Opening and Affirming (ONA)
Open and Affirming
In March, 2017 a small (and growing) number of church members introduced the potential of becoming an Open and Affirming (ONA) designated UCC church like 90+ others in Connecticut. Open and Affirming means that a UCC church welcomes anyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, creed, class, age, marital status, political views, physical or mental abilities, substance addiction, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Since the March ONA introduction, a few church members asked us why we should become ONA designated when we already welcome everyone who walks through our front doors searching for a place to belong and feel safe. There are three primary reasons our church is pursuing the ONA designation:
- A well-publicized ONA designation lets people looking for a place of worship know that we are an exceptionally welcoming congregation. Without the designation, we hinder interested worshippers from exploring our loving church family.
- In our recent senior pastoral search effort, we learned that there may have been candidates who did not consider our church because we lacked the ONA designation. Rev. Jeff was actually reluctant to consider us, but a colleague urged him to interview and we were able to convince him that we would like to pursue becoming Open and Affirming. Unless we can demonstrate that we are exploring ONA, we are concerned that we may miss out on outstanding candidates for our pending associate pastor search.
- Following the Open and Affirming process will help us journey together, exploring who we are as a church as we get to know each other better. We will also grow spiritually as we discuss what the bible has to say about being tolerant of others who we may see as different from ourselves.
What ONA Means to Me?
In January, I had the opportunity to go into Hartford to see a show at the Bushnell. As we drove through Hartford I noticed one of Hartford's stately UCC churches proudly displaying an ONA banner in their front yard. My question at the time was, "why does this church need to advertise to the world that they are an ONA church when supposedly all UCC churches are welcoming?" Since then I have learned that "All are Welcome" isn't enough. Members of the LGBT community, those with special needs, multiracial families and families with a less traditional structure have learned that "All are Welcome" doesn't always apply to them. A public welcome by an Open and Affirming church sends a clear message to all that have a home in the UCC. Written by Beth Stewart
"..and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God." Micah 6:8 RSV and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Mark 12:31 RSV. In keeping with these biblical inperatives and as former pastors we embrace and encourage the work of the ONA group and affirm the right of every individual to be welcomed and included in the worship and fellowship of God's church. Written by Rev. Donald G. Miller, Rev. Hannah Howe, Rev. Sandra T. Benjamin
"We have friends that have a son with cerebral palsy who spends most of his time in a wheel chair. We recently attended a Power Soccer Tournament, which is a competitive team sport designed for power wheel chair users of all ages. The athletes' health issues include quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and many others. These physical challenges did nothing to dampen the team spirit and serious competition of the players and fans. I was humbled and awed by the joy and enthusiasm around me. The players taught me a lesson in acceptance of people for their inner being rather than their outward appearance. As an open and affirming church, UCC Tolland will communicate to the local community and the world that is doors are open to people of all abilities." Written by Christine Thompson
"Quite simply, ONA is a way of life. My step brother is gay…..I never thought much or cared about that. A brief experience in 1985 at my high school graduation party reminds me that not everyone is open to this. In my opinion, to be open and affirming is a choice based on our own experiences. I believe we all have the capacity to judge one another for any difference we may have such as race, color, height, financial status and so forth. I think that is just being human. I pray we all realize that this is only the beginning of a lifelong commitment to become open and affirming." Written by Lisa Harley
“This church has been my extended family for as long as I can remember. I have always felt accepted and loved within the walls of our church. Ours is a community I don't want anybody to miss out on. I have friends that do not feel comfortable with the idea of church, because they think the church could never accept them. By becoming ONA, I believe we as Christians can share our truly wonderful community with those who need it, regardless of who they are.” Written by Ben Free
“An ONA designated church communicates to all the local LGBTQ community that if they are looking for a safe place to openly worship, please come on in and check us out. It says to teens who may be struggling with their own sexuality or gender identity that there is clergy here that they can talk to. Clergy that will help guide them to accept who they are instead of how to pretend to be what they are not. To realize that God loves them just as they are and that God doesn’t care who they love but how they love that person. How much more I would be today if I had figured this out then!” Written by Bailey Brenn, Deacon UCC Tolland
