Woodside Church has long been known as Flint, Michigan’s liberal Christian church.  An inter-denominational church, Woodside affiliates with United Church of Christ (UCC) and American Baptist Churches USA (ABC-USA).

Late in August of 2006, Woodside made the papers in a most extraordinary way:

The oldest Baptist church in Flint MI is the first Baptist congregation in the state of Michigan to be disaffiliated from fellow Baptist congregations because of its policy regarding homosexuality. Churches in the 10 counties surrounding Flint voted 18-3 to sever [their] ties with the 275 member Woodside Church in the aging industrial city.

The “policy regarding homosexuality” that earned them the boot from their North Area ABC sister churches?  Just a few months earlier in May of 2006 Woodside’s congregation had voted to join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB).  AWAB members “have gone on record as being welcoming and affirming of all persons, without regard to sexual orientation.”

The vote by its sister churches to disfellowship Woodside didn’t come as a complete surprise.  Only six months before Woodside joined AWAB, the ABC-USA’s General Board amended the denomination’s “Identity Statement” to include this painfully homophobic section:

We affirm that God through Jesus Christ calls us to be:

A Biblical People

Who submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.

How did Woodside arrive at the point of knowingly defying the American Baptist denomination, and where did they go from there?  Join me below for a conversation with Rev. Deborah Kohler, the minister who served the congregation from 1997 through 2010.

Rev. Deborah Kohler

Starting the Open and Affirming Process at Woodside Church

When I interviewed for the associate minister job in 1997, one of the things I asked the senior minister was, you all have been on the cutting edge of so many social issues, why haven’t you taken on Open and Affirming?  

I already knew it was important for me when I first got there and I planted some seeds.  They weren’t ready for it then.  But that’s why I was so pleased that it came from the congregation, not from me.  It was initiated by some people in leadership in the congregation.  It would have been a very different process if I had tried to impose that on them.

A few years later, two or three things converged.  The first was the fact that for decades we had sponsored a Boy Scout troop.  One of our gay families with children had boys that were keenly aware that they could not be part of that Boy Scout troop.  That was the first area of discrimination that brought it to the attention of the Board of Directors.

Our discussion of that happened to coincide with the fact that the senior minister left suddenly, and so I was filling in in the interim until we discerned whether or not they would get somebody else or whether I would just continue as the only minister.

And so during that discussion with the Board I said I would do a union for anybody who asked and I don’t think I need to ask the Board for permission, but at the same time I’m only here in an interim capacity and what I think you all need to think about is would that be a ministry you’d be comfortable with?  And they were like yeah, we didn’t question [former Woodside minister Rev.] Franklin Elmer when he wanted to do interracial marriages and nobody thought that was a good idea.  

So that night at the Board meeting we passed three motions.  We passed a motion that any Boy Scout troop that was meeting at Woodside or was in any way connected with us would receive any boy regardless of the orientation of him or his parent or guardian.  We passed a motion that the Board supported me in my decision to do unions for same-gender couples.  And we passed motion that we would begin a study of the Open and Affirming process.

The UCC has an LGBT coalition and they have resource materials.  We got their resource materials and mapped out a process to begin to get the congregation to dialog about it and to learn about it.  One of the key steps was to have an open discussion forum where the people on the panel were long-time members who were parents of gays and lesbians and talked about their experience of being excluded at other churches and how important it was that they could come to Woodside.  

Woodside Church’s main web page now prominently states “We are an Open and Affirming congregation welcoming into the full life and ministry of our church all persons, including those of every race, culture, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability and economic status. At Woodside Church, our diversity strengthens our faith. Our actions are a reflection of our Christian faith.”

A lot of people said “we already accept everybody, why do we have to take an official stance?”  I would say that was the biggest element of resistance.  And the education that we needed to do that any church that considers themselves welcoming, unless you have an official stance and a rainbow out front, people who have been excluded have no way of knowing that they’re really included.

We spent a little over a year, starting I think in the Summer of 1999.  We didn’t actually take the vote until December of 2001, and some people were like “oh this is taking so long, let’s just get it over with”.

We followed a really good process and when we voted we voted 96 to 4 to become Open and Affirming.

Ongoing Challenges

Now the thing that surprised me, although I’ve run into more dialog about this now, is that the congregation taking an official stance is a significant step but it’s really only a first step.  Almost every congregation has ongoing challenges after they take the official stance.  We had a couple of different manifestations of that.

We had a situation where we had an 18 year old member who had graduated from high school so was no longer eligible for the youth group.  But we didn’t have a young adults group so we kind of in a very lose and I would say in hind sight irresponsible – I would take responsibility for this myself, personally – thought well maybe she could be like a junior adviser to our youth.  We didn’t giver her any training or anything.  I just didn’t want her to be left with nothing.

