Friday, July 30, 2010

One Great Celebration

You are Cordially Invited to a Celebration of 1's:
1 Year of Gathering Weekly
1 Year of Gathering at Promenade Square
1 August 2010
Sunday, 1 August 2010
5:30 pm, 618 Locust Street

In September 2006, a group began gathering monthly to share and deepen their souls. Over the next few years, enlivened and prompted by the Spirit, this eclectic spiritual group gradually evolved into The Gathering, a new church start of the United Church of Christ. Today we are still committed to spiritual growth; we still seek to know God through the practice of spiritual disciplines, compassionate service and prophetic action; and we are still evolving. We believe that authentic relationship with the Divine means authentic relationship with the world, and we seek to be agents of healing and hope. We are an ecumenical faith community, drawing from and enriched by a variety of traditions, and we choose to affiliate with the United Church of Christ.

This Sunday, we will gather to celebrate our stories - those that ground us in our faith traditions, those we are currently creating together, and those particular Gathering stories yet to be made.

Our offering will be two-fold: because it is our anniversary, we will receive an offering for The Gathering; and because it's a first anniversary of sorts, we will honor the occasion by receiving a traditional "first anniversary" gift - paper goods. The recipient for this special offering will be the Concho Valley Regional Food Bank. They need paper goods of all kinds - paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, cups, plates, etc. For our shared potluck meal, you're invited to bring something that reflects your experience of The Gathering. (I know it's an old joke, and I'm trying hard to resist, but it would be so easy to say "mixed nuts" or "fruit salad" here - and you have to admit, both actually fit.)

Come celebrate this day - and bring your stories with you!

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Cool Place to Be

Inspired by the writings of John Shelby Spong, Ann will lead us in exploring the questions:

"If God is not a being (entity), what does it mean to love God?" and "If God is not a being (entity,) how does God love us?"

Homemade ice cream and trimmings will help cool and soothe our hot discussion. Ann and Crockett are bringing vanilla, and she invites someone else to bring an additional flavor. Of course, we also need the appropriate "condiments" - like cookies, cake, toppings, gooey stuff, etc. Ann suggests:

"If no one has the energy to make homemade, store bought ice cream will be just as good. Bring your bowls, spoons and plan to dive in for a fun evening."

Contact Ann for more info. The offering recipient will be The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, an organization helping wildlife impacted by the Gulf oil spill.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Divine Gaze

"Only from the heart can you touch the sky." - Rumi

On July 11 Neil will lead a discussion on the contemplation of origin, meaning and humanity from a perspective few have gazed.

Please join us at 5:30 pm, 618 Locust. Pot-luck theme: Summer Delights. Offering recipient will be Our Church's Wider Mission, described as "the lifeblood of ministry and mission in the United Church of Christ."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hendersonville, N.C.:

A Church, an Organization and the Signs of Victory

Henderson County is located near Ashville in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, near where I grew up in Charlotte and into which I return every summer as if drawn like a magnet. In this county is an incredible church, together with a number of courageous clergy. The church is the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ; the clergy belong to an organization called "Love Welcomes All." I visited both of these entities early in June and both convinced me anew that the rearguard negativity against homosexuality inside conservative religious circles is today in the final stages of its own rigor mortis. This negativity has, I believe, become so irrelevant that it needs to be engaged no longer. The proper strategy is to ignore these voices from this moment on, whether they emanate from the Vatican, Canterbury or the television preachers who harass us daily through the media.

The First Congregational Church UCC is actually in Hendersonville, the major town in Henderson County, but this still means that it is part of what is a rural, conservative and fundamentalist culture. One sees words painted on the rocks and trees along the roads in and around Hendersonville announcing that "Jesus Saves" and warning those who pass by that they must be prepared "to meet your God." Three crosses are planted on various lawns throughout the area to remind the populace of Calvary. One church has even erected on its property a sign loudly proclaiming "Do not let the next time you come to church be when you are carried in by six strong men." Local radio in this area is filled with preaching voices that attack sin vigorously, elicit guilt massively and urge conversion constantly. The local newspapers cover church news regularly, printing many advertisements in the Saturday issue telling people where they can hear "full gospel preaching" on Sunday morning. One needs to understand this context before one can appreciate the witness made by the First Congregational Church and the organization known as "Love Welcomes All." This is their story.

Some years ago, an Englishman named Walter Ashley, an Oxford University graduate who had had a career in journalism, moved to Hendersonville to retire with his wife JoAnn, who had defied the sexism of her generation to become a corporate attorney. In this move they joined other retirees who had discovered that the gorgeous climate in these mountains made this an ideal retirement community. This couple had been married in and been active members of the Park Avenue Christian Church, one of New York City's most exciting and progressive congregations. Finding a new church home was important to both of them. That was not easy in this fundamentalist religious environment. The First Congregational Church was their choice and both of them immediately moved into leadership positions. Walter became the teacher of the adult Bible class on Sunday mornings. He explored the scriptures in this class in a way that no one in this community had heard it done before. He also introduced the members of this class to the writings of contemporary biblical scholars well known in the academies of Christian learning. People were excited by these new insights and when news of this class spread throughout the community it began to attract many more people to this congregation. Aided by a very gifted Senior Minister named David Kelly who deeply yearned to make his church an alternative to the cultural fundamentalism of this region, it became a religious enclave for the growing number of incoming retirees. One thing then began to lead to another.

A couple in this congregation, Ann and Jim Allen, were the parents of a lesbian daughter, and they wanted to be certain their child was welcomed in their church. Inspired by their membership in Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-Flag), they agreed to head up an educational campaign to have their church declared by their denomination to be "An open and affirming congregation." That campaign was a great success and this congregation added that designation to their outdoor sign and printed it on the back of their regular Sunday bulletin. They wanted to proclaim their identity to all who had the eyes to see.

