Sunday, November 20, 2016

The United Church of Christ and a city set on a hill

Old friend of mine, Mason City's venerable First Congregational United Church of Christ, was back in the news last week after colliding again with the consequences of following that rabbi, Jesus.

That's First Congregational above, a great ship of faith under full sail in downtown Mason City since 1866. Liberated descendants of New England puritans built the wing at far right of stone during that year, topped it with a New England-style steeple and added a classic portico. The Romanesque confection to the left was built in 1898, then the old church was diminished and given a new facade of brick and stained glass. When I first saw her, a bell cage topped the west tower, but that became unstable many years ago and was removed. You can still see the 1866 stonework from the alley that separates First Congregational from my old home, the Episcopal Church of St. John.

For those interested in such things, this also is the home church of Meredith "Music Man" Willson and his family, all tucked neatly away now in Elmwood-St. Joseph Cemetery.


Anyhow, the operative words here were attributed to Jesus by the author of the Gospel according to St. Matthew and may be found in Chapter 5, Vs. 14-16: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

Sometimes, letting that light of Christ shine forth has penalties.

After results of the recent election were in and it became clear that some were afraid, the congregation posted this message on its sign: "We are a sanctuary for the least, lost, gay & straight, female, Muslim … For all! God’s love wins!”

Globe-Gazette photo by Molly Montag

Then, on Thursday night, someone covered the word "gay" in red spray paint. You can read The Globe-Gazette story here.

This is the second time this year that the church has been vandalized. Back in early March, a few days after the Twin Cities Gay Mens Chorus had joined the congregation for Sunday morning worship, the entire sign was covered in red spray paint. Here's a link to that story.

Globe-Gazette photo by Arian Schuessler

It could have been worse, of course. The acrylic cover on the face of the sign will be replaced at a cost of $200-$300, as it was the last time. But still ....


The United Church of Christ, as a denomination, has led the field among religious folks in extending an unconditional welcome to LGBTQ people. The UCC affirmed its support for gay civil rights way back in 1969, ordained its first gay pastor in 1972 and declared itself "open and affirming" in 1985 --- far ahead of others --- excepting the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The first time I recall Mason City First Congregational ending up in the news because of its Christ-like willingness to share a meal with all was back in 2004-2005. During that year, the UCC launched a nationwide advertising campaign under the theme, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma --- God is still speaking."

Three 30-second television advertisements were part of the campaign --- one featured bouncers at a church door turning away undesirables, including a gay couple; another, a similar group of undesirables being physically ejected from their pews.

These were remarkably mild advertisements, but very controversial at the time. NBC and CBS declined to run the spots nationally, calling them too controversial (the Bush administration of the day was campaigning for a constitutional amendment to prevent same-sex marriage). Here are a couple of the ads, so you can see just how scandalous they were:

Anyhow, the ads ran on Fox, cable channels and on the airwaves of some local network affiliates, none of whom were bound by network decisions. Mason City First Congregational bought into the campaign locally, as did other UCC congregations across Iowa, notably Urbandale United Church of Christ and Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in the greater Des Moines area.

I don't recall incidents of vandalism, but there was considerable clucking within the ranks of concerned Christians in Mason City and elsewhere; in Des Moines, at least, there were protesters; and one of the Des Moines-area churches was forced by the city to take down its inclusive signage --- permit required, you know.

The campaign did pay off for the UCC --- I found a story from a year later in which Plymouth Congregational reported an uptick in attendance of some 300 attributed at least in part to the campaign. Many of us gay folks, you see, really hadn't been aware that there were Christians out there like that --- attempting to live out the words of their namesake.


Things have changed somewhat in the years since --- The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and the Presbyterian Church (USA) now are fully inclusive as denominations (although navigating the intricacies of individual congregations still can be intimidating). Some congregations in other denominations --- United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, even a few (more recently) Baptist --- have opened their doors.

Although the bouncers remain at the front doors of a majority of U.S. churches --- and the pews still are spring-loaded if you're gay --- there are many sanctuaries now for LGBTQ folks who want to align themselves with the Christian movement.

And we have the United Church of Christ perched up there on the hill with its light shining to thank for leading the way.

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