; charset=UTF-8" /> Irvine United Church of Christ Launches 25th ONA Anniversary Celebration : Connecting Voices
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Irvine United Church of Christ Launches 25th ONA Anniversary Celebration

By Tricia Aynes

Tricia Aynes

Photo by Mira Tyni

“If we lead, others will follow … but we have to lead.”  So said former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran in response to a question during IUCC’s kickoff panel discussion on February 28 entitled “Becoming Open and Affirming: The IUCC Story.”  The panel was our inaugural event to celebrate 25 years as an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation.

Mayor Agran congratulated IUCC for being ONA at a time when the community desperately needed it.  “In the late 1980’s, I was the city’s first directly elected mayor when it was overwhelmingly white, mainstream, and conservative,” he said.  “The AIDS crisis was at its worst.  The whole idea of open and affirming was an uphill struggle.  The City established a Human Rights Committee to explore the rights of those who were gay and lesbian.  That committee produced an Irvine Human Rights Ordinance that expanded federal protections for race, color, creed, and national origin to include disabled people and people who were gay or lesbian; it banned discrimination against them with regard to housing and employment.”

Unfortunately, that ordinance was not well received by some in the community.  “It lit the fuse for a counter campaign – Measure N – an initiative that cut out all references to sexual orientation being protected,” he said.  “It was a vicious, mean-spirited campaign that cut the heart out of our human rights ordinance.  Sad to say, that initiative passed.  It was heartbreaking.”

Several years later, Gov. Pete Wilson signed off on state protections for the gay and lesbian community and things started to move forward.  “We sought out as many community members as we could,” Agran said.  “Fred Plumer and this congregation were among the precious few who were out there and in the forefront to get the faith-based community involved.”

The Rev. Barbara Luckett Currie, former IUCC Moderator, remembers when the church numbered only 15-20 people and met in an elementary school.  She was part of the congregation that called Fred Plumer as pastor.  When she heard about the national UCC passing a resolution encouraging churches to become ONA, she took note and began talking with Pastor Fred about ways in which the church could keep in tune with the resolution.  Along with Jim Lehman and others, she presented the idea to the church council for approval.  “We got a very large committee together, educated ourselves about the issue, and began scheduling speakers to talk to the congregation,” she reported.

The Rev. Jim Lehman added that “One of the things we decided from the beginning was to have a worship service at every informational session because it was an issue of faith, inclusivity, and respect.  Affirmation is a positive thing because each person has a place in this family and needs to be honored and listened to.  We had six specific sessions with speakers from all over.  Some people were reluctant to mix faith and politics: they thought the two didn’t fit together.  But they really fit together tongue and groove: if you walk in faith, you are called to act.  The day we voted, there was only one dissenting vote.”

The Rev. Sarah Halverson-Cano, Pastor at Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa, said that “Decades ago, my mother made a decision to bring her children to IUCC, and it changed the course of my life.  In 1991, I became a member.  I was in the second group of kids to be confirmed at IUCC.  The first vote I took as a voting member was for us to become an ONA church.  I am rooted in the soil of the people of this church.  I was raised by this village.”

The open and affirming discussion hit very close to home for her during an especially vulnerable time in her life.  First her father died suddenly, then her beloved Sunday school teacher fell ill with AIDS.  After the ONA vote, she said, “Dozens of people came here for sanctuary, and they came here to die.  My Sunday school teacher died, and so did many others.  Pastor Fred was doing a memorial service nearly every week.  You need to know that this was a place to live out Jesus’ call.  What happened here because of the pivotal position this church took saved lives.”  Her emotional testimony had many in the group fighting tears.

Several members of the audience praised the work of Susan Sherman, former Moderator of IUCC, for the ground-breaking ONA video she produced during our process.  It has been widely shown to other congregations contemplating the process of becoming ONA and has broadened their understanding of why it is so important and necessary to take this visible and welcoming step.

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