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The Path to Open and Affirming

Three little sentences: 1) Eden United Church of Christ is an Open and Affirming congregation. 2) We believe that all people are children of God; that persons of all ages, races and sexual orientations are part of our increasingly diverse culture. 3) We welcome all persons into the full life and ministry of this church.

In 2015, those words don’t seem controversial. Do you even notice them on nearly everything Eden prints? Yet, those three little sentences were born out of upheaval and controversy only 22 years ago.

In the spring of 1993, Pastor Sue Gallagher approached member Susan Dupree to start a church study group using another UCC church’s O & A curriculum that covered important issues of acceptance and growth. Over the next few months, self-selected course members mulled over heady, controversial topics, such as gender discrimination, Biblical interpretation of homosexuality and ageism. It was obvious that people, at least in this course, were ready to further their knowledge and lead a wider discussion of sensitive concerns crucial to expanding church membership.

At the end of the initial class, a committee of about a dozen members was formed to create an Open and Affirming Covenant. (Notably, this corresponded with a simultaneous effort by Moderator Judy Gilman, Trustees and others to create a church-wide Vision Statement and Growth Plan.) The O & A Committee held wide-ranging discussions, not always comfortable and at times with considerably diverging opinions and even conflict.

The committee in some ways was the microcosm of the greater church. For instance, we were still emerging out of a genteel traditionalism with males in the dominant role of power. The committee frequently sought input from the congregation, culminating in there being offered a choice of three potential Open and Affirming statements. Not unexpectedly, individuals unabashedly voiced their hopes and fears in public (and private): “Will I have to sit next to that person?” and “Who will be allowed to teach Sunday School?” and “But we’ve always been (fill in the blank)” or “They can’t serve on the staff, the Board, any committee, etc. can they? I mean, actively participate?”

Chair Susan recalls that ageism (for an aging membership) was fairly noncontroversial, but sexual orientation and racial diversity were still the hot topics that moved some folks to question their loyalty to Eden and to the UCC. For some, there was a fear of loss of control, a relinquishing of the status quo they’d always known. For others, it was more a conflict of identity and worrying about the short- and long-term effects of assimilating with others unlike themselves.

Ultimately, the commitment to pursue the issue of inclusion and to face the discomfort of conflict trumped the fears. The O & A committee pressed on to develop one statement. They struggled with wording, steadfastly maintaining “all people are children of God” while taking more time with “We welcome all persons into the full life and ministry of this church.” Then, in the spring of 1994, the congregation was presented with three variations of the Covenant and chose the one we use today. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of acceptance.

Our congregation’s process and decision were affirmed by the UCC Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Concerns on July 1, 1995. Eden UCC then became one of the first 15 churches in the Northern California Conference to be identified as O & A. Susan Dupree reminisced that people wanted to be heard during the process – and they were. But when the time came, “that train was going down the track and the majority got on board.”

Can you imagine our Eden if we had not persisted, despite disquietude and objection, to become inclusive in 1994? From division we formed unity and strength. This is unlikely to be the last controversy settled by Eden Church. In our 150th year, muse a bit and make a prediction or two of your own – for our next one hundred and fifty!

For the 150th Anniversary Committee