When United Church of Canada representatives from all over Ontario convene in the Sault for a regional conference next week, they will be greeted with a reminder of their biggest social justice struggle of the past two decades.
A travelling exhibit called The Shower of Stoles will form a part of the United Church of Canada’s London Conference being held in Sault Ste. Marie this week. A wine and cheese event, sponsored by Algoma’s own Welcome Friend Association, is featuring “The Shower of Stoles” on Thursday May 26th, 7-10 pm, at the Comfort Suites & Conference Centre on Great Northern Rd. Cost for this event is $15 pre-registration, or $20 at the door.
The exhibit features 30 stoles, those long scarves ministers wear with their robes. The stoles are accompanied by stories of the people who once wore them —lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, two-spirit and questioning (LGBT2SQ) people forced to either give up their positions in the church or deny their sexuality.
Marnie McDonough, lay worship leader, decided to bring the exhibit to the London Conference event after hearing about it at a 2009 Focus On The Gay Family Conference aimed at helping church people be more welcoming to people from the LGBT2SQ community.
“As a lay worship leader in the United Church, I wear my stole with pride and reverence because it represents the trust the church body has put in me to present the word of God,” says McDonough. “We think we are open and welcoming to all but the reality is often different. To me these stoles represent unresolved issues within the church hierarchy.” McDonough says the stoles also represent hope. Much of this can be found in the history of The Shower of Stoles project.
It began after Martha Juillerat, who had worked for years as a closeted Presbyterian minister in rural Missouri, came out and admitted her true sexual identity. When faced with the threat of being defrocked by the church in 1995, she chose to set aside her ordination. Juillerat and her partner Tammy Lindahl, also a minister, wanted to find a way to impress upon their presbytery that there were hundreds of LGBT2SQ people of faith active in the life and ministry of the church. They asked LGBT2SQ colleagues to send their stoles to hang at the meeting the day Juillerat set aside her ordination. They were hoping to receive a couple dozen stoles. They received 80, almost overnight, and the collection grew to more than 1,000 stoles.
“Our churches are called to build up, love and care for all creation, so it is critical we recognize where we’ve been complicit in destroying peoples’ lives,” says exhibit organizer Marnie McDonough.” This exhibit, by presenting the issue visually, is an unthreatening way to experience what our LGBT2SQ friends in God’s ministry have had to deal with.”
For its part, the United Church has been struggling to reconcile the reality of LGBT people with its Christian theology for more than two decades. In 1988, after lengthy debate, the church decided to include openly homosexual people seeking to become ministers. In 2000, the church adopted the policy to work toward the civil recognition of same-sex partnerships. And in 2003, it called on the Government of Canada to recognize same-sex marriages.
Closer to home, the local and national United Church supported the 2009 Focus on the Gay Family conference in Sault Ste. Marie aimed at bringing together church people and members of the city’s LGBT2SQ community. This year the conference will take place from Sept. 23-25th at the Water Tower Inn. The focus will be on strengthening the gay community, its supporters, partners, families, faith community and service agencies. For more information on The Shower of Stoles and the Focus on the Gay Family conference visit www.welcomefriend.ca.