Alex Kapitan, LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs Administrator, Unitarian Universalist Association.
How many folks here are here for the first time? Can you raise your hand if you’ve never worshipped here before? Fabulous! I’m so glad you’re here. And how many folks are here for the second or third time? I’m so glad you came back! I am actually one of you—I have only visited this congregation once before. I’m so delighted to be back with you today, and completely honored to be speaking to you from up here! I want to thank the leaders who invited me here and made it possible for me to join you today—Rev. Josh, the worship team, and the Welcoming Congregation Steering Group.
Like Rev. Josh mentioned, my name is Alex Kapitan and I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association in our national office in Boston. I’m part of our Multicultural Growth & Witness staff group and one of the things I get to do is support the Welcoming Congregation Program.
This is always an exciting time of year for Welcoming Congregations because in many parts of this country June is claimed as Pride month, and congregations like this one get a great chance to publicly share their own pride at being welcoming, inclusive, and affirming of all things gay, and lesbian, and bi, and trans, and queer. And that is certainly something to be proud of!
UU Society East was originally recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in May of 1999, 14 years ago. And that recognition took place after years of intentional work—5 and a half years, to be precise. It was in 1993 that UUSE began the journey by engaging in a workshop series—only a few years after the Welcoming Congregation Program was launched by the Unitarian Universalist Association. And when you took stock in 1999 and voted on whether to seek recognition as a Welcoming Congregation, the vote was unanimously in favor. Can I get some applause and some pride for that?! Thank you for your longstanding commitment.
Today, as you have many times over the past 14 years, you are recommitting yourselves to that promise you made in 1999—the promise of being a place of welcome, inclusion, affirmation, and advocacy for people that dominant culture, and certainly many mainstream religions, have deemed abnormal.
I am so delighted and honored to be here in this sacred place, in this Welcoming Congregation, to share with you a little bit of my vision for what it can mean to be a Welcoming Congregation in this new century, and how we can collectively live our welcome as a spiritual practice.
Before I dive in completely, I’d like to invite you to look inward for a moment. Please find a comfortable position. Feel the floor, the chair you are in. Breathe deeply. Think of a time when you felt a profound sense of welcome. (pause)
Hold that experience in your mind, and consider whether the space you were in or the interaction you had was changed because you were there. What effect did your presence have? Stay present, and consider what it felt like in your body to experience that welcome. What was the effect it had on you? If you’ve never had an experience like this, or if you can’t think of one, imagine what it would feel like. (pause)
Now imagine what it would be like to feel that way—that full and total welcome, that belonging—every time you entered this space. And better yet, imagine what it would be like to know with every fiber of your being that that sense of welcome and belonging was unconditional—that there was nothing about you, no part of you, whether worn on your sleeve or hidden deep inside, that would make you unworthy of welcome, of belonging, of love.
Do you know what I mean when I ask you to imagine being free from the sense that there is something about you that is inherently wrong, or bad, or simply enormously different?
Back in 1999 UUSE’s Welcoming Congregation Task Force said that as a Welcoming Congregation you were striving to overcome the “heterosexual assumption”—that dominant cultural norm that shows up even when we aren’t aware of it, the norm that the default is straight, and being something other than straight is different, not normal, less-than. Many people with same-sex attractions have experienced fear and shame moving through a world that tells them that straight is normal and good, and it’s an experience that is shared by many people here.
But I’m actually talking about more than that one particular difference right now. I’m talking about what else you are carrying that makes you feel visibly or invisibly marked as different. What is it about you that makes you feel like the orange in a row of apples, with a song playing in the background—one of these things is not like the other… one of these things, doesn’t belong?
We come here carrying hidden trauma of all kinds—internal scars from childhoods full of landmines, or young adulthoods full of heartbreak, or ongoing depression that is barely held at bay enough to be here today. We have been subject to violence of all kinds—physical, emotional, spiritual. We come here with a huge diversity of experiences—far more than we think—in terms of financial means, educational background, ability, age, sexuality, gender identity and expression, race and ethnicity, relationship and family structure, language, nationality, body size, personality types, spiritual paths and beliefs. All of us carry weight from feeling different in some way—maybe we feel that sense of difference most when we are with our families of origin; maybe we feel it most when we are out in mainstream culture, maybe we feel it most here in this space. What are you carrying? (pause)
What would it be like if you could trust, unequivocally, that you were valued here for the pieces of yourself that make you feel different, not despite those pieces. That in this space there was nothing about you that could make people reverse their welcome or reject you from the circle of belonging?
When I think about Beloved Community, this is what I think about and long for. A community of radical welcome, where each person affirms the piece of the divine that lives in themself and in every other being. Where we can hold each other in all of our messiness and all of our brokenness, where love and compassion reign supreme. Where each of us fully, completely, belongs.
That’s my vision of Beloved Community. But how does it become manifest? I’ll tell you what I think. I think that being a Welcoming Congregation is how we practice Beloved Community.
