Twenty years ago today (as I write this) I was baptized in Meier Lake, Alaska. Our small church had no baptismal robes. We didn’t have our own building. I was just wearing my jeans and t-shirt when my minister led me into the cool August waters to be baptized. A few weeks later I was given the Right Hand of Fellowship and became a member, and almost immediately, I became a member of the Deacon board. All before turning 14.
I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska—yes, that Wasilla now made infamous by the media circus surrounding a one-time vice presidential candidate—not exactly the cradle of progressive Christianity. The majority of churches in the area to this day are independent fundamentalist congregations. A few have the word Baptist as part of their name. Mainline congregations are in the minority in our area of Alaska, though you can find about every flavor—they just happen to be small churches.
Our church was no different. A small, startup American Baptist congregation, at the most we numbered about 25 people on a Sunday evening (we rented from the Episcopal church). We were just another mainline congregation until 1994, when we became a charter member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The only Welcoming and Affirming Baptist congregation in the state of Alaska and the only affirming congregation of any type in our area.
From the early days of our church we had gay and lesbian folks attending worship, but our commitment from the beginning to being Welcoming and Affirming went beyond sexual orientation from the beginning. Our congregation supported a housing unit for folks with mental illness. We eventually purchased a building in downtown Palmer near the correctional center and often had guests on Sunday who were recently released from jail. Our building houses eight different AA meetings and other twelve-step programs and some of those folks come to our church.
But for me at that young age, Welcoming and Affirming meant welcoming and affirming of me. I was involved in the ministry of the church from an early age, before my baptism, and when I expressed a call to ministry at thirteen, I was invited and encouraged to preach and participate in the leading of worship. My pastor invited me along to the weekly pastor’s Bible study when I was a senior in high school and every time I was home during college.
I know a lot of small churches wonder if they need to go through all the drama of becoming Welcoming and Open and Affirming, especially if they have few gay or lesbian members or none at all. Being Welcoming and Affirming or Open and Affirming is not only code-language for gay and lesbian folks to know that your church is safe for them and their family, but it means that you are open to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer and questioning folks; you are welcoming and open and affirming of teens; you are welcoming and open and affirming of senior citizens and children and couples and single people; you are welcoming and affirming of people struggling with addiction or challenged with mental illness; you are welcoming and affirming of all people.
I met a pastor of a Midwest congregation that recently welcomed in a family that home-schooled their children, because they were shunned by their previous church for their family’s choice. They came seeking not only welcome but affirmation for their family. I know of families of children with disabilities are sometimes made to feel unwelcome by the Sunday school staff—they come seeking affirmation. Couples that choose not to have children feel pressured by their peers in a family-oriented church—they come seeking affirmation for their family.
Why should your small church become Welcoming, Open and Affirming, even if you have no gay or lesbian folks (that you know of) in your congregation? When you become O&A, you become open, welcoming and affirming of all of God’s children made in God’s image. You are welcoming in all the people of God! It is still crucial for congregations to be welcoming of LGBTTQ folks, for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, transsexual and queer and questioning people are still outcast by many families, churches and communities, but it is just as important for us to remember that Welcoming, Open and Affirming goes beyond the letters of identity and includes all of us, all of God’s children, in the variety of ways we identify who we are, how we live and how we serve Christ in this world. For small churches, you are making a commitment to be open, welcoming and affirming of the people you already have. Just as I felt welcomed and affirmed as a teen called to the ministry, so I hope all people, of all callings of God, are welcomed and affirmed at such a young age as a child of God.