Justice & Inclusion

Travelers on a Journey

LGBTQ+ Inclusion in the Church

By Bonnie Chappell

In August of 2017, our congregation held a series of intentional conversations around sexuality, inclusion, and marriage that culminated in a vote to include all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, in the life of the church and to allow same-sex couples to hold wedding ceremonies in the church sanctuary. This decision was the result of a shared journey that reflected some of the church’s most deeply held commitments: welcoming everyone and accepting diversity in thought and background.

Getting There

As broader cultural conversations around sexuality and gender identity became increasingly prominent around the turn of the 21st century, particularly the issue of same-sex marriage, groups within the church began to wonder how earnestly members of the LGBTQ+ community felt welcomed in the life of the church. Everyone was welcome, but did everyone feel included? These questions spurred conversations throughout the church in the early part of the decade, including a four-week ethics series in 2011 around the theme “The Church and Homosexuality.” Informal discussion continued in Sunday school classes and around tables in the fellowship hall over the next several years.

Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, came in June 2015. The ruling highlighted the church’s lack of clarity around issues of sexuality and gender identity, and marriage in particular. This broader acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in American life hovered in the background of the year-long visioning process First Baptist began that fall. Through the church’s intentional conversations about its mission and character, themes of welcome, inclusion, hospitality, and love stood out.

Midway through the visioning process, in January of 2016, the church ordained Hunter Godsey, its first openly gay deacon. Like the Obergefell decision, that milestone shaped the discussions the church continued to have about the kind of place it wanted to be. When the visioning process concluded, the church created a Hospitality Task Force whose responsibilities included exploring ways the church could be more welcoming to groups that do not always feel welcomed in churches, including people who identify as LGBTQ+. First Baptist adopted a new vision statement in the spring of 2016 which signaled a readiness for more concrete steps toward inclusion: “The First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon nurtures authentic faith and belonging, loves and serves courageously, and affirms the image of God in all people.”

Not long after this statement was adopted, a gunman opened fire on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people. This targeted shooting at a gay club prompted our pastor, Rev. Scott Dickison, to address sexuality and his hopes for an openly inclusive church from the pulpit for the first time in a sermon titled, “What It Means to Belong.” Around this time, Jody Long, Minister of Youth and Missions, was asked to officiate a same-sex wedding for a child of the church. When the church didn’t have a ready answer for whether Jody could perform such a wedding, and when the couple didn’t want to hold the wedding at the church, it became evident, if it wasn’t already, that LBGTQ+ members and visitors at First Baptist did not know if they could fully and truly belong. After several years of tiptoeing around issues of sexuality and inclusion, church leadership felt it was time for more pointed and intentional conversations.

Through the winter and spring of 2016-2017, the Church Council and Board of Deacons debated how the church might achieve clarity for LGBTQ+ people over the course of several urgent meetings. These bodies represented the diversity of opinion about sexuality held across the church, and their discussions highlighted fears of both alienating longtime members and failing to love LBGTQ+ members. In May of 2017, church leadership voted to recommend that the church fully include all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, in the life of the church, and to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in the church sanctuary. The entire church would need to vote on the same motion for it to become policy.

The Conversation Process

In August of 2017, the church gathered for three guided conversations that pointed to a vote on the inclusivity motion. The goal of these conversations was to help the congregation walk toward a watershed moment together, knowing that a diversity of thought would remain, in a way that felt authentic to First Baptist. They centered on a favorite hymn of a church that loves to sing, “We Are Travelers on a Journey.”

The first session, “Fellow Pilgrims on the Road,” reframed the way Scripture is used in discussions of sexuality. Congregants shared the biblical passages that were most formative to their personal faith journeys. Treasured verses were written on poster paper and displayed around the room, a visual reminder that the parts of Scripture members hold most dear focus on love, grace, and service. In reviewing these verses, it was noted that passages that mention sexuality were absent. Lifting up this shared commitment to the Bible’s witness of love, the pastor then offered a study of Acts 10-15, when Peter and Paul experience God doing something new among the Gentiles and advocate for the inclusion of non-Jews in the young Christian movement. What if God was doing another new, expansive thing at First Baptist?

The first session ended with church members sharing their experiences and beliefs around sexuality. No one else at the table could respond; the stories were simply offered and heard. Each person in the church had been on the journey of faith, seeking to do and believe what they trusted God would have them do and believe. That first conversation allowed fellow members to appreciate one another’s journeys.

Recognizing that Christian culture spends a lot of time talking about LGBTQ+ people but little time listening to their experiences, the second session, “Walking the Mile, Bearing the Load,” centered the stories of those in the congregation whose lives were directly affected by church policies around sexuality. A panel of gay members, and the parents of the lesbian young woman who had grown up in the church and asked Jody to perform her wedding, shared with vulnerability and courage about their journeys. They talked about how their sexuality, or that of someone they loved, affected their faith and their perception of God. They talked honestly about what it was like to be part of First Baptist. This powerful night of listening allowed many members to realize that while the church had been walking its journey together, some of their brothers and sisters had been bearing unseen loads without much support.

The final session, “Till We’ve Seen This Journey Through,” invited congregants to share their hopes and fears about what the coming vote might mean for the church. Members acknowledged their fears that people they loved might leave, or that the church would be perceived differently, but they also lifted up their hopes that a yes vote would mean more people might be able to find a church that affirmed their full identities. This final conversation closed with a time of formal discussion on the motion the church would vote on the following week. The comments, offered by members across all generations, highlighted the church’s desire to move forward in unity and love.

The vote on the measure to include all people in the full life of the church and extend the right to marry in the church to same-sex couples was held by secret ballot following worship on August 27, 2017. The motion carried, with 73% of the church voting in favor.

After the results of the vote were announced, the church sang “We Are Travelers On a Journey,” just as they had at the close of each inclusion conversation. The moment was at once triumphant and tender, as the reality of how the church would both change and remain itself set in. The words of the hymn took on new meaning: “When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony. Born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.” The church’s vote for inclusion and marriage equality rang out in an honest harmony that represented the fullness of the journey to that point. There were a lot of people in that sanctuary, with a lot of different emotions and opinions and stories. But having shared the joys and sorrows of the life of faith, they found that they could keep singing, together.

In the years since, we have continued to live into the commitments affirmed that day, performing weddings of same-sex couples, welcoming more LGBTQ+ people into our membership, and calling Rev. JD Granade as our Associate Pastor of Children and Congregational Life, the first openly gay person to be called as a minister of our church.

We still have much work to do to ensure inclusion for all people, but are grateful for the work and witness of so many in the congregation and beyond who have brought us to where we are today.

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