In its infancy, the Welcoming Congregation Program asked people of faith to deeply engage with the question of what was standing in their way of being fully welcoming and inclusive of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. By intentionally engaging with this question, we were invited to grapple with the assumptions—like that “heterosexual assumption”—that were forever present in our community around who belongs. Who belongs here. Who is one of us. Who belongs, and how do we communicate that circle of belonging—consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally. How does the language we use, the songs we sing, the way we teach our children, our hiring practices, our requirements for membership, and a hundred other basic elements of how we create and live out community here—how do all these things communicate who and what is valued, and who and what doesn’t belong?
At its very core, the Welcoming Congregation Program asks congregations to challenge their own sense of where the boundaries of belonging are—to draw the circle wider. To practice this, so that we can keep practicing it and keep drawing that circle wider, little by little, step by step, slowly but surely. To make it a core practice to continue to ask, “where are the boundaries of belonging now?” “how can we expand them further?”
This is a big ask. It’s a big deal to first look at where that circle is drawn, and it’s an even bigger deal to acknowledge that there’s room to grow. And then it’s a huge deal to actually take steps toward expanding the circle, and then to keep taking steps—to never stop and say “right on, we’ve arrived. We are done now.”
This is a process of transformation. Every time. Redefining the boundary of belonging and redefining who “we” are means change. And with change comes growing pains. I know that you know this, because I know that UUSE has engaged with this sort of transformation many times. Not only when you spent 5 and a half years stretching yourselves through the Welcoming Congregation Program, but other times as well—like the more recent time that you literally transformed your building in a way that made it more accessible to people who use wheelchairs and other folks with limited mobility. Now that’s transformation. You drew the circle of belonging wider to say yes, folks who are not able to easily navigate stairs belong here, and we have to transform our very space in order to communicate that.
This process of transformation is a spiritual practice. It’s spiritual, because removing the barriers to authentic relationship with ourselves and each other and moving toward manifesting the Beloved Community is the most deeply spiritual work I know. And it’s practice, because it doesn’t magically happen—naming ourselves as a Welcoming Congregation, or as an ally, doesn’t automatically transform us. This welcome takes practice.
So how do we engage in welcome as a spiritual practice? How do we get to the place where you, and every other person here, feels that profound sense of welcome and belonging and trust every time you enter this space? And on the other hand, because it takes both of these things, how do we get to the place where you and every other person here can venture into the uncertainty and risk of truly being messy and still being in relationship, knowing that the trust and belonging of this space can hold that messiness?
Well, before we talk about how to practice welcome, let’s take a second to chat about what gets in the way of that for us. I’m going to go back to that “heterosexual assumption” again. That’s just one example of the millions of unnamed and generally unconscious assumptions that we are barraged with as we move through this culture—assumptions about what is normal and what is different—who is an apple and who is an orange. Think again about one or more ways in which you are reminded that you are different, whether here or in some other part of your life.
Some of us here are introverted and constantly feel as though people expect us to be extroverted—that we would be more valuable if we were extroverted. Some of us here have no desire to be a parent, but everywhere we go the expectation is of course we want to have kids someday, that that’s the right way to be. Some of us here are hard of hearing, and the assumption is always that we should be able to hear perfectly. Some of us here never graduated from high school, and there are a thousand ways that we are reminded that that makes us somehow less-than.
There are a lot of ways that I feel like an orange in a sea of apples, but I’ll give you the biggest example from my life. Every time I’m out in public and have to go to the bathroom, I’m reminded that I’m different. One of the linchpins of our culture’s worldview is that all people are men or women—no overlap and no other options. But I’m not a woman or a man, and so everywhere I go I’m faced with a thousand reminders, small and huge, that I’m supposed to be a woman or a man, that the way I am is not normal, is wrong, is downright impossible. That I don’t exist. Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. Brothers and sisters. Pink or blue. He or she. Every time someone points me toward the women’s locker room, I shrivel inside. Every time I buy a plane ticket now and I have to provide my “gender,” I feel like I’m participating in my own invisibility. Every time someone assumes my pronouns and says Alex, she, her, I have an out-of-body experience. “Who are they talking about?” my internal self asks. I’m gone. I’m not there anymore. I can put on a smile and survive, but I’m no longer fully present. Each time I’m reminded that I’m different or that according to our dominant culture I don’t exist, it’s like a feather or a pebble or a stone is added to the burden that I carry. One feather or pebble or stone is nothing, but they sure do accumulate. They accumulate over the course of my day, over the course of my month, over the course of my lifetime. Those stones don’t go away. To the point where I have to decide, do I want to take that on today? Do I have the emotional reserves to take that on today? Would I rather stay away from the places where I’m most likely to encounter feathers and pebbles and stones.
The more experiences of being different a person carries, the more we are reminded that we’re different. The bigger the difference, the more we are reminded that we’re different. The more our difference shows up in every aspect of our lives, rather than just in one or two parts of our life, the more we are reminded that we’re different.
And unfortunately, the more assumptions we each make about each other, the harder it is to be in real relationship, to create Beloved Community. Because every time we make an assumption, we are unconsciously perpetuating the norms of our culture.
And that sucks. Because we have been taught our whole lives to make assumptions. We have been taught, in ways we don’t even know, to identify who is “like us” and who is not, and then to put value judgments on that. We have been taught to be uncomfortable with difference.
