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UCCLM and ONA – Acronyms of Love: Celebrating Our First Year as an ONA Congregation

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

     Simply – and acronymically – put, UCCLM came by ONA naturally; it’s in our DNA.

     Let me explain.  On August 28, 2011, the people of UCCLM – the United Church of Christ of La Mesa – proudly put a public face on a long-time success story, their church’s extravagant welcome and radical inclusiveness, by voting to declare themselves an “Open and Affirming (ONA) Congregation.”  In doing so, they stated categorically that all people, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, social or economic status, physical or mental abilities, heritage or race are welcome at the Table and into the full life and ministry of their church.  In other words, their door opened as wide as their arms.

     A bit of history.  In 1985, building on decades of support for social justice issues, the United Church of Christ (UCC) passed a resolution encouraging its congregations to “adopt a non-discrimination policy and a Covenant of Openness and Affirmation of persons of lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation within the community of faith (the rights of transgender persons were addressed in 2003).

     As for UCCLM, recognizing early on that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people had, the hard way, discovered that “Everyone welcome” often carried the unwritten proviso, “except you,” its members set about changing things.  Two significant events in 2007 point to both their success and their future.

     The first occurred June 2, 2007, when UCCLM received the Eleonore & Oliver Powell Award(1) for “demonstrating a vision of inclusiveness in living out their mission in the local community; for believing in, welcoming, loving and empowering all of God’s children and for living out their motto:  ‘Doing together what we cannot do alone.’”  As then pastor Félix C. Villanueva said at the time, “This church welcomes ALL people – young, old, male, female, black, white, brown, yellow, single, married, divorced, widowed, gay, straight, conservative, liberal, moderate – from all walks of life, for we are ALL created in God’s own image.  We are a truly diverse congregation that strives to love one another as God loves us.  Our members live their faith and their commitment to God and extend God’s extravagant welcome to everyone.”

     The second was celebrated on June 24.  As reported in Joys & Concerns, then UCCLM’s newsletter, “The sanctuary was full…excitement hovered in the air and cameras were ‘at the ready’ as we settled in to, in the words of the opening hymn, ‘Enter, Rejoice and Come In,’ and to, as we then prayed, ‘step bravely into the future…God’s future.’(2)…Then came the first of the day’s big moments, the commissioning of  nine young people about to leave on a mission trip to Puerto Rico…‘We will work with each other,’ we sang, ‘we will work side by side…And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride…they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…’

     “The congregation was, by now, really ‘getting into the act’…By sermon time we were ready for some old-fashioned zeal, to be reminded that ‘the trouble with getting to know Jesus is that it means we also have to get to know, like and love Jesus’ friends – and have you noticed who Jesus hangs out with?’   To be invited to become passionate for God, to be on fire for love and justice.   To let go our own agendas and see things from a new perspective.  To commit ourselves to a life of dialogue, to ‘listening all the way through, no matter how different we are and how much we disagree.’  To be a people who accept and empower everyone who walks into our sanctuary, to see all of them as wonderful children of God.’  And that was when UCCLM opened its doors wide, took a giant step into full inclusiveness – and God’s future, welcoming thirteen new members from New Creations UCC, a gay and lesbian congregation that recently closed its doors.”

     Which brings us back to August 28, 2011 and that fateful vote, that simple act of taking a stand.  Simple?  Not so.  Two years of study, discussion and prayer were involved.  As UCCLM Moderator Roger Savage explains, “During the two year ONA study process, it became apparent to  us that the ONA designation was necessary to demonstrate that we really mean we welcome EVERYONE and that UCCLM is indeed a safe place to worship.  We learned that although virtually all churches tout their welcoming nature, an ONA designation and statement spells out and proclaims for all to see that we really mean it.”  An ONA committee was formed, the paths of other churches were researched, questions were answered, concerns were addressed, opportunities to present opinions were plentiful – and cherished.  There was much to think about and to work together to do.

     Another – and major – part of the process was the development of an ONA statement.  Those of countless churches were perused.  A preliminary version was scrolled across the east wall of UCCLM’s Friendship Hall, with felt tip pens provided for comments and suggestions.  There were many.  The statement was honed and re-honed, polished and re-polished and, finally, was ready to be put to the vote of the congregation.

     Roger Savage chaired the meeting, Interim Pastor Rev. Dr. Bill Peterson “brought a blessing” to the process and the congregation “went to work.”  It was a two vote process.  The first question was “Will we be ONA?”  The answer was a resounding “Yes.”  That settled, the proposed ONA statement was put to the vote and unanimously accepted.  It reads:

     “As an Open and Affirming Christian congregation, the United Church of Christ of La Mesa believes that God loves and accepts every person.  We respect the many and varied faith backgrounds of those who worship with us.  The ministry of Jesus included all people, even those excluded by society.  With God’s guidance, we covenant with one another to serve our community by welcoming all people without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, social or economic status, physical or mental abilities, heritage or race.  All are welcome at the Table and into the full life and ministry of our church.”

     Rev. Bill summarizes the event – and issues a challenge to others, saying, “As a Pastor of the UCC, I think all churches need to ask themselves, ‘How wide are our doors?’ and ‘Who did Jesus welcome?”  UCCLM members have asked themselves these questions and have opened their doors, their leadership and their ordained ministry to all.

     “As our members kept saying in the months before the vote,” ONA Committee Chair Dick Hatch, adds, “We really are welcoming everyone, and now it is time to tell the world, clearly and unambiguously, that we actually mean it!”

     The people had spoken, loudly and clearly and, in doing so, let others know they are Christians by their love.  Way to go, UCCLM!

(1)from the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns
(2)”Wow, What a Day!” – August 2007 issue

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