February 16, 2011 in Featured
Brian Paradis can hardly contain his excitement as we sit down to speak. It is Tuesday, February 8, and the ballots for his church, the First Unitarian of Providence, to endorse marriage equality have just been counted. “It has been a long process,” he said, explaining that the by-laws of the centuries-old church intentionally require numerous opportunities for all members of the congregation to express their views on any given subject up for a vote.
In the end, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the endorsement, and a Valentine’s Day press conference was hastily called to announce this bold move. The ballot count was 254 in favor, seven opposed and two ballots left blank. Those voting in opposition seemed to be objecting to the church making the move to endorse anything, as opposed to any difference with the issue at hand.
This represents a strong statement for a church that had to work, at one point in their history, to regain the trust of the LGBT community.
In 1992, the Rev. Tom Ahlburn preached a sermon calling for the support and affirmation of LGBTs, in response to the murder of a young gay man, and held a pre-service discussion group, as was his custom. There was a lively discussion that day, and participants indicated an eagerness to continue the dialogue.
It was shortly after this that Ahlburn went on sabbatical, leaving his ministry in the hands of Associate Minster Corelyn Senn. It’s at this point that things become complicated. One faction of the congregation wanted to become a Welcoming Congregation – a sort of brand name among UU churches denoting them as gay-friendly. Others thought the tone of the curriculum was divisive. “There were undertones of ‘us and them,’” said long-time church member Robert O. Jones. “It seemed to refer to LGBT people as ‘other’, as being on the fringe.” Other programs were explored, under the leadership of Rev. Senn, with much enthusiasm on the part of the congregation. A series of programs was presented in 1993, and a group of people interested in LGBT issues came together. The group called itself Interweave Providence, after the national organization that addresses LGBT issues. As a result of these programs, Interweave members formed a strong bond to Rev. Senn.
In the next year, however, a rift began to develop between the church leadership and Senn, and an acrimonious and contentious period ensued. A representative from the Unitarian Universalist Association came and conducted a review of the situation. Things escalated as proponents on both sides became more vehement. When, in 1995, Senn agreed to negotiate a resignation, a number of people left the church, including many if not the majority of those affiliated with the Interweave group. It was a sad time for First Unitarian. “It was such an unfortunate situation,” said Jones. “We were losing treasured members of our congregation.”
By then, however, Rev. Ahlburn had returned, and ministered to his congregation. Over the next five years, the church grew and prospered. Sunday attendance increased. But the exodus of all those LGBT people was still in the minds of those who went through it. Upon Ahlburn’s retirement, the church called several interim ministers, including Rochelle Richard, who stood out as both the first woman minister and the first lesbian minister. A few years later, the church voted to become a Welcoming Congregation, and the LGBT community began to return.
In the meantime, a young man named Brian Paradis was looking for a spiritual home. Raised Catholic, he had been married and divorced, and had come out as a gay man. “I wanted a faith home, but I felt like a second-class citizen in the Catholic Church.” Then he met Michael Currier, the man who would become his long-term partner, who asked Paradis to come to church with him. That church was First Unitarian, and today the two are strong, committed members of the First UU family. “This is the type of place I was looking for,” he said. “Everyone is so supportive. I love it here.”
In 2008, when James Ford – the current minister – was called to the church, he approached Paradis and Currier about helping the church to grow in its knowledge and understanding of the LGBT community. They agreed, and through surveying the members, found that there was a need for education about transgender issues. “I’m so proud of our congregation,” said Paradis. “They are always interested in learning new things.” A series of workshops and education programs were planned, and the membership responded with large, inquisitive audiences.
The most recent update – besides their Marriage Equality endorsement – is the formation of their Standing on the Side of Love campaign. A public advocacy campaign that endeavors to stop oppression, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign was inspired by a 2008 shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, targeted because they are welcoming to LGBT people and have a liberal stance on many issues. The Knoxville Community responded with such an outpouring of love that the leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Association was inspired to launch a campaign that would work to challenge exclusion, oppression and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity.
In his sermon on January 23, The Rev. Ford said, “Here, today, we stand at a moment in history, a moment that trembles with import. Kairos. The right time. The time of fulfillment. We are being asked as a community of faith to take a stand. It isn’t easy. It means some among us will be hurt. But, if our faith means anything, if we are to be more than a club for liberally minded folk, then we must make a hard choice.
Although if we genuinely open our hearts, is it really that hard? Here’s the real question. Do we stand with those who might be offended or with those whose civil rights are being denied?
What does your faith call you to? Silence or justice? The time is at hand. Let us stand on the side of love. Amen.”
The rest is history.