This Month in SEC History: November 1994

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by Mike Stroud

When one mentions that a UCC congregation is “Open and Affirming” these days, one immediately recognizes that it is a place welcoming without reservation toward any and all sexualities and gender identities. Of the 53 active churches on the Southeast Conference membership roll, some 23 now have adopted the program by the UCC’s ONA Coalition. But nearly 30 years ago, it was up to one church to blaze the trail, as it were, for this present manifestation of hope in our region.

On November 19, 1994, Brookmeade Congregational Church (UCC) in Nashville became only the 145th UCC congregation nationally to ratify the program. But it was anything other than a means to grab publicity or “signal virtue” as some today might call it. It was rather, according to then-pastor Daniel Rosemergy, an extension of hospitality and love that had been evident in the church for some time.

As he indicated in an Alban Institute publication, Dialogue on a Difficult Issue: Congregations Talking about Homosexuality, Rosemergy reported its origin in the work Brookmeade Church had done with local efforts to help with HIV/AIDS sufferers in the Nashville area in the 1980s. This brought an atmosphere where some individuals, many for the first time in their adult lives, felt welcome to share their faith journeys and advocate for their rights as children of God.

After sitting on a panel about the topic at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Rosemergy received a challenge from famed preacher William Sloane Coffin to have his church formally undergo the program. Undaunted by some initial opposition, the Board of Deacons underwent the full program of study from the Coalition, with the Church Council and, eventually, the whole church joining in extensive discussions. The several known gay and lesbian members played an especially key role in persuading people that the Coalition’s goal of a statement being adopted would be a proper and fitting outcome of the church’s long-standing belief in inclusion.

It all paid off in an overwhelming vote in favor of the statement. More remarkably, Rosemergy reported, no people left the church in protest over the action. As he summed up the whole process on page 100 of the book:

“… I realize how fortunate we were to have such visionary, courageous, and sensitive lay leadership who so carefully developed a proposal with broad-based input and who guided the process to include all congregants. They created opportunities and a safe setting for full and honest sharing and dialogue, and emphasized the importance of respecting different points of view and being committed to whatever the community decision would be …”

Thanks to Brookmeade Congregational Church’s profound witness in a time when it was all but unknown to Southern Christianity, the UCC has extended it to numerous other places where people need to hear that the Gospel is not one of exclusion, but inclusion.