WOW! A Report from WOW 2003

As if I wasn’t giddy enough from all the emotional events of this year, last weekend I journeyed to Philadelphia for the WOW 2003 conference! WOW! Witness Our Welcome. Over 1,000 LGBTQ people and our straight allies were there, including some of the most amazing queer religious leaders in our history, all gathered in one place.

Witness Our Welcome is an ecumenical gathering of LGBTQ Christians and their straight supporters, friends, and family who are part of the Reconciling Church movement, those brave congregations in the mainline denominations which have courageously made a public welcome to the LGBTQ community. Sometimes those affirmations endanger the standing of the congregation with their denominations. The Reconciling movement includes the United Church of Canada, United Methodists, Baptists, Brethren, Mennonites, MCC, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, and Lutherans. Other denominational LGBTQ caucuses and organizations are joining as well.

Some highlights for me:

Virginia Mollenkott preached Thursday night. I spent an evening with Jean Audrey Powers a now-retired Methodist powerhouse who used to be on the staff of the National Council of Churches when MCC first applied for membership. Presbyterian Jane Adams Spahr was there, who organized our book “Called OUT!”

Troy Perry preached at the closing worship Sunday morning. Marsha Stevens, Delores Berry, Jeannie Broderick, and David North all performed. Elder Marco Grimaldo an openly Gay Presbyterian and the Rev. Wanda Floyd of Imani MCC in Durham, North Carolina, were the cochairs of WOW.

Mark Bowman, the prime mover of the Reconciling Church movement was there. Father Bill Countryman, openly Gay Episcopal priest and brilliant author told me he admired the ministry of Chi Rho Press!

Chris Glaser led breakfast Bible studies all three mornings, an old friend and one of our authors, he even plugged his Chi Rho Press book, “Come Home!” one morning, the only book of his he mentioned! Bishop Yvette Flunder of City of Refuge Community Church in San Francisco preached Friday night. Steve Sato Rohr spoke Saturday morning at the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia. Seeing Roberta and Harold Krieder and the new edition of “From Wounded Hearts,” which Chi Rho Press originally published. Peterson Toscano presented his one-man show, “Doin’ Time at the Homo No Mo Halfway House.”

Dr. Mari Castellanos, a Latina United Church of Christ justice activist, preached Friday morning. And there were workshops! Steve Baines of People for the American Way on holy unions, and Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, the MCC couple whose lawsuit forced the Province of Ontario to grant full marriage rights for same-sex couples, spoke about their experience. Candace Chellew of the on-line LGBTQ Christian magazine Whosoever. Rev. Ken South on Lesbian and Gay seniors.

It was brilliant.

And throughout my entire experience at WOW last weekend, I couldn’t help but think that all these people, Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Transgender, Bisexual, Queer, Intersex, and Undecided; from a couple dozen different church traditions and liturgical habits; from all over the US and Canada; from different ethnic and racial backgrounds; from the very young to the very old, and from all kinds of economic and educational strata. All these people were here saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve God.”

Because you see, this was my house, broader even than MCC, here was my Tribe, gloriously and radiantly arrayed, and we were affirming in the face of extreme prejudice and hate, that “As for me and my house, we will serve God.”

Hate did appear. The very first worship service was across town in the magnificent Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. Big white buses lined up at the University of Pennsylvania where most of the conference was, to drive us over to Rittenhouse Square. The service was glorious with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, the pioneering lesbian author of “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?” preaching and Presbyterian lesbian activist Jane Adams Spahr leading community prayers. The conference choir was already organized and in full voice under the inspired leadership of Patrick Evans and Mark Andrew Miller. And unbeknownst to us, hate-filled protesters had gathered outside the church during our opening worship, carrying the usual huge signs, “Homosexuality is a Sin,” “Sodomy is a Sin,” “God Hates Homosexuals.”

As our worship ended Janie Spahr told us that the choir would leave the church first and make a cordon for us to pass safely through the protestors to our buses. So we left the church, with joyless, sad, hateful people lugging these big huge signs all behind our wonderful choir, signing at the top of their voices!

One tiny little woman with a sign about half as big as she was declaring “Sodomy is a Sin,” somehow wandered in amongst our people as we were heading towards our busses. People were very kind to her, and she looked rather confused. She stopped right in front of me as Jean Audrey Powers and I were heading toward our shining white bus. I looked at her and her sign and I said, “I couldn’t agree with you more! Sodomy is a sin. A grievous sin.” She looked up at me. I continued, “And, of course, I know from reading the Sodom story in Genesis that the true sin of Sodom was inhospitality. Not being hospitable to strangers in our midst is a very bad thing.”

“By the way, do you live here in Philadelphia? Thanks ever so much for your kind welcome to your beautiful city!”

I couldn’t resist. The contrast between the joyous, loving crowd at WOW and the pitiful, sad, angry, mean-spirited, and hateful protesters was profound. Whose God would you serve, I kept thinking. WOW showed how wonderful and glorious God’s diverse and rainbow- colored creation can be.