“Being accepted for who you are, for what you are, should not be the exception but the norm. Welcoming folks wherever they are on their journey with whatever they come with from wherever they come makes us true Christians. Praying for people and accepting their differences from afar is one thing, but what about when they walk through your door? When anyone feels compelled to hide who they are in order to be accepted, they are forced to live their life in a prison of self-denial and shadow. We are not a people of shadow but of light. With all of the students I have taught and teachers I have worked, I found that acceptance of who they truly are makes the most difference. It fosters the closest connections, promotes honesty and trust, encourages understanding and compassion, and builds the fruitful relationships, showing love for all. This is why I am involved in the work with Open and Affirming Committee of our church. I do not want to live any other way.” Written by Gary Lotreck
“Often it may seem that ONA is synonymous with the LGBTQ cause. But it simply means challenging ourselves to be accepting of anyone that wants to become part of our church family. Each one of us has said or dine something that we are not proud of, or wish we could take back. It may have been a “harmless” comment about another person or as extreme as committing a crime that resulted in being incarcerated for an extended period of time. I believe, no matter what someone may have done, and if they truly want to see forgiveness and live a life based on the teaching of our faith, we should welcome them and help them on their journey of reconciliation.” Written by Kevin Juber
“A women I know has a niece who is mentally ill, a nephew with severe physical challenges, a sister-in-law with cognitive challenges. Her son lost a childhood friend to heroin. Another son questions the existence of God. A close family friend recently serves 12 months in prison. This women’s dear cousin has chosen a same-sex life partner. And this women has many Muslim coworkers she considers friends. ONA is a statement of acceptance, of accommodation, of encouragement and LOVE. What better place than UCC of Tolland? Oh, and by the way – I AM that women!” Written by Marcia Berner
“I grew up in the South Congregational Church of East Hartford in the 1960’s and 70’s. At that time, South Church was a large, thriving, active church with members of all ages. As the population of East Hartford declined, so did the membership at South Church, and today the membership has dwindled to a small core of mostly senior citizens. So I was a big surprised to learn that they have recently obtained ONA status. A close family friend and an octogenarian was on the Open and Affirming team at South Church. She told me, “It was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.” An explicit welcome by an ONA church sends a clear message to all that they have a home in a welcoming church.” Written by Bob Stewart
“For one, it’s about catching up to the millennial generation who do not perceive or behave like LGBTQ is an issue. It’s just something that resonates with them. If anything in my work with undergrads at UConn, they embrace those who are different and try hard to include them. It’s interesting to think that over the next few decades, LGBTQ will become a distant memory.” Written by Kevin Thompson
“When our family relocated to Massachusetts in 2005 we went church shopping. After some online research and trial services, we found a fit with the local UCC church. Since they became ONA in 1993, we knew we would be welcomed into a community of faith that did not discriminate. After 4 years in that vibrant, growing congregation, I am convinced its ONA designation fueled its growth. If you would like to explore what ONA might mean to our church, please talk with Christine and Kevin Thompson, Nancy and Hannes Alholm, Kevin and Linda Juber, or Bob and Beth Stewart. We are excited and honored with the enthusiastic response we have received to date.” Written by Christine Thompson
“As a single mom with 3 young children, their spiritual health was as important to me as their physical health. Attending the church of my youth, however, was not the answer. Unable to fully participate in church activities and not recognized as a full member due to my divorce, I felt ashamed. We all attended but I learned much later how difficult this was for my children as well, when my daughter approached me after confirmation class saying “I just can’t be a hypocrite, Mom”. Teaching our children is a parent’s responsibility, but I firmly believe that we learn as much from them as they learn from us. Our children are the most tolerant, accepting, and loving people we know from birth. They expect the same from us. The Bible tells us that God created us in His image. The Bible does NOT say God created some of us in HIS image. The Bible does NOT say God created some of us in His image. God does not make mistakes. The child every mother carries in her womb was created by Him regardless of whether he or she is gay, straight, black, white, Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. Welcoming every mother’s child into our church is what ONA means to me.” Written by Maricia Berner
