By Adam Brinklow
The oldest church in a small west Massachusetts town is taking the—for some—big step of publicly stating their support for and acceptance of queer worshippers.
The First Congregational Church in Lee, Massachusetts, a United Church of Christ congregation, is considering becoming one of UCC’s “ONA” churches—joining a program for churches that want to go out of their way to welcome LGBT folks. But in a town like Lee, the move is not quite as simple as it might appear.
There’s quite a lengthy process to becoming an ONA church (the acronym stands for “open and affirming”… although, by our understanding of the alphabet, it doesn’t quite): The whole thing can take two years and, according to the Berkshire Eagle, requires a vote from the entire 125-person congregation. The ONA program is part of UCC’s generally liberal and outgoing public image: “Our faith is 2,000 years old. Our thinking is not,” the UCC website boasts. It notes, among other positions, that “religion and science are not mutually exclusive.”
So why such an elaborate campaign to appeal to LGBT worshippers who probably already feel welcome in a openly liberal organization? “Many of us asked the same question,” Reverend Bill Neil of First Congregational told 429Magazine. “Our answer is that we want to be fully informed. And we appreciate the opportunity to bring in special speakers on specific aspects of the LGBT experience. [These] voices from outside of our church have brought very moving messages.”
Rural Berkshire County has six other ONA participating congregations, but none in Lee. A former mill town of about 6,000, located 125 miles west of Boston along the Massachusetts’s turnpike, Lee has seven churches, but First Congregational is the oldest and, according to Neil, the only one likely to get onboard with the ONA program. “Lee is a majority Roman Catholic population, [and]the rest of the Protestant churches are quite fundamentalist,” he tells us.
The Berkshire Hills Baptist congregation across town, for example, says that “any form of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and pornography are sinful perversions of God’s gift of sex.” (That’s from their website; no one was answering the phone when we called, which all things considered was probably a lucky break.)
So, First Congregational seems to feel like it has to make a case to the community. “Do you have questions? Are you uncomfortable with the topic? Please let me know,” Neil writes in the church’s newsletter.
We’re all pretty comfortable with it here, Reverend. But it’s up to the folks of Lee to decide.