“How would we know?” Crossroads’ United Affirming journey

In May 2014 our minister, Rev. Cari Copeman-Haynes received a phone call from a couple asking if our congregation performed same-sex marriages. When she responded that we did, she was asked, “How would we know that? We didn’t see anything on your website.”

The thing to know about our congregation, Crossroads United Church, is that we thought of ourselves as already open and welcoming. We had the history to prove it, didn’t we? And so it was that the question from the caller, “How would we know?” became key for us.

Crossroads United at the Women's March, Vancouver BC, January 2017

Crossroads United at the Women’s March, Vancouver BC, January 2017

The story of that telephone conversation became part of Rev. Cari’s sermon the following Sunday, along with her invitation to any who were interested in forming a group to explore becoming an Affirming Ministry. By the end of refreshment time that day, eight people had stepped forward. That was how the Crossroads Affirm Team came to be.

Our team was greatly helped in charting a process by the Affirm United requirements and by studying the background documents available on the web site. We quickly began to learn how much we didn’t know.

In the following months, some of the things we did were:

  • hosted a biblical dramatist who opened some lesser known stories in the Bible;
  • asked someone from the wider community to come and help us with the changing language around LGBTQ people;
  • hosted a Bible study after worship to understand the background of some of the controversial passages that are stumbling blocks;
  • met with nearby already-Affirming United Churches to hear about their process;
  • created a new vision statement that was more explicit about welcoming the participation of all;
  • hosted a speaker to help us better understand transgender issues.

Learning has been a big part of this journey, for the leaders on the Affirm Team and for the congregation. Probably the biggest barrier initially in our congregation was not conservative belief systems (although those were not completely absent), but this pervasive notion that continuing as a quietly open and welcoming (i.e., nice) congregation of the United Church of Canada was good enough. (Emphasis added.)

The Affirm Team overcame that barrier of niceness slowly. We were intentional in how we began, opening with beauty and humour through gentle but provocative performances by dramatist Peterson Toscano and singer-songwriter Bobby Jo Valentine; then we offered opportunities to learn about the importance of language and to learn ways to make our language more congruent with the welcome we wanted to live out; and we tackled head-on the reality of those “what-the-Bible-says” kinds of arguments that can trip people up in their everyday conversations with friends and neighbours.

Receiving the Affirming certificate at the public celebration, September 2016.

Receiving the Affirming certificate at the public celebration, September 2016.

Starting with the “right brain” rather than the left was one of the most important moves our team made. We United Church people are just so used to getting into a circle to talk about language or gnash through ideas. Using drama and music to touch people’s hearts was a really intuitive move on the part of our team at Crossroads, and opened people up to realize there might be ‘more to this’ than just being “nice” Canadians.

This is a general overview of our process. But remember when we said earlier that when we first began we didn’t know how much we didn’t know?

Slowly, slowly, as people began to trust, stories emerged. Real stories of people’s lives. Stories of wounds and fears. Stories of hope. Stories that sometimes might go untold, lives that sometimes might go unrecognized in a quietly welcoming, nice United Church congregation. In so many ways, we really didn’t know what we didn’t know.

This approach, of trusting the Spirit’s leading, maintaining a tender stance and stepping out in courage to do the next right thing continues to create a wider, healthier space for all.

That is our story to date. Thanks for listening.

The Affirm Team, Crossroads United Church, Delta, British Columbia

April 2017