By Jonathan Brower
In 1950, Jim MacGregor was a youth attending Zion-Memorial United Church in Smith Falls, Ontario. Wide-eyed, optimistic and ever aware of a difference in his understanding of sexuality, Jim sought a word to describe how he felt and stumbled upon a negative one: “sissy”. In a community where Biblical literalism was preached on Sunday, but during the week piety seemed an afterthought, that word and the feelings associated with it were not something to be discussed.
Jim left Zion to attend University in1959 and did not attend church for the next 35 years. He pursued a career in Social Work, married in 1967 and had 2 children. In 1977 he began to deal with his sexual orientation and decided he could no longer live a lie. He talked with his wife and later with his children. He and his wife separated and Jim began to live as a gay single man in his thirties with children. Jim remembers the moment he told his daughter that she asked through tears if he was going to die of Aids. The process of coming out to his family and friends has been mostly positive; however, the subject of his sexual orientation has only recently come up in conversation within his church community as a whole because of his LGBTQ activism within the church at Conference, Presbytery and Congregational levels.
Jim settled in Carleton Place in 1981 and more than a decade passed until Jim was drawn back to Zion through an opportunity to be part of the choir. Once back, he decided to stay at Zion for the sense of community it offered. Sexuality was never a topic of conversation at the congregational level. Twenty-five years later Zion-Memorial is exploring the process of becoming an affirming ministry and Jim is on the steering committee of that initiative. He is also the only openly gay man at Zion.
At seventy-two years of age, Jim has lived over twenty years as a gay man connected to a church that has never publicly disclosed itself as welcoming to LGBTQ persons, despite his belief that being welcoming is in their lifeblood. Now, as the church moves forward to investigate the affirming process, what seems the biggest hurdle is to engage those who believe their lives are untouched by LGBTQ persons to embrace the affirming process.
A few months ago, during a Sunday service, an affirming-focused event was taking place on the church’s main stage – a skit dramatizing commonly asked questions and answers about the affirming process. The congregation was asked to stand if they knew someone in their life that was LGBTQ. Many stood, but about a dozen congregants remained seated to Jim’s surprise. In a moment of vulnerability, Jim spoke out publicly and said, “For those sitting, I’ve been attending here for over 20 years, I am gay and you all know me.”
That declaration was Jim’s first time publicly sharing his sexual orientation with his church, though he feels most know that he is gay. It is more than just vulnerable and meaningful, it speaks to the importance of publicly disclosing something that seems apparent but is not.
“It seems people need to process things of this nature from a personal level, the people that seem to resist are those that don’t realize that LGBTQ issues and people are touching their lives.”
Jim says people are now just starting to feel comfortable to sharing with him that their son or grandchild or daughter is in a same sex-relationship, just got married, or even adopted a child. He says the initial efforts to explore the affirming process have brought about an opening for people at Zion to feel they are able to share normal news about their families that they’ve never felt comfortable or supported to do so in the past.
Jim’s hope for the United Church is that is will be more sensitive to the needs of all people who feel marginalized by religion. That people will be more able to just see the message of Jesus as the message that the church wants to get out To love one another and see what that means in terms of our outreach, and to explore what we can do as a church community for people that really do need sustenance in their lives right now. “I hope we can worry less about where we’re going when we die and more about how we’re living while we’re here.”
Jim MacGregor is the Chair of the Bay of Quinte Conference’s Affirming Ministries Action Group, a facilitator for PFLAG and is on the steering committee of Zion-Memorial United Church’s affirming action group. Jim is also part of a new initiative called Rainbow Sabbath that provides a safe space for those in a specific geographical area where there is an absence of Affirming United Churches where LGBTQ persons are able to meet together and share a potluck supper and explore faith and spirituality and how sexuality/gender identity affects these issues. The Rainbow Sabbath is open all regardless of faith affiliation. For more information on Rainbow Sabbath or how to host your own similar initiative, contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org