Here's how Washtenaw County faith communities are working to advance LGBTQ+ inclusivity

More than 20 Washtenaw County-area houses of faith have extended explicit messages of LGBTQ+ inclusivity since as early as the '70s, and more are joining their ranks to make all community members feel welcome.
Walk through the glass double doors of Manchester United Methodist Church (UMC), and you’ll be greeted with a colorful banner that reads: "You are welcome here."
 
This summer, the congregation of the Manchester UMC — which numbers in the hundreds — adopted a statement of inclusivity geared toward the LGBTQ+ community. "We joyfully welcome people of every gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, age, education, economic status, marital status, and faith to fully participate in the life of the church," the statement reads. "We look forward to hearing how we can welcome and include you."
 
With this action, Manchester UMC joins more than 20 other Washtenaw County-area houses of faith that have extended messages of LGBTQ+ inclusivity since as early as the '70s.
 
"I don’t think what we’re doing is anything exceptionally novel or groundbreaking," says Pastor Dillon Burns. "But for us to do it here, for us to be able to say it in this community, seems important. It doesn’t have to be something exceptional for it to be a really needed message."
 Pastor Dillon Burns of Manchester United Methodist Church.
This message comes at a time when the UMC as a whole stands at an impasse regarding issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Although UMC literature "implore[s] families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends," the denomination’s official stance as of 2019 is that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The UMC also forbids same-sex wedding ceremonies and the appointment of openly gay people to positions of church leadership.
 
This hasn’t stopped liberal groups within the church from acting in opposition to the official stance. Last year, UMC's Michigan Annual Conference passed a resolution stating that neither lay nor clergy members shall be denied access to an equal place in church life or governance based on, among other factors, sexual orientation and gender identity. And earlier this month, the UMC elected its second openly gay bishop: Cedrick Bridgeforth in the California-Pacific Conference. (The first was Karen Oliveto in 2016; although the UMC Judicial Council deemed the ordination invalid, she continues to serve in her position.)
 
In response, conservative groups are splintering off. Between 2019 and today, nearly 900 congregations — 3% of the total denomination — have left the UMC. In May, the Wesleyan Covenant Association created a new conservative denomination known as the Global Methodist Church.
 
Amid this turmoil, Burns says, the Manchester congregation felt it was necessary to clearly define where it stands as a church and a community.
 
"It’s been a long time coming," says Connie Priess, a member of the Manchester UMC for more than a decade and contributor to the welcoming statement. According to Priess, Burns’ predecessor "was not open to the idea of being welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks," but Burns’ arrival in 2017 changed things.
 Pastor Dillon Burns of Manchester United Methodist Church.
"There was a very different feel about him," Priess says. "[He] made us all basically aware that he had a different stance, that he was accepting."
 
Congregation members began discussing the welcoming statement in 2018. Burns says it started off as a cooperative endeavor, without any goals beyond strengthening understanding within the Manchester UMC community — "knowing that we may not all agree, but at least we can know where each other are and have good conversation about it," he says. The conversations revealed that the church community was overwhelmingly in favor of an inclusive stance, and making members of the LGBTQ+ community feel welcome. At the beginning of this year, the conversations took a more intentional tone as the congregation began to establish an identity.
 
"By the end of it, we had this really strong agreement that this is who we wanted to be," Burns says. "And so [we] put together a welcoming statement so that we would have it to ground us, to remind us of what we should be doing, and that whatever happens with the denomination, we know what’s important to us."
 
One of the key parts of the statement came as a suggestion from a member of the congregation. Burns had written a draft that he felt "very delighted about. It was wonderfully literary in all the ways that I wanted it to be," he chuckles. The draft was well received, but one member had a request.
 
"They said, we want to add a sentence that says, ‘We look forward to learning how to welcome you,’" Burns recalls.
 
Making inclusion explicit
 
The question of how best to cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion is not unique to faith communities, and the answer is far from obvious. Could an implicit message of welcome accomplish the same as an explicit one? Is it possible that explicit statements might be unintentionally exclusionary toward other groups? Why have a welcome statement at all?
 
Priess recounts an experience from when she and her ex-wife were planning their wedding. They found a church with a sign outside proclaiming that it was a welcoming space, but when they inquired about holding their wedding there, Priess says, "They said, ‘Great, who’s your husband?’ And when they found out that it was me, another female, they were like, 'Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. That’s not what we meant.’"
 
The LGBTQ+ community has seen tremendous progress toward acceptance in American society, particularly over the last several decades. But stories like Priess’ are a sobering reminder that "welcome to all" doesn't always mean what it says.
 
"Unless you put it out there, a lot of people are just gonna assume, ‘It’s a church. I’m not going in there. They don’t like me,’" Priess says with a bitter laugh. "And so by not putting it out there, making it public, making it known, you are in a sense contributing to that stereotype that churches are not accepting of LBGTQ+ persons."
 