“ONA means keeping my eyes, ears and heart open…with passion. As a school leader, I rely on my faith to run and build a public magnet school to meet the needs of every child and family. Our families are seeing “the right fit” for their children, who may be facing hunger, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, undetermined gender or loss of a parent. ALL are God’s children, yearning to engage in a caring learning community. School is to be a safe place. Church is to be a safe place. I believe that being open to making a covenant will affirm and communicate that we provide a safe place for ALL God’s children.” Written by Tonja Kelly
“ONA is an opportunity to learn and grow. As a dedicated educator for more than four decades, I spent much time and energy helping others to accept, understand, and ultimately celebrate differences. Now I’m looking at sexual orientation and gender identity and wondering. If I never discuss the topic, do my actions display acceptance? Do gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances know that I love them for who they are? Is quiet acceptance enough? Is our church a welcoming and safe place for all if we never speak about differences? It’s time for conversation.” Written by Fran Maynard
“Upon moving to Connecticut, I became curious about the local Congregational Church. I hadn’t hear of the religion when I lived in the Midwest and the South. Specifically, I wanted to know whether the religion would be welcoming to me, my wife and my children. Through my research, I learned that the United Church of Christ has a history or supporting principles of peace, justice, equality and inclusivity. I understand that although not all congregations had adopted an Open and Affirming covenant, the religion, as a whole, seemed to be welcoming to LGBTQ families. I initially became a member of the First Church of Christ Congregational, in Suffield. I found the congregation and pastor to be very welcoming. I then moved to Tolland, and found UCC Tolland to be the same welcoming faith community. I have enjoyed being an active member of the congregation, and hope that anyone else looking for a faith community feels the same level of comfort that I have found here at UCC Tolland. Adopting an Open and Affirming covenant may lead others who are actively searching for a church home to know without question that this is a welcoming and inclusive congregation for anyone wishing to worship God.” Written by Alona Crouteau
ONA Coalition: https://openandaffirming.org
Click to Open ONA Survey
Frequently Asked Questions
What is gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation?
In a Gender Binary system there are only two distinct options: male and female. Some people do not fit into the Gender Binary choices. The following paragraphs attempt to explain some of the terminology surrounding gender.
Sex is determined by physical characteristics of the person. In a gender binary system, if a baby appears to have
female external genitalia, then the sex is female, if a baby has male external genitalia then the sex is male. But sex is
determined not only by genitalia, but by reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones. People with ambiguous
genitalia or other biological complexities may identify as Intersex.
Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of self. For most people, our sense of our gender aligns with the category
originally identified at birth. This is referred to as cisgender. For transgender people, their internal sense is self is in some
way different than their birth certificate. Gender identity can also be experienced as neither woman nor man, or a
combination of woman and man. Some people in the middle of the gender identity spectrum identify as gender-queer.
Gender expression is how we live as a gendered person, including clothing, career, and hobbies. In our society, gender
expression is guided by a complex set of cultural rules and expectations as to what is appropriate behavior for men and
women. People that do not fit the rigid definition of masculine or feminine may identify as gender non-conforming.
People with equal combination of masculine and feminine may identify as androgynous.
Sexual orientation is whom the person is attracted to. In a Gender Binary system the person is attracted only to the
opposite sex. Sexual orientation is complex and people may be attracted to the same sex or both sexes. People that are
attracted to both sexes may identify as bisexual, pansexual, or queer.
Why do we have to go through the ONA process as our church already welcomes all?
While the United Church of Christ (UCC) has been involved in ONA in some form since in 1969, not all UCC churches have gone through the process and become an official ONA church. The process of ONA discernment is an important step, so that all voices of the congregation have an opportunity to be heard. The discussions during the discernment process allow us to build relationships, as we discover shared values and grow in faith. A public statement that UCC Tolland is officially ONA sends a clear message to all seekers, including the LGBT community, as well as straight folks that identify with the values that ONA represents. In addition, our congregation’s support of an ONA covenant can be a life-saving moment for those who may have felt excluded from society in some manner, especially for LGBT youth. If we become ONA, our church will be listed on the UCC and ONA Coalition’s websites so that Christians looking for a church family can be assured of a welcome from our congregation. This public welcome statement can actually help our church grow.
By adopting an ONA covenant, our congregation can live out St. Paul’s teaching to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.” (Romans 15:7 NIV)