Inclusion First

It’s a cold day in West Michigan as I sit down with a mug of steaming coffee in a bustling coffee shop to the east of Downtown Grand Rapids. My time in the US is drawing to a close, after two weeks of spending time in both San Diego, CA, and Grand Rapids, MI; the latter being a trip that is the culmination of 6 months’ worth of planning and so it seems important to reflect on what we’ve done.

International inclusion with friends at MG: San Diego.

My visit to San Diego was brief, but it provided an opportunity to not only soak up some much-needed vitamin D and visit friends, but also spend time with my friend and colleague, Brandan Robertson. We met to discuss the need for closer trans-Atlantic ties to ensure LGBTQ+ inclusion and safety in churches around the world, and there are some exciting further conversations to be had – so watch this space! It was a delight to meet some of the congregation and wider network at Missiongathering: San Diego as well, and share some of my thoughts on inclusion internationally with them.

Hot-footing over from the Golden State to Michigan (slightly less golden at this time of year, though no less striking) I picked up conversations in person that I’ve been having electronically since May of this year, when I was contacted by Rev. Tim Tuthill of First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids. Since then he, the wider ministry team, and myself have had weekly conversations to prepare “Inclusion First”, a deliberate week of events to “engage, educate, and equip” those in the West Michigan area on the importance and necessity of inclusive faith communities.

GRFUMC has a history of seeking to be inclusive, with a lay team previously convened to produce their statement on inclusion, and the wider Methodist denomination in the US have conversations scheduled for 2019 on this topic, specifically on the rules and regulations around ministers who are LGBTQ+ and in relationships.

Inclusion First: Engage, Educate, Equip.

With this as the context, it was clear to me that GRFUMC had the opportunity to stand as a beacon of hope to LGBTQ+ Christians who have and remain excluded from church communities, but also as a leader in inclusive practice to the wider denomination. Whenever we seek to work in the space of inclusion, we must be sure that we are driving change and championing those in minorities whenever we have the chance.

The week focussed on three areas: to engage with issues raised by seeking inclusion, to educate on the specific experiences only LGBTQ+ people encounter, as well as language and terminology that the community uses, and equip attendees with the skills needed to continue this journey in their local contexts. Throughout the programme it was also our aim to ensure that voices from across the LGBTQ+ space were heard – reflecting on the diversity of those beyond heterosexual and cisgender norms, as well as challenging the privilege placed on White voices above those from Black and Asian communities, and the problematic centring of the “middle class” as the socio-economic norm. Whilst for many it may be no more than a buzzword, we centred intersectionality as a requirement in our discussions around inclusion.

Hearing from voices and experiences from across the LGBTQ+ community.

The programme itself was varied and included panel discussions, skills sessions for clergy and church staff, and lunch and learns for business leaders. This uniquely curated series of events encouraged an attendance over the course of the week of 300+ people, and ensured that the church was central in the role of bringing the community together to discuss and plan for inclusion. And for me, that was one of the biggest takeaways from the week: the potential for this church community to become a leading light for including LGBTQ+ people across the city and the state.

Local business leaders "speed dating" and asking: what does inclusion look like in your workplace?

Spending a week focussing in depth on inclusion is only worthwhile if you then take your learnings and apply them, so: what next? I believe GRFUMC have a real opportunity to connect with local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce, and to facilitate partnerships with GIFT (an organisation that affirms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual, asexual, pansexual (LGBT+) people of faith) to better educate and support those who are championing inclusion, for it is through partnership that we can effectively deliver change. The team and I will be spending time together over the coming weeks to discuss what this looks like for them, and how they might be able to move ahead in 2019.

This community has the potential to move from the theory of inclusion, to real and lived experience challenging the status quo and becoming a lighthouse on the rocky shores of an increasingly isolated world, and it has been my pleasure to be part of that.

If your faith community, business, or charity would benefit from exploring inclusion further, please get in touch via the contact section.