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Sylvania United Church of Christ voted May 4 to be an open and affirming congregation, going on record as being a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual people and welcoming them fully in the congregation.
Members approved a statement, with 140 affirming it, 40 voting no, and 17 choosing to abstain; the total membership is around 450. Before the vote, the Village Church, a combined UCC and United Methodist congregation that meets at the Maumee Indoor Theater, was the only local open and affirming, or ONA, congregation of more than 1,000 in the UCC.
But “open” and “affirming” were terms that already fit Sylvania UCC. “In '05 my partner and I joined this church and we were welcomed right away, accepted for who we are,” said member Jim Overmyer, who is gay. And a secular transgender support group meets at the church. The Rev. Sam Buehrer, senior minister, has special feelings for ONA because he has an adult son who came out as gay in high school.
Being ONA sends a signal to people outside of the church that they're welcome in it, Pastor Buehrer said. “We heard several times along the way that the language we were using for welcoming was very similar to language that some other churches were using, but yet some of our folks had had the experience from that church that they were not welcome.”
“You look at the scriptures and Jesus is talking about sex, money, and power, and yet so many churches don't talk about those things,” associate minister the Rev. Luke Lindon said. “He's huge on inclusion. … In Acts 8 the first person Philip baptizes is a gender nonconforming black man. It's all over the scripture and we're just trying to live a piece of that out.”
Sylvania UCC had started the ONA process under its former minister of 25 years, the Rev. Bill Chidester, and Mr. Overmyer served on the committee. The activity was put on hold when Pastor Chidester was diagnosed with cancer then died in May, 2011.
After Pastor Buehrer was called to serve in Sylvania, the ONA process resumed. It looked like a smooth path to passage “until the transgender piece became a part of it,” Pastor Buehrer said, “because I think many people thought they were open and affirming, and that one was, 'Oh! This is a little bit more.‘”
A transgender woman had started attending services, Pastor Buehrer said, and he said some older men “just could not understand the sexuality ... and why somebody would do that to themselves” with surgery. He said that in a conversation with the woman, he told her, “’You've been a blessing and a curse, because the blessing is you bring this to the church, and that's something we need to work with. The curse is you bring this to the church, and that's something we need to work with.‘ We had a bit more work to be done, but that was just part of the mix.”
Member Kristen Leverton, who identifies as a “straight ally,”-- pastors Buehrer and Lindon are also straight -- led an instructional session oriented to the transgender experience. Using an ill-fitting shirt, Ms. Leverton said, “I just tried to illustrate what it might feel like on a very elemental level to be uncomfortable in your body, so really addressed it from the gender identity piece and then shifted to how it fits into the sexuality piece.”
Now that Sylvania UCC is open and affirming, the new people who have come are “usually straight people, young and old, who identify” with the ONA status, member Sandy Hauter, another straight ally, said, because it labels a church as progressive.
Sylvania UCC will participate in today's Toledo Pride parade downtown starting at noon, marching with a banner, and will have a booth at the festival at Promenade Park, including providing a craft activity at the booth for children. Today's festival is noon to midnight and costs $5 before 7 p.m., $7 after, with people under 18 free. The “Sunday Funday” has family and children's activities between noon and 2 p.m., and continues until 10 pm. Admission is free until 2, then $2.