Welcoming Congregation History Service (11.18.2018)

Four members of the congregation speak about the history and legacy of UUCSS’s journey as a Welcoming Congregation, a church intentionally open to the participation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. This service from November 18, 2018, was part of a series celebrating the 65th anniversary of the congregation.

Jo Paoletti- Welcoming Kevin Drewery

We are a Welcoming Congregation. That’s an official designation, not my opinion. You can see the certificate we received from the Unitarian Universalist Association in the lower level entrance to the sanctuary. But what does that mean, and what did it take to earn that piece of paper? The Welcoming Congregation program was introduced by the UUA in 1990 as the result of a multiyear, nationwide study of UU’s attitudes concerning sexual orientation. The findings exposed “exposed many negative attitudes, deep prejudices, and profound ignorance” that resulted in LBGTQ people being excluded from full participation in UU congregations. The Welcoming Congregation program was a two-year education and discussion program designed to change those attitudes, correct those prejudices, and replace ignorance with knowledge and understanding, and to identify congregations who had “done the work” and were ready to truly welcome lesbian, gay, and transgender members and staff.

With the encouragement of minister Jim Bank, UUCSS organized a Welcoming Congregation Committee and began the process in 1994. The first chair was Elmo Miller, who with his partner Lillian Mueller, had been active for many years in PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). When Elmo and Lillian moved to New Mexico a few months later, Janet Riley stepped up to keep the process going. They were joined by the Social Action, Worship, and Adult Religious Education committees, and this combined effort resulted in a robust schedule of events and opportunities for discussion. 

    Here’s a sample of the activities:

  • film series (Wedding Banquet, My Beautiful Launderette, and many others, with discussions led by Elmo, Lillian, or Sandra Dwiggins.)
    • A day-long workshop with speakers from PFLAG, short videos, and discussion.
    • A summer service featuring “coming out” stories from UUCSS members, with music by Bread and Roses Feminist Singers.
    • participation in fundraising and service activities benefiting the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Food and Friends, and the DC AIDS Walk.
    • lobbying Annapolis in favor of the Anti-Discrimination bills, which extended civil rights protections based on sexual orientation. (The Antidiscrimination Act was finally passed in 2001, after eleven years of attempts.)

Before we strain ourselves patting our own backs, consider this:

Although we added a statement of inclusion to our constitution nearly unanimously “with little turmoil” by congregational vote in November, 1996, the discussions that led up to that moment revealed that many members worried about including LBGTQ members as religious education teachers. A survey done by the 1999 ministerial search committee found that 50% of the respondents believed the church would not accept a gay or lesbian minister.

But there’s also this: the Welcoming Congregation process did result in genuine learning  and change. We learned about ourselves, and also about friends, coworkers, and family members who had felt they had to conceal their identities from us. I learned how to respond with love and firmness to someone who expressed discomfort lesbians — within earshot of a lesbian friend.

Members of our YRUU were empowered to create a gay-straight alliance at their high school — the first such organization at a public school in Maryland. And for those of us who knew him, no one embodies our collective journey more than the person who created this chalice — Kevin Drewery. I am indebted to Stephanie Hall and David Miley, whose online tributes to Kevin helped me write his story.

Kevin joined UUCSS twenty years ago, just two years after our completion of the Welcoming Congregation program. He came to us via Gaia Circle, the Pan-Pagan group meeting here. He was already out as a gay man, after closeted childhood and youth in a conservative family in North Carolina and a stint as a gay-bashing Marine. But at a church meeting about our search for a new minister Kevin stood up and said that as an HIV positive gay man, the welcoming atmosphere of the church was extremely important to him, and he wanted us to keep that in mind in the hiring of the new minister. The sky did not fall. 

From then on, Kevin spoke out fearlessly about who he was, what he believed, or the spiritual paths he chose to explore. He spoke boldly about his concerns and the events in his life. He was finding his public speaking voice, and discovering that he had a talent for getting people to listen. 

The following year, I suggested Kevin as a Coming of Age mentor to my son’s best friend, knowing that they shared an interest in graphic arts and design. That experience led him to become a YRUU advisor here and again, the sky did not fall. Kevin followed this new path to the UU Congregation of Las Vegas, where he served as the Director of Religious Education. There, he felt the call to ministry and eventually started the Master of Divinity program at Starr King School of Ministry in Berkeley.

In 2009, we learned that Kevin was dying of a neurological illness related to his HIV. He died in August, 2009, and one of several memorial services for him was held in the sanctuary. It was pure Kevin; he had planned everything, every part of the ritual, all the music. To this day, I can’t hear “Enter, Rejoice, and Come In” without hearing Kevin’s sarcastic, curmudgeonly version, “Enter, Sit Down, and Shut Up.”

