has since returned to her calling to church leadership in her new hometown.
My prayer is that, by God’s hand, we can continue to grow and deepen in all these ways as God’s servants, witnesses and ambassadors.
Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn is the pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, a growing, vibrant and diverse congregation in the Elizabeth neighborhood. For more information, visit covnetpres.org and caldwellpresby.org.