Several other Washtenaw County-area houses of faith have released similar welcoming statements, among them Holy Faith Church in Saline, Webster United Church of Christ in Dexter, St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Chelsea, and the First United Methodist Church and First Congregational Church of Christ in Ypsilanti. Some churches have been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights for decades: The First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor let the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front hold same-sex marriages in the '70s, and Ann Arbor's Episcopal Church of the Incarnation has been performing same-sex weddings for more than 30 years.
 Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth.
More recently, the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor released a resolution affirming its commitment to inclusion in 2016. And Blue Ocean Faith in Ann Arbor was founded as a "Jesus-centered, progressive, gay-friendly (LGBTQ+ inclusive) church" in January 2015 by Emily Swan and Ken Wilson. The two had formerly served as pastors at the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor until the denomination adopted policies that were exclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. Blue Ocean Faith holds services in a space provided by Genesis of Ann Arbor, a nonprofit partnership between St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church and Temple Beth Emeth, a Reform Jewish congregation.
 
"The Reform movement tends to take itself as a really big tent, and works hard to try to make the space as inclusive as possible for anybody to participate and to be a part of the community," explains Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth.
 
Whinston says that LGBTQ+ events are a way to communicate that Temple Beth Emeth is a welcoming space, and that differences are celebrated instead of being "flattened." One such event was the temple's Pride Shabbat on June 10, which used selections from "Mishkan Ga'avah," a collection of poems, prayers, and liturgy with an explicitly LGBTQ+ focus. Since the Shabbat happened to fall on Judy Garland’s birthday, it also ended with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
 
"I think it’s important that those events are supported by me and the other staff here, but that they are led in a lot of ways by the LGBTQ community," Whinston says. "You have to do it in partnership."

Implicit inclusion
 
At other Washtenaw County-area houses of faith, inclusion is implicit. The Zen Buddhist Temple is one such example. It has no brightly colored banners and no mention on its website of LGBTQ+-specific inclusivity. The only hint that the space is open and affirming is a two-word phrase painted on the wooden sign outside the temple: "all welcome." In this case, all truly does mean all.
 
Catherine Brown has been a member of the Zen Buddhist Temple community for more than 25 years — "I’m sort of part of the furniture," she jokes — and is currently in the process of completing seminary training. 

"If all goes well I’ll be a teacher with the organization one day," she says. 
The Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor.
She is also openly queer, and has been since she joined the temple. She says "there has never been a flicker of an issue, ever" about her gender or sexual identity. 
 
In Brown’s observations of convert Buddhism in the United States, "the general tendency is left on social justice, which would include queerness." Given the current political climate in America, she says, "being explicit never hurts" but "it feels to [her] like we don’t have a statement because we thought it was obvious."
 
"I think different members of the community navigate these things differently," Whinston says. "Some folks really want to take a lead on the Pride Shabbat, and some of them have no desire. … They don’t need to be the face of the LGBTQ community in the congregation. And that’s great. People should be able to lead and participate as they desire."
 
A "midway" to greater inclusion
 
The schism within UMC is a stark reminder that we live in a world where inclusion is still a goal and not quite a reality. Faith is a particularly fraught playing field; it’s a profound rejection indeed to be excluded from a belief system centered on the notion of divine love.
 
"A lot of us have been damaged by religion," muses Delyth Balmer. She’s a founding member and associate minister of the Ann Arbor-based Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth. The center formed in 1998 as a small group of people who met through the Unity Church of Ann Arbor but wanted to branch out into spiritual exploration without being tied to any specific religion. 

"I know a lot of people have been raised with fear that God is gonna punish you, and this belief that if you’re gay, then you’re going against God’s will," Balmer says. " … I think it’s a breath of fresh air for people to feel like, ‘You mean God loves me even though somebody else told me I wasn’t worthy?’"
 
"Faith is such a healing aspect of our beingness," she continues. "And it’s crucial, I think, to know that we are divine and that we are loved, and that we are love, … no matter who you are, no matter what other people have told you about yourself."
 Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth associate minister Delyth Balmer.
After the release of the Manchester UMC’s welcoming statement, Burns says a community member reached out to tell him they have a child who came out as transgender. 

"In that moment, the whole community got separated in [the parent's] mind between who was safe [for their child] and who was not," Burns says with a hint of sadness. "They said, ‘We maybe could have guessed about this church, but it’s really nice to know.’"
 
Other than that, he says, there haven’t been many changes since the announcement. He hopes and intends to do positive outreach in the community, and to hold an LGBTQ+ wedding if the opportunity arises. He emphasizes that the welcoming statement is not an end point, but rather "a midway to somewhere else … making sure we’re a welcoming, inclusive place beyond and outside of our doors."

"It has been wonderful to see this movement from thinking that it is something that the church is solidly opposed to, to now having so many more places where it is celebrated as a part of the diversity God has created in us," Burns says. "To help reinforce that narrative, that people of faith can be inclusive and loving in that way, is just something we want to do."

Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and recent transplant to Belleville. She first visited Ann Arbor on a cross-country bicycle tour; you can read that story (and more!) in her first book, "Lucky."

All photos by Doug Coombe.