At a point in time our kids were at an informal gathering — it was not an official church activity.  They just decided on their own after church one Sunday morning I think it was to go over to somebody’s house.  They all went over there, they all knew each other from church.  But anyway, there was a kiss exchanged between this 18 year old and a 13 year old girl.

The mother of the 13 year old was not a member of the church and she went ballistic.  It turned into this whole huge thing.  Someone pointed out to me that everybody’s worst fear is some homosexual person trying to “convert” their child.

So we worked that through, and it was a very difficult process to deal with partly because of trying to protect the confidentiality of the two people, especially the 13 year old.  It was complicated by the fact that the 18 year old was a Native American, so we didn’t want to do anything that was inadvertently stereotypical toward her in her already doubly minority status.  The 13 year old within a year or less of that was in long-term in-patient treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction, so you had a kind of home schooled very sheltered 18 year old and a street savvy 13 year old.  And yet the law is, 18′s an adult and 13′s not.  So that took us a little while to straighten out.

Then we had a situation in the office where an employee and a volunteer had some difficulty getting along, and by the time we peeled back the layers came to find out that the employee was a deeply closeted gay man who the volunteer and his partner were trying to help come out of the closet.  The employee took it as a romantic overture and so when his overtures were rebuffed things got tense between them.

All most of us knew at the time was there was this big relationship problem.  Accusations were made.  It’s like they were fighting out their personal life via church systemic issues.

Some of the people involved kept saying, if this kind of overture were made by a heterosexual employee to a heterosexual volunteer, the pathway would be clear to everybody.  In hindsight I’d say yes, there was some truth to that.  There was also more complexity to the situation.

It’s hard to understand the cultural differences until you’re in a situation where you’re trying to be equitable and the internalized indoctrination of the society gets confronted and you figure out how to sort it out.  

But I would say that a few years after that we pretty well had it sorted out.  We have lots of gay and lesbian members, and it’s like any cutting-edge movement, you’re trailblazing.  You’re inventing the wheel.  At the time there were some but not a lot of churches with any experience.  We were the only Christian church in Flint doing this.

It’s Them or Us

The next thing that happened was, one of our gay members was a prominent figure in the community and he was interviewed by the newspaper and he said what a great positive change it had been in his life to find a church that loved him and accepted him as the gay man that he is.  When that was published, three of the local Baptist churches called the president of the area Baptist association and said it’s them or us.

So then the whole movement began for us to be disfellowshipped from the Baptists.  We went through that for a year and a half.

There were several decisions that the congregation had to make.  First, do we still want to be Baptists?  We’re already affiliated with the United Church of Christ, why would we want to bother?

We decided that part of the justice ministry is to stay in the system and keep standing up for what’s right, so yes we did want to be Baptists.

According to church leaders, Woodside will remain a Baptist congregation, although the 275-member church might have to join with a Baptist association in a different state.

“We believe Jesus, as we know him and understand him through the gospels, teaches us to love everyone just as they are without judgment,” Woodside pastor Deborah Kohler said in the story. “There is nothing they can do to keep us from being Baptists. We can find other churches to connect with.”

Then we had to find one of about a half dozen regions to join.  Normally the American Baptist Churches are organized geographically.  But other churches that had been disfellowshipped had found places where they could maintain their affiliation that wasn’t necessarily based on geography.  

Rochester, New York has taken in several congregations, Metro Chicago, the Seattle area, Philadelphia.  We ended up with a very good affiliation with Metro Chicago that has been terrific for the 5 years we’ve been participating in that.

And then we had to decide where we wanted our money to go.  Because the denominational stance is basically, “the Bible says its wrong and we don’t endorse it”.  And so we had to figure out ways to maintain our affiliation.  You have to give money to maintain your affiliation.  But how were we going to direct that money so it didn’t support the administrative practices that we don’t endorse?

All the giving of Woodside Church to the Baptists is designated to particular ministries where there’s not buy-in to that official denominational statement.

In both the Baptists and the UCC, our basis of organization is what’s called congregational polity.  This is unlike hierarchical denominations where you’re told from the bishop or higher up what the doctrinal line is that you have to toe.  Like, say, the controversy in the Methodist Church now.  They have an official national stance and everyone from their national offices down has to endorse that stance to be part of the Methodist Church.  

In a congregational polity, the only reason for being connected in the wider church is for more effective ministry.  They realized a couple centuries ago that you can do better missions if you combine your resources.  And they realized that fellowship with people of similar beliefs is valuable.  

And so technically, the UCC and ABC-USA denominations are not hierarchical, although I would say in manifestation the American Baptists act like they’re authoritarian.  We just stood up to them and said, “You can tell us you’re kicking us out, but you can’t kick us out.  We’re Baptists as long as we say we’re Baptists and we can affiliate with whoever we as a congregation choose to affiliate.  You all have something called Four Freedoms, and one of those Freedoms is the freedom of each individual and each congregation to interpret the Scriptures according to their faith-conscience.  You can’t tell us — you have no authority over us.”  But ultimately they do.

