Church actively welcomes LGBTQ community

thumb Kost_Exterior400X300Hillhurst United Church is an old, red brick building in the heart of Kensington. The day is crisp and chilly, and as people file into the sanctuary they pass a long, rainbow-coloured banner stretched across the front of the building that reads, “Wherever you are, wherever you’re at, join us on the journey.”

Hillhurst United held its fourth anniversary celebration as an affirming ministry on Mar. 24. Of the 28 United Churches in Calgary, Hillhurst is one of eight that has adopted an “affirming” status, which means it has made a public statement that actively welcomes people of any sexual orientation and gender identity.

Hillhurst United’s minister, John Pentland, said the affirming process sparked dialogue within the congregation about issues facing marginalized groups.

John Pentland Q&A Produced by Hannah Kost and Danielle Semrau

“For us it was a bigger conversation about how open are we,” he said. “And that was a very fruitful exercise, because we realized that to be open isn’t just to one particular group as opposed to try to be as open as you can.”

Affirm United, an organization born out of the United Church in 1982 to support gays and lesbians within the church, guides the process to become affirming. Collin Smith, a council member on the board of directors for Affirm United, said that how churches implement it is unique to each individual congregation.

“It is a journey that each congregation must decide on,” Smith said. “We support them, and try to contact them with other churches.”

While the United Church of Canada has publicly embraced policies of inclusion, Bruce Gregersen, senior program officer of the church, said that there are reasons why certain churches may not have adopted an official affirming status.

“I’m guess that some churches feel that it doesn’t need to be said, that of course we’re affirming,” Gregersen said. “To be frank, there are also congregations within the church that would choose not to call a gay or lesbian minister because they know it would create significant tensions within the church.

hillhurst unitedHillhurst United Church adopted an affirming statement in 2009. On Mar. 24 of 2013, they celebrated their fourth year as an affirming ministry.

Photo by Hannah Kost“According to our policies, they wouldn’t be able to formally say that…but one just knows that the tensions in the congregation would be real, and they wouldn’t be able to,” he added.

For Hillhurst United, their affirming status is a constant work in progress. According to Pentland, it is only the first step on its journey to being a fully inclusive community.

Produced by Hannah Kost and Danielle Semrau

“Anyone can get an affirming statement, but it’s what you do with it afterwards,” Pentland said.

In addition to their yearly anniversary celebration, Hillhurst United also takes part in the Pride Parade and hosts screenings of movies to raise awareness regarding minority groups. They hold monthly meetings for the LGBTQ community, and invite speakers to share their coming out stories. These activities are in place to ensure that they are continually living out the spirit of their statement.

Pam Rocker, Hillhurst United’s Affirming and Creative Coordinator, said that the value of a church being affirming lies in the freedom it allows those experiencing religious abuse.

 “When you think about a church building and the place where people sit on a Sunday morning, it’s called a sanctuary,” she said. “But for so many people, it’s a place where you sit and you hide.

“So for me, I feel like it is a privilege and a responsibility to let people know that there are places in their communities where they can be accepted for who they are.”

Read more about Pam Rocker here.

Quick facts on the affirming process

When the church is ready to make a public statement about their desire to adopt an affirming status, the Affirm United website outlines the following course of action:

  • A vision statement is created, that outlines the church’s position on inclusivity
  • A “continuing plan of action” is formed to ensure the Affirming Status is properly maintained
  • A national commitment is made to the Affirming Ministry
  • An inclusive marriage policy that ensures “all gender combinations are treated equally” is created

In addition to the active inclusion of the LGBTQ community, Hillhurst United has also pledged to accept people regardless of age, race, ethnic background and economic class. 

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