In a recent letter to Sayville-Bayport Patch, Sayville resident Gail Kieser expressed disappointment that the Sayville Congregational Church is sometimes referred to as "the gay church," and that labeling a parish in such a way dismisses all the good and generous actions of the church and its parishioners.
Patch reached out to Pastor Rev. Gary Brinn about Kieser's letter, the labeling issue and his take on the topic.
Patch: Is it your perception that the parish is commonly referred to or viewed as 'the gay church' in town?
Brinn: I have certainly heard second-hand reports that the parish is known as the "gay church," though no one has ever said it to me directly. No doubt this came about because this congregation was courageous enough to take a stand on behalf of LGBT Christians and to embrace an openly gay pastor 20 years ago, at a time when it was still socially acceptable to discriminate and promote violence against this group. It was a bold and controversial move at the time that received a lot of attention in Long Island's press.
Ironically, the church has never been primarily a "gay" church, though such churches and even an entire denomination were formed during that era with exactly that aim. It just happens that the United Church of Christ has always been a little ahead of the curve when it comes to recognizing the call of Jesus and the prophets to do justice. This is at the heart of our theology, the idea that no single generation has gotten it exactly right, and that we always have more to learn about scripture and God's will. It's why Congregationalists were among the first to oppose slavery, were the first to ordain a woman, and why the UCC was the first Mainline Protestant denomination to call for marriage equality... which I guess makes us the Abolitionist Church, the Feminist Church, etc. In fact, we are exactly the type of church Glenn Beck warns you about, the kind that takes God's call to "do justice and love kindness" seriously.
Patch: So essentially the label isn’t accurate and does that present a unique challenge for the parish? What is your view of the letter that was written?
Brinn: If you factor out the surge of Latino immigrants, all of the main Christian denominations, Catholic and Protestant, have seen dramatic declines in attendance and giving since the 1980's, primarily because they became rigid in their thinking and practice, though countless scandals, including covering up for child rapists, hasn't helped.
It is true that this church struggled as well, and that the "gay" label might have scared away some families. I'm not sure it is as much of a factor anymore, as our beliefs more closely match those of Americans as a whole, especially the younger generations that have displayed a courageous passion for justice and equality. But Gail has heard the "gay church" label used in the community and felt the need to correct this misconception. Since we are a non-hierarchical church, owned and run by the members, not by priests, Gail is one of my bosses. And every word she wrote was true!
We continue to welcome LGBT Christians, though today they are welcomed in many churches. And we are re-building our Children and Families program in a way that is as diverse as our community, with families of opposite sex parents, same sex parents, and single parents. We have a handful of new families, and a dynamic new Deacon for Faith Development, who is leading us in offering a Vacation Bible School this summer and an After-school Program in the Fall. But we'll do these things our way, as Christian progressives teaching tolerance and love.
Patch: In light of all the recent news regarding increasing support for gay marriage, with some saying the trend represents a tipping point in attaining stronger rights and standing for the gay community, does the label of ‘gay church’ maybe represent a positive?
Brinn: In my last parish, located in Central Pennsylvania, many opposite-sex young couples joined the church because they wanted a community that reflected their values and would welcome their LGBT friends and siblings. So in some ways, the label isn't a terrible thing. But it reduces us to one thing, which simply isn't accurate. For example, our Board of Deacons, following the lead of our members, has committed to making faith-based advocacy for gun control our top justice priority for the year, for where is the justice in 20 dead first graders! We welcomed a guest preacher from the Occupy Faith movement, and wrestle with economic justice. And, of course, we celebrate the sacraments, study scripture, and pray. Crazy, huh?