Affirming Ministries in action: Welcoming refugees

Long before the suffering of millions of Syrian refugees finally reached the mainstream media, Canadian groups were sponsoring people seeking refuge from around the world. For decades, United Church congregations have been part of an innovative sponsorship option offered by the federal government and the national United Church; any local church can offer to support one or more refugees for at least one year, and in so doing opens the door to their coming to Canada.

The national United Church notes, “As a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) with the federal government, the United Church has been sponsoring Syrian refugees for resettlement in Canada since 2013. In 2015, 202 congregations across the church joined with other groups in their communities to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. So far in 2015, United Church groups have sponsored 378 Syrian refugees; a further 50 refugees were expected be processed by Christmas. United Church groups throughout Canada have raised over $3 million to sponsor Syrian refugees this year alone.”

And these figures don’t include the sponsorship of refugees from other parts of the world. This is an enormous, long-term undertaking that echoes decades of earlier work. Welcoming refugees has long been central to our beliefs and collective life as faith communities.

Many of these sponsoring congregations are Affirming or in the process of voting on whether to become Affirming. Some have, over the years, sponsored refugees under a federal program that offers refuge to LGBT people facing threats to their lives. (This program has its limitations; for an irreverent summary of problems faced by some refugee claimants, check out a series of two articles from Xtra.) Other ministries, like MacDougall United in Edmonton, support LGBT refugees through the local Pride centre instead. Still others support initiatives like Rainbow Railroad and the Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia.

For a more in-depth look at a sponsoring Affirming congregation, Metropolitan in Toronto, have a look at this short video. Recently CBC also featured a personal story from a Syrian woman sponsored by Affirming ministry Fairlawn Heights United in Toronto, and then added to the series once the family had safely arrived.

David Lander, an Affirm supporter and member of Castleton-Grafton pastoral charge in Ontario, says,  “I think the family that Castleton-Grafton United church sponsored a year and a half ago was particularly related to our becoming Affirming; our first planning meeting was just the week before our Affirming celebration service. I …think our focus on affirmation, and a fairly broad view of affirmation, made us more open to this endeavour.”

Rev. Jeff Doucette at Dunbarton-Fairport United Church, an Affirming congregation in Dunbarton-FairportUCatPride- 2015Ontario, adds, “I love the fact we are deepening the meaning of Affirming (by talking about sponsorship). I think it gets to the heart of churches becoming a “safe space” for all people… but as important, that we as individuals of our community declare ourselves “safe spaces” by our words and actions. ”

To be a truly safe and inclusive space is at the heart of being Affirming; while our work begins with sexual and gender minorities, it does not end there, and the work to expand that safe space is always evolving.

Conversations on our Affirm United community Facebook group surfaced the following Affirming or in-process ministries who have sponsored or supported refugees in the past or are doing so now:

Oak Bay United and St Aidan’s United, Victoria BC; Kamloops United, BC; Nelson United, Nelson, BC; MacDougall and Southminster-Steinhauer in Edmonton, AB; McKillop in Lethbridge, AB; St Andrew’s River Heights, Winnipeg MB; First United, Ottawa; Castleton-Grafton pastoral charge, ON; Shining Waters Presbytery, ON; Bedford United, Dartmouth NS; and in Toronto: Jubilee, Eastminster, Trinity-St Paul’s, Bloor Street, Fairlawn Avenue, Metropolitan, and Bathurst.

We know this list doesn’t include everyone. If we missed you, drop us a line at communications@ause.ca and tell us about your experience. Did being Affirming help shape your decision to sponsor? If so, how?

Seeking new Affirming Ministry Coordinators

If God’s love for all is the soul of all we do, then Affirming ministries are the heart. Over one hundred and thirty United Church of Canada ministries of all kinds make up the Affirming movement; these ministries have made a public declaration of support and inclusion  for and with sexual and gender minorities in the church, in their communities, and around the world.  (If you want to know more about being Affirming, see this excellent short video  from Hillhurst United Church, and our website’s Affirming Ministries section.)

