My church, First Church Congregational in Rochester NH, has been “Open and Affirming” (a designation of the United Church of Christ) since 2002. The designation means that we make a specific commitment to welcome the LGBTQ community, to recognize the hurt that had been done to that community by the institutional church, and to work for justice and equality for all.
Unlike churches that say “All are Welcome,” but don’t really extend that welcome to the LGBTQ community, or extend it only to try to “fix” them, First Church, and other Open and Affirming churches in the UCC, invite people of all sexual orientations, genders, gender identities, races, classes, and nationalities into full inclusion in the Body of Christ.
Last year, First Church decided our witness and ministry should include hanging the pride flag as one of the symbols of our commitment to justice.
We also hung an Earth flag in April and May without any problems. However, over the 4th of July holiday last year, the pride flag was stolen. We got a lovely write-up in the local paper and some press from our denominational offices in Cleveland, but me moved on and hung a new flag to be left up for the rest of the summer.
This year, we hung the flag in early June. But on the evening of July 18th, it was stolen. By 1pm on the 19th, a new one was in place, but on July 21st, the second one was gone as well. About a week later, a member of the congregation put out dozens of small rainbow flags around the church yard and gardens—all of the ones at the front of the church were taken within a week.
The response from both local and non-local clergy and friends has been amazing. The police have been working closely with us, and we are grateful for their presence and support. It was from the support of our friends to that the idea came to send pride flags from all over the country to deck the church out as much as possible as a sign that love wins and we will not cave to fear or harassment.
We have been reminded of the cruelty that is inflicted upon people in the name of God and Christianity.
More than that—we have been reminded by these thefts that the LGBTQ community remain frequent victims of bullying, harassment, and forced silence. We have been reminded of all of the teenagers who are bullied to the point of contemplating—or completing—suicide.
For the sake of those who have long been silenced, we cannot be silent. For the sake of those who are told they are unworthy, unloved and unloveable, we extend an extravagant welcome. For the sake of those who would use God to justify their fear and hatred, we lift our voices to proclaim God’s love for all—God’s love that knows no human conditions or barriers.
We are expecting vandalism—that is simple pragmatism. But this is more important. Being a safe place, including our conviction that God’s love encompasses all people—no asterisks, no exceptions—is worth a little annoyance. Or more. We have received hate mail, and there is a video on YouTube that names me, my wife, and our young children as apostates and heretics.
But First Church is a safe place for all people, and I am determined that nothing will change that.
To date, First Church has received over 100 flags, garlands, and banners, and more arrive nearly every day. We will display them all for a limited time, beginning in early September, and then distribute the flags to LGBTQ organizations in our community, with gratitude for the love and blessings that have been so lavishly showered upon us.
If you wish to donate flags send them to:
First Church Congregational
63 S. Main St.
Rochester, NH 03867
Don’t have any rainbow flags to send and still want to support First Church? Donate $3.00 for a discounted purchase of a 4″x6″ Believe Out Loud flag by August 29th, and we will cover the shipping cost to send one on your behalf! Make sure to include “RAINBOW FLAG” in box Street 2.