My first year in theological school I met a number of amazing women. One of them was D. She was a first year PhD student and we shared a passionate commitment to feminist theology, feminist theory and feminist critique. We fast became friends and spent countless hours in that rich and glorious pass time of graduate school students dialogue about things that could change the world.
Our friendship grew and when the chance to house sit for one of our favorite professors was offered to D, she asked me if I’d like to be her housemate.
Of course I would the luxury of a house, a great friend to share it with, room for friends to gather . . . and the good karma of the space what’s not to like.
As we walked along together, discussing what we needed to do to make this work, D stopped and said that there was something she needed to tell me.
I’m lesbian, she said.
OK, I said.
She looked at me in silence and I looked at her. If I said anything else it is lost to memory now. What else was there to say, I imagine thinking. D is my friend and I care deeply about her. Period. We walked on together and she told me a little more of her story.
She asked me if I was really OK with sharing a house with her.
Of course, I said.
What I came to understand so much more fully was that my saying yes to house sharing was also saying yes to my obligation to create safe space for D. She had known such spaces, and she had known plenty that were anything but safe. The house we would share needed to be a place where she could be fully herself; a place where her friends were welcome, a place where her pain and her joy were welcome out in the open, a place where the woman she was in relationship with would be welcome and safe.
Those of us with privileged identities whether it be white, male, able bodied, heterosexual, . . . those of us with one or more of these identities have places, often lots of them, where we can assume safety, assume we belong, assume we’ll be welcome, assume we’ll be understood.
For people of color, for persons living with disabilities, for women, for folks who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer . . . the certainty of safety is neither guaranteed nor assumed.
Those of us with privileged identities are called to help create safe, welcoming and inclusive space . . . that was what I said yes to when I said yes to D’s offer of house sharing. I said our house would be a safe place, a safe home.
Some say D was lucky to have a friend like me. I don’t know about that. I do know that everyone deserves a safe home.
The Unitarian Universalist Welcoming Congregation program was launched in 1990. A tipping point toward the creation of this program was the denial of call to a lesbian couple who were candidates for ministry with one of our congregations well known for its long standing commitment to diversity.
During the two decades prior to 1990, there had been numerous resolutions and statements in support of sexual minorities. Still there was a disconnect between what we said and what we did in our congregations. Ours was not yet a safe, welcoming and inclusive home for folks who are GLBTQ.
The moniker “welcoming” has become a symbol referring to specifically religious spaces within various denominations and traditions accepting of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. Religious spaces have been, and often still are, painfully unwelcoming and unsafe. The Welcoming Congregation program is one way for us to change that. It is one way to give Unitarian Universalist congregations tools to do more than talk the talk.
Today, 66% of U.S. Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations and 94% of Canadian UU congregations are recognized as Welcoming Congregations.
From the outside, congregations can look the same when seen through the eyes of those who know what it means to risk personal safety and wellbeing for being who they are. To push through the pain of past harm and the exhaustion of repeated disappointments, to dare hope that this place is different, to take the chance and come in . . . a simple symbol can make all the difference.
For the more than 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations recognized as Welcoming Congregations, including this one, the rainbow whether a flag, a banner, or a sign the rainbow says this is a place where you will be safe, you will be welcome, and you will be included.
This house is like the one I shared with my friend D years ago.
When we said yes we are a welcoming congregation we said this will be a safe place. This will be a safe home, a safe religious home, for persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer. Extending that welcome does not in any way diminish our welcome of others. It expands our embrace. It means that we are committed to more than talking the talk. We are living the welcoming congregation.
By Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris
Published March 17, 2013.
Posted to Worship Services.