In addition, ninety or so ministries  are in the process of becoming Affirming, a journey of discernment and action that takes at least a year. Ninety ministries—that adds up to a lot of good work, and we’d love to see that number grow.

ReceivingAffirmingcertificate-AnneHebb

(Anne Hebb, left, presents Maritime Conference with its Affirming certificate this October.)

The volunteers who accompany ministries in the Affirming process are currently Linda Hutchinson (East) and Brian Mitchell-Walker (West). Recently, East Coast coordinator Anne Hebb took a much needed retirement from her role. Linda and Brian are skilled, compassionate, and very dedicated people who accompany ministries all the way through the process. And we’d love for them to have more help. Here’s a job description of the vital work they do.

If you or someone you know feels called to help Affirm United/ S’affirmer Ensemble continue to expand the Affirming family by accompanying ministries in the process or considering the process, please get in touch with us at affirmunited@affirmunited.ca
We would love to talk further!

New resources to help your work

Don’t be shy– these resources are designed to help your work, whether you’re considering beginning the Affirming process or have been an Affirming ministry for decades.

Becoming Affirming flyer
One of the most common questions asked of Affirm is:
Our congregation is already inclusive. Why should we become Affirming? 
Have a look at our latest handout (PDF), which is designed to address this and other common questions. Photocopy it freely; use it at events or as a bulletin insert, or wherever people need help addressing this crucial question.  Limited colour copies are available, and budget permitting, we may print more. If your Conference or Presbytery is interested in a large scale mailing, we can send you the files for printing.

Stand up display
AU/SE now has a lightweight, retractable, six-foot stand up display to complement the local displays many ministries have created. (Image at left. Please note that this one can’t be carried in a parade!) The current version is English only, but a bilingual one will be available by December. Priority will be given to ministries that are celebrating becoming Affirming, but between staff and volunteers Judy Amsbury and Lynn Miller, we’ll do our best to keep the display in circulation. We ask that ministries contribute to the cost of moving it around the country. If you want to request the display, please fill out a contact form for our Marketing Coordinator. 

Annual report
Every year, Affirm United/S’affirmer ensemble releases an annual report for the previous year. If you want to know more about the many supporters, actions and activities that make up our movement, take a look at our 2014 annual report. And if our 2014 budget figures inspire you to donate, so much the better! The link will take you to a large PDF file that will take a minute to download.

New support for transgender members of the UC’s Benefits Plan

Good news! Trans* members of the United Church’s benefits plan have new benefits and rights.

In 2009, the United Church created a Trans and Gender Diversity Task Group (2009-2011). Their final report  in early 2012 asked the church to “research the cost of providing extended physical and mental health coverage for persons in gender transition who are employed by the United Church of Canada, and to make the coverage available.”

After a lot of work by many current and former staff, the Executive of the General Council approved the recommendation from the Permanent Committee on Ministry and Employment Policies and Services to extend some financial support for benefit plan members who are transgender and are transitioning. Working in combination with provincial health care, the financial support will be administered via Green Shield.

Plan members who want more information are encouraged to e-mail:
MinistryandEmployment@united-church.ca  The Ministry and Employment staff would appreciate hearing back about things they can improve on, and what things are well done. They want to ensure the best experience possible for Plan members and their dependents. So please help them out!

Safe, strong, and Affirming: Artemis Housing Co-op, Winnipeg

Young United Church is an Affirming ministry in Winnipeg that carries the Affirming message into unique community and ecumenical partnerships.  It shares Crossways in Common with Hope Mennonite Church, and both share in Artemis Housing Co-op Inc, an associated ministry  in the Crossway’s shared building.

Artemis’  “collective purpose is to continue to meet the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of the West Broadway Community. We partner with Young United Church, Hope Mennonite Church, Day Nursery, West Broadway Youth, and West Broadway Community Ministry.

At Artemis we provide apartments to people with HIV+/AIDS and their families; cancer; and other medical struggles. We have a clean, safe, comfortable environment and we can all use the spiritual sharing of the two churches: Hope Mennonite and Young United as well as the programs of West Broadway Community Ministry. Artemis is grateful to have a strong, safe and comfortable place to call home.”