When Walter Ashley died about five years ago, Pastor Kelly and Walter's widow JoAnn decided to honor him by establishing the Walter Ashley Lectureship to be held at this church annually in which the issues of the day might be forced into dialogue with contemporary Christian scholarship. I was privileged to be the first Walter Ashley lecturer in 2006 and was amazed to find the church literally packed, with people being drawn to these lectures from miles away. Since that inaugural year, other Ashley lecturers have included Walter Brueggeman, Marcus Borg and next fall they will welcome John Dominic Crossan, possibly America's best known historical Jesus scholar. Since the first of these Ashley lectures, a number of people attending them have decided to become affiliated with this church. In the meantime, Pastor Kelly retired and a gifted and articulate new pastor, Richard Weidler from Portland, Maine, has succeeded him. The church wanted a pastor to continue their direction and Richard Weidler wanted a church that was willing to stand for the things the annual Ashley lectureship embodied.

Meanwhile, in the wider community, one of Hendersonville's large Baptist Churches began a vigorous anti-homosexuality campaign based on stereotypes that are not accurate and Bible quotations that are inappropriate. It was such an affront to both knowledge and human dignity that a few open clergy and laity from moderate congregations throughout the county and led by First Congregational came together to form an organization called "Love Welcomes All." Their purpose was to carry out a series of day long educational seminars on the subject of homosexuality that would create a very different conversation. The cultural norms were questioned and people who had once believed themselves to be alone discovered that there was another Christian voice that they had never before heard. A new challenge arose on July 18, 2009, when the religion section of the local paper carried a lead article about a new book written by the pastor of Hendersonville's First Presbyterian Church entitled, Homosexuality and the Church: Overcoming Controversy with Compassionate Ministry. Compassionate Ministry turned out to be converting homosexuals to heterosexuality through prayer, variations of the 12-step program and the work of a fundamentalist organization called Exodus, Inc. that advertized its ability to "cure homosexuals." Since none of these procedures have any credibility in medical or scientific circles and indeed are badly discredited, this article served to refocus the work of "Love Welcomes All." Their first decision was to attend a public presentation on this book by its author at the First Presbyterian Church. The delegation from the First Congregational Church, included Pastor Richard Weidler, the previous interim pastor, Barbara Rathbun, who happened to be the wife of a practicing and board certified psychiatrist, the chair of their board of deacons, Clay Eddleman, also a board certified psychiatrist and a partnered openly gay man, and the person who served as the president of the local P-Flag group. The entire audience listened quietly during the presentation, which was laced with biblical quotations about Sodom and Gomorrah as well as verses from Leviticus. The author also made derogatory claims about the American Psychiatric Association and its positive findings on homosexuality that appeared to him to "invalidate the Word of God!" He ended his speech by announcing that he had never heard of a "Christian psychiatrist!" He was about to meet or hear of two who challenged him openly and immediately in his own church. That confrontation was the talk of the town.

"Love Welcomes All" went to work in earnest to educate the community and to isolate ecclesiastical negativity. They launched an educational campaign through the letters to the editor's column in the local newspaper. No medically or scientifically incompetent material that appeared in this forum from untrained or poorly trained "Christian Counselors" was allowed to go unchallenged. Psychiatrist Clay Eddleman coolly dismantled their prejudice letter by letter. This group began to plan and carry out quarterly interfaith community worship services to show the world that being Christian did not mean being homophobic. In time they identified and called out of the shadows, 35 gay-friendly congregations in a three-county area, all of whom had previously thought of themselves as isolated and alone. They opened a website,, that now has a growing membership, locally, nationally and, with its first member from Pakistan, internationally. A second local Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Mark Stanley, senior pastor at Hendersonville's Trinity Church has publicly written to his governing board, that he is no longer able in conscience or morality to continue to administer the law of his church regarding negativity to the gay members of his congregation. The unholy alliance between religion and homophobia is now being expelled from the Christian Church.

I had the privilege of addressing both this pioneering UCC Church and a "Love Welcomes All" service in early June. Today, both are growing in the mountains of western North Carolina. People opposing ignorance and homophobia in the Christian Church are learning that not only are they not alone, but they are a rising majority. These people understand that silence is the ally of homophobia and that confrontation with evil is not itself evil. What better sign could there be that this battle is over and that religious-based homophobia, the last bastion of this prejudice, is mortally wounded. The First Congregational Church UCC and "Love Welcomes All" have stood tall and made their public witness in a deeply fundamentalist and evangelical part of western North Carolina. Thanks be to God.

– John Shelby Spong

If you wish to write this church and thank them for their witness, please do so at Pastor Weidler and its members would love to hear from you. JSS

Friday, July 2, 2010

Freely Gathering: Conversation & Cook-Out

Sunday, July 4, 2010
5:30 pm, 618 Locust Street

Come join us in relational delight as we acknowledge our national heritage this Sunday, July 4th by Gathering for celebration and connection. "Nothing formal just fun" is the phrase of the day. Crockett and Neil will provide grills for hamburgers and such, so bring your preference of dogs or burgers and whatever else you like cooked on the grill as we celebrate independence in good company. Communal offerings so far include: hummus, pineapple and fresh-from-the-garden corn on the cob for grilling, potato salad, potato chips, tea, lettuce, tomatoes, Ball Park franks, buns, relish, mustard, onions, chili and sauerkraut, hamburger buns, and pickles.

Our offering will be designated for The People/Plant Connection - a new local organization promoting health and wholeness in individuals and San Angelo via community gardening and other horticultural endeavors.