At its annual meeting Jan. 24, the First Church in Belfast, United Church of Christ, voted to accept a welcoming statement (see link at the bottom of this story), and thus became an Open and Affirming congregation. The statement had been crafted by members of the church’s Open and Affirming Team — also known as the ONA Team — published in the church newsletter so that members could comment on it, and presented to the congregation in final form at the Jan. 24 meeting.

The designation Open and Affirming, given to the church by the national UCC church, means that the congregation welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people to its worship services, functions and all aspects of church membership. But, according to co-pastors the Rev. Joel Krueger and the Rev. Dr. Kate Winters, it also means more than that.

They said that the Open and Affirming designation signifies that the congregation is open to a broad spectrum of human differences, and not just in welcoming them to services, but also in doing what is necessary to make everyone feel at home and able to take part in the life of the church. “Even more important than making the statement,” said Winters, “is living into it.” She added that the church building still needs to be made fully handicapped-accessible, and the congregation is committed to doing that as part of being Open and Affirming.

In order to be designated an Open and Affirming congregation, the church had to undertake a two-year process of study, write its welcoming statement and vote to adopt the statement. The pastors waited until people in the congregation brought the issue to them; eventually, it came up at a parish council meeting.

As Winters and Krueger described it, the process involved building trust among church members and between the members and their pastors. The ONA Team consisted of eight to 10 members of the church plus Winters and Krueger. Team members shared their personal stories as a way to bond with each other. Later, they went to the boards and committees of the church to listen to their thoughts and feelings about becoming Open and Affirming.

One frequent objection, Winters said, was that people felt the church was already welcoming and didn’t understand why it was necessary to go through the process of being officially designated Open and Affirming. She explained that it was important to think about what being truly welcoming of various differences meant, and to acknowledge the pain suffered by gay people and others who had been excluded or mistreated by organized religion in the past. It was also important, she said, to offer people who may have been hurt by a church previously the assurance that the First Church is a safe place.

The ONA Team also invited a panel of people from other Open and Affirming congregations to talk about how the change affect their church. Over the two years that the church was going through this process, both Krueger and Winters preached on the subject, addressing various aspects, including concerns about scriptural condemnation of gays.

Winters talked about what it means to her to be part of a living faith: “God is not in print; God comes to us as we dialog over the scripture,” she said.

A culminating event was a Sunday shortly before the annual meeting where the welcoming statement was voted on, when the Rev. Marvin Ellison, professor of ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary, preached at the church.

As a result of the process, Winters and Krueger said, they feel that members of the congregation developed a deep trust of one another, as well as of their pastors. Krueger said he feels this new trust has brought the church to a place of transformation.

Besides having a handful of gay members, the First Church has a number of non-gay members whose children, grandchildren or parents are gay. Several members of the church thanked Winters and Krueger after the welcoming statement was adopted.

Winters said the move was very much in the tradition of the First Church, which, at some 200 years old, has been involved in the Civil Rights movement and even the Abolitionist movement. For her, it is about “living the way of Jesus.”

“When people look at our building, they see a museum. They don’t recognize there’s a courageous, loving community living and growing here,” she said. She hopes that now that will change.