Former board chair Michael Kurek explains, “The majority of the residents at Artemis are gay. At the Young United service on Sunday morning, there are usually five residents that attend, most of them taking responsibility for certain details like setting up the “table” with candle and book, taking up the collection, greeting, and more. After the service at Young, we have a light lunch of sandwiches and cupcakes to which even more residents come down as part of our extended community. When our board president says that Crossways is a “safe and comfortable” place, he’s also referring to spiritual milieu created by Young United and West Broadway Community Ministry as Affirming places.”

Being Affirming is a diverse expression of safety, affirmation, and love. Thank you to Artemis, Young United, and Crossways in Common for being a living reminder of that.

First-St. Andrew’s United Church First Annual Pride Parade Party

First-St. Andrew’s United Church in London, ON became Affirming this year, and launched their public work in style. Anne Cummings of the congregation’s LGBTQ Committee writes,
“What a grand time we had at the first annual Pride Parade Party on the lawn of First-St. Andrew’s United Church in London, Ontario on July 26. Because the route for London’s Pride Parade passed in front of our church, this event was organized as a way to welcome community members to our church. Some members of other United churches in the area also joined us. A hotdog lunch was served and it is estimated that we fed about 150 people. We asked for a freewill donation for the lunch with the proceeds going to the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection in London. A festive atmosphere was created with games for the children that included water, face paint, and lots of movement.

First-StAndrewsUCLondon-churchPridesign2015Once the parade reached our lawn, our youth were busy giving cups of lemonade and water to the marchers who were very appreciative because of the heat on the parade route. We also welcomed the marchers with our church sign which read, “We are a welcoming church with reserved seats for all. We are inclusive and affirming. This week we celebrate gay pride.”

Marching with our church banner were 16 of our members, including our Reverend Michelle Down. Many of the marchers wore church t-shirts with the rainbow Affirm logo on the front, our church logo on the back, and the words, “Welcoming All.” Our contingent was led by a car that was decorated with rainbow coloured balloons and had a playlist of joyous, affirming songs booming from the speakers. Plans are already underway for a bigger and better lawn party for next year’s Pride Parade.”

WELCOME to new Affirming ministries

It’s always a great pleasure to include the official birth notice of new Affirming ministries! This time, three of the four “courts”, or official structures, of the United Church are represented:

BrechinUnitedchoiratAMcelebration-byMarthaHardyBrechin United Church, BC (at left– photo by Martha Hardy.)
Four Rivers Presbytery, in Bay of Quinte Conference, Ontario.
Maritime Conference (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Bermuda).

Please check our Facebook page for more photos, and our website to send messages of congratulations.

New resource: Celebrating Gender Diversity kit

Congratulations to the United Church on its new resource, Celebrating Gender Diversity. This free kit is available for download here.

As the kit’s introduction reminds us, “Our ideas of what “normal” is, when it comes to CelebratingGenderDiversitygender, can limit our ability to celebrate the fullness of God’s diversity. So this kit supports the church’s intercultural vision of honouring differences. Learning new ways of language and of building community can have an incredible impact on the safety and spiritual well-being of trans people within communities of faith.
We hope that this resource will speak to people in all ministries of the church—whether you are a leader  in a local worship or social justice committee, a ministry engaged in the Affirming Ministries Program, a camp board looking for practical tools to make camp more welcoming, or an individual seeking resources to support your own personal advocacy. “

This resource joins the array of other excellent titles available free of charge at  http://www.united-church.ca/humanrights/gender#more

Upcoming events, November and December 2015

November 20Trans* Day of Remembrance. Have a look at the United Church of Canada’s website for ideas related to this important day of honouring struggle and hope.
http://www.united-church.ca/planning/seasons/transgender

December 1: World AIDS Day. This global pandemic is very far from over, and has already killed over 38 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Another 35 million people live with the disease. Look for vigils and events in your community; raise both awareness and prayers at worship on November 29; consider a donation to groups that support and advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS here in Canada or around the world.