He would have been an amazing minister. His fearless, sometimes snarky wit and his appetite for fun would have served him well. He led workshops that began with a huge suitcase full of legos and ended with beloved chalices that are still being lit across the country. This was his first, created for our RE program. An ardent Harry Potter fan, who founded the Starr King Quidditch team, Reverend Kevin could explain to people, in all good fun, why works like the Harry Potter books contain enduring spiritual power and messages of social inclusiveness. In 2010, Starr King awarded the Master of Divinity to Kevin Drewery posthumously.

Kevin’s participation in and gifts to UUCSS were just a part of the blessings that came from our engagement with the Welcoming Congregation process.

Sandy Dwiggins – UUCSS and Marriage Equality

As many of you know, our previous minister, Rev. Liz Lerner was a determined advocate for marriage equality.  She and several members of our congregation participated in many demonstrations for the cause.

Anyone here who participated in these rallies or lobbying efforts in Annapolis?  Stand up or raise your hand.

Most of the rallies were held close to Valentine’s Day.  After gathering to hear speakers, people would go to their individual delegate’s office to gently persuade them to vote for marriage equality.   Jim Paoletti told me the story of one delegate’s response to meeting Carita and Andrea Waters and their little son. 

He was so impressed by their family that he changed his mind to vote for ME after that.

Although DC had declared gay marriage legal, it was still not legal in Maryland.    The announcement from the Attorney General of MD, that gay marriages  from other jurisdictions where gay marriage was legal would be legal in Maryland.   That meant that marriages performed in DC where it was legal, would be legal in Maryland.   Rev Liz realized that this was an opportunity for couples in Maryland to marry in DC and be considered legally married in Maryland.  This would be legal until the state legislature voted  not to allow gay marriage in Maryland, which was a still a possibility.  This, as well as several couples asking her to marry them before this opportunity was lost, prompted Rev Liz into action.   She had only a few days before her leaving for her sabbatical to marry as many couples as she could.

Her sabbatical committee supported her in this endeavor, and they, Ed Johnson, Eric Kiederman and Rebecca Wilson Kopatich all volunteered to organize part of the celebration.  

The Reverend Lillie Mae Henley, minister of the Universalist National Memorial Church in DC agreed to host the weddings and the reception.   Universalist National was the parent church of our congregation.

Ten couples signed up for the ceremony, 6 of whom were members of UUCSS.   Each couple would get a ½ hour ceremony  the first couple starting at 4 p.m

In addition, there would be a reception that lasted from the first couple to the last couple.   It was an amazing event!   Members from National Memorial helped with decorations, refreshments, and cleanup. UUCSS members brought food and drink, took photos, and provided live music,

thanks to our long-time member and wonderful singer, Deborah Thornton.  As each couple entered the room, they would be announced and asked to do a wedding dance.

Several current members of UUCSS were married at this grand celebration. Anyone here?  Stand up or Raise your hand.  It was the culmination of hard work of members of UUCSS and other UU congregations in the DC area.

My daughter Rachel Dwiggins is one of the many gay people who benefitted from everyone’s hard work for getting marriage equality approved in DC, Maryland and the US.  She was married in DC when it became possible.

I recognized she was gay when she was 10.  She’s 38 now. She received terrific support growing up at UUCSS, from her YRUU class and from this congregation. 

Elise Turner- Growing up in a Welcoming Congreagation

Morning everyone. I am Elise Turner, and I identify as a polyamorous demisexual. I am sure many of you are wondering what the heck that means, but today is not about all the newer orientations that are now being recognized. Today is about how welcoming this congregation has been to those who identify as these many other orientations.

My family joined this church when I was 6 years old. I grew up here. And growing up in this community I was always shown positive views and beliefs of the queer community. Many of you know I’m involved in a lot of activism. But my first taste of activism was when I was 11 or 12, when a huge group from our church drove to Annapolis for a Valentine’s Lobby Day for marriage

equality. That year Maryland finally started to at least recognize marriages from other states, and we had our 10 Weddings in DC. I grew up surrounded by the fight for LGBTQIA+ equality, and this always felt like a safe space where you could be who you are and love who you love.

When I learned about growing up and families, I was not taught the whole ‘boy meets girl, they get hitched and get to the baby making’. Instead, I was taught that people fall in love with whoever they fall in love with, they get married or don’t if they don’t want to, they might have children or might not, and there are many ways to have these children. Never being raised on this stereotype, I believe, was a large part of how I became who I am now. I was open to different forms of love and able to find where I best fit. I never felt wrong for searching for where I fit and that was amazing.

People have asked me what coming out was like for me, and I always had to think really hard about it before answering because I don’t recall a moment of coming out. You see, I never had to come out of the closet because you never built those walls around me. The walls of Heteronormativity. Judgement. Hate. They never blocked me. This community let me be me. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Lucy Harrelson- A Word of Gratitude

I am the daughter of Janne Harrelson and Deborah Weiner. My lesbian mothers who have raised me in this church and were married by this church immediately when it became legal in DC. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive community. When someone asks me what life was like having lesbian parents, I honestly have no real response. This church has raised me in an environment where difference doesn’t mean separate. Thank you for such an accepting environment to grow up in while we worked on getting the rest of the world caught up.