But I need you to know something that is completely core to practicing welcome as a spiritual practice—I need you to know that you are a good person. This is something central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. You are inherently good. No matter what you do that hurts yourself or hurts someone else, it will never make you a bad person. All of us are works in progress. For me, being a person of faith and being part of a faith community is what helps hold me and call me back to my higher self. It’s what makes it possible for me to take risks.
When someone calls me “she,” that sucks for me. But that doesn’t make that person a bad person, because they’ve been taught to look at me and make a snap judgment as to whether I am a she or a he. Unfortunately, it does take a toll on me. It may be a small thing to that person who calls me “she,” but to me it’s a pebble on top of a sheer ton of other pebbles, other reminders I’ve had that day or that week that I’m not real or I don’t belong.
People have all kinds of reactions to the information that they are using a pronoun for me that hurts me. I’ve seen confusion, anger, dismissal, denial, rejection, self-deprecation. When we are challenged around things like this, often the place we go is a place of feeling as though we are being told we are a bad person, when really what we are being offered is the opportunity to stretch and grow and be in more authentic relationship. The person who messes up my pronouns isn’t a bad person, they are a human person. It’s what we do with the negative or difficult emotions that come up for us when we encounter difference that counts. I’m gonna say that again: It’s what we do with the negative or difficult emotions that come up for us when we encounter difference that counts. Because that’s where the practice comes in.
What would it be like if those assumptions that fill our every interaction and encounter were gone? If we met each other, and encountered the world, through curiosity and care, intimately in touch with the knowledge that we actually know absolutely nothing about each other until we take the risk of entering into authentic relationship, approaching each other with openness and with wonder. Until we embrace the platinum rule—have you heard of the platinum rule? It says, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Because how I want to be treated isn’t necessarily how you want to be treated, and the only way to know how you want to be treated is to get to know you in a real way.
I know that’s a tall order—I’m full of them, you might be starting to catch onto that. But the good news is that it starts small. Practicing welcome starts small. It starts with conversation. It starts when you don’t settle for what is comfortable, but take one small risk at a time. During social hour, who can you talk to who you’ve never talked to before? Who is on the margins of the room? When you do talk to people you already know, what do you talk about? Do you stay to “safe” topics or do you talk about what deeply moved you about the service, or how you are struggling. It starts with conversation.
It also starts with love and compassion for your own self and for others. It starts with gentle, personal work to practice sitting with discomfort. When you experience a negative emotional reaction in the face of something new or strange or unexpected, can you sit with that discomfort? Can you breathe and notice what’s coming up for you? Can you pause before you speak? When you are tempted by defensiveness, reactivity, dismissiveness, can you instead practice love and compassion for yourself and for the people around you?
And then it starts with noticing the cultural norms here in this place, collectively working to understand where the circle of belonging has been unconsciously drawn. All communities draw that circle of belonging somewhere—where is that edge for you? What are the assumptions that you unconsciously make about who “we” are here? Who is going to collect those feathers and pebbles and stones and maybe even boulders when they come here—those overt and also under the surface reminders that they are different from what’s most valued here.
Every time an assumption shows up, it impacts someone here. Someone feels devalued for having an experience that doesn’t line up with that assumption. Someone knows that they will never invite their brother to come here, or their best friend. Someone wonders if this is really a place where their child will be fully valued as they continue to grow. It starts with noticing where your collective edges are. Just noticing them. And then practicing pushing back on them. Questioning the assumptions that are being made. Using language a little differently.
And it starts with the people who are already here. For some of us here, this is a place in our lives where we actually do feel that sense of welcome and belonging already. For others of us here, this is a place that maybe comes close or maybe doesn’t even come close, but we are here anyway. Some of us feel like this place is the best chance we have of not experiencing stones and boulders, so we’ll settle for feathers and pebbles. How can the circle be expanded for us—the people who are already here but don’t feel as though we can be totally present here?
In closing, my invitation to you is this: As you are continuing the amazing work and ministry that the Welcoming Congregation Steering Group is doing, and the amazing work and ministry that has come before and made you who you are today, never settle for what is comfortable. There is a common perception out there that LGBTQ equals “gay” and that “gay” equals white, college educated, middle class, able-bodied. My invitation to you is to keep layering on race, class, age, ability, to layer on gender nonconformity, fluid sexualities like bi and queer. To layer on other marginalizing experiences. What does welcome look like then, when you bring all of this into who you are making a home for? Into who belongs here. When the commitment of being a Welcoming Congregation is looking for your edges and working to push them back? When the goal becomes centering care, curiosity, and compassion in all of your interactions? In deepening your relationships with each other here in this community and breaking down the walls and assumptions that separate us?
I’m not asking you to make it happen all at once and right away. I am saying that by practicing welcome in this way, by extending the circle of belonging bit by bit and embracing transformation as part of engaging in welcome as a spiritual practice, you will expand the circle of belonging far wider than just to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer people—although you will reach many many more of us as well in the process—and you will bring much needed healing to people who have been members of this community for years. And that is what being a Welcoming Congregation can be. That is what practicing Beloved Community looks like.
May we make it so. Ashe, Amen, and Blessed be.