December 3, 2015: FREE national United Church webinar: Celebrating Gender Diversity.
As we seek to fully celebrate God’s diversity, understanding gender identity plays an integral role. Trans* people face many barriers in society—barriers that are often present in the church as well.

Join The United Church and Edge Ministries for a webinar will help you learn more about the lived experience of trans and genderqueer people in the United Church of Canada. Deepen your personal ministry and/or your church’s Affirming ministry by listening to and learning from the experience of trans people of faith. We’ll hear stories and presentations from AU/SE co-chair Michiko Bown-Kai, Jordan Sullivan, Cindy Bourgeois, Rita O’Link, and Evan Smith. Click here to register for this December 3 event, which starts at noon Eastern.

(Advance notice: Watch for an early-2016 shared United Church/ Affirm interactive webinar on creating trans-inclusive spaces!)

July 22-24 2016: Affirm United/ S’affirmer Ensemble annual conference in Ottawa. Advance advance advance notice, because you do not not not want to miss this: Affirm United/ S’affirmer Ensemble will hold its annual conference on July 22-24 at Glebe- St James United Church in Ottawa. Note that this is the weekend before the August long weekend. All welcome, regardless of identity. Bring an open spirit, good energy, and ideas.

Reflection: More than anything, the church needs to listen

Michiko Bown-Kai is a queer person of colour who currently lives in Toronto, Ontario (Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, and Anishinabek Territories).  They are a candidate for ministry within the United Church of Canada and are currently studying at Emmanuel College in the Masters of Divinity program.  They find joy in dancing, crafting, and blogging.  In August 2015, Michiko became Affirm United/ S’affirmer ensemble’s new co-chair. In Spring 2015 they were asked to contribute a story for the final print edition of Xtra! Toronto. The accompanying photo ran, but the story did not. Here is what Michiko wanted to say.

MichikoBown-KaiinlastprinteditionofXtra-TorontoA while ago, I was asked to appear in the final print issue of Xtra! (Toronto) where I was photographed and interviewed for an article they were writing about religious leadership in ‘the community’. I am disappointed with the focus that the accompanying article gave to particular issues such as gay marriage- not because this issue isn’t worthwhile or that gay marriage doesn’t address some real needs of community members – but because this story is that one that always gets told at the expense of all other stories. So, for those of you that want more than a picture of my face, you can read below:

I think there is still a large perception out there that you can’t be queer and/or trans if you are Christian. When I think about how there are some voices in Christianity which get a lot of air time that are overtly homophobic I can understand why. This homophobic narrative is often compounded by the silence or indifference that comes from Christians who claim to be queer and trans positive.

The thing is, when we actually look at the Bible it is full of stories of exile, persecution, finding hope in resistance to Empire, building community with the marginalized, prophetic gender benders. There are many places for a queer person to feel spiritually at home.

In today’s context, of doing ministry here in Toronto, I don’t see how we can honour Jesus’ legacy without being intentional about uplifting the experiences of queer and trans folks, especially those who are also poor, disabled, and people of colour.

Jesus’ ministry was based on healing and building community. It was also about fighting back to power. My experiences of queerness as dismantling harmful ideas and building resilient communities is an integral part to my Christian spirituality. My Christian experiences of lament, creative non-violence, and storytelling are integral to my queerness.

My ministry stems from the realization that oppression is an act of violence which has spiritual consequences. I believe the church has been called time and time again to ministry that specifically engages with homophobia, transphobia, and transmisogyny in our society, and that prophetic voices have been from beyond the confines of white supremacy and patriarchal standards. I believe that the church has a responsibility to intentionally engage in helping queer and trans people explore their feelings about religion, God, and spirituality in ways that feel safe. (The church) is a site of trauma for many people and they deserve to have the tools and space to heal from that.

In my interview I was asked what I wanted to say to members of LGBTQ communities and my answer was this: more than anything, the church needs to listen- with the intent to learn and be challenged. The Gospel is written on the hearts of so many queer and trans folk, so the church doesn’t need to speak: the church needs to be a witness so that from there we can engage in true solidarity.