So we found ministries in the ABC-USA that we can endorse.  We send money to what’s called National Ministries, but not to their Global Ministries and not to their General Ministries.  We send money to a particular program called Children in Poverty.  And we send money to the region ministries in Metro Chicago.  

So we continue to be a presence at the national denominational meetings.  There are other Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and we’re in coalition with them.  We actually joined an association called AWAB, The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  That’s in addition to the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns.

Community Reactions

Down Low Freakout:  One Friday night per month we have Jazz Vespers.  A local musician from a conservative church who had played at our Jazz Vespers often was going to play on the night that the executive director of AWAB was arriving in town for a weekend of study and discussion.  It was in the local newspaper that our weekend of study and discussion would kick off with Jazz Vespers, and that the executive director of AWAB would be our guest at Jazz Vespers.

This guy freaked out.  He had the newspaper print that he had no affiliation with Woodside, he refused to come pray at Jazz Vespers and  made it clear that he did not endorse our position.  Although he’d been there many times and seen couples sitting together.  He knew who we were, he just had to be on the down low.  If it was publicly acknowledged he had to distance himself.

A Gay One Drop Rule?:  When I was still the minister at Woodside, people in the general public that I interacted with took a certain amount of pride that there was a church like this in their community.  It kind of felt like “well if I ever needed a church, I’d go to Woodside.”

But other people would hear from their friends that we’re referred to as “the gay church”.  People in Woodside to this day…”bristle” is too strong of a word, but they’re embarrassed that people call us “the gay church” as if that’s all that we are.  

And yet at the same time we continue to take a cutting edge stance on these things, on these rights for all people.  So when the local youth theater did a reading of the play based on the Matthew Shepard incident, we had a group of people from the church who went to that because we wanted to make a presence and endorse the fact that Flint Youth Theater was bringing this into the public eye.  

We took a very strong stand against Proposition 2 (the 2004 anti-equality marriage amendment).  It passed but yeah, we were very active in that.  And nobody had to ask us, we just knew as soon as we found out.

So, there’s always more work to do even though it’s less volatile than it once was.  There’s always undercurrent, there’s always internalized homophobia that we all have.  Even gay people.  And internalized heterosexism.  

Hey, Who Doesn’t Read the Bible Selectively?:  One of the most hostile colleagues in north area of the Michigan region of the American Baptist Churches said one day at a lunch with a bunch of clergy — before they disfellowshipped us obviously — was promoting a program at his church, the title of which was “The Truth About Dinosaurs”.  And I’m like, what is the truth about dinosaurs?  His answer was, well we believe in the biblical account of Creation, and in the timetable of 6,000 years.  This man said to me that he was a biology major in college until he “wised up”.  

So he doesn’t believe in God calling gays and lesbians to ordination.  He believes it’s a sin and that his salvation is jeopardized if he doesn’t correct us in our errancy.  And yet, he’s married to a woman who’s ordained.  He has a rationale that I can’t repeat because it doesn’t make any sense as to why even though the Bible says women shouldn’t be ordained, that’s O.K..  But for these other things, he’s going to take the Bible literally.

Everybody, everybody, everybody, whether they acknowledge it or not, everybody reads the Bible selectively.  You shake your head and say alrighty then.  You just keep standing up for what’s right and trusting that when you come to the tipping point, they’ll get it.  

Personal Motivations

A close family member was a closeted gay man.  He died without ever coming out of the closet.  He never knew that his family knew.  So I think that contributed, but I also grew up in a congregation that was on the cutting edge of civil rights and women’s rights and very justice oriented.  I went to Lancaster Theological Seminary which is very justice oriented.  Most UCC seminaries are.  And I had been in a family that was fully accepting of gay people my whole life.  I mean, I just knew homophobia was wrong.

In 1990 or 1991 my gay cousin shot himself to death rather than die of AIDS.  A cousin on the other side of the family died of AIDS and in the process of his dying his parents were spurned from their congregation.  At a time in their lives when they needed their church most, they had to find a new church.  Those things pre-dated me coming to Woodside.

Recently the UCC area conference minister, who happens to be a lesbian, asked me “If you could go to your ideal church, what would you choose?”  I said a church that voted to be Open and Affirming long enough ago that they’re settled into it.  But I’d rather go to a church that’s considering voting and go through the whole process all over again — because I know more now — than go to a church that’s not Open and Affirming and not considering it.  It’s so hard to go backwards.

My first church, I couldn’t say what I really believed.  Now I’ve been in a church where I can be genuine about what I really believe and I’m not going back to my own heterosexual closet.

Most denominations are getting better.  In the UCC, in the Lutheran and in the Episcopal churches there are more and more ordained people of a variety of orientations.  It’s not just, oh you’re O.K. in the pew.  Open and Affirming, Welcoming and Affirming means you’re O.K. in full membership up to and including ordination as our leaders.  It’s happening more and more.